Saturday, October 25, 2008

Smugmobiles


This column first appeared in Citybike in April, 2006

Of all the car buyers out there, eighty percent of the herd subscribes to the “safety in numbers” theory and chooses to not be noticed. For the other 20 percent, the auto industry has stepped in with a solution. In the last 10 years, a small number of cars, trucks and SUVs have bounced onto the market with freakish body shapes designed to allow the consumer some pre-packaged individuality. The Volkswagen New Beetle was a pioneer, but it was followed by cars like the Mini, the PT Cruiser and the weird and ugly HHR from GM.

As offensive as some of these designs are, no vehicle advertises “I’m an asshole” in quite the same way as the Hummer H2. This hideous monstrosity is actually a fake, a Chevrolet Suburban with a fantasy body kit. Under the skin, it has about as much in common with a military HMMWV (nobody who has actually been in the military says “hummer” unless they are requesting oral sex) as Bruce Willis does with Mohandas Ghandi. It’s of limited value off-road and has less interior room than a lot of minivans. It’s also ridiculously expensive at $53,000.

What are Hummer owners paying a premium for? Image. An image that says, “look at me, I know this vehicle is making you angry, and I’m going to drive it anyway. Because negative attention is at least some kind of attention.” Usually with these rolling psychology experiments having three tons of ugly chrome and plastic isn’t enough; the subject has to add some kind of other touch to piss off anybody to the left of George Wallace. Look for “support our troops” ribbons, “Bush-Cheney ’04” bumper stickers and maybe even one of those fake chrome propellers in the trailer hitch.

They know how enraged their vehicle makes other drivers, yet they freely and proudly drive them around. The joke’s on them, of course; they depreciate faster than sushi and guzzle gas like Ted Kennedy at a scotch tasting. Only an inflated sense of smugness could explain such behavior.

This level of sanctimonious prickery is only matched by the Prius driver. Oh, Prius driver, did you think you would get off so easily? You’re just as smug and guilty of wasting resources in the name of vanity as Dittohead Hummer guy.

A hybrid car like the Prius uses an incredible amount of resources to manufacture. Bigger batteries, more plastic, more electronics; they all add up. Making stuff like plastic, aluminum and nickel-hydride uses billions of gallons of water and thousands of megawatts of energy. That takes fossil fuel – natural gas, oil and coal – and raw materials. In the end, building a Prius instead of a Hummer H2 might have a slightly smaller impact, but not much. It doesn’t matter if you strip mine for GM or Toyota, you’re still left with a big hole. Compare the total environmental impact — including mining the materials, shipping the car, driving it and servicing it for 10 years, and then dismantling and disposing of the waste -- of a Prius against a Honda Civic and you might not feel so green.


This kind of smug eliteism is akin to those advocates of organic farming who can somehow afford to spend six bucks for a pound of tomatoes at Whole Foods. Not everybody can afford a soymilk and boca-burger diet; just like not everbody can afford to spend an extra ten grand to save $400 a year on gas.

The militantly smug Prius folks know their purchases irritate those who buy less fuel-efficient vehicles. They rub it in by adding stereotypical bumper stickers exhorting us to save whales, harp seals, Tibet, or Al Gore. They drive with the smugness of one who is convinced that they have found their cake and can eat it as well. Too bad that when you factor in purchase price, depreciation, maintenance and other factors, a Prius owner will only save about $500 over the life of the car compared to the owner of a Corolla.

The worst thing about any smugmobile is that it is government subsidized. Hummers enjoy the equipment depreciation write-off that is reserved for heavier trucks and SUVs, and the Prius (as well as other hybrids) gets to take advantage of not just a generous tax credit, but also use carpool lanes with just a single occupant in California.

Of course, the smugness of Prius and Hummer owners pales in comparison to the smugness of the motorcyclist. Nothing stands out in traffic like a motorcycle does, and we’re so used to getting 40-plus miles per gallon that we actually do stuff to make it worse, like re-jetting carbs or changing our gearing. That’s why I don’t need a Prius to tell people I’m a hypocrite. From the sound of my open Remus exhaust they can tell from miles away.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why I Hate America

I can understand why conservative ying-yangs like Sarah Palin and that crazy lady at the McCain rally who said Obama was an Arab think we liberals hate America. We certainly hate a lot of American stuff, like Winnebagos and frozen pizza and pro wrestling, while liking a lot of foreign stuff like Volvos, Le Creuset bakeware and Yoga.

One thing lefties have always stayed away from are American-built vehicles. In my family of liberal Jews, owning an American car would have elicited an intervention (exception: my Grandpa Carl, who had a pathological attachment to Oldsmobiles. Perhaps the siren song of crushed velour...) I don't really understand why, anymore than I understand why Temecula and Roseville are seemingly populated only by enormous 4 X 4 pickup trucks. It's just what people do.

So if you are a conservative reading this, allow me to be predictable by hopping up and down with excitement at the thought of not one, not two, but all three of the US automakers going bankrupt by the end of 2009. Hopefully, the factories will be used for something productive and the autoworkers--among the last union jobs in America--will be employed in a different industry, hopefully making solar panels or wind turbines.
Why will I be so happy to see them go? Hey, I grew up watching Dukes of Hazard and the wife and I own (or are at least happily upside-down on) a Ford Focus, which is a pretty frigging good car for the money, if I say so myself. Also, my best pal Kenyon runs a most impressive site chronicling all things Chrysler Imperial. So I have a love for the heritage of Detroit Iron.
But since the mid-70s, the leadership of these companies has been so greedy, so stupid, so duplicitous--to the public, to their workers, to their shareholders--that those companies (pale shells of the companies that won WWII and invented tail fins and the muscle car) deserve to just die quiet, whimpering deaths.

