Economics PJ O'Rourke: "Where was the government with Studebaker?"—The best-selling author on bailouts, easy women, the ruination of the U.S. auto industry, and his new book, Driving Like Crazy


P.J. O'Rourke is a 21st-century H.L. Mencken-a libertarian satirist and quote-machine who's deeply suspicious of most any office-holder ("Politics is the attempt to achieve power and prestige without merit").

Since the 1970s, O'Rourke has written for all kinds of publications, including Playboy, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Automobile, and The National Lampoon. He is the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, a regular correspondent to for The Atlantic Monthly, and the best-selling author of 12 books, the latest of which is Driving Like Crazy: 30 Years of Vehicular Hell-Bending.

In June,'s Ted Balaker sat down with O'Rourke at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Topics include: bailouts, who ruined the U.S. auto industry, politicians' love affair with trains, how easy women made O'Rourke a youthful socialist and how getting a paycheck turned him into a libertarian.

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Approximately 15 minutes. This interview produced by Ted Balaker. Director of photography is Alex Manning, editor is Nate Chaffetz, and associate producer is Paul Detrick.

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  1. I don’t know about “politicians’ love affair with trains,” but i do know they love running a train on the American people.

  2. Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve noticed PJ taking a distinctive right turn ever since Milton died.

  3. Politics is the attempt to achieve power and prestige without merit

    That’s a bit too cynical. That’s what the vast majority of politicians and their supporters are out for, no doubt, but I don’t think it is all there is to politics. It can also be the means to keep power-hungry people in check.

  4. Of course it’s unsurprising that that quote would be held in esteem by the site run by people who make a living pissing and moaning about our democratically-elected government encroaching on our liberties, and then not only fail to vote when the opportunity comes, but lecture others on how it is immoral to vote.

  5. No no no, silly. You’re on Reason. is that way.

  6. > Politics is the attempt to achieve power and prestige without merit

    >> It can also be the means to keep power-hungry people in check.

    Not to nitpick, but isn’t that *part* of “power”?

    Wait, I rescind! Keeping power-hungry people in check has merit.

  7. Once an electorate expands beyond a reasonable number – roughly 30,000 – individual votes diminish in value to the point of nothingness and special interest blocs mean more. This the history of mankind. Voting becomes nothing but a masturbatory exercise, less substantive than even internet blog posting. So your argument is essentially “I’m a better masturbator than you are Nyahh Nyahh.” And I agree.

    Oh, and Al Franken stole the election.

  8. PJ’s “Hollidays in Hell” and “All the Trouble in the World” should be mandatory reading for everyone.

  9. Easy women made him a socialist? Way to take responsbility for your own actions and political ideology.

  10. Voting becomes nothing but a masturbatory exercise

    Nope. Voting doesn’t feel nearly as good.

  11. Word, I get way more out of batin’ than I do from votin’.

  12. Paul, then I take it you didn’t vote for Obama.

  13. No no no, silly. You’re on Reason. is that way.

    I’m referring to Matt Welch, who recently said he was getting gladder and gladder each day that he didn’t vote in November, and Brian Doherty, who made an argument that it is immoral to vote when asked who he was voting for in the 2008 unpleasantness.

  14. Invisible Finger,

    Ironic for one so named. One purchasing decision has basically zero influence on the free market, yet we celebrate that the market is driven by consumer choice. The idea is that many nearly meaningless actions taken together can wield a great deal of influence. And if every libertarian heeded the advice of the antivoters, we would have no electoral power whatsoever.

    And that’s not even starting into Doherty’s ridiculous argument that the act of voting makes one morally responsible for the actions of the winners of the election, even if you voted against them, but not voting absolves you of this responsibility.

  15. There is a national security reason to ensure that the car companies are to be kept alive:

    When we need to convert to a war economy we will need assembly plants.

    And I doubt that buying vehicles from China will be an option when they are the enemy.

  16. We have assembly plants down south that aren’t getting bailed out. Or are we supposed to be preparing to go to war with China AND have the South secede simultaneously?

  17. Dave K, this is the nuclear age. Total war uses hydrogen bombs, not prop-driven bombers made on a converted auto line.

  18. And don’t forget, folks: Easy Rider had a happy ending! I’d like to go all Easy Rider on some of these 0-voters poisoning North Carolina with their high-falutin’ blue-state policies right now.

  19. Hee-hee, “Drop Barney Frank on them until they scream for help.”

    See? That’s funny.

    I did like where he took a rational approach to lumping libertarians and conservatives together and said “Hey, back up from the politics” etc.

  20. …people who make a living pissing and moaning about our democratically-elected government encroaching on our liberties…

    So you’re OK with that?

  21. P. J. can barely write in English. His book is full of typos and misused words. He needs to hire an editor and proofreader.

    His drinking has rotted what remains of his brain.

  22. Sepply; I’d still take PJ O’Rourke over you and your kind any day.

    And if his excuse is drinking, what’s yours?

