Autonomous railroads and the importance of shipping goods by train

An exploration of autonomous trains in the United States includes this graphic about how cargo is moved in the country:

At this point, railroad shipping is very important: roughly one-third of cargo goes via train. This only follows trucks. And I wonder how this data works when cargo goes much of the way via train but then needs to make it “the last mile” from the railyard to specific locations.

So how much might autonomous railroads help? Here is some suggestive data:

A European Union-funded study published in 2020 found that moving to newer systems for managing trains could increase the capacity of existing rail networks by up to 44%. An internal study by Wabtec indicates in the U.S. the increase could be even higher, up to 50%. An increase of that magnitude in the ton-miles carried by America’s rail network would be the equivalent of moving approximately one million fully loaded Boeing 747-10 passenger jet planes from coast to coast every year.

Combine this with autonomous trucks (which, according to this piece, may take longer than moving to autonomous trains) and drones and perhaps more future goods could be moved even more quickly.

Using capitalist means, such as TV shows and consumer goods, to critique capitalism

Capitalism is the economic system of the United States and many other parts of the world. Can actors use capitalist means to critique capitalism? Two recent examples.

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First, television shows, films, and cultural products more broadly often contain critiques of capitalist systems and outcomes. For example, one writer highlights how this happens with the popular series Squid Games:

One of the key things wealth can buy is the ability to make decisions and change your circumstances. Money gives you options and choices. For everyone else in the vicinity of Just Getting By (or worse), choice is often little more than an illusion. Most of us fall into the latter category and perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Netflix Korean series “Squid Game” has become such a global phenomenon since premiering last month, with its brutal critique of capitalist imperatives and the traps therein…

Because is it really a choice — such a slippery word — when you’re this desperate? Is it really a choice when the systems we live by are put in place by the rich and powerful to deliberately create that desperation? Put another way: Scarcity in modern life is as manufactured as the life-or-death scenarios in “Squid Game.”

In the show’s view, we are powerless to band together, to refuse to play along or create a different reality. When pushed to the brink, we become selfish or scared or just beaten down. And ultimately, we turn on one another. Another clear thematic through-line: It is men who run and enforce these games, and it is men who watch them from afar as spectators numb to (or thrilled by) the suffering at hand…

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the real-world embodiment of the show’s exploitative VIPs — tweeted congratulations to Netflix’s head honchos before adding: “And I can’t wait to watch the show”? Nothing bizarre or surreal about that, nope, nope, nope. Is this the part where I also mention that Netflix and Amazon are among the studios playing hardball with the union for TV and film crews in the U.S. on issues like livable wages, reasonable work hours and meal breaks? Everything is fine, pay no mind to all the contradictions we live with every day!

So wealthy studios, streaming services, and individuals put together and promote a series critiquing capitalism and there is plenty of money to be made off of this.

Second, consumers are regularly asked to purchase items or experiences that funnel money to worthwhile charities and causes. This could be celebrity-backed lines that donate a portion of the price to charity, religious organizations or civic groups selling items, or companies donating money through purchases. All of this assumes that purchases will be made and that consumers will want to purchase products or experiences that give back as opposed to ones just sold for profit. Consuming is the way to give, as opposed to just giving without the need for consumption.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the fact that anything can be made into a commodity. This includes items needed for daily survival to luxury goods to experiences to things that once were “sacred.” If anything can be bought and sold, including objects that critique the very system under which they are bought and sold, is there hope of a different reality?

Consumerism is also a powerful force. Whether consuming TV shows – binge-watching a critique of capitalism? – or consumer goods, the consumer is in a particular position of taking things in. I like the distinction I have heard from multiple sources over the last decade or so: there is a difference between being a consumer and a citizen. The first primarily takes while the second contains the ideas of duties, responsibilities, and obligations alongside personal or collective benefits.

Adding social norms and social pressure to seeing lawns as “a window into your soul”

Do lawns say something about a homeowner?

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To our neighbors, our lawn was just another suburban expanse of green. But to my dad, like millions of other yard-having homeowners, it was a canvas, a psychologist’s couch, a playpen, a physical manifestation of his deepest fears and greatest joys. Our lawn was one of the few places in my father’s world where he could impose his will. Plus, it was a respite from his three children. It was a miracle he ever came inside.

Watching my dad out there year after year taught me this: A lawn can tell you an awful lot about its owner.

This fits with the American idea that things you own, ranging from a home to a car to your smartphone, say something important about you. They are not just items to use or enjoy; they reflect your personal brand, even as millions of others may have the same things.

