I’ve been repeatedly stunned by how skimpy and ideological my competition is in the area of automotive sociology/history. Today, this surprise has reached another level, yet again. In my ramblings as I try to complete a book I can live with on the topic, I came across this hugely important, but — so far as I can tell, completely unpursued by English-language researchers — quote from Gottlieb Daimler:
“I have created the basis for an industry.”
The 1961 volume that conveys this quotation refers to a biography published in German in the highly ramified year of 1941. Its title — no author given by its English citation-maker — is Gottlieb Daimler: Ein Revolutionär der Technik.
Luckily, I made the mistake of taking German in HS and college, so I stand a chance of being able to read that tome, should I ever see it. Meanwhile, if any Germans or German-fluent people have access to that biography, I would be eternally grateful for your help!
I encourage other cars-first critics to pursue this hot lead, or at least not forget it.
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.
When I first started writing a book about capitalists’ insistence on cars-first transportation, I tried to figure out who coined the familiar jive-line “Americans are having a love affair with the car.” Striking out myself, I wrote to several leading American historians. It seems nobody knows the answer. There’s little doubt it was industry PR, but the thing seems to have become so natural-sounding that people forgot to keep track of where and when they first heard it.
The latest mutation of that century-old trope comes in a particularly humorous form — a claim on behalf of the Chevy Volt!
Precisely as it idles production of the Volt due to lack of sales, GM breaks out this “Happy Volt Owners” ad series:
There is a world of ridiculousness and overclass chutzpah in each line of this thing. “Adam” says he wakes up every morning thinking about the future, but is obviously either unaware of or untroubled by the fact that the electric motor in his new automobile is actually powered by coal, natural gas, and nuclear fission. He “loves” his Volt, he tells us — twice — but fails to mention its price, where and when (or if) he bought it, or how he uses it. Will it burn down his house at some point after being bumped in a parking lot? “Adam,” though he is supposedly somebody willing to spend $40,000 to “make a statement” about how thoughtful he is, doesn’t trouble himself with such things, apparently.
How nice for “Adam” and the ≈5,000 owners of Volts. GM assures us that, despite their beloved car’s status as about .002 percent (yes, 2/1,000ths of one percent) of all passenger cars now on the road in the United States, they are not just the nation’s but the planet’s happiest drivers. Who’d have guessed?
You heard it there first: Americans are having a love affairs with the Chevy Volt!
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.
This point cropped up for me again when, prompted by my good friend Douglas Pressman, I looked at a recent piece from Forbes magazine titled “Watching The Wheels Come Off The Green Machine.” This op-ed by one Bill Frezza, a self-described “free market advocate,” conveys news of the less-than-underwhelming results of the ongoing efforts to peddle “electric” cars. Much of what Frezza reports will be unsurprising to DbC readers:
Few seemed to notice last week when the electric vehicle maker A123 Systems—poster child for successful clean tech investing—“temporarily” laid off 125 workers at its flagship manufacturing plants in Michigan on the eve of the Thanksgiving media break. It also reduced its earnings guidance for 2011 by $45 million, because its anchor customer, Fisker Automotive, “unexpectedly” delayed the production ramp-up for its Karma luxury electric car—again.
Environmentally correct planners put all this public money to work to relieve the technology bottleneck they believed held back our transition to electric cars. So they invested my money and yours into building the largest lithium ion automotive battery plant in North America—to supply a Finnish electric car manufacturer backed by Al Gore’s venture capital fund and which received $529 million in federal loan guarantees. That Finnish manufacturer was supposed to begin production in 2009, but to date has only shipped 40 cars into the U.S. Those cars were delivered to a handful of millionaires and billionaires like Leonardo DeCaprio and Ray Lane who received tax credits because they bought an electric car.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Now, DbC considers it a high priority to spread such news. Every time a potential realist gets snookered into advocating electric cars instead of directing attention to social power and the need for radical transportation reform and conservation efforts, the human race takes another step toward Carmageddon.
But, as we work to peel off as many people as we can from the prevailing supply-side campaigns, it is important to remember that this effort in no way makes us allies with those who call themselves conservatives.
