Kibbles in Bits

obiepipes In one of the least surprising pieces of news you’re likely to hear, Zerobama spiked Bill McKibben today.  Obummer went to Cushing, Oklahoma and, posing in front of stacked pipes, announced he is expediting construction of the southern segment of the much publicized Keystone XL oil pipeline. Once that happens, what would you say are the odds the northern section gets blocked by McKibben’s windmill tilters? Only slightly better than those of McKibben admitting he has been multiply wrong in this whole tempest in an irrelevant teapot, I’d say.

Speaking of being epically wrong, here is McKibben’s latest analysis of the meaning of today’s move by Zerobama:

It’s clear that the power of the oil industry drives political decision-making in America–that’s why we need to go after them directly. The first step is an effort to remove the subsidies that they and the rest of the fossil fuel industry enjoy. 350.org is helping coordinate protests at Ohio State University this afternoon, where students will call on President Obama to stop Keystone XL, fracking, and other “extreme energy” projects

As ever, McKibben makes nary a mention of the actual reason for the centrality of the oil industry — cars-first transportation policy. “Doc, I’m worried I might have lung cancer.” “Not to worry,” assures good Dr. McKibben, “we’re going to stop that chronic cough of yours!”

Alas, mere superficiality and woefully erroneous target selection are not enough for McKibben. Having been clearly slapped down, he now promises to squander further political energy pursuing a blend of gestures both hopeless — stopping Keystone and fracking — and simply absurd — taking away a small tax subsidy from one of the planet’s most profitable industries and suggesting that will somehow change a damned thing.

What a flippin’ nightmare.

Fortunately, it looks like the Occupy proto-movement might be heading in the proper direction, albeit rather timidly. Check out the plans for April 4.

The People’s Front

higway_user [Click image for larger view in pdf format.]

This is one of my early favorites from my dig into the history of capitalist dictation of transportation policy in the United States. As we at DbC know, the general public has never been seriously included in the making of said policy, except on the margins and after the main choices have been made. Certainly, there has not been a rich, sustained debate and menu of choices offered to ordinary citizens in the area.

The exhibit at left speaks rather clearly to what has instead happened. The image is a flyer issued in October 1947 by the National Highway Users Conference via its Highway Highlights trade magazine. The National Highway Users Conference was, of course, not in the least an authentic organization of actual highway users. On the contrary, it was one of the several front groups set up by the core corporate capitalists of the automotive-industrial complex. Indeed, guess who was President of the NHUC as of October 1947? The highway-user-in-chief just then happened to be one Alfred P. Sloan!

The humor and scandal in this flyer is the obvious falseness it reveals about the NHUC. On one hand, the purpose of the leaflet is to convince ordinary schmoes that “you and everybody else are highway users.” Meanwhile, not only is it patently absurd for a supposedly democratic, purportedly bottom-up advocacy group to have to tell its own alleged members that they fit into the group in question, but the flyer itself proceeds to acknowledge that the NHUC is composed not of individual citizens, but “organizations and companies which recognize [the] truth” that it’s either cars-first transportation or barbarism.

Such shameless, self-interested demagogy has always been the real engine of the “car culture” that thinkers across the political spectrum — without ever bothering to look at the actual evidence — have attributed to the spontaneous wishes and “national character” of the American masses.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh.

The Metal Movers

propapile 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.

Good News!

ossuary It’s that time of the year again — the day the Orwellianly-named National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announces its official count of the number of people who died in U.S. automotive collisions last calendar year.

As always, the news this year is good: In 2010, only 32,885 people were killed in car crashes! Isn’t that heart-warming?

How is this good news, you ask? What would we be saying if 2,740 among us were dying each month in war, terrorism, or some other kind of accident? Would those deaths ever be reported as happily reduced? Or would the absolute number be portrayed as a scandal, a dire emergency, or an outrage?

Would we tolerate a governmental agency supposedly charged with reducing the deaths instead playing logical tricks with the numbers — say by reporting that, while a war was killing 2,740 people a month, there were fewer deaths per enemy bullet fired? No? Then why is the NHTSA’s habit of reporting automotive crash deaths as a number per mile driven — as if what matters is the risk per distance, rather that the risk per day — not taken as its own outrage?

The answer, of course, is that because cars-first transportation is the lifeblood of corporate capitalism, its inherent dangers simply must be packaged in a favorable light, the millions of dead be damned.

