Cars, Cell Phones & The (Sponsored) Culture of Narcissism

Raymond Williams called it “mobile privatization.”

I think of it as “life behind screens,” or “bubble life.”

It — experiencing life predominantly through video screens, work sconces, and automobile glass — is not just part-and-parcel of corporate capitalism, but perhaps its #1 intention and requirement vis-a-vis the organization of the lives of the masses.

The latest bubble life news confirms, in spades, that the private automobile may be, as Plan C author Pat Murphy posits, “the greatest creator of alienation between humans that has ever existed.”

To wit, some excellent reportage from a July 18 New York Times story:

Extensive research shows the dangers of distracted driving. Studies say that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and the likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol level, the point at which drivers are generally considered intoxicated. Research also shows that hands-free devices do not eliminate the risks, and may worsen them by suggesting that the behavior is safe.

A 2003 Harvard study estimated that cellphone distractions caused 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries.

Yet Americans have largely ignored that research. Instead, they increasingly use phones, navigation devices and even laptops to turn their cars into mobile offices, chat rooms and entertainment centers, making roads more dangerous.

A disconnect between perception and reality worsens the problem. New studies show that drivers overestimate their own ability to safely multitask, even as they worry about the dangers of others doing it.

I’ll let the excellent CARtoonist Andy Singer have the last “word” on this totally unsurprising phenomenon:


Obama Buys Foxes a New Henhouse

foxamong The Reincarnation of Ronald Reagan called President Obama has told us what we will get in return for our public purchase of General Motors:

What we are not doing — what I have no interest in doing — is running GM. GM will be run by a private board of directors and management team with a track record in American manufacturing that reflects a commitment to innovation and quality. They — and not the government — will call the shots and make the decisions about how to turn this company around. The federal government will refrain from exercising its rights as a shareholder in all but the most fundamental corporate decisions. When a difficult decision has to be made on matters like where to open a new plant or what type of new car to make, the new GM, not the United States government, will make that decision.

In short, our goal is to get GM back on its feet, take a hands-off approach, and get out quickly.

The foxes who ate all the chickens will not be told they are disqualified from running the place, despite the fact that the collective of the chickens just bought it.

Of course, the people who run the chicken collective are rather obviously foxes in feathered garb. The foxes bought them their television commercials and sponsored their rise from the coop.

Obama’s plan here is a guaranteed disaster, too, by the way. The age of the automobile is at its end. The Earth can’t take it any more, and capitalism has sucked all the blood out of the suckers. Unrestrained class-struggle-from-above has reached its own logical end. Offshoring and credit-card wage-substitution have finally finished laying their rotten eggs.

The Violence Inherent in the System


In corporate capitalist America, cars-first transportation has always been unquestioned.  As a result, we have spent the largest part of the immense wealth that has flowed through our polarized, brutalized society in the last century building the vast automobile system with which we remain stuck.  It is by far the biggest, costliest public works project in human history — not even close.  It has always been devoted to serving its central purpose, too, which, contrary to long-running propaganda claims, has NOT been transportation, but rather maximum profit for business owners.

Yesterday, The New York Times published a story about new research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  Take a look at the video embedded in this story.  It is heart-stopping, at several levels.

This extreme violence is what we have been trained to accept as not just normal, but “an emblem of the American spirit” and a confirmation that capitalism is the best of all possible social systems.

It won’t be long before we recognize, one way or another, how very insane we’ve been, ecological, socially, and, yes, economically…

The main IIHS finding, by the way, goes unreported by the NYT:

The death rate in 1-3-year-old minicars in multiple-vehicle crashes during 2007 was almost twice as high as the rate in very large cars.  The death rate per million 1-3-year-old minis in single-vehicle crashes during 2007 was 35 compared with 11 per million for very large cars. Even in midsize cars, the death rate in single-vehicle crashes was 17 percent lower than in minicars.

Driven to…Cliffs

carflip Today, President Obama unveiled his plan to revive the U.S. auto industry, claiming that it is “like no other, an emblem of the American spirit.” 

In a collectively wealthy nation that’s home to 100 million people with tenuous or no access to medical care, the order of bailout priorities is revealing:  first money, then cars.

That, of course, is no accident.  Contrary to Obama’s assertion (and the long-running dogma behind it), it is our ruthlessly calculating corporate overclass, not the free-spirited American masses, that insists on cars.  If big investors were ever to permanently lose their ability to peddle sufficient millions of new cars each year, corporate capitalism itself would be in even deeper trouble than it already is.  That’s because, thanks to its inherent size, complexity, fragility, and amenability to marketing-managed stylistic fetishism, there’s simply very few other profit-generating products like the private automobile. It is the profit motive, not the national spirit, that is the prime mover of reality.

As the consequent push to resuscitate this cornerstone capitalist product unfolds, I thought it might be helpful to those of us who prefer life to money to review the some of the most basic undiscussed human costs of our cars-first transportation dictatorship:

► According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in the year 2007, automotive collisions killed 41,059 people in the United States. That’s 112 a day; 790 a week; 3,422 a month. And 2007 was no anomaly. Quite the opposite: 41,059 is almost exactly the average annual death toll for the prior half-century, during which well over 2 million individuals perished in U.S. car crashes.

