Discard your stereotypes: people in the U.S. own fewer passenger vehicles on average than in almost all other developed nations.
Cars line up at a traffic circle in Rome. (AP)
Americans love cars. We pioneered their mass production, designed iconic autos from the Model T to the Deville to the Corvette, and are a major exporter as well as importer. It's practically a part of the American national identity. But it turns out, according to a new paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on worldwide car usage, that American per capita car ownership rates are actually among the lowest in the developed world.
The U.S. is ranked 25th in world by number of passenger cars per person, just above Ireland and just below Bahrain. There are 439 cars here for every thousand Americans, meaning a little more than two people for every car. That number is higher in nearly all of Western Europe -- the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, etc. -- as well as in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. It's higher in crisis-wracked Iceland and Greece. Italians and New Zealanders have nearly 50 percent more cars per capita than does the U.S. The highest rate in the world is casino-riddled Mediterranean city-state Monaco, with 771 cars per thousand citizens.
America actually starts to look unusually auto-poor when cars per capita is charted against household consumption per capita, which the Carnegie paper explains are two typically correlated variables. That is, countries where household spend more money on average tend to also own more cars.
The countries on the right side of the line are where people own fewer cars than you might expect. The developed countries on that side of the graph include the super-dense Asian city states (Macao, Singapore, Hong Kong) where car ownership is tightly regulated to keep traffic down, and the United States. The countries far to the left of the line own more cars than expected: car-crazy Italy, for example, and sparsely populated Iceland.
I found this really surprising -- I'd always associated the U.S. closely with car culture, an impression anecdotally enforced by my interactions with non-Americans. So what explains the American outlier?
The Carnegie paper explains that car ownership rates are closely tied to the size of the middle class. In fact, the paper actually measures car ownership rates for the specific purpose of using that number to predict middle class size. Comparing the middle class across countries can be extraordinarily difficult; someone who counts as middle class in one country could be poor or rich in another. Americans are buying fewer cars -- is it possible that this is another sign of a declining American middle class? Even if Americans are on average richer than Europeans, after all, U.S. income inequality is also much higher. According to the Carnegie paper, about 9.6 of Americans' cars are luxury cars, an unusually high number; but it unhelpfully defines "luxury" as "Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus" (no Cadillacs?), which may help to explain why Germany's "luxury car" rate is 26.6 percent.
Still, it's also possible that the answer has less to do with Americans adhering to Carnegie's thesis about car ownership predicting middle class size and more to do with other, particularly American factors. Young Americans are spending less of their money on cars, as Jordan Weissmann explained, as they get driver's licences at lower rates and spend more of their money on, say, high-tech smart phones.
Amazingly, Americans still manage to suck up far, far more energy per person than do the people in those Western European nations with so many more cars per capita. Our oil usage per capita is about twice what it is in Western Europe, and here's our overall energy usage:
Whatever the reason for America's comparatively low car ownership rate, it may be time to update our stereotypes. The most car-obsessed place in the world isn't the nation of Detroit and Ford and Cadillac. It's Western Europe, the land of Peugeot and Smart Cars and Ferrari, where cars are most common.
Update: Some confusion in the comments about what kinds of vehicles are counted in the rankings. I respond below, but the gist is that this data includes all "passenger vehicles," which means cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, and minibuses. It does not include commercial freight trucks or buses with over nine seats, both of which the U.S. has a lot of, but which tend to be owned by businesses rather than individuals.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
In the age of the digital hermit, a psychologist explains what it means to avoid other people—and what to do about it.
People today might not actually be avoiding social interaction any more than they did in past decades, but they’re certainly more vocal about it. The rise of digital communication seems to be spawning a nation of indoor cats, all humble-bragging about how introverted they are and ordering their rides and groceries without ever talking to a human.
