John Buell

The Romance of the Auto

Reading about another tragic life-altering car crash here in my coastal Maine community reminded me of an old newspaper headline. Ten years ago a newspaper in Saskatchewan, which has a population slightly less than Maine’s, ran an eye-popping headline: “165 People Killed! 7,562 Injured! Over $100,000,000 in Property Damage! Provincial Government Helpless! Expects Same Carnage Next Year!” Were its residents worried about Gulf Coast hurricanes veering off course? No, the headline refers to the cumulative annual damage from the province’s “meat grinder transportation system.”

When I cite such stories, some bloggers and email correspondents criticize me for “loathing” the auto. I have, however, no desire to eliminate autos. My goal is to expand the range of our choices and broaden our perspectives on those choices.

Milton Friedman famously celebrated our market economy for the freedom of choice it guarantees. This freedom is, however, significantly limited. For my conveyance I can choose from a dizzying array of SUVs, minivans, crossovers, hybrids, etc. In most Maine towns, however, I cannot choose a public vehicle for work or shopping or leisure destinations.

Critics respond that buses are not marketed because consumers have voted with their pocket books for cars. Only quirky elitist intellectuals like me seek public alternatives. And the only way we can achieve that would be to tax our neighbors and subsidize buses.

That reply is powerful and not completely wrong, but it would carry more weight if our “market” for transportation were truly free. Tax and budgetary priorities are loaded with perks that deflate the cost of vehicle use. Writing in Foreign Policy in Focus, Mark Engler cites studies by former Reagan adviser Mark Copulos, who argues: “if you add to oil-related defense spending such factors as the economic impact of periodic oil supply disruptions and the opportunity costs of money spent on oil imports that might have been used elsewhere …, the “hidden” costs of the US dependence on petroleum would total up to $825 billion per year … adding $8.35 to the price of a gallon of gasoline …” This analysis excludes the greenhouse effect. Even if greenhouse concerns are a UN conspiracy to impose socialism on America, there are orthodox economics reasons to tax petroleum much more heavily.

Would dramatic increases in gas prices diminish reliance on the auto? Probably not as much as I would hope. The auto is part of a culture war as well as an economic one. It is a cultural icon and thus is not subject to the same critical scrutiny afforded other products or life styles. Had an invading army inflicted half the damage alluded to in the Canadian headline, it would have been nuked into the Stone Age.

As portrayed in commercials we absorb almost from birth, the high-tech auto is a symbol of our ability to transcend natural limitations or paradoxically to return to a pristine wilderness. (How many ads portray cars in traffic jams rather than floating airily through space?)

The auto is also implicated in our class politics. Many young middle-class professionals now work long hours in highly inegalitarian workplaces. The expensive, showy car is both a reward for and tool of success. Even at the local level, God forbid a high-end Realtor take her/his clients around in an older model Chevy.

Buses are definitely coded lower class. Many high school students work long hours at menial jobs to scrape together money for a car. Far from being merely practical, it is a cultural symbol of successful adulthood.

I suspect the auto will continue to wreak its damage unless we can both mount a campaign to subject it to genuine market costs and develop narratives and imagery that celebrate more free time, relaxed travel experiences with opportunities to explore the scenery, more access to less crowded towns and cities. An imposing task, but merely reminding citizens about BP or the $3 trillion war probably won’t cut it.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2010

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