They had their chances, dozens of them. The Clinton administration gave them billions to develop hybrids almost 15 years ago. Toyota and Honda did it--without government subsidy! Electric car? GM did it, then crushed them all when the State of California yielded to lobbyist pressure to end its zero-emissions mandate. Big 3's solution to global warming, the war in Iraq and the end of cheap oil? Lie to the public and bully and bribe the government to pretend there's no problem.

Well, guess what? Party's over. No more subsidies, no more bailouts, no more buyouts from suckered European companies. The end is near, dinosaurs. At 40, I'm used to the companies coming to the brink of death, then getting bailed out, only to return to their shitty ways after making one or two decent cars.
It will be a sign of the times, and maybe a wake-up call to Americans that things have changed, forever, and we're not going back.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hey Mr. W Sticker!


This is a little blast from those glorious days of 2004.

Hey, guy with the W sticker on your truck. Yes, I’m talking to you. I notice you look like you might be between the ages of 18 and 42. I can also tell by the way you carry yourself, or by your facial hair, that you are not in the military right now.

Follow me to the nearest US Armed Forces Recruiting Center. I’ll make sure you’re introduced to a recruiter from a branch of your choice. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard, they are all fine institutions with proud and glorious histories. I’m sure you support them as you have that inevitable yellow ribbon magnet you bought at Wal-Mart alongside your “W” sticker. And there’s no better way to support our troops than to take a place alongside them in Iraq or Afghanistan. A lot of these folks have spent very little time with their families over the last three years and would love for you to take a spell in their Humm-v or bunker so they can go home for a while.

What? You don’t want to join the military? I don’t understand! Since you left that sticker on your car, you must be proud of your choice for president in 2004, and you must fully support his policy of fighting a global “war” on terrorism with an all-volunteer military, right? And you know that the military can only meet its recruiting goals now by lowering its quotas, which means the military is experiencing a severe manpower shortage right now. Do you support our troops or not?

You have a bad knee, huh? Oh, and a bad back, too? Well, I don’t see a handicap placard hanging from your mirror, and it looks like you get yourself around pretty good. There are plenty of soldiers in right now with very severe injuries and handicaps. Some are even mission limbs. Just lie on your entry physical. That’s what recruiters are telling folks to do, anyway. As long as you can walk in a straight line and run for more than two miles, I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Oh, you have kids, huh? So do most of the people in the military right now! Are you more important than they are? Is your fatherhood somehow more valuable than the hundreds of thousands of fathers (and mothers) serving right now? Most of the moms and dads fighting your war for you would rather be here in the Target parking lot arguing with me, I’m sure.

You say you are really needed in your job? About 60% of the people fighting your war for you are reservists. They were taken from their jobs and from college so they could supposedly make YOU safer. Ironically, many local fire and police departments are understaffed because of troop deployments, which I think would hamper local communities efforts dealing with natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Federal law will ensure you are re-hired when you get back, with the same wages and benefits.

It just sounds to me like you don’t want to go fight in this Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism. Does that mean it’s not important to you? I mean, if you don’t go to fight this war, who is supposed to fight and risk their life in your place? Me? I’ll go, but I think everybody who thought this was a good idea and supported the war and the president should go first. Then there should be a draft, and if I’m selected, I’ll go. But you first, please.

Our soldiers in Vietnam felt abandoned by the American people because they were fighting an unpopular war. And if you’re a soldier in the field, it doesn’t matter if people back home are ideologically opposed to the war or just apathetic about the whole thing. Out of the millions of military-aged men and women who both voted for George W. Bush, and by extension, this endless War on Terror, only a tiny, tiny percentage of them joined the military to participate in their war. What kind of message does this send to our troops? If you ask me, it’s a worse one than one of active opposition. At least the antiwar movement has an opinion.

Here’s the message I see from chickenhawks like you: only a sucker actually fights in a war. Ha, ha! Or how about this: I’m much more important and indispensable than the idiots who actually were dumb enough to go fight this war. Here’s another one: you guys go fight this war...I’ll be right behind you, as soon as it’s over.

Obviously, I’m against the war. I was firmly against it before it started. I thought it was just about the worst possible avenue for our foreign policy, and I grieve for a generation of servicemembers who will come home damaged, spiritually, psychologically and physically. War is an ugly thing. It’s personal and viscous. It destroys on many levels. To ask someone to fight in a war you are unwilling to fight in yourself is cowardly and wrong. It’s like asking someone to care for your sick relative, or to clean up your vomit. To have to inform people of this fact reveals a level of ethical bankruptcy I didn’t even think existed. It’s like asking a friend to donate a kidney to your mom when you have a perfectly good one you could spare.

You have three options, in my mind. One, you can join the military. If you don’t want to get your delicate and oh-so-valuable body injured, try to join a branch where you will probably not be exposed to too much personal risk, like the Navy or Air Force. Two, you can join the peace movement and support our troops by getting them home, out of harm’s way.

Three? You can move to another country. Move to a country where it’s acceptable for the fortunate and well-off to send young men and women to die for their whimsical decisions. We don’t need or want your kind here.