Secretary of Transportation (and former GOP congressman) Ray LaHood unleashed a storm of controversy when he told a House committee looking into sudden-acceleration accidents involving Toyotas that “if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it, take it to a Toyota dealer . . . ”  The reaction of the neocon establishment was predictable: John Miller at National Review Online, who had urged readers in 2006 to “Buy American, Buy Toyota,” suggested that the federal government, with its ownership stake in GM, wanted Toyota to “drop dead,” and Michael Barone, writing in the Washington Examiner, also cited the stake of the government and the UAW in GM and Chrysler and argued that LaHood’s comments were a prime example of “crony capitalism.”  Many other neocons rallied around Toyota, depicting the Japanese titan as a helpless victim of a malevolent government and a hostile media, a sentiment that was quite welcome in Tokyo, according to a February 18 Wall Street Journal article, “Politicians Rally to Toyota’s Side.”

As with other notions peddled by neocons, the reality was somewhat different.  Toyota’s safety problems are quite real, as shown by the recall of 7.7 million vehicles to fix the accelerator pedals and floor mats Toyota blames for accidents involving sudden acceleration, the recall of 440,000 Priuses for brake issues, and the contemplated recall of Corollas for steering problems.  Toyota’s sudden-acceleration problem was first reported to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) not by the UAW but by State Farm, which was trying to protect its own assets, not aid the U.S. auto industry.  And far from harassing Toyota, American politicians have generally been quite accommodating.  A February 12 Associated Press article noted that Toyota was the only car company employing former NHTSA employees to deal with the agency and detailed how Toyota’s NHTSA ties had enabled the company to shut down four earlier investigations involving sudden-acceleration accidents.  The Wall Street Journal article noted that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, “has proceeded more cautiously” than former chairman John McCain did in investigating the safety problems of American car manufacturers, perhaps because Rockefeller helped lure Toyota to West Virginia and “has a page on his Web site devoted to Toyota’s role in the state.”  The governors of five states have even taken a jab at the American auto industry, telling Congress in a letter that Toyota has “responded to its safety problems in a more ‘emphatic manner’ than any other car company under scrutiny by the Department of Transportation.”  And LaHood soon backed off his comments and began burbling about what a “good corporate citizen” Toyota is.

If anything, the treatment Toyota has received in the American media has been even more positive than its treatment from American politicians.  The incompetence of Detroit has long been part of the media’s larger anti-American narrative, and this is likely the first time most Americans have heard of recalls by Japanese manufacturers, though there have been others before this.  Indeed, Honda recently added 437,000 cars to a recall to fix defective air bags installed by a Japanese supplier.  Perhaps no publication has been as consistently supportive of Toyota as Consumer Reports, whose parent organization was deemed subversive by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  The failure of Consumer Reports to detect the problems leading to Toyota’s massive recalls prompted automotive blogger Peter De Lorenzo to suggest that the magazine stop writing about cars for a while: “Weren’t you the guys that basically forged your influence over the domestic automobile industry by holding up Toyota as an example of everything good and righteous and great about quality automobiles and regularly took great pleasure in reminding everyone of that fact—especially the Detroit automakers—whom you relentlessly took pot shots at and trashed with glee every chance you got?  Yeah, we thought so.  Maybe you ought to take a break from the car business for a while—after all, if you can’t write anything good about Toyota, what are you guys going to write about?”

Toyota’s investment in the United States, so lauded by its supporters in politics and the media, is the direct result of policies Toyota opposed, and there is little reason to suppose such investment would last much longer than the American auto industry Toyota has long sought to supplant.  Toyota and other Japanese car companies began building plants here as a hedge against American protectionism, particularly the import quotas imposed during the Reagan administration.  Although those plants have created some jobs, they were part of a process that destroyed many more: As the Wall Street Journal conceded, in a piece generally favorable to foreign automakers, “for every job created by the transplant producers, Detroit shed 6.1 jobs in the U.S. . . . ”  Foreign automakers repatriate the profits they make here, and the same piece admitted that “strategic decisions are taken and much of the value-added engineering and design is done back home.”  In a different article from the summer of 2007, the Journal quoted an unnamed Toyota executive as saying, “It’s much, much more profitable to produce cars in Japan and ship them all to the U.S. right now, if it wasn’t for the political problems that might cause.”  One of the reasons for this was set forth in a memo by U.S. Toyota executive Seiichi Sudo, published by the Detroit Free Press in 2007.  Sudo advocated that Toyota no longer “tie ourselves so closely to the U.S. auto industry” in setting wages for its American workers, which Sudo wanted to cut by up to 50 percent.  He also noted that “Compared with Japan and France, the U.S. auto industry pays 50% higher wages and over five times more than Mexico’s auto manufacturers.”  Thus, the total triumph of the Japanese automakers over their American rivals would likely mean diminished wages and lost jobs not only for the Americans employed by GM, Ford, and Chrysler, but for the Americans employed by Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.  Perhaps Secretary LaHood should have stood by his initial comments.