How Much Are Consumers Culpable for the Mess in Detroit?

Last Updated Nov 25, 2008 9:26 AM EST

When the Big Three CEOs of American automakers appeared before Congress last week asking for $25 billion, did you think you were to blame for the mess?

Harvard Business Publishing blogger Andrew Shapiro writes that the person you see in the mirror every morning had at least some responsibility for causing the Detroit Debacle. How's that?

"If we bought gas-guzzling trucks or SUVs from Detroit over the last decade, we endorsed products that were inconsistent with our own interests (fueling our addiction to oil, deepening the climate crisis, etc.)" Shapiro opines. "If we bought from foreign automakers, then we probably didn't think it mattered much where our cars were made. Only if we bought fuel-efficient cars from the Big Three -- or didn't own a car at all -- can we really say that we aren't in any way complicit in Detroit's dilemma. And the truth is, there aren't enough of us in this category."

He continues that car buyers aren't the primary cause of Detroit's fate, but "we shouldn't excoriate the automakers for the Sin of SUV Sales without acknowledging the market dynamic that prevailed until very recently."

And since we helped car makers get into this mess with consumerism, Shapiro concludes, we can get them out of it by buying their fuel efficient cars and linking any bailout monies to green targets.

Do you feel guilty? I did buy an SUV earlier this decade, but it was European made. I like to think I was doing my civic duty to protect GM by purchasing the fuel-inefficient and thus market-unsustainable vehicles offered by overseas competition, bringing said competition to its knees. Or at least that was my plan.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.