Something like a week remains before General Motors is
reduced to lunch meat 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 the swamp of entropy already occupied by the
tattoo-for-lunch-bunch. Of course, this has plenty of dire
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
My 2008 novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available in paperback at all booksellers.
Something like a week remains before General Motors is
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