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SUV Paradise

Hans Eisenbeis' "Defense of the SUV" (July) displays the moral myopia that cripples so much libertarian thinking about the environment. Eisenbeis admits, in passing, that SUVs "contribute to our environmental dilemma; they burn more gas, oil, and rubber...and continue to pollute disproportionately once they've been scrapped."

He then dismisses these concerns by noting, correctly, that all cars contribute to these same problems, if in a smaller degree. Eisenbeis then glides smoothly on to discuss the symbolic, fantasy, and emotional virtues of the behemoths. He omits the reality that with a few hundred dollars invested in better engineering, the auto industry could make, say, a Ford Explorer get 34 miles per gallon, not 19, making our choice of vehicle far less consequential for global warming.

SUVs are, actually, real objects, with real material impacts on the world. What Eisenbeis and so many others fail to note is that "we" who drive SUVs are not the primary victims of their environmental impact, and that the victims almost certainly do not agree that our desire to use "these massive trucks" as a "form of escapism...a bulwark against harsh realities the rest of the world still faces on a daily basis" justifies the carbon dioxide pollution they emit, given that this pollution makes those realities harsher for, say, the tens of millions who inhabit the Gangetic Delta of Bangladesh.

One of the most certain consequences of global warming is a rise in sea levels. That rise means that the already horrific loss of lives and property which results from typhoons coming off the Bay of Bengal will increase dramatically as storm surges reach further north into the low-lying villages and towns. The Bangladeshis have never agreed to have their lives and property put at greater risk so that Americans can satisfy their post-industrial off-road fantasies. They receive no compensation for their loss. There is no contract, explicit or implicit, that gives American drivers the right to raise sea levels.

Under the common law, no one had the right to use their property in a manner which flooded someone else's. When the flooding is caused by millions of cars, SUVs, and power plants all over the world, and when it occurs tens of thousands of miles away, and perhaps years later, finding a mechanism to substitute for the nuisance lawsuits that were traditional in England is challenging. But the moral principle is the same. And since the death toll in Bangladesh alone is almost certainly going to be larger than the total number of American lives lost in all of our wars since 1775, this challenge deserves serious commentary.

If libertarians continue to pretend that global warming either doesn't exist, by denying the scientific consensus, or isn't important, because the American economy can probably adapt to a changed climate regime, they will only fuel one of the deep suspicions that the rest of us have about the libertarian concept of freedom--that behind it lurks a doctrine which comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted by emphasizing irresponsibility for the well-off and well-connected, while indulging the expropriation of common resources, such as the climate, that provide security for the poor and powerless.

Carl Pope

Executive Director The Sierra Club

I am a member of the Society of Automotive Historians and the Automotive Press Association. Though I enjoyed the writing and thrust of Eisenbeis' essay, it falls short on the facts.

Eisenbeis writes, "On July 2, 1941, this seemingly impossible list of specs was distributed to every American auto manufacturer." That's funny. Earlier today--in connection with a book project I'm working on--I was looking at a photo of Edsel Ford in the first Ford-built GP, dated February 28, 1941. Some trick to build a vehicle prior to receiving its specs. Surely Eisenbeis meant 1940.

The statement that "Willys...was building stripped-down commercial trucks and vans" is also not quite correct. See the Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942, for specs and pictures of Willys passenger cars produced and sold every year up to World War II.

"Already during the '30s, American cars generally sported V-6 and V-8 engines," writes Eisenbeis. Huh? Only a handful of cars had V-8s before World War II: Cadillac, LaSalle, Mercury, Ford, and Cord; Buick and Nash offered in-line valve-in-head straight eights, while Olds, Pontiac, Packard, Hudson, Studebaker, and Chrysler had flat-head straight eights. The first production V-6 was not offered in an American car until the 1965 Buick Skylark, and did not become popular and spread to other makes until the late '70s (G.M.) and '80s (Chrysler and Ford).

"By the end of September 1941, Probst's design was approved and the Army processed an order for 4,500 vehicles," writes Eisenbeis. Hmmm again. My local Ford dealer has on display in his service department a restored Ford GP with a build date of September 26, 1941.

"By 1949, Willys began to expand its model lines to include a four-wheel-drive station wagon...this 'woody,' so-called because of its distinctive wooden side panels...." Hell, guys, the vehicle was approved by ex-Ford exec Charles Sorenson in 1944 and was in production by mid-1946 as a two-wheel-drive model. And it was notable as the first steel-bodied wagon--the "wooden" side panels were painted sheet metal. True, four-wheel drive arrived on the jeep station wagon for the 1949 model.

"Throughout the 1950s and '6os, Americans were enjoying the golden age of the behemoth land yacht-the age of the Cadillac Sedan DeVille and the Lincoln Town Car...."The Sedan DeVille debuted as a 1956 model four-door hardtop, while the Lincoln Town Car was first introduced in the fall of 1979 as a 1980 model. He would have been OK if he hadn't tried to gild the lily with series descriptions; just plain Cadillac and Lincoln would have sufficed.

Mike Davis

Detroit, MI

Hans Eisenbeis replies: As Carl Pope undoubtedly knows, it's a most difficult exercise to convince Americans of the "butterfly in China" syndrome--that what we do each day, individually, can have planetary impact. Maybe the "growing scientific consensus" will compel us to behave more thoughtfully and morally. In any case, it is just this side of nuts to suggest that Bangladesh's (and other developing nations') past, present, and future problems stem from global warming and industrialization, rather than chronic economic underdevelopment and its resulting poverty.

