Yesterday's Wall Street Journal featured a fascinating op-ed from a former Romanian "car czar" (that is, the Ceausescu lieutenant charged with creating and running a domestic auto industry), including highly entertaining riffs like this:
When the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu decided in the mid-1960s that he wanted to have a car industry, he chose me to start the project rolling. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I knew nothing about manufacturing cars, but neither did anyone else among Ceausescu's top men. However, my father had spent most of his life running the service department of the General Motors affiliate in Bucharest.
My job at the time was as head of the Romanian industrial espionage program. Ceausescu tasked me to mediate the purchase of a minimum, basic license for a small car from a major Western manufacturer, and then to steal everything else needed to produce the car.
Three Western companies competed for the honor. Ceausescu decided on Renault, because it was owned by the French government (all Soviet bloc rulers distrusted private companies). We ended up with a license for an antiquated and about-to-be-discontinued Renault-12 car, because it was the cheapest. "Good enough for the idiots," Ceausescu decided, showing what he thought of the Romanian people. He baptized the car Dacia, to commemorate Romania's 2,000-year history going back to Dacia Felix, as the ancient Romans called that part of the world. In that government-run economy, symbolism was the most important consideration, especially when it came to things in short supply (such as food).
"Too luxurious for the idiots," Ceausescu decreed when he saw the first Dacia car made in Romania. Immediately, the radio, right side mirror and backseat heating were dropped. Other "unnecessary luxuries" were soon eliminated by the bureaucrats and their workers' union that were running the factory. The car that finally hit the market was a stripped-down version of the old, stripped-down Renault 12. "Perfect for the idiots," Ceausescu approved. Indeed, the Romanian people, who had never before had any car, came to cherish the Dacia.
Great stuff. Except I'm not entirely sure how it supports the article's subhed: "History shows government and automobile manufacturing don't mix." Is the concern that Obama will deem the Chevy Malibu "too luxurious for the idiots" and force GM to build it without windshield wipers or door handles? The only attempt to make the piece remotely relevant to the present is this riff:
In the spring of 1978 Ceausescu appointed me chief of his Presidential House, a new position supposed to be similar to that of the White House chief of staff. To go with it he gave me a big Jaguar car. That Jaguar, which at the time had been produced in a government-run British factory, was so bad that it spent more time in the garage being repaired than it did on the road.
Doesn't sound like the most rigorous analysis to me. GM certainly didn't need the government's help to make poor-quality cars. As David Brooks points out in his column today, Consumer Reports only recommends 19 percent of them.