Insanity, they say, is redoubling the same old efforts while expecting different results.
Have you ever stopped to wonder what’s going to be “new” about the post-bankruptcy auto industry?
I always say that it would take a committee of experts to conceive of a more wasteful arrangement than our autos-über-alles transportation system here in the USA. Indeed, profitable economic waste — maximum foisting of salable parts and services — is the whole point of the thing.
Over at the “new” Ford, they are getting more blatant than ever about this.
In a report on how Ford designers are using virtual characters and “mindset segmentation” to focus their manipulative efforts, The New York Times for July 16 conveyed this quote from “Murat Yalman, Ford’s director of global advanced product strategy, a strong supporter of an approach that personalizes the ideal buyer for everyone involved in a vehicle’s development”:
“We had done lots of models based on rationality, but now we are recognizing that emotions play a much more dominant role than we ever admitted,” Mr. Yalman said. “In buying a car, you have to fall in love.”
He added: “We now focus quite a bit on aspirations and dreams.”
These can be embodied in products. “Think of someone who has a really high-end parka in which you could climb Mount Everest. But the person only wears it on the train to work.”
This, my friends, is 85-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt! Gloria is, of course, not just mommy to the journalistic cipher Anderson Cooper, but also the never-laboring heiress-socialite great granddaughter of railroad robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the fine figures who helped ensure that rail transport in the USA would be privately owned and widely despised, rather than publicly provided and widely beloved.
I hereby nominate Gloria as the official 21st-century cover-girl for our corporate overclass. She’s just absolutely perfect! Way decrepit and long past any pretense to vigor, she epitomizes the de rigueur look of our times: The dyed, implanted fake hair. The scramble for each and every possible plastic-surgical denial of reality. The vapid self-satisfaction and outdated posings in the face of blatant irrelevance and onrushing death.
Well, bravo, hmm, hmm! How true-to-life can one possibly be, hmm, hmm?
One catches the general principle at work (and I use that word “work” ironically) here. It’s a slight adaptation of old Corny’s classic admission about class power and the (non-)rule of law: Reality? What care I about reality? Hain’t I got the money?
Tellingly, the news was commented on by the Agriculture, not the Transportation, Secretary:
The money can also be used to “create opportunities for producers, to receive assistance to produce new cellulosic crops and products,” [Secretary of Agriculture] Vilsack said.
So, this is the big game plan — to send Wall Street more money, restructure the car-making corporations, and subsidize moonshine for gas tanks.
To the extent it’s anything more than a subsidy to vested interests, this is a squarely three-cornered [yes, I said squarely three-cornered] plan for failure. The working and middle classes are maxed out, and will not be buying many new cars in the foreseeable future. Peak oil renders each further day of cars-first transportation a an armed robbery from our children. And “alternative” fuels? Not only are they not alternative, they’re also not new.
If you doubt this, I suggest you investigate the concept of energy-return-on-energy-invested, or EROEI, then take a tour of reality, starting here.
For its part, the falseness of it all seems rather well grasped by at least some of the folks who manage the biggest corporate players in the field. As quoted in Business Week for February 5, 2009:
[Exxon CEO Rex W.] Tillerson told reporters in January that Exxon isn’t investing in existing alternative energy technology because “we think these technologies are old. If there is going to be a fundamental shift” away from fossil fuels, the technology “hasn’t been discovered.”
Tillerson allows that a shift from fossil fuels is coming, but not for decades. Exxon forecasts that oil and gas will continue to supply 60% of the world’s energy needs through 2030, and that a “game-changing” shift to alternatives will begin only after 2050.
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:
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.
I’ve been busy trying to finish my book about corporate capitalism’s addiction to perpetuating cars-first transportation in the United States, no matter the cost.
As part of this work, I just updated my estimate of the annual expenditures we Americans are compelled to make on this arrangement. The number is now at $1.5 trillion dollars a year.
Here are a few thoughts on that staggering figure:
Only 7 countries on Earth have a Gross Domestic Product (i.e., an entire national economy) that exceeds $1.5 trillion per year.
The gargantuan U.S. expenditure on autos-über-alles is actually substantially lower than it properly should be, if the maintainence and construction of automotive roads and bridges were keeping pace with the technical requirements for non-worsening operation. How extreme the shortfall in road-building might be is something to contemplate in your next traffic jam.
Note that the $1.5 billion figure excludes the indirect costs imposed by autos-über-alles: increased medical and legal expenses caused by car crashes, for example.
Overall, the vast economic wastefulness of the whole arrangement is matched by equally huge missed opportunities. As the great Jared Diamond says:
Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.
Or as I myself argue in my the forthcoming book:
As our schools crumble, our library close, and tens of millions of us go without health insurance, we Americans in 2008 spent 1.5 trillion dollars buying, equipping, fixing, fueling, parking, insuring, and road-building for our cars.i 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 spent on automobiles over the last century? How nice would our towns, schools, hospitals, and insurance programs be if we could stop squandering so many resources on automotive goods and services?
$1.5 trillion, by the way, is more than 60 times the annual expenditure of SNCF, the French national railroad system, which is widely regarded as the most comprehensive and luxurious in the world.