One very interesting aspect of the actual history is the connection between sponsored right-wing labor unions and the imposition of cars-first infrastructure.
Take the case of Dave Beck, the President of the Teamsters union who preceded the infamous Jimmy Hoffa. When Eisenhower asked his old buddy Lucius Clay to head a Presidential Commission to organize automotive-industrial capitalists to ram through the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, Clay appointed five cronies to what quickly became known as the Clay Committee.
Dave Beck was one of those five appointees.
Mr. Beck’s Wikipedia page makes it rather clear why he was asked to help formulate the plan for completing the last major segment of the cars-first project. Beck, who had risen to power as a successful opponent of political unionism, had impeccable credentials:
In 1937, Beck formed the Western Conference of Teamsters as a means of counteracting the [complacent] leadership of Joint Councils in San Francisco. Beck persuaded Teamsters president Daniel J. Tobin that the Western Conference of Teamsters was no threat to the power and authority of the international union. Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), had led a successful four-day strike in 1934. Bridges was now leading “the march inland”—an attempt to organize warehouse workers away from shipping ports. Beck was alarmed by Bridges’ radical politics and worried that the ILA would encroach on Teamster jurisdictions. But Teamster joint councils in Los Angeles and other California ports seemed unconcerned. As an end run around the complacent joint councils, Beck formed a large regional organization. Beck engaged in fierce organizing battles and membership raids against the ILA, effectively stifling the “march inland.” The Western Conference of Teamsters, and Beck, emerged significantly stronger from these battles.
Beck became Teamsters national president in 1952 and a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council in 1953 — i.e. right at the pinnacle of the Red Scare. However, by 1957 (a year after the Clay Committee had finished its work with total success), Beck’s history of embezzling from his own union had become a matter of public knowledge. Having reduced the already anemic level of democracy inside the Teamsters union, Beck opted not to seek another term as its head. He was sent to federal prison for tax evasion in 1962.
Such is the stuff of the “labor” voice of the Clay Committee.
Meanwhile, contemplate the way in which Beck ended it all:
After his release from prison, Beck lived in a basement in a house he himself had built for his mother and sister in the 1940s. He retained his $50,000-a-year Teamster president’s pension and became a multimillionaire investing in parking lots.
I’ll say it again: Orwell couldn’t surpass this real-world material.
Part of the reason corporate capitalists are addicted to selling automobiles is the fact that, once the inherently sprawling, alternative-discouraging infrastructure for cars-first transportation is fully built, that infrastructure renders car ownership almost literally necessary. To forgo a car is to add extra risk and time constraint to lives already unfolding amid insecure and decaying economic and social conditions.
I mention this because of this interesting story from today’s edition of the mighty USA Today.
Seems that, among the population who incur both forms of debt (and the rich pay cash for cars, by the way), people are four times more likely to make late payments on their mortgages than on their car loans.
Felicia Young of Tampa says paying her auto loan became more important in the last two years.
“When my credit scores declined and I was facing removal from my house, my car suddenly became the only item I had worth anything,” says the 45-year-old, who holds both full- and part-time jobs as an administrative officer.
Young adds that she needs her car “to get to work and make money. Period.”
“If push comes to shove, you can live in your car,” Becker says. “But you can’t drive your house to work.”
No wonder the overclass insists that the current American lifestyle is non-negotiable.
From the outset, the corporate capitalist automotive-industrial complex has both generated and benefited from one the greatest floods of propaganda in human history. Buried under countless PR operations and relentless incantations about how “Americans are having a love affair with the car,” the actual history of the making of cars-first transportation in the United States has long since been ignored and forgotten, even by the would-be critics. Fortunately, fragments of this real history still exist, if you know where to look.
Today’s example is a reminder of the actual history of car capitalists’ efforts in the area of “safety,” or, more accurately, danger management.
By its nature, cars-first transportation is massively, needlessly dangerous. The death toll from car collisions alone (i.e., not counting those resulting from pollution, bodily deconditioning, and oil wars) has been somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million in the United States alone over the past century. Many times that number have been injured in crashes.
Q: Until the popular uprisings of the 1960s, what was the auto-industrial complex’s main response to the fact that their product is a severe public health menace?
A: To harangue drivers about the importance of “courtesy” on the road.
