With all my bombast about buying local, I have trouble when it comes to the big products like computers, refrigerators, farm equipment and the like. After all, I admit that my neighbor cant build me, say, a telephone or even a radio, and I use them every day, so how to decide where to vote with my dollars?
And, most majorly, theres the automotive issue. If I lived in a place that had good public transportation, problem solved. But were miles from a good paved road and hundreds of miles from a city.
So youd think Id be in line for a new American car. And by American I mean one made by one of Detroits big threeGM, Ford or Chrysler. I know there are plenty of foreign assembly plants in the South, and maybe theyve even got labor unions, but we should look at manufactured goods the same way we look at food and fiber. How much loyalty do the producers have to the principles, people and places we care about? Where are the decisions made about what goes into the product, how the workers are treated? What about the environment? And how far do the products travel to get here?
What if theres a deep, global recession, God forbid, and they need to downsize? Who gets cut? What communities suffer? Well, what would you cut if you were making the decisions?
And, if theres just a shallow, local recession and they have to just cut a little? What would you cut?
And, who gets their profits? Who holds their shares?
When it comes to the big industries, I think we need to keep them. So, you can call me protectionist, and how did that word get such a bad rap? But, for the purpose of this column American car means one of the big three.
Wait: Can we still call Chrysler one, now that Chryslers half Italian? OK, you win, one of the big two.
So lets say I need a new car, and Ive decided to shop for a GM or Ford. First, they need to build one for me. They need to show theyre listening, and not just to the NASCAR set. Me: the mom, grandma and errand runner.
Back in 2001, I bought a Japanese car, trading a Ford Explorer for a Honda Insight hybrid. It has been a trouble-free ride. We just rolled over 100,000 miles and celebrated her eighth birthday. With an average of 57.8 miles per gallon, I wont trade her in for a long time. The batteries are guaranteed for another 25,000 miles and, according to other Insight owners, shouldnt be a problem for miles after that.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I have another ride. My other vehicle is a Ford F-150 that gets slightly better mileage than the old Explorer got. We bought it for the farm because we need to haul stuff and pull trailers. And it has a club cab, so thats the four-seater I need now and then. We got it used and have added about 5,000 miles a year to the speedometer.
In purchasing the F-150, we tried every American truck available and studiously avoided the Honda and Toyotas because, yes, we were being protectionists. But Detroit made it as hard as possible, rolling out ever more behemoth vehicles. There was, under the Bush administration, a big tax credit for folks that bought ridiculously large trucks, even trucks with extra sets of wheels.
Call it the midlife crisis era of the American auto industry, when I see one of those parked on the street, I cant help but giggle at the way it sticks out from the curb. I couldnt get into one without a ladder. And forget about pulling something out of the truck bed without climbing into it! With women farmers the only healthy growth sector in the USDAs incessant surveys, youd think Detroit would get a clue and make something we can use!
Over the lifetime of my Honda, weve burned about 1,730 gallons of gasoline. I always fill up at the 10% ethanol pump, so I guess its really been 170 gallons ethanol and the balance in fossil fuel, and theres that unanswerable question about how much fossil fuel goes into each gallon of ethanol, but you get the picture.
Since about one-third of a cars lifetime energy use goes into building the thing, theres a point where it doesnt make sense, energy wise, to trade at all. I see a few of those old Ford Explorers on the road, but they havent aged well. If Id stayed in the Ford Explorer, getting around 15 mpg, Id have burned 6,900 gallons of gas. So, Ive saved 5,100 gallons, more or less. The price of gas was hovering around $1.25 in 2001, but then it started to creep up, and then to soar. Looking at the Department of Energy averages for each year, the lifetime average has been $2.17 per gallon, so, dollar-wise, Ive saved more than $10,000.
Not bad for a car that invoiced at $19,000. So, Detroit, come and get me. Make a car that beats what Ive got, and Ill sign on the dotted line.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009
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