Old cars and the logic of dispossession
Big Green wants you to offer a sacrifice to the gods
“Cash for clunkers” programs are back. First adopted in California in the early 1990s, these are arrangements where the state offers to buy your older car for the stated purpose of getting it off the road, on the premise that older cars are “gross polluters” and therefore retiring them will bring some benefit to the environment.
In the current iteration, “accelerated vehicle retirement” programs in California, Vermont and Colorado are presented as a way to hasten the arrival of the electric vehicle (EV) future, particularly as imagined in the Inflation Reduction Act (which includes a $7,500 tax subsidy for EVs assembled in North America, meaning primarily Mexico).[i]
In my last post I considered the perverse economics revealed by salvage yards full of cars that are in good shape, but underwater on repair costs due to electronic complexity. What follows is some broader history of the political economy that swirls around old cars, set in the 1960s through 1990s. While the push for EVs was nowhere in sight in these decades, I believe this story offers an education in the kind of mischief that can proceed behind a cloud of green squid ink. “Green” isn’t just a set of policy preferences, it is also a moral-aesthetic sensibility that seems to be hostile to old cars, and to those whose livelihoods revolve around them.
In his outstanding book Junkyards, Gearheads and Rust, David N. Lucsko tells the following anecdote.
In the spring of 1999, Daniel Groff snapped. For more than twenty years the Elizabeth Township, Pennsylvania, man had been involved in a dispute with local officials over the condition of his property. Groff worked as a long-haul trucker, agricultural laborer, and mechanic, and over the years, old cars, trucks, heavy equipment, and parts of all sorts had accumulated on his land. For Groff, this was an essential repository of spares that enabled him to scratch out a living. But in the town’s view, it was an “illegal junkyard,” and Groff an irresponsible property owner. Toward the end of 1998, after countless hearings, injunctions, and appeals, the town gained the legal upper hand and notified him that it planned to hire a contractor to clear his land. But when the contractor arrived the following March, Groff refused to cooperate. Armed with a shotgun, he used a front-end loader to charge at the contractor’s equipment, disabling it by pushing it from its trailer. He then retreated to a defensive position, loader idling and shotgun in lap. The ensuing standoff lasted until the fuel in his loader ran out, and as the police prepared to move in, Groff turned the gun on himself. Shortly thereafter his land was cleared, and, adding posthumous insult to injury, his grieving widow then received a bill from the township for the contractor’s services.[ii]
Lucsko remarks that “apart from its grisly ending, Groff’s case was not unusual.” He presents a history of ever more aggressive zoning and “eyesore” ordinances that reads as a chronicle of bureaucratic piracy, often conducted on behalf of real estate developers against long-established residents. The targets include businesses that deal in scrap materials (even in rural areas) as well as the gearhead next door. The legal devices used are various: unannounced changes to municipal bylaws, byzantine licensing requirements, or the peremptory reclassification of a residential property with project vehicles on it as an illegal junkyard subject to all the regulations of a profit-seeking business. Lucsko presents vivid details of official abuse in rural and suburban areas, while in cities the power of eminent domain has been used to “eviscerate entire industrial districts.” One can never have enough lofts.[iii]
As is so often the case, this story begins with good intentions: Lady Bird Johnson’s initiative to clean up America, resulting in the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Prior to this, the highway could be quite an ugly thing, with unrestricted billboards and lots of litter, as well as unscreened salvage yards and scrap metal businesses visible from the road. We owe Lady Bird thanks for making us more attuned to aesthetics as an important expression of national pride, and of regard for the common good. But in Lucsko’s telling, the Act’s emphasis on beautification prompted a cultural shift that has turned out to be a mixed bag. It “gave rise to a far more radical wave of antijunkyard, anti–scrap yard, and, for lack of a better phrase, anti-ratty-looking-car NIMBYism over the last five decades.”[iv]
Superficially, litter and the rusting carcasses of salvaged cars are both an affront to the eye. But while litter exemplifies that lack of stewardship that is the ethical core of a throwaway society, the visible presence of old cars represents quite the opposite. Yet these are easily conflated under the environmentalist aesthetic, and the result has been to impart a heightened moral status to Americans’ prejudice against the old, now dignified as an expression of civic responsibility.
Prejudice against the old goes deep in the American psyche. Alexis de Tocqueville reported his conversation with an American sailor in 1831: “I ask him why the vessels of his country are constituted so as not to last for long, and he answers me without hesitation that the art of navigation makes such rapid progress each day, that the most beautiful ship would soon become nearly useless if it lasted beyond a few years.” Here is a striking defense of shoddiness as a natural corollary of the faith in progress.
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