Driven to Tears
by Yves Engler
May 2, 2004

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We’ve been driven crazy.

That’s the only possible explanation for the Statistics Canada report this week that Canadians spent $27 billion on car purchases in February, a monthly record. Last week the same government body said car-related spending ($114.1 billion) made up 36% of total retail spending in 2003, nearly twice as much as the $69.3 billion spent on food and beverage, the next highest retail spending category. And Canada is only the world’s second most car dependent country, after our southern neighbors.

According to Forbes magazine’s 2004 survey of the world’s 2000 largest corporations, five of the top twelve are car companies and five are oil companies. The biggest company, WalMart, is completely dependent on cars to bring customers to its huge, mostly suburban stores.

How did North Americans get to the point where more than one in three retail dollars are spent on cars? Car enthusiasts would say it is because people love cars and they are an efficient form of transportation. But the real story is more complicated.

While it is true that many of us are attached to our cars, people also complain about time spent in traffic and commuting, not to mention the costs of purchasing and maintaining a car. Noise and air pollution from cars is also disliked. Very few of us like to live beside a freeway. The reality is we “need” cars for work, shopping, taking the kids to soccer etc.

And the argument that cars are efficient — ignoring ecological realities — is only remotely reasonable when roads and other car infrastructure are present. Compared to what are cars efficient? Consider if instead of spending $114 billion on cars, Canadians took the equivalent of two-thirds of that time off work and spent the other third on other forms of transportation. Wouldn’t that be much more efficient from a human point of view?

Do the math on all the time spent working to buy a car, insurance, repairs and gas, then add on time spent in traffic, looking for parking etc. Suddenly walking, biking and public transport seem a whole lot more efficient.

So, what’s the real reason why we spend so much on cars? Capitalism.

Inherent within capitalism are economic booms and busts. In times of downturn a regular occurrence is that investors, who do not see prospects for a profit, reduce their investments. This, however, heightens the economic malaise because it starves the economy of investments. It can lead to a vicious cycle whereby no one invests because the prospects are grim yet the prospects will stay poor until people begin investing. This was best exemplified during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

To get out of this vicious economic cycle John Maynard Keynes (and others) proposed a counter cyclical (boom and bust) economic theory. Keynes asserted that governments in times of downturn should intervene in the economy to get it rolling again. Governments should stimulate demand through investments that hire workers, who will then be able to purchase products, which will further stimulate investments. Keynes, reportedly, even advocated that to get the economy going during a downturn government might as well pay workers to dig ditches and fill them in again, however socially inefficient this may seem.

Keynes’s counter cyclical theory is practiced today by pretty much every wealthy country in the world even though Keynesianism has been surpassed by supply-side dogma as the dominant force in most economic departments. The Bush administration, for instance, is currently pursuing a military Keynesian policy and most major European Union countries, as well as Japan, have been running sizable deficits during recent downturns. (The IMF’s imperial and creditor- centric character means poor countries usually have to forgo sensible, (Keynesian) counter cyclical measures in times of downturn.)

Back to the huge amounts spent on cars.

One reason for the “Asphalt Nation[s]”, as one author put it, is the need to stabilize capitalism’s inherent instability. Let’s call it car Keynesianism. In the 1930s with eight or nine million unemployed U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt set-up the Works Projects Administration, which created as many as five million jobs. Burt Folsom explains, “people were building roads, putting gravel on roads, sometimes asphalt and cement, all over the country” and other projects “but mostly roads.” Around the same time, with six million Germans out of work, Hitler promoted building the autobahn for the jobs it would create. On 1 May 1933, Hitler announced, "we will continue to endeavour to realize large public job creation schemes this year," and referred to "our new road construction programme, a gigantic task that requires billions.” Governments ever since have used road construction as economic stimulus.

Why roads for cars and not other projects? Road construction is a public works project that doesn’t put the government into direct competition with corporate interests (no companies own roads and governments can hire private pavement contractors to build the roads.) Also roads are a subsidy to the automotive industrial complex that for 75 years has been the single most important source of capitalist profit. Finally, there’s Keynes digging and ditches comment. Roads, like military spending which is another favorite counter cyclical spending choice, are inefficient. You can, it seems, build them forever. In 1891 “the first road was paved in the US”, reports Grist magazine and now there are as many as 4 million miles of paved roads in the U.S. From 1977 to 1997 there was a 23 percent “increase in miles of paved public roads in the U.S.”

Keynesian policies are obviously not the only reason for road expansions. The automotive industrial complex’s deliberate undermining of public transit systems and lobbying for expanded road systems has played a role. Likewise the immense amount spent by car and related companies on advertising, propels car purchases. (The car companies have on their payrolls rappers such as Jay- Z who mention specific brands in their songs.)

Still Keynesianism -­ the more pro-working class form of capitalism that many on the left rightly prefer to neoliberalism -­ has been central to the rise of the socially and ecologically destructive car.

Yves Engler and a companion will be traveling by bus across North America this summer as research for a book on cars and the experience of being car-less. Anyone who might have an extra room available, especially in New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, Las Vegas, LA or San Francisco, and or interesting information on cars and Urban Development in their communities please get in touch. yvesengler@hotmail.com.

Other Articles by Yves Engler

* Car Hegemony
* The Regime of Poison
* Bumper to Bumper on the Road to Ruin
* Haiti: A View From Canada
* Dangerous To Your Health