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.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
Two historians weigh in on how to understand the new administration, press relations, and this moment in political time.
The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.
To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum
“The question confronting us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” a group of Republican and Democratic experts write.
Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.
Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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A $100 million gangster epic starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci has become too risky a proposition for major studios.
Martin Scorsese’s next project, The Irishman, is as close as you can get to a box-office guarantee for the famed director. It’s a gangster film based on a best-selling book about a mob hitman who claimed to have a part in the legendary disappearance of the union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro is attached to play the hitman, Al Pacino will star as Hoffa, and Scorsese favorites Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel are also on board. After Scorsese branched into more esoteric territory this year with Silence, a meditative exploration of faith and Catholicism, The Irishman sounds like a highly bankable project—the kind studios love. And yet, the film is going to Netflix, which will bankroll its $100 million budget and distribute it around the world on the company’s streaming service.
In late 2015, in the Chilean desert, astronomers pointed a telescope at a faint, nearby star known as ared dwarf. Amid the star’s dim infrared glow, they spotted periodic dips, a telltale sign that something was passing in front of it, blocking its light every so often. Last summer, the astronomers concluded the mysterious dimming came from three Earth-sized planets—and that they were orbiting in the star’s temperate zone, where temperatures are not too hot, and not too cold, but just right for liquid water, and maybe even life.
This was an important find. Scientists for years had focused on stars like our sun in their search for potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. Red dwarfs, smaller and cooler than the sun, were thought to create inhospitable conditions. They’re also harder to see, detectable by infrared rather than visible light. But the astronomers aimed hundreds of hours worth of observations at this dwarf, known as TRAPPIST-1 anyway, using ground-based telescopes around the world and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
You can tell a lot about a person from how they react to something.
That’s why Facebook’s various “Like” buttons are so powerful. Clicking a reaction icon isn’t just a way to register an emotional response, it’s also a way for Facebook to refine its sense of who you are. So when you “Love” a photo of a friend’s baby, and click “Angry” on an article about the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, you’re training Facebook to see you a certain way: You are a person who seems to love babies and hate Tom Brady.
The more you click, the more sophisticated Facebook’s idea of who you are becomes. (Remember: Although the reaction choices seem limited now—Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, or Angry—up until around this time last year, there was only a “Like” button.)
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.