No One at Ford Is Laughing Anymore

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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This morning, Bloomberg News had a story on Alan Mulally, the chief executive officer of Ford Motor Co. who is suddenly in the running for the top slot at Microsoft after Steve Ballmer announced he was stepping down without first figuring out who his successor would be. The story focuses on the impact on Ford, which is not good:

Alan Mulally's candidacy for the top job at Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) threatens to overshadow car introductions at Ford Motor Co. (F) and raises the risk of internal strife among his deputies at the automaker.

Keeping the focus on autos rather than management will be paramount as Ford plans to introduce 23 new vehicles in 2014, the busiest year on record for the 110-year-old company, said Michelle Krebs, an analyst for auto researcher

"It is a distraction at a time when they need to focus on plants, products and people -- not one person," Krebs said. "They are launching more products next year than any time in the history of Ford Motor Co. They need to focus on the business."

This is interesting in its own right as a business story about one of the biggest corporations in the U.S. But it's also a remarkable commentary on the economy. When Microsoft was founded in 1975, such a thing would have been impossible to imagine. The auto companies were at the apex of American industry. Leaving to go to a company that didn't even make computer hardware, only the instruction system for running that hardware, would have seemed incredible -- all the more so because chief executive officers didn't usually switch industries. Now it seems entirely reasonable that the CEO of a major U.S. automaker would go to a big software company -- and not even the most successful software company, but a torpid titan whose most innovative product is a video-game console.

Americans still buy a huge number of cars. But we don't care about those cars the way we used to; they are no longer the symbol of American ingenuity and engineering talent. Even within the sector, innovation often seems to be coming from outside the biggest automakers -- Tesla Motors Inc.'s electric cars, Google Inc.'s self-driving cars. Now tech design and software are the leading engines of economic growth, and even a bumbling behemoth such as Microsoft can talk about taking Ford's CEO without hearing gales of laughter ripple across the land. Almost 40 years have passed since 1975. But suddenly it feels a lot longer.

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