How many cars do we need?

Our economy continues to “correct” itself after decades of being artificially inflated by easy credit, poor saving habits, and superfluous spending. The government is attempting to ease the effects of this correction by replacing the suddenly prudent (i.e. risk-averse) credit market with its own. In this way, it forces more money into a system in dreadful need of cathartic reform and guarantees that America will continue to be more squeezed by debt payments than a newly minted Ivy League philosophy PhD … and with about as much a chance as her of ever paying the whole thing off [no offense to philosophers, but that isn’t the kind of degree you go into debt for; especially if you aren’t willing to do other work… the stars are beautiful, but falling into the well of poverty is far from wise].

While I found the first wave of financial bailouts distressing, the current talk about how to save the U.S. auto industry is equally depressing. The pattern of the debate is indicative of our unwillingness to come to terms with the unsustainable consumerist culture at the foundation of our economy. This culture isn’t just destroying our country, it is killing our people.

The Auto Industry: A Case Study in the Perils of Consumerism

Problem 1. Efficient at what?
Economists point out that cars have made our economy more efficient: capitalism benefits from the free movement of labor as much as it does the free movement of capital. A culture built around car ownership and supported by cheap gasoline allows individuals to move more efficiently through the labor market, allowing them to tremendously broaden the radius of their commuting range (FWIW, cheap credit did the same via the housing market by making it easy to move). They point out that we all benefit from having more individuals taking the jobs for which they are best suited because this allows companies to produce the things people want more efficiently. They will also point out that this allows people to make more of the money they deserve.

While all this is probably true as far as it goes, the market does not account for unintended consequences very well: the increased stress from long commutes, pollution, the sprawl of soul-less commuter subdivisions, the hollowing out of cities, and a general separation of individuals from one another and the satisfactions of true community. This last “externality” is the worst. Economists argue that the freer movement of labor will allow us to serve one another better through the strengthening of the “invisible hand”; but indirect satisfaction of a stranger’s wants is far from the kind of sanctifying service (“diakonia”) for which we were created.

Problem 2. The self-fulfilling rule of insatiability: how many cars do we need?
The combination of a strongly perceived “need” for transportation has combined with marketing manipulation and easy credit to lead us into a bizarre placewhere people will go into great debt to buy far more car than they need (a process they repeat with dizzying frequency). Drive around any suburb and count the number of car dealerships; try to estimate how many cars they have for sale. The fact that this seems natural shows that Gramsci was right (in his diagnosis, not his prescription): hegemony makes irrational and self-destructive behavior seem right as rain. One of the first things financial advisor Dave Ramsey asks debt-struck-callers-struggling-to-make-ends-meet is how much they owe on their cars. It quickly becomes clear that most of those in trouble risked their families’ welfare and their own health and security to buy cars they did not need. And they aren’t the only ones who have done this: everyone would have more money to spend on things that they really need and that would really improve their lives if they spent less on their cars. It just doesn’t make sense.

The automobile-market is based on the risky satisfaction of artificially-generated “needs”. Is it any wonder that the US automakers are hurting? Is it any wonder that they are so slow to change? Brainwashed consumers and banks willing to make risky loans protect them from having to adapt to objective (i.e. “real”) changes in the invironment. We laughed at the Communist market with jokes like “you pretend to work, and they pretend to pay you”; but our perversion of capitalism is equally laughable and almost as tragic. Its not just that we don’t save anymore, although that is certainly a large part of the problem (it can’t be good that a line of credit has replaced the savings account as the “emergency fund” of choice, and that finding favorable financing now seems wiser to most people than saving to pay cash). The health of our entire economy as presently structured is built on the dangerous foundation of easy credit; and propped up by a consumerist mentality that turns us into superficial caricatures of human persons with no sense of community, no sense of self-discipline, and no desire for anything but the next purchase-fix.


The irony should be obvious to everyone: we buy cars so that we can get better jobs so that we can spend more on even better cars (and McMansions). Another irony is that allegedly “conservative” Republicans join big-state, big-industry loving Democrats to support the kind of consumerism that is destroying everything true conservatives want to preserve. I wish that Republicans would spend more time reading Burke, Dreher, and Chesterton; that Democrats would spend more time reading Kropotkin; and that they would both spend more time reading St. John Chrysostom (and here, and here) and the Gospels.

I understand why we want to soften the impact of the crashing economy, but what we really need is the vision, intentionality, and strength to make sure the one we grow to replace it isn’t just internally efficient and sustainable, but designed to meet our true wants and needs as well.

PS On Stephen Roach wrote on this much better than I on 11/28 in his NY Times op-ed piece, “Dying of Consumption”.