Take a look at Mr. Frezza’s essay, and you’ll see why: Frezza, like all conservatives, refuses to recognize that, foolish and corrupt as it is, the push for green cars is an attempt to rescue cars-first transportation from its own fatal flaws. Could we really, seriously conclude that the existing transportation arrangement in the United States is even imaginably sustainable for more than another few decades? If anybody can tell me how that could happen, please write in.
Meanwhile, not only does Frezza refuse to contemplate that little question, he also — again, like all conservatives — pushes the idea that existing reality is somehow a result of the reign of pure free choice. Frezza treats the green car push as proof of the inherent stupidity of “central planning.” He implies that the existing U.S. automotive fleet is full of “car[s] that customers actually want.”
Of course, the actual history of transportation choice in America is rather different from what Frezza alleges it to have been. From the moment the car was perfected as an object of assembly line manufacture, the corporate capitalist overclass was beyond smitten. Addicted, in fact, is the proper descriptor of their bond with the automobile. In actual history, once the car became a viable corporate product, all hope for genuine transportation choice — how many people would nowadays choose to own no car at all, if we’d built our cities to make that choice convenient? — was up in smoke. In reality, GM is now 100 years old, and so, with the arms of government fully subordinate all along the way, is transportation dictatorship in the United States.
“Drive on!,” say the “conservatives.”
Of all the Big Lies surrounding it, none is greater than the long-running claim that the American public independently demanded and continues to insist upon cars-first transportation. In this official view, the remarkable speed and unanimity of governmental management and subsidy of the car’s reign are held to be signs of the overwhelming strength of the democratic will, rather than the clear primacy of overclass imperatives.
The problem, of course, is that there has never been anything resembling serious public debate of basic U.S. transportation policy since the perfection of the automobile in the early twentieth century. Search the historical record. None exists.
The insistence that governmental ramrodding of cars-first policies is democracy in action is, in actuality, a classic Big Lie. Who, to quote the car-pushing classical source, could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously? Since every policy is greased and every Congressional vote a landslide, who, indeed, would ever dare look into it?
If you doubt this interpretation, consider the latest piece of evidence:
In a move undoubtedly calculated to place the argument in the mouths of entities that can be portrayed as “small businesses,” the nation’s automobile dealers, according to Automotive News, are “taking over” the fight against the Zerobama Adminstration’s proposed (and already watered down) rules mandating scheduled increased MPG standards for new cars.
Auto News, citing Reuters, reports:
U.S. auto dealers are working to undo the Obama administration’s fuel efficiency agenda, replacing car companies that for years kept such mandates at bay with the help of allies in Congress.
The car industry is facing dramatic new standards that would double efficiency targets to 54 miles per gallon by 2025, under an administration plan unveiled in July and set to be officially proposed in the coming weeks.
Automakers have traditionally carried the torch for modest fuel efficiency mandates, arguing that aggressive targets could drive up vehicle cost, compromise safety, and limit consumer choice.
But car executives agreed to the ambitious targets during negotiations this spring, going along with an administration that rescued the U.S. industry from collapse in 2009. General Motors and Chrysler owe their continued existence to Obama, and taxpayers still own a third of GM.
Virtually all big automakers reluctantly agreed to the 2025 deal in the talks led by the White House, leaving dealers on their own to fight the new standards.
Dealers are backing a Republican measure that would remove the influence of federal environmental regulators and the state of California in establishing national mileage standards.
And how are the dealers packaging “their” efforts?
“This is a big jump, and we’d like to slow this process down and find out what’s working and what’s not,” said Dave Westcott, who operates two North Carolina showrooms and is an executive with a trade group behind the delay effort. “We’d like the public to be in control of what they would like.”
So, what, pray tell, is actual public opinion on this topic?
WASHINGTON (July 28, 2011)—Against a backdrop of sharp differences on a variety of current public policy issues, new polling by the Pew Clean Energy Program demonstrates strong support from American voters for immediate action on vehicle fuel economy.
In a national survey of 1,000 likely 2012 likely general election voters (interviews were conducted by telephone July 8-12, 2011 using a national registration-based sample conducted for Pew by the bipartisan polling team The Mellman Group, Inc. and Public Opinion Strategies between July 8-12, 2011), 91 percent of Americans agree that dependence on foreign oil is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” threat to U.S. security, with 61 percent indicating it is a “very serious” threat. These views cut across demographic and partisan lines, with 65 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents identifying dependence on foreign oil as a “very serious threat” to national security.