Click on this image to see what DbC means:
This is the lead article from the November 1947 edition of Highway Highlights, the magazine of the National Highway Users Conference, a front group designed to cloak the automotive-industrial complex’s lobbying efforts in the mantle of ordinary automobile users, as DbC explained recently here.
At about this same time, the NHUC was forming its “Motor Manners Project,” through which it aimed to ensure that the thesis “driver and pedestrian behavior is a key factor in [automotive] accidents” would be the leading point of concern in safety debates. Part of this Project was retention of none other than Emily Post to write and promote Motor Manners, a booklet devoted to the MMP’s theme that “impolite driving” was the root cause of the nation’s automotive death toll. Motor Manners was, of course, “distributed free to individual motorists.”
As you can see in the linked piece above, such was the NHUC’s chutzpah that it not only made the effort to transfer blame for the inherent danger of their product to drivers, but also to passengers. “The right kind of backseat driver,” it preached, “may be able to cut the nation’s traffic toll….Perhaps in many of these cases [of careless or speeding drivers] the passengers could have saved their lives if they had been willing to speak up and remonstrate with the driver.”
The following month, Highway Highlights published a follow-up piece, in which it endorsed the precedent set by Maryland Circuit Court judge Stephen R. Collins, who had ruled — perhaps after having read something distributed by the NHUC itself — that “the degree of care and vigilance which the guest is required to exercise for his own protection is not different from that required of the driver.”
That, my friends, is my stack of photocopies from a week of digging into the Library of Congress’s archives on the history of capitalist propagandizing and lobbying on behalf of cars-first transportation. Believe me when I say it would be cars-only, if these people had gotten 100, rather than 95, percent of their way. Stay tuned for reportage and analysis, both here and in the Courting Carmageddon book.
Hence, the unchanging nature of the “greatest spectacle in American sports,” the Super Bowl. Like both the National Football League and the whole of American television, it remains, first and foremost, a behavior-modification project whose main sponsor remains the automotive-industrial complex, which itself remains the indispensable heart of the capitalist economic order.
According to this piece from The Huffington Post, there were 60 commercials — not counting five ads referring viewers back to the NFL and this year’s Super Bowl broadcaster NBC — run during yesterday’s broadcast. (Note: If the widely reported cost of $3.5 million per ad — almost 100 times the rate charged for ads during Super Bowl I — is correct, that means the 2012 Super Bowl show generated $210 million of advertising revenue for NBC, not counting any ads promoting the game in advance.)
By DbC‘s count, 21 of the 60 Super Bowl XLVI ads were for cars, tires, or cars.com.
As for the content of these ads, there was, of course, zero acknowledgment that anything has changed since the days of the Studebaker. Indeed, none other than Clint Eastwood, after a couple decades of decent movie making, took his opportunity to jump his own personal shark by appearing as a mindless tough guy in a Chrysler ad assuring everybody that it’s merely “halftime” in the great American project of cars-first living.
Wanna bet, Dirty Harry?
As Noam Chomsky observes, cars-first transportation in the United States “was not put to public judgment.” Nor will it ever be, barring a popular rebellion addressing its existence.
But does that mean the population is as brain-dead on the topic as our many capitalism excusers would have you conclude?
Consider the news today that the average age of light vehicles in the United States has now reached an all-time high: over 11 years for cars, and slightly under that for “light trucks.”
No doubt much of that is simply a result of economic hardship among the bottom 90 percent. But DbC would wager that some of it is also a sign of the rationality of the masses. Why would anybody be buying — not to mention marketing — more cars at this point in human history? Inquiring minds want to know.
That, of course, is a truly forbidden question.
Apparently, the Chevy Volt’s tendency to burst into flames isn’t just a GM problem. The same issue — failure of battery cooling systems — exists in the IQ-test-for-rich-people known as the Fisker Karma:
Dec. 23 (Bloomberg) — A123 Systems Inc., the maker of batteries for electric vehicles, said it found a “potential safety issue” in batteries it supplies to Fisker Automotive Inc.