  23. Amazing that he has a reputation as only a humorist. One of the most rational and level-headed men on the planet. God knows I’d rather have HIM in the White House than the current anti-American anti-business anti-democracy .

  24. Actually the UAW helped destroy Packard and Sudabaker. In the 50s it was unthinkable that there would ever be competition from overseas. So, the UAW didn’t care if there was one of ten autocompanies as long as they were unionized. They therefore insisted that all companies pay the same wages and benefits. When Studabaker and Packard got into trouble and wanted concessions to stay in business the UAW told them to pound sand. They didn’t care if they went out of business because that would just mean more market share and jobs for the big three. We will never know, but perhaps if the UAW and the Big three hadn’t killed off their competetors and created an oligarchy, the Japanese might not have gotten so far ahead of us in the 70s.

  25. “One purchasing decision has basically zero influence on the free market, yet we celebrate that the market is driven by consumer choice. The idea is that many nearly meaningless actions taken together can wield a great deal of influence. And if every libertarian heeded the advice of the antivoters, we would have no electoral power whatsoever.”

    But voting isn’t an accurate indicator of choice, because the choices are limited by a thousand idiotic processes beforehand.

    The voting ‘market’ is as artificial and corrupt as the radio ‘market’.

    Or do you think that radio is an accurate indicator of what everyone wants to listen to?

  26. Publius – “choices are limited by a thousand idiotic processes beforehand” – is exactly why you need to vote EARLY. Pick an absolute “least bad” and get them through the primary process – where your vote is literally 2 orders of magnitude less dilute – so the choice during the general is more likely real. Vote OFTEN – hit the school board and precinct delegate elections – push the right ideas through the very tiny idiotic processes on up to where they can make a difference. If you don’t do those simple things – I have no sympathy for your complaining.

  27. Tulpa, Why are you pissing and moaning about people pissing and moaning? O’Rourke is a satirist. You just don’t seem like a satire kind of guy.

  28. you can view and download a very funny and informative talk by PJ at the ever useful

    the video of the talk is here

    there is no audio available yet from that site so if you want to put the audio on your ipod

    you may download it from here

    highly recommended

  29. >The unions did in Studebaker?
    Why is it that a company in trouble always wants a break from the poor saps who didn’t make the decisions that landed them in trouble?

    If I’m in trouble, and go to the bank and ask for 30% lower rate; or ask the plumber for 30% lower bill? Or the doctor? The (guffaw here) HMO? (More guffaws) The IRS? You gotta be a pretty huge company to get a tax break when in trouble…

    Theer’s a rate for everything, whether it’s gasoline, phone service, taxes, or auto assemblers. if you can’t pay the market rate, you don’t stay in business.

    Not having competition was not what brought down teh big 3. Japan has twice as many car companies for a population 1/4 the size and probably 1/100th the driving space. First, we allowed conglomeration as a substitute for earning market share the old-fashioned way; second, we had a complacent bunch of idiots in charge, who were more interested in quarterly profits (which drove their bonus) than acquring long-term market share through quality. Buick is just the first indicator of where the whole industry is heading – you can’t rely exclusively on a class of customers who are eventually going to be too old to use your product.

    1. ” … if you can’t pay the market rate, you don’t stay in business.”

      Except that the UAW wasn’t selling labor to the auto companies at “the market rate” but at the union monopoly rate. Studebaker couldn’t hire a wrench monkey except through the UAW.

  30. It seems to me that that voting has significantly less power than the
    other types of influence at work in our political “market.” A voter
    has little influence unless he is part of a majority. Large minorities
    only have symbolic effect, and small minorities are meaningless.

    The biggest difference between the democratic system and a market for
    goods is that in a market, everybody walks away with what they
    bought. In a democratic system, everybody walks away with what most
    people bought. At your market, Tulpa, I’d walk in looking for Stilton
    and coming home with Kraft, because that is what everybody else

    Frankly, it is the nature of our system that everyone gets Kraft, all
    the time. It has to be that way, and nothing can change it.

  31. “Actually the UAW helped destroy Packard and Sudabaker”

    John, there were other reasons as well:

    1. The “independent” automakers could not compete with the economies of scale that the Big Three enjoyed.

    2. Studebaker paid more than union wage up until the mid-fifties, when it finally wised up and brought wages back to reality.

    3. The mid-Fifties Ford/GM sales war – where Ford and GM overproduced and dumped cars on dealerships – damned near wrecked all of the independents. (Ford tried to knock GM out as #1, and couldn’t do it. Not for a lack of trying.)

    4. In hindsight, Packard should not have bought Studebaker, as it is one of the factors that ultimately killed BOTH automakers.

    5. There was a plan to combine Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker into one huge company, but by the time George Romney took over what became Rambler, the plan had fallen through. Rambler – ultimately American Motors – took off saleswise in the late Fifties, and Romney had no interest in helping create a true competitor to the Big Three.

    This is all moot, though, as Obama will soon enough have what he wants: A U.S. version of Trabant. Yay for us, huh.

