"What Do We Have to Do to Put You in a New Car Today?"

In the midst of the unrelenting negative news about the auto industry, I have to admit that one piece of the story has put a bit of a smile on my face. As the auto manufacturers shrink and look for ways to cut costs, local car dealers are on the chopping block. I would be amazed if I am the only person who is enjoying this moment of schadenfreude, because car salesmen are typically held in even lower public esteem than mob bosses, mimes, or lawyers.

The sleazy tactics employed by auto dealerships are the stuff of legend and extensive legislation. Among many other tricks, these include putting customers in an office that is monitored by closed-circuit television to watch a husband and wife discuss their highest acceptable price, turning up the heat in the offices, and physically blocking the door as an angry and frustrated customer tries to leave. The movie "Fargo" includes a memorably cringe-inducing sequence with a car dealer running through his manipulative bag of tricks with a customer, feigning shock at the suggestion that he has been dishonest and agreeing to go "talk to my manager" to see if he can authorize a better deal. (Of course, the salesman simply goes into the lounge for a few minutes and watches a hockey game on TV.)

Many -- but certainly not all -- of these tactics are now illegal in most states. I say "many ... tactics" and "most states" because car dealers have a great deal of local political power, using their ill-gotten profits to protect their local empires by "influencing" legislation that might affect their businesses. This is one of the best examples of a concentrated interest group harming the public good in the name of its own illegitimate enrichment. Perhaps the best outcome from the current crisis could be the realization that there is no good reason for this business model to exist at all. People should be able to buy cars the same way they buy other items. The recent move toward no-dicker dealerships and internet sales is good to see, but traditional dealerships continue to exist for no good reason other than raw political influence. It will be a big step forward if we can send Joe the Car Salesman into his place in the dank basement of a cultural history museum.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan