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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 30, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Hillary, Harry, and Fuel Economy

First things first:

Hillary's "book."

It's not a book, it's an extremely expensive campaign pamphlet. Hillary has certainly not decided yet whether to run -- she's not going to waste herself on a try at the presidency when it's not yet possible to determine whether W is beatable or not. But having an "I'm so sweet and I love all you common people and I'm smarter than just about everybody" book out there won't hurt her, whether she runs in zip-four or zip-eight.

I can't say whether the book is filled with lies, but we do know of at least one enormous omission: An explanation of how a person could start with borrowed money in the cattle futures market, make absolutely no bad trades, and then stop when the sum of exactly $100,000 had been reached, never to invest again.

Until that remarkable set of transactions is explained in a way that does not leave a big neon "bribe" sign flashing overhead, then anything else Hillary might say is utterly worthless.

Because, at least so far, the American people have not knowingly elected someone so obviously corrupt to the American presidency.

But there's always a first time. After all, we did reelect Bill.

*

After the fantasies of Hillary's book, it's refreshing to have a return to reality.

I speak, of course, of the new Harry Potter novel.

I know, if you have even the remotest interest in Harry Potter, you already own the book, are already reading it, and don't need me to tell you anything about it.

But that has never stopped me before.

My own observation is that I've seen dozens of people reading the book in the past week, and only a couple of them could be called children. This book is not a children's book. It is a book about children, which can certainly be read by children, but which is primarily purchased and read by adults.

I'm reading it aloud with my wife and nine-year-old daughter -- but it's all I can do not to read ahead, because I am fully engrossed in the story.

(Because I'm reading it aloud, doing the voices, I also have developed the most irritating habit of saying practically everything in a hyper-affected English accent. Please don't slap me when you hear me talking that way. I'll stop doing it as soon as we've finished the book.)

Every time you see the New York Times bestseller list and realize that this book is not at the top of it, but instead has been shunted into a "children's book" ghetto, remember: This is an active lie, a conspiracy to deprive J.K. Rowling of public recognition of her achievement, which was to write a series of books loved by readers of every age, without the blessing of the elitist literary establishment.

Why did they move Rowling's books off the main list?

Because they sat in the number one position (and sometimes positions two and three at the same time) for week after week and month after month, and a bunch of whining babies in the New York literary establishment complained that these "children's books" were keeping their books from getting the recognition they deserved.

Well, guess what. Whenever any book is in the number one position, then that book is forcing the next book down into the number two position. Duh.

The reason for the whining was that the whiners didn't understand how Rowling had done this incredible thing, why people were not just buying her books, but reading them and talking about them.

They hated her because she had actually turned reading into a high priority for a huge number of people who had long since given up on reading as a form of entertainment.

And instead of learning from her and trying to write books that regular people might actually enjoy instead of having to take them like medicine, the literary snobs found it easier to put her in a little box and pretend she wasn't there.

*

I drive a Ford Crown Victoria -- what my daughter's friends have charitably called "an old man's car." I like it because it's great on long trips, it has plenty of room for me to sit in the driver's seat without my knees being jammed up around my elbows, and it has room for lots of passengers.

But big cars use more gas. I apologize for that, but not very sincerely. Our other car, which is driven far more miles, gets better fuel economy. On average, we're about average in fuel consumption.

The fact is, a lot of American drivers prefer, and some even need, bigger cars. When you go to Europe and realize that the biggest cars could fit in the trunk of a real car, you realize that this is only an American aberration.

But in America, the car is the only practical means of transportation. Our suburbs are dominated by standalone stores surrounded by huge parking lots, so that you can't go to Home Depot and WalMart and Cold Stone Creamery without driving and parking your car three separate times, even though by any rational standard, they're located quite close together.

We drive everywhere; we carry everything in our cars.

But we also want to conserve petroleum, or at least we did back in the seventies, and the EPA still has the mandate of limiting pollution and promoting fuel economy. So regulations were put in place requiring car manufacturers to achieve certain goals in their fleetwide fuel economy.

That means that it's OK for them to sell a certain number of gas guzzlers, as long as they balance those sales with enough fuel-saving cars that on average, the cars they sell in a single year achieve the target gas mileage.

It's not a bad system, and the car companies have done a pretty good job with it. It can lead to a few maddening things, like the story of the Ford Taurus.

For a while, this was the bestselling fullsize car in America. Why? Because it was comfortable and roomy without being huge; it was highly maneuverable, it did well in bad weather, and when it first came out its rounded lines were a welcome contrast to the boxy or sporty looks that seemed to be the only choices.

Trouble was, the car was so good that they sold too many Tauruses (and Mercury Sables -- the same car) and it was pushing their fleet average too high for the EPA guidelines.

So they redesigned the Taurus and turned it into a compact car.

Now it isn't harming the fleet average.

But it also isn't the roomy, comfortable, beautiful car it used to be. It also dumps snow in your trunk if you open it without first brushing your entire car clear of the white stuff, which is simply bad design for an American car.

(But bad design is hardly new. For instance, the Lincoln Town Car. This is an old man's luxury car, so I rent them when I travel. But the newest model's gas tank cover has a sharp little protuberance cleverly placed so that when you shove the nozzle of a gas hose into the hole, the latch gives you a nice bloody gouge in your thumb -- or your knuckle, if you're left handed. Remember: "Ford has a better idea!")

Maddeningly, Ford continues to call the Taurus a "fullsize car" and the rental car companies go along with the charade. If Taurus is a fullsize car, then a child's potty seat is a fullsize toilet.

But what choice have the car companies had, when they had the EPA requirements on one side, and the American hunger for roomy cars on the other. After all, we've had good nutrition for longer than most countries in Europe, so we're taller and, yes, fatter than most people abroad. We need bigger cars.

That's why so many Americans have had no choice but to take advantage of a huge loophole in the EPA regulations.

You see, "trucks" are exempted from the fleet-average requirement.

The idea was that farmers and other laboring people needed to have pickups and vans to haul things, and they were such a small percentage of the driving public that the car companies should have to worry so much about fuel economy in the design of their trucks.

But it wasn't hard to predict that suddenly "truck" was going to include a lot of vehicles that don't look much like what trucks looked like in the 1970s.

Minivans, you see, are trucks.

SUVs are trucks.

They don't count against the total.

The people who buy SUVs and minivans aren't buying them because they want to waste gasoline. They're buying them because most of them have room for lots of people -- even fullgrown people -- inside.

OK, for a while there, people were buying SUVs because they were a kind of status symbol. But those days are long gone -- in fact, SUVs are kind of dorky and annoying to everybody else on the road. But they're big, and Americans like and, yes, need big cars, even if they have to pretend their trucks in order to get them.

What's the solution?

Well, in some cities they've actually tried the remarkable idea of having a public transportation system that actually goes somewhere useful and runs often enough that it's a viable alternative to cars. But that will never be tried in North Carolina, so let's not waste time discussing it.

The new hybrid cars are a terrific answer, and as battery size continues to shrink, hybrids may become the dominant form of car in the future. They work great -- plenty of power -- and the fuel economy is amazing. Certainly I'd buy one if I could find one that would hold five adults and have room for six bags in the trunk.

Meanwhile, though, I hear a bunch of whiners complaining that government regulation is terrible and gas economy would actually have improved faster and farther if we'd let the free market have its way.

This is so dumb you don't know whether to laugh or cry. The very fact that SUVs and minivans have been so popular, the fact that the Taurus (and, by the way, the Crown Vic, Cadillac, and Town Car) had to shrink in order to meet the EPA guidelines, shows you exactly what the free market would have done.

Left to itself, the market would have made huge cars, if not the rule, then at least more common than they are.

Instead, we've found a delicate balance -- forced by the government -- that vastly improved the pollution levels in most American cities and cut our fuel use by an amazing amount compared to what it would have been with our population growth since the 1970s.

The power of government to level the playing field can be, and usually is, used in ridiculous ways. But when it's used right, it does good things.

Remember, you old people like me, what it was like when cars only came with AM radios? How did it change?

It was a government rule that required that FM radios be included as original equipment on all cars. Until then, FM wasn't making any headway because there were only a few public radio stations operating on FM, so there was nothing much to listen to if you got a radio that could receive FM.

And it made no sense to open more FM stations because nobody listened to FM radios in their cars.

But as soon as all cars had to have FM, then it made sense to open new stations and suddenly there was something to listen to. And today AM is the orphan stepchild of radio.

So when it comes to fuel economy, I'm not saying that the EPA goals are bad. Nor am I saying that Americans are evil to want big cars. Both are reasonable goals, and in the back and forth dance between government regulation and the free market, the people who really want big cars have got them, and yet we've also saved a lot of gasoline (though not enough) and cut back on automobile pollution per population.

Not a bad track record in the constant tug of war between the market and government regulation.

It's the American way. Don't let one team get all the power. Make 'em duke it out.


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