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PJ O'Rourke on cars, cities and one benefit of U.S. decline

"I don’t think there’s anything exceptional about America. We’re just rich," says the author of Driving Like Crazy.

We took the magazine reporter, libertarian, God-loving family-man, and car nut, author P.J. O'Rourke (Parliament of Whores, Give War a Chance), for a steak standwich as he blew through Philadelphia (where he'll speak at the Free Library tonight, Thursday) to promote his 13th book, Driving Like Crazy, a collection of his  auto articles from Car & Driver and other publications; part world travelogue, part valentine to the power, freedom and excess conferred by American internal combustion; kind of an elegy.

And we wrote down everything he said, except when he was talking too fast.

(On who he blames for the auto industry's decline) The government. Safety rules, emissions standards...
(But your book acknowledges suburban sprawl, 40-mile commutes, and obsession with bigger machines than we really need, as factors in clogging highways, driving up gas prices, building overlarge cars...)
We spend so much of our time driving and we are so far from the cities, and so dispersed over the landscape, as a result of political failures, in large part.
In my circumstances, we live out in the country, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. But for most people, it wasn't us who decided to move to Hell-and-Gone. It was decided for us.  First and foremost by the failure of city public school systems. Rampant crime. Lousy infrastructure. And high taxes, which not only pushed us out of the cities but drove businesses out of the cities. We’re not commuting downtown anymore. Our offices, by and large, are in a different part of Hell-and-Gone.
(If the suburbs are getting like the cities people fled, why are suburbanites electing more Democrats?)
People at the local level vote conservative or liberal depending on how much they want from government. As we moved into the suburbs to escape problems we thought were Democratic, the problems followed us. We got drugs in the schools out there. Traffic. Taxes again. We look around for someone to fix these problem, and there's your  tendency to vote for bigger government. Democrats. 
(What do libertarians drive?) Anything we can afford. I’m product-driven. I have three kids and three dogs. Then, we live in New Hampshire, so we need high clearance and four-wheel drive. We ski. The kids play soccer. So we have all the equipment, the junk. 
(You're not a subway-and-bus guy.) Public transportation is fine if it's going where you're going. It works in Manhattan. Maybe it works here in Philadelphia. But once you get outside a very dense city environment it becomes very hard to use public transportation. You're combining going to work with dropping the kids and going to the grocery store... 
People who call for a gross expansion of mass transit, they must think everyone's a 23-year-old who lives in 600 square feet and lives on beer and ramen noodles. The other thing they fail to understand is just how much mass transit costs per person. You have to have like 400 people per mile per hour to break even.

(City subways and buses do that. Not suburban train lines, or Amtrak to the West Coast, but apparently that's what you need to win political support for funding.) Right. It's green pork. Maybe it's good for Manhattan. It's not a paying proposition for South Bend or Kalamazooo.
(You're mellowing, with age and your kids?) I'm getting meaner.  I was watching Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino on the flight back here from Australia. Clint Eastwood as this great, violent, cranky old autoworker. I’m heading for that. And, you know, his suburban kids. Bums.
(You're from Toledo, your dad sold cars. You know a lot of people who stayed back there. Their kids, now, are like Eastwood's kids in the movie?)   
We may be creating a society with very little place for the blue collar guy of average intelligence.

(The autoworkers I've met didn't much seem to like the work. Not like steelworkers
.) Making steel is cool. Making cars is not cool. Mostly you're standing there on the line... Hanging a door is skillful. Being the utility guy is fun, you move around and solve problems. But a lot of guys are lying on the ground tightening a nut.
The more dangerous a physical job, the more pride. Coalminers. Steelworkers. (Not farmworkers. Nobody wants to stay a farmworker.) No, and you're right, that’s the most dangerous work.
(What gives you hope?) The irresistible rise out of poverty of places like China and India. China’s very democratic. The driver sits with you. It's maybe a happy holdover from the Communist days. The tutor and the driver joke with you. The people who run things there, they're like Midwestern industrialists. Not like Boston Brahmins.

And there's Hong Kong, where your taxes are a flat 15%, with one deduction, for charity, and you can fill out your annual return on an index card. That city works, like in a 1940s movie of New York. Raise your hand and a taxi stops for you. Though they all run on, I think it's liquified natural gas. It's going to make a spectacular movie when one of them has an accident.

India is such a disorganized place. Driving across the country like we did, it's like being trapped in a screening of Slumdog Millionaire that never ends.  But somehow it's creating more members of the middle class each year, than we have total members of our middle class.

(And this progress is permanent?) No human progress is. People can be free in theory without economic wellbeing, but it’s economic freedom we depend on to live the life we want, 24/7/365.
(Will the U.S. come back to lead the world?) I don’t think there’s anything exceptional about America. We’re just rich. 
When you’re rich, you gain opporuninties. You can use the opportunities for better or worse. I think generally we’ve used them wisely. People (from poorer countries) are telling us with their feet and their leaking boats they want to be in the US and in Western Europe. Even in Japan, where they stick out like a sour thumb.
But if you ask, is America less influential than it was? Yes, and that's good. We were the only people standing after World War II. You don’t want ot be that important. I mean, when you are, you have to blow stuff up all the time. Who wants to have to keep doing that?
(What will happen to the car companies?) Chrysler disappears. Except Jeep gets spun off. Fiat gets a big U.S. dealer network. They’ve tried that before a few times, it didn’t work…
Ford pulls through, diminished, with the Ford family still willing to take a loss now and then. (Kind of a private equity company.) Right.
GM will break up. There’ll be Chevrolet. And the truck division. But even Toyota and Honda, the era of the gigantic car company – no more.