Monday, July 19, 2004

Market Share

When I was a boy all the other children's families seemed to have cars from General Motors. My family, by contrast, drove Chryslers. Chrysler had only about 15% of the market, Ford only about 20%. American Motors also had a nugatory market share. Everyone else, about 2 in 3, drove GM cars, and were proud of it. The auto market was GM and GM was automobiles. People who drove Chryslers were looked on with some suspicion: all very nice and all that but why not just drive Hudsons or Packards? I found out later that my family's predilection for Chryslers arose because my mother had worked at GM and experienced a Michael Moore-esque reaction to that environment, and because Chrysler had given my father credit to buy a car when he returned from the War (WWII, "the" war). In an era when high-school students are routinely granted credit cards it's a little hard to imagine what that meant to my father, but the faith they showed in him engendered a lifelong loyalty nearly unimaginable today.

And that loyalty was not without a price. It was embarassing to be the family driving Chryslers. We were a poor family anyway, why did my parents need to add to the humiliation by buying these dorky clunkers? Why couldn't we just be like everybody else?

When I was a teenager a couple of the local professors' families bought Japanese cars. One family chose Toyota and the other Honda. They were funny-looking cars, tiny little boxy cars that were patently unsafe and matched in no way the American car-fashion of the day. Toyota seemed an astute choice of name--these little cars were indeed toys. They were ugly, but ugly in an interesting, almost cute way. They were cool. In a car-conscious town like Wichita they were the car-fashion equivalent of growing your hair long: unsafe, troublesome, and ugly, but COOL, or were so, at least, for the three people who opposed the Vietnam War at that time.

Most people thought the choice absurd. Although the cars were cheap and surprisingly well-put-together for the money, you got no room for big American bodies, no safety when colliding with big American cars, no power in the form of big American engines, and no beauty in the form of big American metallic curves. And there was something vaguely unpatriotic about them. A Japanese car? Buy a car from the same people who carried out the Bataan Death March? Why on earth would anybody buy such a thing? But the answer was obvious as soon as the question was asked: these cars were a fashion statement. The Vietnam War was in full swing and these professors were at the forefront of the anti-war movement. The Japanese car was a great big middle finger raised to the old-fashioned sensibilities of middle America.

While interesting as conversation pieces, no one outside the professoriate took them seriously. GM was still the car to buy. GM stock the stock to own. Nobody imagined that those toys would ever have any significant impact on the American car market.

Then the energy crisis came and suddenly everybody wanted a fuel-efficient car and wanted it now. People who owned the 8-mile-per-gallon gas-guzzlers of old couldn't give them away. A sort of panic set in. I remember pitying those people who owned those pathetic dinosaurs. They were spending an arm and a leg on gas just to get to work. They didn't have a future. The small, fuel-efficient, not to mention cheap and amazingly reliable cars were clearly the way to go. They became fashionable, not only with the professors, but with a significant, albeit small, avant garde. As the oil crises eased the Japanese car companies continued to step up to the plate, bringing a succession of cars to market which seemed to match current American taste perfectly, until they were indistinguishable in looks and gas mileage from the GM cars they had replaced. It became obvious to me by the late 1970s that it was just a matter of time till they ate GM's lunch. Nobody I knew would even consider buying an American car, any more than they would consider voting for Reagan or joining the Ku Klux Klan. I could not understand why GM didn't react. Didn't they see what was happening to them? But GM continued to be lulled by their large market share. It was shrinking, marginally, but there didn't seem to be any serious reason for worry, let alone panic. This attitude continued throughout the '80's. Even as late as the '90's I found myself arguing with an otherwise savvy Boca Raton investor that Toyota was an up-and-coming company to buy. He said that the Lexus was just a slight extension of the Camry and was essentially a toy not to be taken seriously.

Toyota is the GM of today. One can hardly be caught dead driving an American car. It's surely a sign of massive moral weakness, if not outright stupidity, and this attitude has been the attitude for quite some time. GM's market share continues to decline down to the erstwhile Chrysler levels.

The moral of the story is: it is the quality of the market share a company possesses, not the quantity, which makes the difference in the long run. And what holds true in the marketplace of cars holds true a fortiori in the marketplace of ideas. A dead idea may take a long time to expire but when it's time has come there's nothing that can be done to revive it.

That's why Christianity is dead today. Not literally dead. Like the GM of old, it still holds a commanding market share. Like the GM of old, the leaders fail to see any serious problem. But Christianity no longer counts among those who matter, among those who lead, those who set the trends. Christianity doesn't count there in the least. Christianity simply isn't cool. Worse, it's evil, it's the Source of All Evil. It's the Devil. It's important to see not only what exists in a society but where the energy is. It's not in Christianity. Christianity is being supplanted by the secular religions, the daughters of Christianity like Environmentalism. Or maybe Islam will fill the void.

It's always possible that Christianity will resurge, as it did in the Great Awakening. Possible but unlikely. As things currently stand, Christianity is as dead as a dead GM. It's just a matter of time till this becomes obvious to all.

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