The point of my article was to explore the lure of the SUV itself, and precisely why it endures even though the vehicle is increasingly vilified in forums like The New Yorker and NPR's Car Talk. I'm not saying I disagree with their negative portrayal, just that it's kind of pointless until we explore some of the longstanding reasons why people--lots and lots of people--are attracted to such vehicles.

The good news is this: Car manufacturers, too, must juggle competing myths and demand-side mandates. While they continue to build luxury SUVs that meet draconian off-road specs (with no real point, since only 10 percent ever go off-road anyway), they're also making good on converting the 4X4 fantasy into a more responsible reality.

To wit, the massive new category of CUVs (crossover utility vehicles) such as the Ford Escape, the Toyota RAV, the Honda CRV, and many others. There's even word that Ford wants to build a hybrid CUV that uses an electrical system to double or triple gas mileage and reduce emissions by an equivalent amount. It's about time someone built a little environmental awareness into these alleged wilderness machines.

I'm neither a mechanic nor an automotive historian, as Mike Davis deftly points out. I found the research for this article slow going, because there are so few well-written or dependable histories out there. I relied too much on shop manuals and enthusiast publications, where enthusiasm tends to outpace accuracy. Academic histories of the automobile are virtually nonexistent.

I surely should have caught the glaring anachronism regarding the V-6 and V-8. Anyone who's ever lifted the hood on a classic car knows that most from this era were straights. The V-S was relatively rare, and the V-6 was two decades away.

Stand and Deliver

It has always amazed me that it seemed no one was appalled by the destruction of Jaime Escalante's program at Garfield High School ("Stand and Deliver Revisited," July). I was cheering author Jerry Jesness until I came to the last page of his article.

There Jesness suggests that a standardized curriculum and tests would stifle a teacher like Escalante. On the contrary, if earlier grades had higher expectations, brought about by standardized curricula and accountability, then the number of academically prepared students in the pipeline might have been much larger. Perhaps Escalante wouldn't have had to fight so many battles and work so hard to build an exemplary program.

Jesness must realize that the A.P. Calculus course and exam, used to illustrate Escalante's success, is itself a standardized curriculum, and that A.P. tests constitute an accountability system. Why would the adoption of a standardized curriculum and assessment system (such as the A.P. exam) be good for Escalante's students at Garfield but bad for other children?

William Tarr Jr.

Sacramento, CA

Color Schemes

Richard Epstein's review of Glenn C. Loury's unpersuasive book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality ("Color Schemes," July) is appropriately negative. But Epstein makes some mistakes in his analysis of racial and ethnic preferences in public and private contexts.

Epstein would prefer a world in which private actors have freedom to discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity. While we await Congress' repeal of civil rights laws, however, we in the real world must choose between two legal regimes: one in which all races are protected from private discrimination, and one in which discrimination against only some races is banned (and indeed where discrimination against the others is actually encouraged). The latter regime is unfair and unconstitutional--as well as contrary to die statute that Congress passed--and so we should prefer the former while Epstein does his lobbying.

Epstein also thinks that when government actors are in competition with private actors, the latter's discrimination justifies the former's. Besides being a breathtaking non sequitur, this would require repeal of not only the civil rights statutes but the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution's 14th Amendment.

Finally, Epstein asserts that the fact that racial and ethnic preferences "have been so widely adopted (even to excess) in the face of such strong opposition testifies that, in sharp contrast to Jim Crow, they are not the product of a corrupt or factional political system." But the adoption of preferences by private and public bureaucracies is almost always done surreptitiously, and the weight that preferences afford race and ethnicity is never admitted. Their adoption, particularly in employment, is also frequently a result of lawsuits, government pressure, and threatened boycotts. When there is actual debate, preferences are rejected, as with the passage of Proposition 209. (Epstein offensively dismisses this law, prohibiting government racial discrimination, as just "Ward Connerly's monochromatic vision of human nature.")

Race raises complex issues, but the Constitution gives us a simple rule that would work very well in helping navigate them: Governments should not have one set of standards and legal protections for some, and another for others.

Roger Clegg

General Counsel

Center for Equal Opportunity

Sterling, VA

Richard Epstein replies: Roger Clegg's letter represents a curious combination of the practical and theoretical. At the outset, he criticizes my pie-in-the-sky proposal to repeal civil rights laws as they apply to private discrimination. He then states that there are only two real choices: a color-blind regime and a world of affirmative action.

Alas, he is guilty of as much wishful thinking as I am. There's only one choice. Congress will not upset the current double standard that allows but does not require affirmative action. The current program allows private firms to practice the discrimination they desire and forbids only the discrimination they don't want to practice. No sensible American business or university will want to chuck that dual standard. Clegg is right that our flagship institutions conceal the extent of their affirmative action programs, but they do not hide their support for them.

State institutions present a much closer question. I fully share Clegg's belief in the color-blind Constitution to the extent that it involves the enforcement of the state criminal and civil law. It would be intolerable to have one set of rules for white burglars and another for black. But for better or worse, the state no longer functions solely as a night-watchman state. Once it gets into the business of dispensing benefits, it resembles a private firm, so the demand for color-blind treatment loses much of its urgency. I don't think the Equal Protection Clause will, or should, chain organizations such as state universities to a strict color-blind rule.

Glenn Loury is wrong to preach the moral necessity of affirmative action. Roger Clegg is equally wrong in urging us to obliterate these programs. The hard questions in this area boil down to matters of proportion and degree, on which we learn as little from Clegg's absolutism as we do from Loury's.
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Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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