Book Review: ‘The Sack of Detroit’ is Unfair on Almost Any Page

A new history of Detroit attempts to blame decades of GM blunders on 1960s regulation and Ralph Nader
the sack of detroit
“The Sack of Detroit: General Motors and the End of American Enterprise” by Kenneth Whyte argues that the rise of widespread  consumer protection regulation is bad, unnecessary, and perhaps anti-American.  // Image courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

“It can’t be said often enough,” historian Kenneth Whyte says infrequently in his new history of auto regulation, “that 40,000 or more people dying on American highways every year was a tragedy and a colossal waste of human potential.” This specific version of this declaration, saved for the epilogue of The Sack of Detroit: General Motors and the End of American Enterprise, is intended to show the author is not unsympathetic to the road carnage that preceded the 1960s and the advent of carmaker accountability.

Yet he also spends an exhaustive, exhausting, and often lumbering 345 pages building a case that the efforts by a feckless and/or misguided activist Congress, led by the nose by the vainglorious consumer advocate Ralph Nader, destroyed the U.S. car industry and forever poisoned all of American capitalism. 

In Whyte’s version of the story, General Motors’ decline from the mightiest, most profitable corporation in human history at the middle of the 20th century to a beggar panning for bailouts in the late Aughts occurred primarily because Washington, D.C., sought to protect public safety at the same time that personal-injury attorneys hit upon a good business model in helping crash victims get compensation for misfortune resulting from malfeasance or negligence. Per Whyte, we’re supposed to see those elements as bad, unnecessary, even anti-American.

Kenneth Whyte
“The Sack of Detroit” author Kenneth Whyte // Image courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

“The regulatory state expanded into food, cosmetics, credit instruments, packaging and advertising, monopolies and pricing practices, and air and water pollution,” he bemoans. “Additionally, all fifty states had by 1975 created consumer protection agencies and thirty-nine had passed consumer protection statutes. The victimized consumer was all the rage.” He’d prefer, it seems, we have more empathy for victimized, tragically abused multibillion-dollar corporations. 

Whyte, whose acclaimed revisionist biography of President Herbert Hoover (Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times) was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, returns here to offer up another retelling of a chapter of the past in which he acquits the excesses of unrestrained capitalism and crafts a kinder narrative about those conventionally viewed as having been on the wrong side of history.

Like so many anti-regulation purists, Whyte is confident that the Big Three — and just about any other manufacturer upon which the government has imposed rules to protect consumers — would have made necessary adjustments and fixes on their own. “The fact is that Ralph Nader and the federal government harmed the cause of traffic safety,” he writes. “If, in 1966, Congress had told the driving public to sober up, buckle up, and drive right, rather than scourging Detroit for its failure to protect people from their own recklessness, the fatality rate would have fallen significantly faster and further.”

Oddly, in other places Whyte complains that the problem wasn’t regulation per se but the wrong regulation, that the government should have known well in advance exactly what laws and rules it needed to balance enterprise and safety. He seems to play both sides here, but later the attentive reader realizes he’s doing so to bolster the notion that government is inept, ineffectual, and easily misled. His worship of captains of industry is explicit, as when he writes of one particularly contentious hearing: “The leaders of the Big Three, some of the highest-achieving businessmen on the planet, accustomed to reverential or, at least, friendly reception on Capitol Hill, were being hounded with the hostility and cheap tactics usually reserved for suspected communists.”

You know what you’re in for early on if you spot the buzzwords. Whereas most historians favorably view President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts in the 1930s to create a social safety net and rein in the excesses of capitalism that led to the Great Depression, Whyte calls FDR’s legislative agenda “assaults on capital and capitalists” and claims it ushered in the advent of a “militant federal government.” President John Kennedy’s efforts to shame Big Steel into not raising prices are, too, an “abuse of power.” This is not a guy, then, who is going to look kindly on the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and oversight that forced carmakers to add better seat belts, air bags, and other modifications.

Yet Whyte is guilty in The Sack of Detroit of precisely what he accuses Nader of: over-emphasizing data points that support his thesis while encouraging readers to dismiss ones that don’t. In his telling, Nader got his hooks into GM by improperly and opportunistically vivisecting the safety record of the rear-engine Corvair in his seminal 1965 best-seller Unsafe at Any Speed at the same time certain D.C. figures — including then-Sen. Robert Kennedy and future Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan — were looking to gore a big-business ox. Whyte cites a litany of data suggesting the Corvair’s safety record wasn’t really that bad, ignoring entirely that with 60 years’ hindsight we know — because, among other reasons, auto insurers charge more for them — that rear-engine vehicles really are inherently less safe.

In Whyte’s epilogue, he makes it clear which part of the automaker’s downfall was its own fault: “None of this is to excuse General Motors’ conduct. The company had a history of bullying, predatory behavior. Its definition of the public good, while broader than recognized at the time, was too narrow for its own good. It could have done more for automobile safety.” You’re excused if you read that and wonder how he managed to put together a massive treatise in the previous hundreds of pages that paints GM as a well-meaning, unlucky victim. Prior to this, the worst he lays on GM is an episode where the company was exposed for having sent private investigators to (unsuccessfully) dig up dirt on Nader. From this specifically stupid decision, which generated some of the worst public relations damage ever self-inflicted by a major company, Whyte seems to believe the broader chain of events was set in motion.

Of course, the reason GM created the compact Corvair in the first place tells a lot about what happened. Smaller, more economical foreign imports were gaining a foothold in the U.S. car market, signaling the end of the tail-fins-and-chrome-for-days era of the 1950s. Other automakers brought compacts to the market at the same time; Ford’s Falcon and AMC’s Rambler were more popular than the Corvair. What’s more, in the subsequent decades, foreign automakers went on to do a far better job of building products that American motorists wanted and could afford. They were subjected to the exact same safety standards and regulations as the Big Three — albeit with cheaper labor costs, to be fair — but they offered superior products and won more customers. Capitalism, amirite?

Alas, Whyte’s agenda is given away in a subtitle that declares that regulations had brought an end to “American enterprise.” It’s the same dirge the Hooverites sang in the 1930s, a prediction that never comes true even as it’s dusted off in every progressive era. Indeed, Whyte’s epilogue points to the coming reckoning of internet giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook without ever even noting the irony that the 1960s regulations and the rise of personal-injury litigation that he claims strangled Detroit did not, in fact, prevent all the technological innovation that let the likes of Brin, Zuckerberg, and Bezos amass their unimaginable wealth.

The Sack of Detroit will thrill, or at least comfort, GM partisans and other apologists for industries that run afoul of the public good. And Whyte actually provides a lot of even-handed retellings of the history of the auto industry, although there are more accessible and engaging books on a story told aplenty and to which little is added here. This version drives to a destination and uses plenty of sleight of hand to get there. “Estimates of the cost of regulation are fraught,” he writes in the epilogue. “The case of General Motors suggests that these additional costs can be enormous and lasting, and are largely untracked.” 

Translation: Nobody knows what any of this cost, but I just spent 350 pages telling you how expensive, unproductive, and misguided it all was anyway.