One of the many Big Lies that sustain corporate capitalism in the United States is the long-running falsehood that cars are essentially egalitarian. Cars-first transportation “unites us across class, racial, ethnic, and religious lines as few other aspects of our society can,” is how Rutgers University transportation engineer James A. Dunn formulates this standard claim.
As DbC has noted before, the facts are immensely against this familiar incantation, not only (and most importantly) on the business-income side of the matter, but also in the realm of actual automobile usage.
Today, we pause to note one important aspect of the stratification of reality on the usage side — the telling divergence between interest rates on loans for buying new and used cars.
Automotive News reports on Experian’s latest findings about trends in car loans between the first quarters of 2011 and 2012. In that time:
Interest rates fell, on average, by 0.27 percentage points to 4.56 percent for new cars and by 0.06 points to 9.02 percent for used cars.
So, used car loan rates are about double, and decline less easily than, rates on new car loans. Such numbers, of course, reflect the fact that, for the rich, cars are power toys purchased with cash; for the working comfortable, they are luxuries purchased with easy credit; and for the real social middle, they are hand-me-downs bought from extreme usurers. The poor, as always, scrounge for scraps.
Mainstream environmentalism is very often as bad as the disease it thinks it’s busy curing. Unwilling to risk their funding by attacking capitalism, the big green groups ignore as many hard facts and propose as many impossible solutions as worshipers of “markets” and technology.
Take the case of Opportunity Cost of the Tar Sands, the latest report from the British branch of the World Wildlife Fund, and apparently a basis for the forthcoming companion movie, Dirty Oil.
One of the major notions being peddled by the WWF and (one assumes) this movie:
The money that oil companies want to pump into tar sands [in Alberta, Canada] would cover the cost of the proposed Desertec Industrial Initiative, linking North African solar plants into a supergrid supplying 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050. Or it could fund a Europe-wide shift to electric vehicles.
“A Europe-wide shift to electric vehicles”? You mean the ones that, to the extent they aren’t vaporware, cost $50,000, have a range of 40 miles, fry out existing electrical circuits, and promise to burn rapidly through the planet’s remaining supplies of key minerals and non-renewable energy sources? The ones that would continue to facilitate the bat-shit crazy practice of using a 2,000-pound assemblage to accomplish virtually all daily commutes? Electric or not, if that’s a sustainable arrangement, I’ll eat this desk. But, of course, to mention the massive unsustainability of cars-first transportation would be financial suicide for the WWF, wouldn’t it?
Meanwhile, using the North African desert to send electricity to Europe? One might think a group devoted to ecology might be familiar with the severe limitations that the laws of physics impose on the transmission and storage of electricity, not to mention the substantial, unsolved EROEI questions involved in solar electricity generation.
But more disgusting, to me at least, than the sight of the WWF suppressing such issues is the mindless neo-imperialism of its advocacy of the unconscionable Desertec land-grab. As Noam Chomsky recently remarked, given the history between Europe and Africa, one might imagine future resource flows running in the opposite direction to the familiar one breezily suggested by Desertec and the WWF.
Here’s a clip from a book chapter I’m doing on this neglected topic:
For the private jet set, the travel world is luxurious and comparatively full of fun. CNBC reports that, as of 2008, “Private jet travel [was] the fastest growing luxury market segment. Over 15% of all flights in the U.S. are by private jet. There are more than 1,000 daily private jet flights in key markets such as South Florida, New York and Los Angeles.” In between Asian and European shopping junkets, trips to exotic beaches, and retreats to country homes, the super-rich commonly maintain mega-garages full of extravagant, specialized cars and trucks, each of which serves the need or mood of any particular moment. “The typical Ferrari customer, for example, orders $20,000 to $30,000 of options,” reports CNN, noting that “most Ferrari owners have more than one — a half-dozen or so is common.”
At the bottom of American society, experiences are different. In 2001, when 11.7 percent of U.S. households received incomes below the official poverty line, those same households accounted for only 6.1 percent of all automotive miles traveled in the United States. The last time the U.S. Department of Transportation conducted its National Household Transportation Survey, it found that:
Households without a vehicle are not spread uniformly across the population. For example, households with an annual income of less than $25,000 are almost nine times as likely to be a zero-vehicle household than households with incomes greater than $25,000. Not only is income related to the availability of household vehicles, but it is also related to the age of the vehicle. For example, households with a household income of $100,000 or more had a vehicle with an average model year of [5 years old], while households with a household income of less than $25,000 had a personal vehicle [when they had one] with an average model year of [ten years old].
At a purely logical level of analysis, seeing a car critic such as the present author draw attention to inequality in the distribution of automobiles might strike some readers as a case of forgetting the lesson of the old joke in which the diner complains that “The food in this restaurant is awful, and the portions – so small!” Yet, however awful cars-first transportation may be, it remains true that, once it exists, access to one’s own automobile can be a major determinant of the quality of life.
Indeed, in her extensive interviews with welfare recipients in the United States, family sociologist Karen Seccombe has found that automobiles are a very deep dilemma in their lives. Seccombe summarizes what she learned:
It…became clear in the interviews that transportation was a major structural barrier to women getting or keeping jobs. Past recipients…report that the lack of affordable transportation presents a barrier even more serious than the lack of childcare to securing employment. Women on welfare cannot afford to buy reliable automobiles….Most women who had cars…[almost always] owned older models that were in a constant state of disrepair….Obviously, [despite a widely-known political trope to the contrary] women on welfare are not driving Cadillacs….While offhand it is easy to say, “You can walk to work,” reality may dictate something else….Walking can add an hour or two to childcare bills, and may necessitate being away from one’s children for 9, 10, or 11 hours a day instead of the usual 8….In many communities, walking to work can be more than just inconvenient. It can be dangerous.
Of course, reality is immensely worse at the global level. The most basic statistics about worldwide disparities in access to transportation are stark. In the United States, there are now about 765 motor vehicles per 1,000 residents, and these vehicles operate on more than 4.2 million miles of paved, dedicated roadways. Meanwhile the number motor vehicles per thousand residents is 19 in Guatemala, 8 in Pakistan, and less than 1 in both Afghanistan and Malawi.
From the beginning, corporations and allied planners and politicians have promoted the automobile with large doses of syrupy propaganda about its overwhelming wonders and benignity. This wave of dogma routinely includes paeans to the automobile’s allegedly democratic and egalitarian nature. According to Rutgers University transportation engineer James A. Dunn, for example, not only does “the auto provide a kind of individualist equality that is particularly well suited to American values,” but owning and driving cars “unites [Americans] across class, racial, ethnic, and religious lines as few other aspects of our society can.”
Alas, Dunn seems not to have examined the most basic data on the distribution of automobiles in the United States, to say nothing of the world. If he had bothered to do so, he might have discovered that, contrary to long-running industry intimations and intellectual pre-suppositions, cars are, in fact, one of the most unequally distributed product categories in the United States.
Here is a table I just assembled from the most recent Consumer Expenditure Survey:
As you can see, the rich are savers/investors, but they also dominate spending. New vehicle spending in particular.
That sucking sound you hear? A century’s worth of cars = freedom + democracy incantation going into the flushbowl, where it belongs.
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