Sometimes reclusiveness can be a sign of something more serious, though. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it’s still poorly understood outside of scientific circles. The good news is that it’s highly treatable, according to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
I recently talked with Hofmann about how social anxiety works and what people who feel socially anxious can do about it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Inside Walmart’s curious, possibly ingenious effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts
Late last summer, Dawn Paquin started keeping her money on a prepaid debit card from Walmart instead of in a traditional checking account. The wages from her factory job—she works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., inspecting blades on industrial bread-slicing machines—now go directly onto the Visa-branded card, which she can use like a regular debit card, though unlike most debit cards, it is not linked to a checking or savings account. She made the switch after a $4 check she wrote to buy coffee for herself and a friend tipped her checking account below the required minimum and triggered $100 in overdraft fees.
This was before she got the factory gig, and she wasn’t working full-time. Paquin lives in Salem, Illinois, where, she told me recently, if you don’t have a college degree, your job choices are “fast food or factory.” Money was extremely tight. “I kind of had a bit of resentment about banks after that,” she said dryly.
Online communities like those on Tumblr are perpetuating ideas of "beautiful suffering," confusing what it means to be clinically depressed.
A few months ago, Laura U., a typical 16-year-old at an international school in Paris, sat at her computer wishing she looked just like the emaciated women on her Tumblr dashboard. She pined to be mysterious, haunted, fascinating, like the other people her age that she saw in black and white photos with scars along their wrists, from taking razor blades to their skin. She convinced herself that the melancholic quotes she was reading—“Can I just disappear?” or “People who die by suicide don’t want to end their lives, they want to end their pain”—applied to her.
The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a society so prosperous that people would hardly have to work. But that isn’t exactly how things have played out.
How will we all keep busy when we only have to work 15 hours a week? That was the question that worried the economist John Maynard Keynes when he wrote his short essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in 1930. Over the next century, he predicted, the economy would become so productive that people would barely need to work at all.
For a while, it looked like Keynes was right: In 1930 the average workweek was 47 hours. By 1970 it had fallen to slightly less than 39.
But then something changed. Instead of continuing to decline, the duration of the workweek stayed put; it’s hovered just below 40 hours for nearly five decades.
So what happened? Why are people working just as much today as in 1970?
The Piano Man hasn’t released a new pop album since 1993. How does he continue to sell out stadiums?
For those of you who are sick of wondering, this is what happens at a Billy Joel concert: A mother tries to cajole her reluctant young son to twist with her to “Only the Good Die Young.” A 45-year-old man in a Billy Joel-themed softball jersey, sitting third row and visible to all, hoists aloft a New Jersey vanity license plate that reads “Joel FN” and uses it to air-drum to “Pressure.” Three 20-somethings on a ladies’ night out shoot a Boomerang of themselves swaying to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” A sexagenarianin business attire uses a lull during Joel’s Perestroika-era ditty “Leningrad” to crush some work emails on his BlackBerry Priv. A 19,000-strong congregation—carpenter jeans and Cartier watches, Yankee caps and yarmulkes, generationally diffuse and racially homogenous—all dance, terribly and euphorically, to “Uptown Girl.”
The Supreme Court has ample reason to avoid deciding a case that could erode the Establishment Clause.
During argument in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer last week before the Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan mused that the case poses “a hard issue. It's an issue in which states have their own very longstanding law. It's an issue on which I guess I'm going to say nobody is completely sure that they have it right.”
The court did not pay much attention to a question that logically flows from Kagan’s concern: Is this trip really necessary?
Does the court really need to jump into this dispute between a church and a state government—or is it a case where the two parties basically have already kissed and made up?
Missouri’s Constitution, as written in 1875 and readopted in 1945, contains a provision that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.” The Missouri courts over the years have interpreted this provision quite literally. As a result, a church named Trinity Lutheran in Columbia, Missouri, was denied a state grant to resurface their daycare playground with recycled rubber tires. (The daycare would have been eligible if it had been run by a separate church-affiliated non-profit; but because in this case the money would have gone directly to the church, the provision applied.) The church sued, and the case has wended its way to the Supreme Court.