Does the U.S. Government Have It in for Toyota?

New reports bode poorly for the Japanese automaker

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In another blow to Toyota, new reports suggest the embattled automaker bragged about saving $100 million after getting regulators to limit a recall of 2007 sedans. This news comes days before Toyota's president will testify before Congress about the company's safety issues. While most observers are haranguing Toyota for prioritizing profit over safety, some commentators have paused to ask: is the U.S. government, the largest shareholder in General Motors, intentionally punishing the Japanese automaker?

Tom Blumer at BizzyBlog argues that the report detailing Toyota's misdeeds was leaked by government officials to The Detroit News and Associated Press. Slipping reporters the document just days before the congressional testimony smacks of government "hatchet jobs," writes Blumer. He also says that reporters misconstrued the document's meaning because of a cultural misunderstanding. He's referring to reports that highlight Toyota's reference to the $100 million savings as a "win" for the company. To many this sounded like bragging, but Blumer says that's a misconception:

Pursuant to the norms of such a meeting, a “win” in Japanese culture is not what Americans would think it is. It most assuredly does not mean “a victory over the government,” or “a successful evasion of regulations, safety be damned” or whatever [reporters'] fevered minds think they are seeing in the word. It simply means “favorable development” — nothing more, nothing less.

But why would the government want to take down Toyota in the first place? That's a question USA Today's automotive writer Chris Woodyard grappled with last month:

Are the Obama administration and Rust Belt members of Congress taking political advantage of Toyota to bolster the fortunes of Detroit automakers? Given how Toyota has had to stop selling eight models, including the mega-popular Camry and Corolla, the question is worth posing. It was only a year ago that Toyota seemed impervious as Detroit automakers dangled on the ropes. General Motors and Chrysler received government loans, giving taxpayers a big stake in their recovery. The UAW, which has long sought to organize Toyota's U.S. plants, now has a bigger voice. A weak Toyota benefits all... The unprecedented move to keep Toyota from selling models under recall could be viewed as economic punishment, rather than consumer protection.

That line of thinking has been popular in conservative news outlets including the Washington Examiner and RedState. But The Detroit News' Daniel Howes fervently rejects it:

Considering the Obama administration's penchant for politicizing business, that charge might, maybe, have some credibility if the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Nicole Nason, hadn't already gone on-record with The Detroit News and other pubs to say that Team Bush years ago had been pushing the Toyota-crats to come to grips with mounting complaints about "sudden unintended acceleration" and, later, dodgy brakes.

I mean, listen up conspiracy theorists: In 2005, Toyota recalled more vehicles in the United States than it sold. In 2007, the editor of Consumer Reports apologized to its readers for recommending Toyota products to them ... It can't be about cars when it can be politics.
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