U.S. Cars: Now Devouring $1.5 Trillion a Year

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.

American Symmetry

Today’s New York Times contains a piece reporting that:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

In other words, our rate of jailing is generally equal to our rate of hogging and squandering the Earth’s natural resources.

The Times’ explanation of this shocking, disgusting, embarrassing, massively wasteful and evil incarceration rate is utterly stupid, of course: all speculation about culture, and zero consideration whatsoever about our equally shocking, disgusting, embarrassing, massively wasteful and evil levels of class inequality.

Capitalism’s Beverage & the Obesity Epidemic

The Los Angeles Times reports that Disneyland is retooling its boats-on-water rides because of the raging obesity epidemic in the United States, “to deal with the delicate problem of bottoming-out boats.

small world no more...

People are simply getting too fat for the existing rides, including the now satirically named “It’s a Small World”:

“Forty-one years after the whimsical ride debuted at the Anaheim park, Disneyland plans to shutter the attraction in January to give it a much-needed face-lift — and deal with the delicate problem of bottoming-out boats.

“Heavier-than-anticipated loads have been causing the boats to come to a standstill in two different spots, allowing for an extra-long gander at the Canadian Mounties and the Scandinavian geese, said Al Lutz, whose website MiceAge first reported the refurbishment plans.

“Disneyland is well aware of America’s expanding waistlines.

“In recent years, the park has redesigned many of its costumes and started stocking them in larger sizes to accommodate ever-expanding waistlines. Adult men and women are about 25 pounds heavier than they were in 1960, and 65% are considered overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The average weight for men jumped from 166 pounds in 1960 to 191 pounds in 2002; women average 164 pounds instead of 140.

“Of course, this is a world of fantasy and the perfect place to forget about that diet for a few hours. So when somebody gets booted from the boat, Lutz said, Disneyland ride operators make sure the guests don’t leave disappointed: They hand them a food ticket.”

The primary cause of this epidemic (which is very closely and inversely correlated with individuals’ class position) is corporate capitalism.

As I explain in my book, as the system churns on, its normal operation compels all big businesses to extend and refine their marketing operations, which are neither more nor less than history’s most detailed and expensive behavioral-control campaigns.

As this generates an expanding marketing race, it increasingly commercializes and commodifies off-the-job life. Along the way, less capitalist-friendly practices and products give way to more capitalist ones.

One of corporate capitalism’s ultimate (and hence most important) products is soda pop: It preys upon human weaknesses for sugar and caffeine and sensory titillation. It is impossible to make at home or obtain for free. It is mildly addictive. It is highly packagable and marketable.

Along with the reign of the automobile (another of corporate capitalism’s core products), soda-pop is a chief cause of the horrifying obesity epidemic in the United States.

Soda pop has roughly 150 empty calories per 12-oz serving. In 1900, Americans drank the equivalent of 12 12-oz cans of soda per capita annually. In 1929, they drank 26 cans per person per year. 1949 = 158; 1957 = 200. In 2004? 535 cans of pop per person per year! Soda now far surpasses water as the #1 thing Americans drink. Between 1980 and 2005, its per capita ingestion in the United States increased every single year!

[An Aside: People in the mass media often puzzle over why French people are not as fat as Americans. Is it drinking wine? French mystique? A secret epidemic of French bulimia? Hell, no! It’s the cars and the soda pop, i.e. the unrestricted capitalism, stupid! The French have the Paris Metro and the TGVs and a forest of bikeable and walkable cities. And what was France’s 2004 per capita ingestion of soda pop? Just over 100 cans per person, about 1/5 of the U.S. rate. 400 cans of soda-pop, the number Americans drink over each year and above the French average, contain 60,000 calories. Q.E.D.]

As I like to say, the degree of control our ruling class has over us underlings would make Joseph Stalin purple with jealousy. We in America just simply live under market totalitarianism. Our habits are approaching complete commodification, with outcomes that deserve serious consideration by anybody wondering what kind of basis money makes for a purported civilization…