Friday, February 12, 2010

The Toyota-H1N1-Super Bowl blues

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2010 at 4:00 AM

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that to a country reeling from the Great Depression. Roosevelt's quote is often trotted out as a way of reminding us to pull our socks up.

But what do we do when fear itself is the only thing we have?

Day after day for weeks now, Toyota has been making headlines due to a seemingly endless series of mechanical defects, leading to the recall of millions of cars. All of a sudden a machine touted for its dependability has turned into a death trap.

Now everyone who drives a late model Toyota is in their own version of a Three Stooges movie. It's like Moe and Curly are in the front seats of a 2009 Camry (Larry's in the back, as usual) with Curly driving. The boys are rounding a bend at high speed; Moe yells for Curly to hit the brakes! Cut to a close-up of Curly's foot going through the floorboard. Nyak, nyak, nyak.

This, obviously, is a problem. At the end of January, over nine million Toyotas had been recalled. That number continues to climb. Local Toyota dealers have seen their sales plummet. Owners of Toyota vehicles who, until a few weeks ago, could count on selling their used cars for a premium price, can hardly give their cars away. In Japan, Toyota's president offered a public apology.

It's no laughing matter if you've stepped on the brakes and your Toyota has gone faster instead. But in calculating the fear factor associated with Toyota, it may be worth remembering that of all those millions of cars and trucks, there have been (so far) 815 sudden acceleration crashes, 314 injuries and, yes, 19 deaths.

If you drive a Toyota and your engine surges from time to time, you better give your dealer a call. But should you be afraid of your car? Only if you watch the news every day.

Toyota appears to have taken the place in the news cycle that used to belong to Swine Flu. Last June we started hearing about this new strain of flu that was sweeping Mexico City. The World Health Organization banged the fear bell, saying Swine Flu could infect two billion people and kill hundreds of thousands.

Here in the States, we were told that as many as 90,000 people could die. The government spent $2 billion on Swine Flu drugs and allocated another $7.5 billion for "H1N1 preparedness." People were exhorted to line up for shots and nasal spray. Even history — the discipline usually last to be asked for a dance at our media proms — was trotted out for shuddering accounts of the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, where between 40 and 100 million died.

So what's actually happened? As of January 22, the WHO reports about 14,000 deaths worldwide. Around 4,000 have died in the States, although the Centers For Disease Control, sounding a little like a sore loser, insists that number could climb as high as 16,500 — still less than half the number of deaths usually associated with seasonal flu-related illnesses -- "due to underreporting."

If only there was a vaccine for fear. As with the Swine Flu, most of us would probably opt not to take it. That's because we secretly think that fear is good for us. Without fear, we reason, we'd all go off half-cocked, take ridiculous chances, risk doing ourselves even greater harm that we do already.

What was it but fear that persuaded Bill Polian and the Colts brain trust to walk away from the chance of making history and going 16-0 for a perfect season? For some reason the Colts brass thought it made them look smart to talk about how, as their team vanquished one opponent after another, they really didn't care whether they won a particular game or not. They had their eyes set on a bigger prize: the Super Bowl.

So when they got to the second-to-last game of the season against the Jets, with a place in the play-offs assured, they took a dive. What a relief! Now they could phone it in for their last game, as well.

The point of this messing with destiny was to rest the starting players so that everyone would be healthy for games that were supposed to matter more. This was the logic of fear. No one wanted to see Peyton Manning getting hurt playing the lowly Buffalo Bills.

But fear only seems logical. Try as they might, the Colts could not control the future. By resigning from the present, rejecting being in the moment for fear of what might happen later, they wound up with nothing.

Merchants now have more Colts stuff on their shelves than they can sell. Same with H1N1 vaccine — druggists can't give it away. Dealers' lots are overflowing with Toyotas. Fear gives a great discount.

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David Hoppe

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