The polling results reinforce news reports of an ambitious proposed interim fuel economy rule agreement reached by the Obama administration, the auto industry and other stakeholders to improve fuel efficiency for cars and light-duty trucks in model years 2017-2025. The proposed standard is to be announced Friday, July 29, 2011.
The survey found 82 percent of respondents support an increased fuel efficiency standard of 56 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025, with 68 percent who “favor strongly.” Overwhelming majorities in every demographic subgroup support increased fuel efficiency to 56 mpg, including 70 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Democrats and 88 percent of independents.
Voters across all regions also backed increasing fuel economy to 56 mpg, with 80 percent in the Northeast, 85 percent in the Midwest, 77 percent in the South and 86 percent in the West. Further, 92 percent of Americans believe it is either “very important” (69 percent) or “somewhat important” (23 percent) for the United States to take action now to increase fuel efficiency.
If anything, since it excludes those not registered to vote and since registered voters tend to be wealthier and more conservative than the non-registered, these numbers are almost certainly an under-estimate of the actual state of public preference.
Such is the standard stuff of transportation dictatorship in America.
And for any who might construe this post as any kind of endorsement of Zerobama, let me remind you that the consciously accepted role of that operation is Pitchfork Catching. The proposed MPG rules, as I’ve said before, are a distraction. They were also built to be whittled down. No mainstream politician is allowed (or even inclined) to question, let alone threaten, the machine that lays the golden eggs.
Well, when it comes to cellulosic ethanol, one of the handful of major candidate “alt” fuels, guess how new that process is? Chemical engineer Robert Rapier reports:
I don’t think I have ever had the privilege of using a literature reference from 1819, but here it is. In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid (Braconnot 1819). The technique was later used by the Germans to first commercialize cellulosic ethanol from wood in 1898 (EERE 2009).
But believe it or not, commercialization also took place in the U.S. in 1910. The Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgetown, South Carolina to process waste wood from a lumber mill (PDA 1910). Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Fullteron, Louisiana. Each plant produced 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years (Sherrard 1945).
To put that in perspective, Iogen claimed in 2004 that they were producing the world’s first cellulose ethanol fuel from their 1,500 gallon per day plant. (While 1,500 gal/day is their announced capacity, if you look at their production statistics they have never sustained more than 500 gallons per day over the course of a year; 2008 production averaged 150 gal/day).
Many companies are in a mad rush to be the “first” to commercialize cellulosic ethanol. The next time you hear someone say that they will be the first, ask them if they plan to invent the telephone next.
Mainstream history insists that the United States got cars-first transportation because the people spontaneously demanded it. The masses saw the automobile, and insisted on re-building the nation to facilitate it. “Americans are having a love affair with the car,” so the story goes, is all anybody needs to know about the origins of the present.
But here’s the thing: The peddlers of this tale never provide any serious evidence that this is how things actually happened. Why is that?
Here at DbC, we hold that the reason nobody provides details in support of the “love affair” thesis is that it is impossible to do so, since popular demand has never, in fact, been the leading force in the shaping of transportation policy and infrastructure in America.
All along, the actual reality has been corporate capitalist dictation of such policy and infrastructure.
Consider, for instance, the words of Lucius D. Clay, “Eisenhower’s man” in the effort to ram through funding for the Interstate Highway System in the mid-1950s. Clay, at the time a member of General Motors’ Board of Directors, explained his actions as follows:
We are indeed a nation on wheels and we cannot permit these wheels to slow down. Our mass industries must have moving supply lines to feed raw materials into our factories and moving distribution lines to carry the finished product to store or home. Moreover, the hands which produce these goods and the services which make them useful must also move from home to factory to store to home.
Our highway system has helped make this possible.
To me, the importance to the national economy of this modern highway system outweighs all other reasons why it should be built.
All I can say is that 10 years from now we’ll have 80 million motor vehicles-and we better have the roads. Because if we don’t have the roads, we may not have the 80 million vehicles. And that, I think, would be very unfortunate for the whole country.
If we don’t build the roads, we may not have the cars.
Hardly the words of somebody operating in a situation where the masses are clamoring for more automobiles, is it?
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