A123, which also sells batteries to automakers such as General Motors Co. and Daimler AG, said hose clamps that are part of the internal cooling system of its batteries supplied to Fisker were “misaligned” and may cause coolant to leak. Such a leak could lead to an electrical short circuit, David Vieau, chief executive officer, wrote in a memo on Waltham, Massachusetts-based A123’s investor-relations website.
One wonders how the car’s means of preventing electrical fires is going to perform after collisions, given that misalignment in manufacturing is a problem. Maybe Fisker will have its own battery shut-down squads roving the nation and swooping in after every crash. Or maybe not.
That’s the problem with increased complexity: It tends to create more ways for things to fail.
Of course, so long as we let capitalists dictate how we conduct our lives, they are going to continue insisting that we butter our toast with these profit-maximizing chainsaws.
In his latest Do the Math post, physicist Tom Murphy estimates that total human energy use, in all forms across the whole globe and its 7 billion inhabitants, is something like 13 TW (TW = terawatts, or trillion watts). Murphy also calculates that the United States’ annual use of 7 billion (yes, it’s the same number now as the planet’s population) barrels of petroleum constitutes an energy burn of 1.3 TW, or ten percent of total human power use.
For those tracking the insanity of cars-first transportation, this suggests a few follow-up calculations.
We know that, as of 2009, 72 percent of U.S. oil use was in the form of transportation fuel. We also know that some additional petroleum is used both to build automobiles and to build and maintain asphalt roads for automobiles, so the true share of U.S. oil use explained by cars and trucks is certainly at least 75 percent.
Since the United States burns 10 percent of humanity’s total current energy budget on oil, and since cars-first transportation accounts for at least three-quarters of total U.S. oil use, then oil-based transportation in the United States devours 7.5 percent of humanity’s total energy budget.
At present, the population of the United States is about 4.5 percent of Earth’s human population.
Interestingly, the 59 percent of the total U.S. oil burn that goes into personal cars and trucks works out (.59 times 7.5) to 4.4 percent of total world energy use, meaning that, if energy use were distributed fairly across the planet, the U.S. fleet of personal-use automobiles would be devouring the nation’s entire per-capita share.
This, of course, doesn’t include the gas and diesel fuel that gets used in the country’s cargo-delivery trucking system. Much or all of the long-distance trucking sector exists as a way to break and preempt labor unions and thereby restrain labor expenses/incomes, as long-haul truckers are about as disinclined to form unions as railroad workers are prone to forming them.
The President who happily signed the most recent major legislation encouraging the ascendance of long-haul trucking over railroad freight, the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, despite the obvious energy inefficiency of trucks compared to trains? Nope, not Reagan. Our old friend and darling of phony-green false history, one James Earl Carter, Jr.
As DbC has reported before, contrary to prevailing mythology, automobiles are one of the most stratified product categories in corporate capitalism’s core areas. As apologists prattle on about how cars “unite us all,” the reality is that the rich live in a different automotive universe than the rest of us.
I mention this again because, with help from the Supply-Side Bailout, makers of overclass chariots are enjoying record profits during this Great Recession.
So what are the products being delivered to the moneyed elite’s detached, heated, multi-car garages?
Here is Automotive News‘ description of the low end of the luxury market:
In the U.S., the entry-level [Mercedes] S class is a $91,850 hybrid that combines a 3.5-liter engine with an electric motor, while BMW’s base 7 series goes for $71,000 and has a standard 3.0-liter engine. Audi’s A8 comes with 4.2-liter engine and starts at $78,050.
Above that come things like Mercedes’ “$114,100 CL coupe” and “$189,600 SLS gull-wing supercar.”
How many of these monstrosities get sold each year?
Mercedes has typically been the leader at the upper end of the luxury-car market, which is crucial to its image and bottom line. Last year, the manufacturer delivered 80,000 vehicles from the S-class line, including the CL coupe and SL roadster, beating the 65,800 7-series cars sold by BMW and the 17,000 A8s by Audi, according to company figures. [source: Automotive News]
Mercedes’ “gull-wing supercar,” by the way, gets 13 mpg in the city. In a ruling class that is collectively unwilling to admit the ecological and geological limits to its insane reign, everyday life reinforces the obliviousness, as excessive wealth encourages increasingly criminal inattention to reality by elite individuals. “Let them eat MPG!,” snarl the entrepreneurs, as they cash their dividend and bailout checks.
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