SUVs: Not Schadenfreude, but Accountability

Over at Balloon Juice, Tim F. writes regarding skyrocketing gas prices:

I don’t feel particularly smug when I stand next to my Honda Fit watching some SUV owner near tears as she puts more than $100 of gas into a car she doesn’t need. It just feels sad to think about how long it’s been since it became obvious to anyone who cared to look that we won’t be able to scare off problems like fuel scarcity and climate change by closing our eyes and wishing.

That lead time was an opportunity to make changes. Some would have been painful and some merely sensible, but it would prevent huge numbers of honest Americans get caught with their pants down. Instead we blew it out the tailpipe of cars that average 15 MPG. Now, instead of a planned transition, we get to see what happens when stubborn denial meets inescapable change. It’s simply unsustainable to live in suburban car country with a negative equity on the house, $6-7 gas (wait until you see what that does to property values in outlying suburbs) and expensive SUVs that nobody wants. The saddest thing for me was that most who will get fucked the worst had no idea this was coming. There was that one guy who warned us, but he had a snooty laugh.

Amanda comments:

On an individual level, it’s easy to feel superior to people who bought SUVs and are paying for it now. But that’s foolish, because we all rationalize our choices like this, so it was inevitable that a high percentage of people would like SUVs not in spite of their low mileage, but because of the low mileage. Instead of wishing human nature to change, then, I’m going to suggest that the people who exploited this rationalization tendency hold the lion’s share of the blame. For people who wanted to engage in wishful thinking about the relationship between oil and environmental problems, right wing pundits, car companies, and oil companies did all the hard psychological rationalizing work for people.

I can’t disagree with this strongly enough. Sure, schadenfreude isn’t worth the time, but the idea that “the people who exploited this rationalization tendency hold the lion’s share of the blame” is incompatible with a democracy, never mind what I consider basic morality. Repentance, absolution, the process of forgiveness, or whatever else you want to call it requires not only saying you’re sorry and providing restitution (and fixing the problem, but not doing wrong when placed in a similar situation.

I don’t want revenge (it’s usually not worth the time), but I do want accountability, not just for those who promulgated lies, but for those who believed them–often time and time again.

I would argue that one of the defining characteristics of a ‘progressive’ (and that of a liberal as well as a feminist) is a struggle against the establishment idea that we are sheep who are led around by the nose by small groups of elites (hell, this is David Broder’s guiding star). Are you one of those sheep? Am I? Or are we elites*? If we truly want to move closer to a true participatory democracy, we must hold people accountable for their actions. More importantly, we have to avoid giving people an ‘out’, and make people take responsibility for their own actions.

That’s not revenge, but simply what is necessary for a democracy to function.

*That’s ridiculous.

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10 Responses to SUVs: Not Schadenfreude, but Accountability

  1. Philip H. says:

    ” More importantly, we have to avoid giving people an ‘out’, and make people take responsibility for their own actions.”
    Yes, we should do this as a society, both collectively and individually. Unfortunately, from the social aspect, it falls apart when the person or persons we seek to hold accountable refuse to acknowledge our right to do so. That’s the only explanation I have come up with for Cheney’s “SO what” comment last month. the Vice President doesn’t accept that the American people can hold him accountable for his actions on our behalf, so he feels free to ignore us. If course, his delusion is exacerbated by the fact that, electorially, there isn’t anything we can do to stop him. Say what you will, but putting a Democrat in the White House and upping the numbers of Democrats in Congress doesn’t punish Cheney.
    And on the SUV front – the economy is not yet exacting a heavy enough toll on the SUV owners/purchasers to make them repent of their ways. The mere fact that most of them still shell out the $100 to fill their tanks (no matter how much they ball) says they are not feeling any economic disincentive, nor are they feeling any sense of societal shame. So, while this is all a very nice concept, it’s not how the humans are really playing it out.

  2. iRobot says:

    What about the people still buying new SUV’s, can we delight in their misery? SUV sales are down, but only by about 30%ish. So something like 70% of the people who bought them when gas was 2$ are buying them when gas is 3.50$. Thats just plain stupid. Maybe I am a bad person, but I like the 3 Stooges and watching people put $100 of gas in a car that could fit 7 people, but really only ever has 1.

  3. Ktesibios says:

    My thoroughly unscientific impression is that a change in the SUV population is visible here in L.A.
    That population appears to be becoming less weighted towards the real Bloatmobiles and more towards the smaller car-based SUVs.
    It’s almost like watching evolution in action- change in the distribution of traits in a population under the effect of a selective pressure. It’s definitely improved the driving environment somewhat, but I’m still waiting for someone to invent stupidity-seeking missiles.

  4. Karen says:

    I suspect very few SUV buyers ignored the fuel economy issue; it just wasn’t as important to them as other issues. The auto industry understands this quite well, and extensively advertises to “remind” potential buyers of those other issues.
    There are many, many parents who believe that an SUV provides better crash protection than conventional automobiles, and a couple who might’ve cruised happily along in a Honda civic before having children are now driving a Hummer, or at least a Chevy Tahoe. I’m not sure if there is any actual evidence that a large SUV is safer than a conventional auto, but I understand the assumption and the desire to protect children.
    People here in lowland California buy small SUVs rather than more fuel-efficient cars because they go skiing half a dozen times a year. (Husband and I were guilty of that, and we had a hard time parting with the SUV after he gave up skiing — it was the most comfortable vehicle we’ve ever owned. But the pain at the pump led us to sell it several years ago.)
    Among buyers who have real professional or recreational uses for pickup trucks, pickups with V8 gas engines outsell diesels, despite the roughly 2:1 fuel economy ratio between diesels and V8s. The reason I hear most often shared around the campgrounds is that diesels are “too noisy”. But diesel pickups also lack the “he-man” image of V8s, because they’re sluggish accelerators.
    My point is that people make vehicle-buying decisions for a variety of reasons, some of which might not be conscious. 🙂 Fuel prices in the U.S. have indeed risen precipitously, and caught many people unaware. I’m not going to add to their misery by berating them. Many of them would make different decisions were they buying vehicles today, but not everyone can run out and buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle right now.

