Lee A. Iacocca -- the tough-talking chairman of Chrysler Corp. -- got right to the point during his commencement address at the Johns Hopkins University yesterday, telling graduates they were buried in a "dung heap" of national debt and were going to have a hard time finding a job, thanks in part to unfair Japanese trade practices.
As an example of the difficult road ahead, Mr. Iacocca said Chrysler, the 11th largest company in the nation, "will hire a grand total of 100 college graduates this year. A few years ago it was 500. Now it's just 100."
He said Chrysler doesn't actually need that many new workers, but would be hiring a limited number "to bring in some new people with lots of energy and fresh new ideas."
"Would we be hiring more than 100 members of the class of '92 if we had the same access to Japan's auto market as Japan does ours?" he asked. "You bet. We'd need more people."
The comment brought only light applause from a fraction of the 3,700 graduates, some of whom were entertaining themselves a few minutes earlier by blowing soap bubbles as they waited for the last of their classmates to march into the tent where the graduation services were held.
Mr. Iacocca told the graduates they were learning that there are consequences when the country's competitiveness is under attack. "And they hit you when we and other companies can't offer you the opportunities that you've studied and worked so hard to earn."
The Bush administration ruled this week that Japanese automakers were selling minivans, which compete with models made by Chrysler and others produced at the General Motors Corp. plant in Baltimore, at improperly low prices.
The Commerce Department said minivans made by Mazda were being sold more than 12 percent below fair market value and that Toyota vans were offered at 7 percent below their fair market price.
The International Trade Commission is to decide by early July if the unfair practice, known as dumping, has injured the domestic auto industry. If so, it could impose penalty duties on the imported vans.
Commenting on the $4 trillion national debt, Mr. Iacocca said, "We stiffed you, I'm sorry to say. We didn't pay our bills. When we ran out of money, we pulled out a credit card. . . ."
Mr. Iacocca said the new generation has to start digging the country out of debt if the United States is to be competitive in the world market. The country's competitiveness will determine "your standard of living and what you can give to your kids."
He said clean air and water are not high priorities when people are out of work. "A national health plan for everyone is, frankly, a pipe dream in a country . . . that has almost $4 trillion of past debt on the books."