Conservatives on Cars

ostrich It doesn’t take much to see that the political position presently called “conservative” is actually a form of wild-eyed radicalism.

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.”

MPG of Bicycles and Walking

einstein_bike Tom Murphy of Do the Math walks us through a topic that’s as crucial to the future of progressive, science-and-communications aided, modern society as anything could be: the comparative energy efficiency of human muscled-powered locomotion.

Corporate capitalism presumes the continuation — and, hence, the sustainability — of present mobility arrangements in at least its core areas. Under that arrangement, a large percentage of everyday, local-area travel is accomplished via automobile. This is due to the unique demand- and profit-stimulating effects (read: wastefulness) of cars-first transportation orders.

From an energy point of view, cars-first transportation means that fueling automotive engines is a major bottleneck for normal social existence. As such, the obvious question is how well does and could the cars-first arrangement compare to its major alternative, the reconstruction of towns and cities to encourage bicycling and walking?

Tom Murphy’s conclusion: On a diet of normal, mixed foodstuffs (rather than pure lard or some other means of maximizing the energy density of the comestible), short-distance bicycling yields an MPG equivalent of 290, or about 6 times the energy efficiency of a Toyota Prius. Walking, meanwhile, delivers about 160 MPG.

There is, Murphy says, one fly in the ointment here: the energy intensity of current agricultural and food delivery arrangements. Factoring that in, Murphy figures that the MPG of cycling drops to 130 and that of walking to 34.

einduh So, even without altering the food system (via increased organic farming, localization of supply chains, moves away from food processing/packaging, improvement of the veggie/meat intake ratio, etc.), bicycles are almost four times more energy efficient than Priuses, and walking is right in the same ballpark. A blend of the two — surely a main feature of any genuinely sustainable, modern human future — would be far more energy efficient than any conceivable cars-first arrangement.

(All this, of course, leaves aside the question of the energy required to build and maintain the infrastructures involved. Cars-first requires huge streets, large parking areas, scattered building patterns, and gigantic, ornate fuel-delivery processes. Muscles-first living would imply much smaller streets, less need for parking, dense building patterns, and comparatively simple fuel-delivery processes.)

Muscles-first would, of course, also be a far healthier arrangement: Using one’s own body, rather than 3,000-pound electrical or fossil-fuel combusting machines, to achieve the desired movements, would have radically positive impacts on public health, as would the accompanying reduction in exposure to the chemicals and large collisions involved in cars-first living and breathing.

Need we mention which society would be more fun and sociable and sane?

Hey, Capitalist Kiddies: It’s PorscheLand!

mickeycar Remember how, massively contrary to mainstream claims, automobile ownership is actually one of the most unequally distributed of all so-called “consumer” product categories? While their apologists manufacture dogmas about how cars unite the whole society across class lines, the reality is that, for the rich, cars are luxurious toys paid for out of petty cash.

This fact is an interesting aspect of the social psychology of the overclass as it relates to the perpetuation of cars-first transportation. The main factor in that endeavor is surely institutional, a matter of corporate imperatives and the corollary pressures of mainstream politics. But the ability to tolerate and encourage that institutional momentum is certainly rooted in the monied mindset. As recent research has begun to show with precision, the rich are different — they are more personally grasping and socially oblivious than the rest of us. My guess is that this is partly because power/privilege attracts the corrupt, and also because living with great privilege tends to go to anybody’s head.

In any event, here at DbC, we consider it part of our mission to track how the overclass uses, as well as pushes, cars.

The topic arises today because DbC has just learned that Porsche is about to break ground on two Porsche Performance Centers here in the United States — one in Los Angeles and one in Atlanta. (Other PPCs already exist in Germany and England.)

Porsche Performance Center What is a Porsche Performance Center? Essentially, a DisneyLand for Porsche owners. The main attraction is the Porsche test track, on which, for a fee, visitors can live out their race-car and/or auto-mountaineering fantasies:

The centerpiece of the complex will be a world-class test track and handling course, including areas where special surfaces replicate rain, ice, and snow conditions. These training sections include the Ice Hill, where a steep slope, computer-controlled water jets, and a low-friction surface will challenge even the most experienced drivers and help them improve their real-world skills. A special off-road area will combine 45-degree declines and ascents – ideal terrain for unleashing a Porsche Cayenne.