  32. I was an engineer at both Ford and GM in Detroit 30 years ago. The management destroyed GM. Period. You can’t blame workers. You can’t blame the government. Sorry, in 1975 cars were slaughtering 50,000 people a year and putting a death haze over Los Angeles. All that was OK with the management of the American auto companies since it was only peons and peasants getting killed and poisoned. No, the same people that love to compare the perfect experiment of East and West Germany suddenly become a lot less analytical when it comes to Chevy and Toyota. Heck, Toyota went in halvsies with GM at the Fremont California NUMMI plant, figuring even complete morons would be able to copy Toyota’s methods and make a good car. No, the whiz kids killed the US auto industry. It was not Ralph Nader, it was not the UAW, it was not government, and it was not the liberals who bought foreign cars. It was the management of the US car companies. They are a bunch of elite finance industry idiots that would not know a push-rod from a McPherson strut. Companies go through a normal evolution. They are born by technical people. Then they flourish under sales and marketing. This attracts the finance parasites who reduce the company to feebleness. Then the lawyers take over and you have bailouts and leveraged buyouts and all the other nouveau-criminal ways to kill companies. GM died because it deserved to die. It has been run by hubristic arrogant elitist dorks since the mid-60s. Releasing the capital and labor to do other things is the most patriotic thing we could wish for in this country. Perhaps the finance people will go back into house loans and credit cards and other ventures they would have been executed for by the old Catholics and the present Muslims, people who knew that without usury laws, the rich only get richer and soon take over like they just did in this country. If the US auto industry did not beg for all kinds of regulations and reporting that served as a barrier to entry, well maybe we would still have an American auto business. As it is, we don’t deserve one since we are too stupid to vote out the parasites that enable the CEOs to loot the economy.

  33. It’s kind of silly to blame safety and fuel emission standards for the decline of the US car industry. Europe, Japan and Korea seem to be doing fine.

    Might want to make cars that don’t suck?

  34. He’s a funny guy, but his grasping at straws trying to encourage readers to support McCain due to the fact that McCain was somewhat able to land planes on a boat in the Weekly Standard was pathetic.

  35. Paul, with all due respect, you’re being a bit facetious here. Regardless of whether you were an engineer at GM or not, do you have insider connections? Do you REALLY know what goes on at board meetings? Neither do I. And besides, who are you to say that just one player in this complex game is to blame?

    I mean, let’s not forget all the governmental regulations piled on the Big 3, unlike other foreign automakers like Toyota, that make it so expensive. Let’s not forget all the union influence that raises their costs so much. And you’re gonna stand here and say it was ALL management’s fault? Don’t make me laugh.

    I’ve heard that kind of anticorporate drivel for far too long from obsolete Lilliputians like Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader, who seem to forget we’re in the 21st Century and still think this is the 1900s Progressive Era.

    I’m sorry, but we’re not “dominated” by big business. We are consumers, and we always will be. We have the power to decide whether they stay afloat or not just by our purchasing decisions alone. We can boycott as a collective (as much as I hate that word), and if sales decrease enough, we can get our way. We can sign or refuse contracts. We can sue corporations who breach contract or break the law. There is still hope for individuals. Unlike government, corporations cannot make laws and force us to be their slaves. They cannot take away our freedoms without us signing off on it. Corporations don’t write the laws; idiot politicians do. Focus your energy on THEM and stop maligning inherently good people who make stupid decisions and mistakes.

    And btw, where did you get that ludicrous 50,000 number? I’d really like to know. What is this bs about cars “slaughtering” people? Don’t you mean that negligent drivers were slaughtering 50,000 in auto accidents? And as a measure of reference, I’d like to point out that a mere 50,000 out of millions of cars on the road is nothing. 50,000 out of just 1 million is only 5%, for christ sake.

  36. Why oh why do lefties love the comments section at Reason so much? And why can’t we call the excessive DOT and EPS regs what they are: an isolationist protection racket designed to keep good little cars from the streets in America. It costs billions to bring a model to market, thus keeping real green cars (not fake green cars like the Prius), like the VW Polo, out of the market.

    Oh, adn wanna help the invironment? Keep your ’83 chevy Blazer on the road insteaad of investing

  37. (Sorry for the continuation. alas, I have an errant left hand) – instead of investing $40k on your fake green machine. That new car is the most wasteful use of resources imaginable. Add in the inefficient and nasty industrial process of mining Nickel and you have exactly what I described: a falsely righteous ‘indulgence’ of the religious, not environmental, variety.

  38. The Internet has unfortunately revealed the wisdom of show-business. This man should not be conducting interviews. There’s a reason they pay vacuous idiots exorbitant salaries. There’s a reason “acting” is a talent. It’s nothing personal, it’s just star power. The power of tolerability. Good questions: just get a half-bright, tolerable moron in there, who performs well for the camera.

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  40. They probably knew what they were going to go through, where animals don’t, because they have a different way of speaking. If you treated a cow like that, they would freak out because they wouldn’t understand…duh…and what makes humans superior to animals? I’m not saying that all humans should go die or anything

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