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.
The cryptocurrency is almost certainly due for a major correction. But its long-term value remains a mystery.
To call Bitcoin the biggest and most obvious bubble in modern history may be a disservice to its surreality.
The price of bitcoin has doubled four times this year. In early January, one bitcoin was worth about $1,000. By May, it hit $2,000. In June, it breached $4,000. By Thanksgiving, it was $8,000. Two weeks later, it was $16,000.
This astronomical trajectory might make sense for a new public company with accelerating profits. Bitcoin, however, has no profits. It’s not even a company. It is a digital encrypted currency running on a decentralized network of computers around the world. Ordinary currencies, like the U.S. dollar, don’t double in value by the month, unless there’s a historic deflationary crisis, like the Panic of 1837. Instead, bitcoin’s behavior more resembles that of a collectible frenzy, like Beanie Babies in the late 1990s.
David Bentley Hart’s text recaptures the awkward, multivoiced power of the original.
In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …”
A conversation about inheritance, philanthropy, and aging with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the law professor Saul Levmore
What is the right way to age? It’s a question that isn’t explored enough in American society, where, seemingly, people are expected to be forever young, until, suddenly, they are not. Reflecting this binary, any writing about a long life’s final decades tends toward extremes. On one hand, there are the accounts of heroic men and women who still put in more than 40 hours a week on the job in their late 60s and early 70s (a genre I like to call “retirement porn”). On the other, there are the articles warning about the dangers of not adapting a home for aging bodies, or the plague of financial scammers targeting lonely or cognitively challenged seniors.
That leaves out a vast middle, the space where many older people actually, you know, live their lives. Luckily, Martha Nussbaum, the renowned philosopher and ethicist at the University of Chicago, and Saul Levmore, the former dean of and a current professor at the university’s law school, decided to explore that middle. The result? The recently published Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret.
Students don't seem to be getting much out of higher education.
I have been in school for more than 40 years. First preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, junior high, and high school. Then a bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley, followed by a doctoral program at Princeton. The next step was what you could call my first “real” job—as an economics professor at George Mason University.
Thanks to tenure, I have a dream job for life. Personally, I have no reason to lash out at our system of higher education. Yet a lifetime of experience, plus a quarter century of reading and reflection, has convinced me that it is a big waste of time and money. When politicians vow to send more Americans to college, I can’t help gasping, “Why? You want us to waste even more?”
As the Alabama Senate race enters its final days, Doug Jones is making an all out push—while his rival is nowhere to be seen.
MONTGOMERY, Ala.—The dramatic contrast between the two Senate campaigns in Alabama grew even more stark during the final weekend before Election Day.
Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, is holding multiple events every day, taking questions from the press, and campaigning with other Democratic politicians. His opponent Roy Moore has all but disappeared. Dogged by controversy following allegations by nine women of sexual misconduct or abuse when they were teenagers, Moore has not appeared in public since last Tuesday, and isn’t scheduled to to so again before Monday. Reports suggest that he was in Philadelphia on Saturday watching the Army-Navy football game, and a Moore spokesperson told me that he attended a Christmas gathering with supporters and friends on Sunday evening—closed to the press.
Will the vice president—and the religious right—be rewarded for their embrace of Donald Trump?
No man can serve two masters, the Bible teaches, but Mike Pence is giving it his all. It’s a sweltering September afternoon in Anderson, Indiana, and the vice president has returned to his home state to deliver the Good News of the Republicans’ recently unveiled tax plan. The visit is a big deal for Anderson, a fading manufacturing hub about 20 miles outside Muncie that hasn’t hosted a sitting president or vice president in 65 years—a fact noted by several warm-up speakers. To mark this historic civic occasion, the cavernous factory where the event is being held has been transformed. Idle machinery has been shoved to the perimeter to make room for risers and cameras and a gargantuan American flag, which—along with bleachers full of constituents carefully selected for their ethnic diversity and ability to stay awake during speeches about tax policy—will serve as the TV-ready backdrop for Pence’s remarks.
A defense of consent as a lodestar of sexual morality
In "What Do You Desire?" Emily Witt travels to San Francisco, attends a shoot for a pornographic video about "women bound, stripped, and punished in public," reflects on her own unsuccessful search for romantic love, and ponders the implications of a sexual culture where no desire is considered off-limits so long as all participants give their consent. She'd prefer love to sexual novelty. But "what if love fails us?" she asks. "Sexual freedom has now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I have not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with no possibilities except total sexual freedom, I was unhappy. I understood that the San Franciscans' focus on intention—the pornographers were there by choice—marked the difference between my nihilism and their utopianism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better."
Robert Solow on powerful families’ threat to democratic institutions.
In a recent interview at the Economic Policy Institute, Nobel Prize-Winning economist and MIT professor Robert Solow riffed on the political effects of increasing inequality and concentration of wealth at the very top. "If that kind of concentration of wealth continues, then we get to be more and more an oligarchical country, a country that's run from the top," he said.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
How filler words and tiny pauses keep conversations from going off the rails
When one person asks another a question, it takes an average of 200 milliseconds for them to respond. This is so fast that we can’t even hear the pause. In fact, it’s faster than our brains actually work. It takes the brain about half a second to retrieve the words to say something, which means that in conversation, one person is gearing up to speak before the other is even finished. By listening to the tone, grammar, and content of another’s speech, we can predict when they’ll be done.
This precise clockwork dance that happens when people speak to each other is what N.J. Enfield, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, calls the “conversation machine.” In his book How We Talk, he examines how conversational minutiae—filler words like “um” and “mm-hmm,” and pauses that are longer than 200 milliseconds—grease the wheels of this machine. In fact, he argues, these little “traffic signals” to some degree define human communication. What all human languages have in common, and what sets our communication apart from animals, is our ability to use language to coordinate how we use language.