Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Forever Car

A recent thread (Methyl Hydrate) about fueling your car with alcohol to squeak by an emissions test touched on the morality of violating the spirit of a law intended to provide a healthier environment. The comments circled the mountain but failed to climb it. The real question has to do with the fact that transportation is a necessity of modern-day life and the role government plays in supporting that collective need. But before we can appreciate the ‘morality’ of something as arcane as gasoline versus alcohol we need to understand the fundamental basis for governments, for without that understanding the question of morality with regard to observing a rule imposed by government can have no foundation.

Governments don’t form themselves, they are formed by people in order to gain some advantage, usually to enhance their welfare by forming a group large enough to accomplish collectively what they can not achieve on an individual basis, such as defending their homes. The paradox of government is that the individual must always give up certain personal freedoms in order to enjoy the collective benefits.

The sad thing about governments is that most evolve into parasitic bureaucracies that eventually kill their host. Our founding fathers recognized this flaw and tried to insure against it by stressing certain ‘inalienable’ rights. Once it takes on a bureaucratic form government will eventually become so large that it must prey upon the people who created it in order to survive. Instead of being the servant of the people, government becomes their competitor and eventually, their adversary. but recent history shows all of those rights have been abridged by our government whenever it feels threatened.

The fact remains that we can not earn our livings nor enjoy our ‘inalienable’ rights without access to transportation, it is a collective need. In recognition of that fact we have used governmental powers to foster transportation, from the earliest canals to the latest space flights. Public transportation was very much a part of the overall plan, up until the end of World War II.

When I was a boy the light-rail system of southern California was one of the finest in the world. You could travel by streetcar from Riverside, California to Newport Beach, a distance of nearly a hundred miles for about seventy cents and every metropolitan area enjoyed the use of a similar system. The corruption that lead to the demise of that magnificent rail car systems is a matter of public record and serves as an object lesson for anyone foolish enough to trust an elected official. Or the morality of large corporations. Even more chilling is that having successfully raped the southern California light rail system, the same corporations and agencies repeated the process all across the country. Government and industry acted in concert to destroy an invaluable public asset, replacing it with a few buses and the concept of ‘personal’ transportation. Their motive was greed. Public outcry lead to investigations. and even a few trials in which corporations and government officials were found guilty of a variety of crimes. Their typical punishment was a warning, the maximum fine $5,000. What was good for General Motors was good for America. And to hell with the Americans.

In the nearly two generations since that time the public has been carefully trained to respond to the Pavlovian need for ‘personal’ transportation, squeezed into a succession of smaller and smaller boxes-on-wheels, brainwashed into believing they are doing the right thing. Today, the average American driver is firmly convinced that miles-per-gallon is the major factor in the cost of getting from here to there.

It’s all bullshit. Very carefully thought-out bullshit.

Personal transportation is a luxury, the cost rapidly approaching one dollar per mile. The major portion of that cost is spent buying your box-on-wheels, financing the money used to buy it, for insurance, licensing fees and other taxes. Fuel, oil, tires and maintenance makes up only about eight percent of the cost of personal transportation. Miles per gallon -- and emission standards -- are a bureaucratic joke.

The dollar-per-mile cost of personal transportation is nothing more than a monstrous scam. Car manufacturers, banks, insurance companies and the legions of politicians they have bribed are all parties to this scam. And you are the scam-ee. (Okay, it wasn’t a bribe it was a ‘political contribution.’ If you’re addicted to a diet of bullshit perhaps calling it chocolate pudding will make it taste better.)

The unfaithful stewards who have screwed the American public for so many years are haunted by the thought of old Volkswagens that cost only pennies per mile to run and seem to last forever, or by anyone bright enough to keep their car for five or ten years. Fortunately for them, most Americans aren’t very bright and our concept of history involves what we had for breakfast.

Want to guess what happens if you drop out of the dollar-per-mile cycle by keeping your vehicle for five or ten years?

Economic disaster, at least for the current crop of bean-counters. According to Consumer’s Union, people who drove the same car for ten years or more realized a ‘hidden’ income large enough to buy a new home. In the ‘worst’ case their hidden income was large enough to buy a new home and put two kids through college. This news did not play well in Detroit. Or Washington.

The late John Muir of “...Compleate Idiot” fame awakened me to the Forever Car theme more than thirty years ago. The intervening quarter-century has seen no change in the personal transportation scam or the fundamental ignorance of our society. Nor in the arguments such things engender. Most discussions about the benefits of keeping a car forever are quickly sidetracked by bean-counters who attack the figures, show them to be fallacious in a particular case and plaster that conclusion across the entire argument.

The deeper implications are never discussed and the typical car owner, bombarded with a constant barrage of slick propaganda, chooses the easy way out: they buy a new car every few years and dive back into the tube.

Want cleaner air? Get rid of the cars. Emission standards are akin to trying to cure cancer with aspirin. Want to drive for a penny a mile, own a nice home and put your kids through college? Keep your car forever.

Now, did someone mention morality.

-Bob Hoover

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