  5. mark says:

    We have to examine why people buy the cars they do.
    Does anyone buy a big SUV because of the seating? Do they frequently carry many passengers?
    Does anyone buy a SUV because they were told that the bulkier vehicle was safer?
    Does anyone buy a SUV because it has the power to tow their boat or trailer?
    Does anyone get 4-wheel drive because they really do go places where a 2WD vehicle might have problems?
    Does anyone have an unrealistic assessment of what sort of vehicle they need, because of advertising?
    I’m disappointed that small pickup trucks on the market today seem to get about the same (if lucky) gas mileage as the Mitsubishi I bought in 1988.

  6. tonyl says:

    I would argue that one of the defining characteristics of a ‘progressive’ (and that of a liberal as well as a feminist) is a struggle against the establishment idea that we are sheep who are led around by the nose by small groups of elites
    It would be nice if more ‘progressives’ felt this way. All of the self labeled ‘progressives’ I read seem to imply the exact opposite; that the conservatives have been able to hoodwink the public because most people are sheep who are incapable of understanding why the conservatives are wrong. They seem to keep looking for methods they can use to hoodwink the sheep into believing them. Or they think the way to get their policies enacted is to support candidates they think “the masses” will elect, instead of trying to convince people to elect the candidate they truly believe will be the best.
    (note that I am not claiming that my sampling of ‘progressives’ is universal, nor necessarily representative. It’s just a sampling of the self-labeled ‘progressives’ I’ve randomly encountered.)

  7. Dean says:

    Don’t forget that the Bush administration heavily incentivized the purchase of large trucks and SUVs for business purposes through changes to the Section 179 depreciation deduction. The “SUV loophole” allowed 100% first year depreciation of up to $75,000 in 2002 and up to $100,000 in 2003 on vehicles with a GVWR of over 6,000 pounds that are used at least 50% of the time for business.
    In 2004 Congress tried to reign the loophole in but they weren’t completely successful and there is still a fairly big tax incentive for buying a large truck or SUV if you can claim 50% business use. Those incentives can still be very appealing even with today’s fuel prices.
    If the tax incentives had been weighted towards hybrids or other cars with high fuel efficiencies our roads and highways would look significantly different today. So much for the free market and it’s invisible hand…

  8. Interrobang says:

    a struggle against the establishment idea that we are sheep who are led around by the nose by small groups of elites
    …as opposed to the other establishment idea that preaches rugged individualism uber alles, and that there really are no elites (in the ostensibly “classless society”), and that large social forces don’t come about because of social actors, they, um, just organically happen somehow?
    I don’t support letting SUV owners completely off the hook, but the desire for ever-larger and larger cars didn’t come out of nowhere. It didn’t just organically happen. (Actually, after spending about three years researching the phenomenon, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make the sweeping statement that the demand for cars overall didn’t come out of nowhere, and it certainly didn’t just organically happen.) A lot of people got paid a lot of money to dangle these things in front of prospective buyers and make them look attractive in any number of ways. We all know that some SUVs get marketed as surrogate penises. Karen, upthread says, “There are many, many parents who believe that an SUV provides better crash protection than conventional automobiles,” which specifically plays on the current moral panic that everyone’s children are in danger all of the time. How did those “parents” come to believe that SUVs (with their high rollover rates and shitty traction) provide “better crash protection than conventional automobiles”? That didn’t come out of nowhere, either.
    So blame where blame is due. A heaping helping of opprobrium for the pushers of the propaganda (that has so successfully made the jump to “conventional wisdom,” as it so often does), and an equally heaping helping to the people who bought it, lock, stock, and barrel after barrel of ever-more-expensive oil…
    Dean says, “So much for the free market and its invisible hand,” and he’s right, since there isn’t a “free market” when it comes to cars (high monopolistic tendencies coupled with artificially-raised barriers to entry), and the Invisible Hand is giving us all the finger.

  9. Unsympathetic reader says:

    It’s not the MPG of the cars we drive that will nail us but that fact that we need cars at all. You can be in a Pruis or a Land Cruiser, in either case, an 80 mile, round-trip, single-passenger commute will not be cheap. Getting a higher mileage car is easy. Restructuring the transportation infrastructure will be the really big, expensive problem.
    That said, I think the move to SUVs and bigger cars was also motivated by a perceived ‘arms race’ on the streets. It didn’t help that the bumper heights didn’t match those of sedans and that their sheer mass of SUVs reduced the *relative* impact protection of other vehicles. Granted, SUVs did worse in single-car accidents, but most people worried more about what the ‘idiot’ in the behemoth might to to them. That’s human nature: It’s pretty bad at assessing relative hazards.

  10. mirc says:

    thank you

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