May 18, 2009

Land of Happy Motoring

This is kind of interesting - it's a graph, or Greendex, of public use of transportation by country.  Generally (in reading the graph), the more bluish a country's bar graph is, the more frequent is the use of public transportation. Russia ranks #1; the United States ranks last.

Of course, such graphs must be described and analyzed in a value-neutral way.  This graph does not, in my view, impugn Americans in any unique way for being energy hogs.  As you go down the list (to the Germans and French, say, who also don't score that well), you might well conclude that to the extent that a prosperous nation has a good highway or autobahn system, and can afford good autos, the less likely are its citizens to use public transportation. I've seen this myself in Germany - they have such great trains (I think the best in the world) - why do they drive so much?  But they do.  They prefer the convenience, the flexibility, and besides, trains are kind of expensive over there.

The United States, of course, is the apotheosis of the car culture.  Public transportation, except in some congested urban areas where cars are practically impossible to use (Manhattan, for example), Americans look upon as faintly distasteful, the result, perhaps, of bad choices in life.  In movies and popular songs, a bus ride is usually associated with either a period of bad luck ("Midnight Cowboy" or "The Trip to Bountiful") or a sense of being lost (Paul Simon's "America").  Bus stations are usually located in a part of the city where a respectable person wouldn't go for any other reason.  And since that's true, why go there for the bus?

So my view is that the most interesting thing about America is that, for the human species as a whole, we're always a leading indicator.  We're the fattest people on Earth, among the most poorly educated (versus other industrialized nations), the most sedentary, and the biggest energy hogs on the planet. In all these senses, I think we're the most "advanced."  We merely manifest or demonstrate what human beings tend to do and be when given the economic chance to be lazy.   We still own the best real estate in the world, a plenteous, resource-rich, varied, variegated sea-to-shining-sea Eden that many people the world over understandably covet.  We've treated this birthright like a toilet, of course, but that's another matter.  The point is that Americans, over the last 60 years or so, have simply done what any subset of uniquely blessed Homo sapiens would have done with the same advantages: we abused them.

That degenerative process actually underlies the "economic crisis" currently weighing Amurrica down.  While we glorify the Horatio Alger story, and praise the virtues of diligence and thrift, in truth all of that is actually a bummer.  Americans, for a brief period at least (about 20 years) figured out how to cannibalize the capital stock built diligently  up over generations by pledging it as collateral for debt.  We gave various names to this drift: "the Information Economy," the "Service Economy," etc., but what these euphemisms stood in for was the detrmination to get away from the grueling routine of manufacturing and farming jobs (which actually built the country) in favor of a kind of National Trust Fund Existence.

It actually worked for awhile, especially in those halcyon early days of the Bush Administration, about 2001 to 2005, where all regulatory oversight was dispensed with entirely (a process given a big boost by the Clinton Administration).  Lending and borrowing became the main industry in the country.  Alas, the laws of financial thermodynamics reasserted themselves in 2007 and the unwinding process began.  We're in the early stages of that.

As our fortunes sink, it will be interesting to see if our own bar graph above gets bluer.  Not out of virtue, of course, but because it may be the only way to get around.  In the end, that's the only reliable motivator of thrift and conservation - it must be thrust upon us.  It may soon be true that the only autos available for sale in the United States are foreign brands (although they may still be manufactured in the USA), and as the dollar sinks because of unsustainable federal trade and budget deficits, these autos will be out of reach for more and more former "trust fund babies."  

Cathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
Michigan seems like a dream to me now...

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