Rich Tucker
Americans should be the happiest people in history. We’ve got a booming economy, with 4.8 percent growth in the first quarter. Unemployment is down to 4.7 percent even as the population grows. The Dow Jones is near a historic high.

But we’re not happy.

In a recent AP poll, 73 percent said the country is on the wrong track. Only 23 percent say we’re heading in the right direction. Why, in the midst of our affluence, are so many so unhappy? In part, perhaps, because money can’t buy us customer service.

Consider our cars.

My family drives a 2001 Chevrolet Venture with fewer than 73,000 miles on it, and we’ve had no end of trouble. First the air-conditioning system leaked. Then the coolant system. And the fuel line. Virtually everything has leaked except, ironically, the tires. It has cost several thousand dollars to fix all these leaks, which of course were not covered by the car’s “generous” 33,000-mile warranty.

G.M. insists its long-term problems stem from labor issues. The company says it has promised to pay union members far more in benefits than it can ever afford. As columnist George Will put it recently, “It is better to be fired by General Motors than it is to be hired by most companies.” But its real problem isn’t benefits. The company can always find ways to avoid paying those. Its real problem is more difficult to solve. As my family found out, G.M.’s selling a lousy product.

And an increasingly expensive one. The Commerce Department reports that in 1991, the average new car cost $20,440. By 2002 that was up to $21,440 (in constant 2002 dollars). That doesn’t seem like much of an increase, but just think how much the cost of a computer has come down during that same span. For a fraction of what one would have spent in 1991, one can buy a computer today with thousands of times more memory.

In the early days of automobiles, consumers did see the cost of cars come down. The Economist magazine a few years ago wrote, “In 1900 a car, then hand-made, cost over $1,000. Henry Ford’s original Model-T, introduced in 1908, cost $850, but by 1924 only $265: he was using an assembly line, and, in virtuous circle, was also selling far more cars.”

That virtuous circle was broken long ago. Still, if our car had been well made and had run well for years, my family would certainly have purchased another G.M. car. Instead, we’ll probably get an import next time. Quality matters.

And if a car isn’t frustrating enough, try a cell-phone company.

Rich Tucker

Rich Tucker is a communications professional and a columnist for