Kunstler's latest blog
- September 29 2003
What really allowed America to become a car-addicted society was the democracy of it. By the late 20th century, virtually anybody who wanted a car could get one, from the richest computer nerd tycoon to the lowliest Burger King floor-mopper. And, most importantly, everybody in between. The ethos for this really began when Henry Ford made the decision (outrageous in its time) around 1915 to pay his assembly line workers five dollars a day. That was a fat wage back then, and Ford did it explicitly to enable his workers to buy cars (and to prompt other manufacturers to do likewise). The price of the ubiquitous Model-T dropped steadily into the 1920s until one could be bought (on the installment plan) for around $280. This set the tone for the whole American Dream drive-in utopia program that followed.
The boom of the 1920s was all about the money generated by cars, and their accessories, and retrofitting the landscape and our cities to accomodate them. During the 1920s, car ownership became progressively broader. The effect of cars of the rural south was tremendous. Cars (and hydroelectric power) began to stir a geographically huge region of near serfdom from a century-long coma. The Great Depression and World War Two interrupted this process for fifteen years (1930 - 1945), but when it was over, and the other industrial nations of the world lay in ruins, and an intact America could sell anything it made (and lend others money to but it), an interesting thing happened: we developed the richest and broadest middle class that the world every saw. Factory workers were not only unionized, but the military elan acquired in the war added to the unions' potency. By the 1960s, Ford assembly line line workers were making more money than college professors.
Suburbia was their reward for winning the war: the antidote to the industrial city, life in a simulacrum of the rural countryside. The whole package: decent wages on a guaranteed job, house in the 'burbs, affordable cars, bacame the American Dream, the lifestyle that George HW Bush later declared to be non-negotiable. Well, history has a way of undermining bold declarations like that.
In the outsourced, oil-poor, indebted America that we have become, the national lifestyle had better become negotiable. The mother-of-all-trends is a steep decline in the standard of living in America, meaning a lot of personal economic hardship and suffering. As this happens, the whole car-ownership picture will become progressively less democratic. The grand entitlement of the American Dream will dissolve. Some of the losers will battle fiercely to hold onto their fading entitlements, perhaps electing maniacs to keep the program going at any cost, perhaps fighting in the streets (or the malls!) Others perhaps will slide passively into economic despondency and desperation. As this happens, the colossal armature of the drive-in life -- the ubiquitous sprawl and its accoutrements -- will start to disintegrate. It won't be repairable. We will be too insolvent to replace it. And it won't be worth replacing anyway in a post-cheap oil world. The consensus about how we live in this country will disintegrate with it.
I took my 1992 Toyota pickup truck into the shop for its yearly inspection last week and I'm looking at around $800 in bills to repair the brakes and something in the front end called the swaybar bushings. I'm am very fortunate because I can cover that, at least this year. I'm lucky because I hardly have to drive the damn thing. It only has 79,000 miles on it after eleven years. (I'm also lucky to be living near the center of a small main street town where I can walk or ride a bike to get the things I need.) What about someone else lucky enough to have a steady job who is just getting by from paycheck to paycheck, and unlucky enough to be stuck in the 20th century American dream of the suburbs, where driving is mandatory-- where you lose your car and it's, like, game over, Charlie -- and he gets an $800 bill and there's just no money for it??
I suppose the short answer is that a lot of people put car repairs on their credit cars, along with other mounting bills, and incrementally you get a nation full of financially ruined individuals and families (and ultimately a financially ruined nation).
So, my larger question -- or is it just a notion? -- of the day is this: is there some way that the idea of the American Dream can be detached from this pernicious mania for cars? The New Urbanists have had a pretty good solution for the past decade: redirect our collective desires toward the idea of community, especially as manifested in the physical form of neighborhoods and towns that are worth living in. But the psychology of previous investment is an awful obstacle to overcome. And many Americans have shown an amazing active hostility to even the most reasonable and emotionally appealing suggestions for change.
Meanwhile, driving will become less democratic every day as fewer people can afford those ordinary $800 repair bills. And, of course, the coming oil clusterfuck will complicate matters greatly. What percentage of dis-entitled car-owners and former motorists will it take to reach a "tipping point?" 17 percent? 23 percent? 31 percent? At what point do large number of Americans decide that they don't want to pay to repair all the automobile infrastructure so that the lucky remaining motorists can enjoy motoring on it? Where is the national leadership thinking about these questions and articulating it for a sinking public?
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- James Howard Kunstler writes:
| What really allowed America to become a car-addicted society
| was the democracy of it. By the late 20th century, virtually
| anybody who wanted a car could get one, from the richest
| computer nerd tycoon to the lowliest Burger King floor-mopper.
=v= That's not quite true. While (as he goes on to describe)
the middle class expanded along with auto use, there has always
been a "lowliest" class that couldn't afford cars.
=v= There's a sort of chaotic randomness to this, where this or
that "lowliest" person in this or that locale might be able to
handle owning a car, but that's not entirely democratic.
=v= (Illich's "Energy and Equity" cuts to the chase about what
is most democratic, of course.)
- Well, that's true, although you allude to the fact that the US has more
lower class people using cars than other places. If things keep going as
they are, there won't be much of a middle class left, anyway. Kuntsler's
point is valid, though. Something has to give sooner or later. Trying to
get 300 hundred million people into 200 hundred million cars is a ridiculous
concept. The US will pull it off for a few more years, and then we'll find
out exactly where Kunstler's "tipping point" really is. If you remove the
cost of excess automobile ownership from US per capita GDP, you find that
western Europe has higher income than the US. Think of the money that could
have been saved if America's elite hadn't made the mindless, fatal choice to
motorize the entire country. I think we're all victims now of what Kunstler
calls the previous investment trap.
>From Kunstler on Orion, Big and Blue in the USA:This particular American Dream more and more looks suspiciously like a
previous investment trap -- we've sunk so much of our national wealth into a
particular way of doing things that we're psychologically compelled to
defend it even if it drives us crazy and kills us.
----- Original Message -----
From: "Jym Dyer" <jym@...>
Sent: Tuesday, September 30, 2003 12:04 PM
Subject: Re: [carfree_cities] Kunstler's latest blog
> James Howard Kunstler writes:
> | What really allowed America to become a car-addicted society
> | was the democracy of it. By the late 20th century, virtually
> | anybody who wanted a car could get one, from the richest
> | computer nerd tycoon to the lowliest Burger King floor-mopper.
> =v= That's not quite true. While (as he goes on to describe)
> the middle class expanded along with auto use, there has always
> been a "lowliest" class that couldn't afford cars.
> =v= There's a sort of chaotic randomness to this, where this or
> that "lowliest" person in this or that locale might be able to
> handle owning a car, but that's not entirely democratic.
> =v= (Illich's "Energy and Equity" cuts to the chase about what
> is most democratic, of course.)
> To Post a message, send it to: carfree_cities@...
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- =v= Overall I agree with Kunstler's points; I just don't think
it's quite correct to call the effect "democratizing" when
it's always excluded certain people -- often by race and/or
location. The *illusion* of democratizing is achieved by a
chaotic, seemingly random distribution of power, and that's
fooled a lot of people in the U.S. for a very long time.