►In typical years, the number of people “severely or critically” injured, but not killed, in U.S. car crashes surpasses the number killed. In commonly used medical scales, “severe or critical” injuries as those that transcend “serious” ones. Injuries classified as “serious” but not “severe” or “critical” involve things like open leg fractures, amputated arms, and major nerve lacerations. To be ranked “severe” or “critical,” a non-fatal collision must involve a severed spinal cords or a head injury with an extended period of unconsciousness and lasting brain damage. In the words of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “For MAIS 4-5 (severe and critical) injuries, the predominant [monetary] costs [of the crash] are related to lifetime medical care.” Of course, as the authors of one study explain, “Persons injured in these crashes often suffer physical pain and emotional anguish that is beyond any economic recompense. The permanent disability of spinal cord damage, loss of mobility, loss of eyesight, and serious brain injury can profoundly limit a person’s life, and can result in dependence on others for routine physical care.”

►If the United States of America has a national smell, it is car exhaust, which is ubiquitous. And the smell is but the tip of the iceberg, of course. “Automobile emissions are the main cause of urban air pollution and contain thousands of chemicals, several of which are recognized as mutagenic or carcinogenic.” As a glance at the roadside after an urban snowstorm will confirm, as a by-product of both fuel combustion and the normal wear of tires and roadbeds, automobiles – especially those with diesel engines — also create large amounts of dangerous “particulate matter.” Breathing particulate matter, a.k.a. “PM” in the professional danger-counting trade, is most dangerous for children, the sick, and the elderly, and exposure to it is heaviest among the poor, who are disproportionately non-white, and who disproportionately live near major urban highways, where PM is heaviest.

►Because air-pollution damage to the human body accumulates over time and complicates complex multiple-cause diseases, the exact amount of suffering and death caused by automotive air pollution can presently only be guessed at. A recent special report in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that the overall annual airborne toxics death toll in the United States is somewhere between 22,000 and 52,000 a year. This would mean that, even if something like 20,000 deaths from air pollution is the best guess, and even if cars account for only a quarter of all U.S. air pollution exposure, then autos-über-alles is causing another 5,000 premature U.S. deaths each year. Since many medical researchers suspect that we may be radically under-estimating the damage done by air pollution, this figure may someday prove laughably low.

►Automotive air pollution also produces a range of non-lethal health costs. The San Jose Mercury-News, one of the few major U.S. newspapers to attend to the topic at all, reports these estimates air-pollution’s non-fatal impacts:

The death toll due to air pollution only begins to touch the vast magnitude of human suffering caused by breathing our dirty air — for every 75 deaths per year due to air pollution in the U.S., health scientists have estimated that there are 505 hospital admissions for asthma and other respiratory diseases, 3,500 respiratory emergency doctor visits, 180,000 asthma attacks, 930,000 restricted activity days, and 2,000,000 acute respiratory symptom days.

►The biggest health cost of autos-über-alles may be its discouragement of walking and bicycling. Studies confirm that the United States has by far the lowest percentage of miles traveled by foot or bike in the world. Meanwhile, the nation is experiencing a worsening obesity epidemic epidemic, with health consequences that now rival those of tobacco addiction. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “poor diet and physical inactivity” now cause 400,000 deaths a year in the United States. Hence, even if car dependency explains only 10 percent of the food-exercise imbalance, that would mean there are another 40,000 American lives being sacrificed to the automobile every year.

►As our schools crumble and tens of millions of us go without health insurance, we Americans continue to spend well over a trillion dollars every single year buying, equipping, fixing, fueling, parking, insuring, and road-building for our cars. What kind of Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory transportation system would we now have, had we spent on railroads, bike paths, and pedestrians-first cities even half what we’ve instead spent on automobiles and auto-friendly spaces over the last century? How nice would our towns, schools, hospitals, and insurance programs be if we could stop squandering so many resources on autos-über-alles?

►According to the U.S. Census Bureau, regularly employed “Americans [now] spend more than 100 hours commuting to work each year…[and] this exceeds the two weeks of vacation time (80 hours) frequently taken by [year-round, full-time] workers over the course of a year. Traffic jams account for a fast-growing share of this commuting time. Between 1982 and 2003, the time commuters spent stuck on congested roads almost tripled, rising from 16 to 47 hours per driver, per year. Meanwhile, the “number of urban areas with more than 20 hours of annual delay per peak [rush-hour] traveler…has grown from only 5 in 1982 to 51 in 2003.”

And all this carnage and waste is but half the story. The question of how to project cars-first transportation much farther into the future of a heavily armed planet of competing nation-states with finite energy and atmosphere is, if anything, a problem more pressing than our automobile-imposed public health crisis.

Word of the Day: Fuffle

The inimitable Dmitry Orlov posts another clarifying gem of a concept for our times: fuffles.

A fuffle is an artful fake, an artifact specifically made to fool, beguile, seduce, or intimidate people into paying for it. Ideally, the initial transaction serves as the basis of a permanent arrangement, with the victim roped into an installment plan, which keeps the payments flowing even after the fuffle itself has crumbled into a pile of dust. An even better fuffle is one that grows over time. Since a fuffle is, in essence, a fake, its useful properties, should it have any, are largely irrelevant, and so its abstract (which is to say, financial) properties come forth as being the essential ones. The most important such property is, quite obviously, size, and indeed fuffles tend to get bigger and bigger over time. This is a telltale feature of fuffles that makes them easier to identify: if something gets bigger and bigger over time while delivering the same or lesser value, then it is quite likely to be a fuffle. Also, fuffles breed: as a fuffle gets larger and larger, it produces offspring of other fuffles, which also grow. Examples come from many realms.

Automobiles, which started out as mere historically, economically, and ecologically naive boondoggles, have long since passed over into blunt, planned corporate capitalist fuffledom, as Orlov suggests.

Read his full post here.

As in the case of private-sector medical “care” and financial “investing”, President Obama is making the extension of the automotive fuffle, to which corporate capitalists are quite literally addicted, a central project of his increasingly disastrous, ideology-driven Administration.