The U.S. auto industry's Big Lie

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There has never been anything resembling serious public debate of basic U.S. transportation policy

Introduction by Ian Angus

Last week, Simon Butler and I wrote a article for Grist titled Is the environmental crisis caused by the 7 Billion or the 1%? It has been reposted on a variety of places, including the popular Drum Opinion site run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The article has attracted a lot of support — but also a lot of criticism, mainly from people who say that population is the real problem because people demand the goods and services that the corporations produce. If there were fewer people, the demand would go down, and the corporations wouldn’t have to generate so much pollution.

I responded to those arguments in Population, consumer sovereignty, and the importance of class, pointing out that customers actually have very little influence over what gets produced and how.

Shortly afterwards, Michael Dawson, author of the excellent book The Consumer Trap, published the following article in his blog, Death By Car. It provides a powerful and concrete illustration of why “consumer sovereignty” is a myth.


by Michael Dawson

Of all the Big Lies surrounding it, none is greater than the long-running claim that the American public independently demanded and continues to insist upon cars-first transportation. In this official view, the remarkable speed and unanimity of  governmental management and subsidy of the car’s reign are held to be signs of the overwhelming strength of the democratic will, rather than the clear primacy of overclass imperatives.

The problem, of course, is that there has never been anything resembling serious public debate of basic U.S. transportation policy since the perfection of the automobile in the early twentieth century. Search the historical record. None exists.

The insistence that governmental ramrodding of cars-first policies is democracy in action is, in actuality, a classic Big Lie. Who, to quote the car-pushing classical source, could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously? Since every policy is greased and every Congressional vote a landslide, who, indeed, would ever dare look into it?

If you doubt this interpretation, consider the latest piece of evidence: In a move undoubtedly calculated to place the argument in the mouths of entities that can be portrayed as “small businesses,” the nation’s automobile dealers, according to Automotive News, are “taking over” the fight against the Zerobama Adminstration’s proposed (and already watered down) rules mandating scheduled increased MPG standards for new cars.

Auto News, citing Reuters, reports:

“U.S. auto dealers are working to undo the Obama administration’s fuel efficiency agenda, replacing car companies that for years kept such mandates at bay with the help of allies in Congress.

“The car industry is facing dramatic new standards that would double efficiency targets to 54 miles per gallon by 2025, under an administration plan unveiled in July and set to be officially proposed in the coming weeks.

“Automakers have traditionally carried the torch for modest fuel efficiency mandates, arguing that aggressive targets could drive up vehicle cost, compromise safety, and limit consumer choice.

“But car executives agreed to the ambitious targets during negotiations this spring, going along with an administration that rescued the U.S. industry from collapse in 2009. General Motors and Chrysler owe their continued existence to Obama, and taxpayers still own a third of GM.

“Virtually all big automakers reluctantly agreed to the 2025 deal in the talks led by the White House, leaving dealers on their own to fight the new standards.

“Dealers are backing a Republican measure that would remove the influence of federal environmental regulators and the state of California in establishing national mileage standards.”

And how are the dealers packaging “their” efforts?

“‘This is a big jump, and we’d like to slow this process down and find out what’s working and what’s not,’ said Dave Westcott, who operates two North Carolina showrooms and is an executive with a trade group behind the delay effort. ‘We’d like the public to be in control of what they would like.‘”

So, what, pray tell, is actual public opinion on this topic?

“WASHINGTON (July 28, 2011)—Against a backdrop of sharp differences on a variety of current public policy issues, new polling by the Pew Clean Energy Program demonstrates strong support from American voters for immediate action on vehicle fuel economy.

“In a national survey of 1,000 likely 2012 likely general election voters (interviews were conducted by telephone July 8-12, 2011 using a national registration-based sample conducted for Pew by the bipartisan polling team The Mellman Group, Inc. and Public Opinion Strategies between July 8-12, 2011), 91 percent of Americans agree that dependence on foreign oil is a ‘very serious’ or ‘somewhat serious’ threat to U.S. security, with 61 percent indicating it is a ‘very serious’ threat. These views cut across demographic and partisan lines, with 65 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents identifying dependence on foreign oil as a “very serious threat” to national security.

“The polling results reinforce news reports of an ambitious proposed interim fuel economy rule agreement reached by the Obama administration, the auto industry and other stakeholders to improve fuel efficiency for cars and light-duty trucks in model years 2017-2025. The proposed standard is to be announced Friday, July 29, 2011.

“The survey found 82 percent of respondents support an increased fuel efficiency standard of 56 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025, with 68 percent who ‘favor strongly.’ Overwhelming majorities in every demographic subgroup support increased fuel efficiency to 56 mpg, including 70 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Democrats and 88 percent of independents.

“Voters across all regions also backed increasing fuel economy to 56 mpg, with 80 percent in the Northeast, 85 percent in the Midwest, 77 percent in the South and 86 percent in the West. Further, 92 percent of Americans believe it is either ‘very important’ (69 percent) or ‘somewhat important’ (23 percent) for the United States to take action now to increase fuel efficiency.”

If anything, since it excludes those not registered to vote and since registered voters tend to be wealthier and more conservative thanthe non-registered, these numbers are almost certainly an under-estimate of the actual state of public preference.

Such is the standard stuff of transportation dictatorship in America.

And for any who might construe this post as any kind of endorsement of Zerobama, let me remind you that the consciously accepted role of that operation is Pitchfork Catching. The proposed MPG rules, as I’ve said before, are a distraction. They were also built to be whittled down. No mainstream politician is allowed (or even inclined) to question, let alone threaten, the machine that lays the golden eggs.