Of course, part of the idea is not just deepening Porsche owners’ brand loyalty, but also selling some Porsches:

The new West Coast location will be situated near the intersection of two major Los Angeles area traffic arteries, the 405 and 110 Freeways, is just minutes from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and is basically in the heart of Southern California, Porsche’s largest market in the United States.

At LAX alone, over 59 million travelers passed through the airport in 2010.  Another 15 million consumers reside within a 50-mile radius from the facility, and even more are based within a few hours travel time by car, including Orange and San Diego counties, California and major markets to the North.

“Our mission is to help everyone who loves automobiles and car culture to experience the pure joy, the art, and the science of driving,” said James Taylor, general manager, Porsche Experience Center.  “Whether you want to experience the latest Porsche models like the new seventh-generation Porsche 911, upgrade your personal performance as a racer or athlete, or host a car club event or a product launch, we look forward to working with customers to create a memorable program.”

That “everyone,” of course, is hyperbole, given Porsche’s prices. The really interesting demographic is the number of capitalists who pass through LAX and reside in the area.

Meanwhile, while at the PPC, the aspiring racer/mountain scaler/athlete/product launcher can:

Come and learn about the exciting range of options available when buying a Porsche. The Personlisation Lounges allow you to sit down with an expert consultant and discuss the full range of options available when purchasing a Porsche. Uniquely to the Porsche Experience Centre you can test the more technical options in the cars when you are on your driving experience. Options on many vehicles on the driving experience fleet include the PDK gearbox and Sport Chrono Plus.

To see the more aesthetic options available you can build your dream Porsche using the Porsche Car Configurator with expert advice from our consultants. We want to show you what we can do down to the smallest detail. The only limit is your imagination. Make an appointment with your local Porsche Centre to discuss your requirements. Alternatively let us know when you are booking your driving experience or event if you are interested in a personalisation consultation session.

Not uninterestingly, here is Porsche’s admission about why PPCs are an attractive idea:
cayenne_climb

“Helping enthusiasts feel and connect with their vehicle’s full potential through intelligent engineering has always been a part of the Porsche philosophy,” said Detlev von Platen, President and CEO of Porsche Cars North America. “Now, we are excited to turn dreams into reality for all driving enthusiasts by creating a safe, exhilarating environment for experiencing the pleasure of being in the driver’s seat.”

In other words, Porsche knows it is in the business of selling its customers way more car than can actually be used. Race cars sit in traffic jams just like 25 year-old jalopies, and draw huge tickets, license sanctions, and lawsuits, if “unleashed” on public roads. Luxury SUVs, as every maker knows, are almost never driven off-road. Hence, in order to “connect with their vehicle’s full potential,” Porsche’s privileged market needs access to playlands where speeding and hill-climbing can be done in closed, Disney-fied conditions.

The price of a Porsche Cayenne SUV, by the way? $48,200 to $107,100.

The price of one “Porsche Cayenne Driving Experience” at the English PPC?  £275.00, aka $440.  Lunch at the Porsche Restaurant?  £30 per person.

The ultimate cost of our overseers’ special blend of greed, childishness, and eco-social heedlessness?  You tell me…

Doing the Car Math

snake_pig 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.

Overclass Lexicon: “Public”

emperors_clothes 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.

Car Capitalists Hoarding Cash

cash_hoard Like the rest of their class, the automobile manufacturers are hoarding cash. Automotive News for October 10 cites a new study by IHS Automotive:

Car companies are holding a quarter-trillion dollars in cash and equivalents, says Charles Chesbrough, senior principal economist at the industry consultancy. And the overall cash-to-revenue ratio is a healthy 19.3 percent, insulating from them a financial crisis.

Leading the pack is Toyota Motor Corp., which is sitting on $42.2 billion, according to Chesbrough’s calculations. Volkswagen AG is a close second with $35.9 billion on the books.

And what of the bail-out recipients, the businesses that won’t be repaying the full amount of the free loans and purchases of radioactive stock they received from Bush and Zerobama?

GM, which went through a quick-rinse bankruptcy during the global financial meltdown, has $32.8 billion.

Chrysler’s cash holdings were rolled into Fiat’s for a total of $27 billion. And in a sign of their strength, Fiat leads the industry with the highest cash-to-revenue ratio, at 36.2 percent.

“Free enterprise.”