“There But For The Grace Of God Go I”

In business, there’s long been an unwritten rule: competition is good, capitalizing on the mistakes and misfortunes of rivals is good, but certain major problems of your competitors is simply not done. It’s not only unethical and tacky, but just plain common sense.

When an airline has a crash, the other airlines don’t immediately put out ads touting their safety records.

When a pharmaceutical company has a scare with one of its medications, others don’t come out with ads plugging their own presumably safer products.

When a bank is robbed, other banks don’t make announcements about their security.

And the reason is simple: such things happen in business. Sooner or later, these kinds of disasters hit all companies. And bragging about how it didn’t happen to you this time is begging people to remember that when it eventually does happen to you.

That’s a lesson that most anyone who’s spent a bit of time in the private sector learns. Fortunately, it’s one that’s most often passed on by word, not by experience — because it’s a painful as hell lesson to learn.

That’s a lesson that’s never been learned by the current owners of two of our biggest companies. Instead, the lesson they live by is “never let a crisis go to waste.”

In this case, it’s the Obama administration, owners of General Motors and Chrysler, who are using the event of Toyota’s recent quality issues to do everything they can to scare Toyota owners away from their products — and, presumably, towards the products put out by the companies the government owns.

In the old days, this would be considered a conflict of interest. The government is supposed to be a neutral arbiter, an impartial overseer who administers the laws and regulations that cover the entire industry without bias. But here, they have a clear stake in seeing certain parties succeed — and, by implication, others not do so well.

It’s all too predictable — when a crew of career political hacks with cutthroat instincts (“the Chicago Way”) gets involved (almost all of them for the first time) in the private sector, they’re going to make mistakes. Stupid mistakes. Rookie mistakes.

But when these rookies hold the reins of political power, the consequences of such blunders have hefty consequences.

afterword: Just as I finished this article, I noticed that my colleague Michael Laprarie had a similar piece. Fortunately, there is enough difference between our pieces that I don’t have to trash this posting.

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