Waking Up from the Happy Motoring Dream
Something like a week remains before General Motors is reduced to lunchmeat on industrial-capital’s All-You-Can-Eat buffet spread. The wish is that its deconstructed pieces will re-organize into a “lean, mean machine” for producing “cars that Americans want to buy,” and that, by extension, the American Dream of a Happy Motoring economy may be extended a while longer.
This fantasy rests on some assumptions that just don’t “pencil out.” One is that the broad American car-owning public can continue to buy their cars the usual way, on credit. The biggest emerging new class in America is the “former middle class.” Credit kept the remnants of the middle class going for decades after their incomes stopped growing in the 1970s. Now, their incomes have stopped coming in altogether and they are sinking into swamp of entropy already occupied by the tattoo-for-lunch-bunch. Of course, this has plenty of dire sociopolitical implications.
Unfortunately, the big American banks did their biggest volume business in their biggest loans at the very time that that the middle class was on its way to becoming former. Now that the former middle class is arriving at its destination, the banks are so damaged by bad paper that they won’t make loans to even the remnant of the remnant of the middle class. In other words, the entire model for financing Happy Motoring is now out-of-order, probably permanently.
Even assuming some Americans can continue buying cars one way or another, I’m not convinced that we can make the kinds we fantasize about. Notice, nobody talks about hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars anymore. Why not? Because the technicalities and logistics could not be overcome at the scale required — i.e. at the current scale of mass highway motoring and commuting. Sure, you could build a demonstration vehicle and run it around a test track a few times, but could you build a mass production car by the tens of millions that would run for 150,000 miles without a hugely expensive fuel cell change-out? No, at least not within the time-window that the liquid hydrocarbon fuel problem presented. Or could you construct a hydrogen fuel station (and product delivery) network replacing the old gasoline stations? Fuggeddabowdit. Hydrogen, as an element, was just too hard to move and contain. It’s teeny-weeny atoms leaked out of valves and gaskets remorselessly and you couldn’t pack enough into a tanker truck to make the trip to its destination worthwhile. Schemes to generate hydrogen on-board all ended up in the “perpetual motion” sink.
The current wish is that the dregs of GM and Chrysler will hire low-paid elves with no pension or health benefits and pump out hybrid and/or electric cars. It’s conceivable that we could “reverse-engineer” a Prius or an Insight, but considering what a lousy job American car companies did on reverse-engineering everything that Japan or Germany pumped out over the past thirty-five years, the odds are pretty high that these new products will be just lame enough to fail against the established competition. What’s more, they also present logistical and technical problems. For the hybrid, gasoline is still an issue (and Jevon’s Paradox comes into play: the more efficient you make a means for using a resource, the more of that resource you will use). For both the hybrid and the electric car, the issue of how to get enough lithium for the batteries obtains, at least for now, given the current state-of-the-art battery technology. Most of this rare metal now comes from one place, Bolivia, and everybody wants “a piece” of it. Electric vehicles in large numbers depend on either coal or nuclear powered electric generation, each presenting special hazards. Both hybrids and electric cars would depend on the old installment loan purchase system — at least to work in the current mode of suburban living, long-range commuting, and interstate highway travel.
Boone Pickens’s plan of last year for converting the US car fleet to natural gas was another fantasy with wide appeal. But it depended on the companion fantasy of building massive wind-farm infrastructure on the great plains to shift natural gas use from power plants to vehicles, and the financial crisis has destroyed the capital necessary to even begin planning that project — it even destroyed a large part of Mr. Pickens own capital reserves. Anyway, I would not be so sanguine about the long-term future of the shale gas plays that this scheme was based on. The depletion rates of these wells is horrendous and the amount of steel needed to keep production up is not consistent with the realities of the available infrastructure.
All the technologies under consideration are not likely to extend the Happy Motoring era. A prayerful reflection on them can only reinforce the specialness of oil and its byproducts — cheap oil double-specially — as well as reinforcing the reality that the cheap energy era itself is over. And, of course, in the play of events over the past several years we can see the relationship between cheap energy and easy credit, and how our entire economy has run aground, one way or another, on resource limits.
The implications of all this in the sociopolitical and geopolitical realms are pretty daunting. As long as we maintain Happy Motoring as the normal mode of existence in this country, we are going to see an ever-growing class of very resentful citizens pissed off at being foreclosed from it. In my oft-repeated scheme-of-things, this leads very quickly to the trap of political extremism, perhaps even corn-pone Naziism, as the system becomes increasingly difficult to prop up except by force. In geopolitical terms it leads to ever more dangerous international contests over the world’s remaining oil reserves.
All this leads to two conclusions.
One is to accept the fact that the Happy Motoring era is over and to devote our remaining resources to re-localization, walkable communities, and public transit. It obviously requires a very drastic revision of our current collective self-image, of what we aspire to and who we are. If the car companies have any future at all, it should be based on making the rolling stock for public transit — and for now the most intelligent choice for us is to fix the existing passenger railroad lines instead of venturing into grandiose new transit systems requiring stupendous capital outlays. Let the car era wind down gracefully. Triage and prioritize the highway maintenance agenda — we won’t be affluent enough to keep repaving the whole existing system — and let other nations meet the diminishing demand for cars in the USA. This would be a “best case” scenario. (Other nations may decide to go further up the Happy Motoring road at their own eventual peril.)
My second conclusion is not so appetizing, namely that the bankruptcy of General Motors may set in motion a chain of events that will accelerate the destructive unwind of the bad credit economy, the damage to our bond values, the loss of faith in our currency, and the authority and legitimacy of our leaders. This last dire outcome might be allayed if, say, President Obama directed his policy efforts to the items in the paragraph above, that is, a reality-based agenda for true change in how we live — but who can feel confident about that happening these days? Maybe it will take a horrifying chain of events to get Mr. Obama there. And then, tragically, he may be overwhelmed by the chain of events itself. I hope not.