General: April 2003 Archives

My friend Glenn and I went to the New York Auto Show yesterday. I go every year, I suppose just to keep tabs on what the selection will look like should I ever decide to own a car again. Besides, I grew up in Detroit, before it self-destructed, where I was actually a sucker for imports (MG TDs, Citroens, even NSUs and Fiat 500s) by the time I was ten. Also, the guys wandering around are cute, as are the smart women, of virtually all ages, hired to talk to the cute guys about the cars.

Well, Glenn and I had fun, and he was definitely keen on the fine VW Beetle cabriolet, but I confess I couldn't find anything at any price that would look good on me. Even the one possible exception of a beautiful, and surprisingly practical, Audi cabriolet was no real temptation, since I'm actually not willing to spend that "any price" on a car just now, especially one of $38,000. Maybe I could go for a Polo or Jetta cabriolet, if they ever send one over. Well, I do live in the rapidly disappearing land of public transportation, so I can still afford to be pure about car ownership.

To be honest, Barry and I would probably spring for some new wheels if anything truly worthy, exciting, and reasonably appropriate to our world were ever to be allowed into this country. The Smart would do it, although our friends would have to stay at home. Ok, the little Mercedes A-Class (a Smart with a back seat) would be my second choice.

But what is the selection Americans actually get to choose from? We see only dummed-down versions of the largest and most expensive products of Europe, uninspired, consumer-survey-designed bores from Asia, and the sad, unmemorable, bloated losers from our own drawing boards. I'm not even talking about the abominable insult to taste and conscience represented by the trucks, whether pickup or SUV!

What's the American auto show circuit news in these, the years of the imperial oil wars? The next big thing is the big, meaning bigger, and in fact the biggest gosh darn sedans and truck-tanks Detroit, even Maybach, has ever imagined. I mean, they're talking ten and sixteen cylinders and up to 1,000 horsepower. [My first car, a prize 1962 Beetle had 40hp, and my beloved previously-owned 1960 Porsche 356B had an entirely adequate 70.*]

A NYTimes "Editorial Observer" piece on the Auto Show begins with
a description of a "dream," or "concept," car which actually does try to relate to the planet we share with others. What does it say about industry priorities that yesterday I never noticed a car answering the very "green" description found in the editorial? I only saw what looked like another SUV, if somewhat downsized, and I passed it by.

At the New York auto show, Ford has an interesting little vehicle on display. It is sort of an ultimate green machine — fueled by hydrogen, lubricated by cornflower oil, rolling on tires made of corn, built with panels of soy. I can imagine waking up one morning to find my ride being devoured by groundhogs. Ford calls it the Model U, invoking a pioneering, back-to-basics machine. Fascinating but very lonely.

All around are vehicles that, in the absence of groundhogs, look intent on eating the Model U for breakfast. . . . This is what the folks are really here to see: fantasies, toys, nostalgia, horsepower and more horsepower.

The car has always been the ultimate American dream machine. We love to hate them, to love them and to analyze why we love or hate them. Yes, we drive them, too, but that is never really been a big deal in America. We do not really go for all that gear-shifting, twisting-road European stuff. We prefer to race around oval tracks or down a straight quarter-mile. Besides, there is just not that much you can do droning on an Interstate or crawling up the Henry Hudson, except listen to the radio. Our constant has always been the car as accessory, as image, as fantasy, as identity. It is a jet plane with fins, a fighting vehicle, a machine that is "sexy and powerful," a truck yearning for the wilderness.

Actually, I think the Times writer, Serge Schmemann, is being too gentle on us. America's attitude toward the automobile is more than superficial, from top to bottom, it's fundamentally unconscionable.


* For the two people out there who care about such things, the Porsche was replaced, when it needed a major valve job, with a delicate aluminum Lancia Fulvia Zagato, and that Italian exotic was joined (finally!) by a little blue FIAT Cinquecento paisan. Both were retired for an eccentric white South African (rhd) Citroen GS, which was itself succeeded by a delightful bouncy Renault 5 (not a "Le Car!") with a fold-back sunroof as big as all outdoors. My last little gasoline friend, a black fireplug of a 1984 Volkswagen GTI, was abandoned while still very young, when I moved to New York and began my long-term relationship with the subway system.

In today's anniversary memorial to both the pragmatism and the idealism of the 1930's the NYTimes seems to say it's the latter.

On April 6, 1933, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have made the standard work week 30 hours. Anything more would be overtime.

The bill passed by the Senate was an effort to reduce a national unemployment rate that stood at 25 percent. It had strong support from labor and religious leaders who argued that working people needed time for family, education, recreation and spirituality as much as they needed higher wages. But the bill failed in the House. The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed five years later, gave Americans a statutory 40-hour workweek.

The report goes on to say that while American productivity is now several times what it was 70 years ago, most of us still find it hard to get our work done in 40 hours, and millions are without work altogether.
What happened? In effect, the United States as a society took all of its increases in labor productivity in the form of money and stuff instead of time. Of course, we didn't all get the money; the very poor earn even less in real terms than they did then, and the largest share of the increase went to the richest Americans.

The harmful effects of working more hours are being felt in many areas of society. Stress is a leading cause of heart disease and weakened immune systems. Consumption of fast foods and lack of time for exercise has led to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Many parents complain that they do not have enough time to spend with their children, much less become involved in their community. Worker productivity declines during the latter part of long work shifts.

To put this in perspective, we could look at the picture in Europe. Because of differences in workweek hours and vacation time, Americans now labor a full nine weeks more each year than Western Europeans.
. . . over the past 30 years, Europeans have made a different choice — to live simpler, more balanced lives and work fewer hours. The average Norwegian, for instance, works 29 percent less than the average American — 14 weeks per year — yet his average income is only 16 percent less. Western Europeans average five to six weeks of paid vacation a year; we average two.

Work and consumption are not necessarily bad. But producing and consuming can become the focus of a person's life — at the expense of other values.

And now with fears fanned by a radical nationalist regime since September 11, the freedoms which have always been the most worthy blessings of American society are being traded for an illusory security. What can we offer ourselves, or anyone outside who might manage to make it through the walls surrounding the new fortress America, but more stuff we never have time to appreciate? In the end is that all that will remain of the idea of America?

This page is an archive of entries in the General category from April 2003.

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