People might also do this with lawns. If people keep up their lawn, they assume the homeowner cares about their property and home. Americans generally like this. Those who do not keep up their home and lawn are less trustworthy as are people who do not own homes.

At the same time, lawns are also the product of social norms. What do the neighbors do with the lawn? How might a messy lawn be perceived by neighbors? Are nicer lawns connected to higher property values? How do different brands sell grass seed and other lawn products? I have argued before that a well manicured and clear lawn is connected to social class. Communities have expectations about what lawns should look like and can exercise both formal and informal sanctions, whether mowing lawns for residents and sending them the bill if the grass is too long to dirty looks.

More broadly, the idea of a green and lush lawn is tied to the American suburban dream. The nice single-family home surrounded by an oasis of green hints at private property, nature, and an attentive homeowner. A neighborhood with such lawns is a sign of care and neighbors who value their community.

The home of the brave and the (electric F-150) pickup truck

With all of the talk of the electric Ford F-150, I ran into this statistic about sales of the current F-150:

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Still, if you’re going to pick an electric ambassador to the gas-loving masses, it would be hard to do better than the F-150. The truck has been the best-selling vehicle in the country for decades; more than 2,450 Americans buy a new one every day.

This is a hard number to understand. Roughly 2,500 a day? Some context might help. Americans like driving. They purchase millions of vehicles each year. According to Statista, they purchased over 11 million in 2020. Back in the early 1980s, the number was just over 2 million but there was a steady rise from the early 1990s to the late 2000s and then again in the last decade.

The anecdotal evidence I have matches these numbers. Having spent much of my life in the suburbs, I do not recall seeing many pickup trucks when I was younger. They were more of an occasional sighting, Now, there are pickups all over the place in all different sizes. The F-150 is indeed popular as are numerous other makes and models. The pickup is now a normal suburban vehicle.

According to Edumunds, the F-150 dominates car sales across the United States (and some other vehicles, including pickups, lead in a small number of states).

This reminds me of a magazine advertisement I used for years in my Intro to Sociology course. The ad was two pages and showed a parked pick-up truck within a swampy area. Sitting by the truck were roughly 15 dogs and standing nearby was the solitary man with his gun and camo. All of it screamed individualism and male vehicle. And this message is repeated over and over in television ads for trucks during sporting events and in many other places.

The electric pickup has the chance to keep Americans driving for decades in the big vehicles there are used to. There might still be a range issue for longer trips. But, imagine pickups that can accelerate even faster and just need to be plugged in at night.

When infrastructure needs exceed capacity, Suez Canal edition

Images from this week of the Ever Given wedged in the Suez Canal are fascinating. Such a situation raises a lot of quick questions – such as “how did this happen?!?” – but there are bigger issues at work. For example, how and when does infrastructure adjust when the needs increase?

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Here is how one piece frames it:

The incident could raise new questions about the container shipping industry, which moves 90 percent of the world’s goods, and its increasingly gigantic ships. Demand for shipping goods by sea has surged during the Covid-19 pandemic, with spot prices for empty containers moving from China to northern Europe rising by more than 400 percent. In response, shipping lines have loaded gigantic vessels like the Ever Given with record numbers of containers. Ships have run into some trouble. The industry has lost more cargo into the sea in late 2020 and early 2021 than in prior years. “We’re going to get to a point where the ships are so large, it becomes a burden,” says Byers.

Goods traveling via containers – whether on ships, trucks, trains, or other means – are essential to modern economies. As markets grow and expand, there will be more shipping containers moving around the globe. That means infrastructure needs to expand. More trucks and roads. More trains. More intermodal facilities. Canals that need to be wider.

This happens primarily behind the scenes. Consumers see goods on shelves or they are delivered from vast warehouses and all is good. It is only when something goes wrong in these systems, such as a 1,300 foot ship getting stuck in a major international shipping route, that we note the tensions and the limits. Changes will be made on the Suez Canal to limit the possibility of this happening again and the shipping containers will continue to flow. Until the problem arises again or larger changes need to be made…

America is #1, self-storage space edition

Americans need extra space for all of their stuff and the self-storage industry has the solution:

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

It was in Texas that self-storage originated, in the 1960s. The industry has flourished since then, and the United States now has 2.5 billion rentable square feet, at least 90 percent of such space in the world; over the same period, the average size of an American single-family home nearly doubled, and the average number of occupants fell by a quarter. This suggests that self-storage was not an inevitable convenience but something else, perhaps an indicator of national psychopathology…

Millennials, it is often reported, are uninterested in their boomer parents’ abundant accumulated possessions. Might this hurt the storage industry? They also have the highest storage use of any generation, with one fifth of households. (Millennials, and city dwellers, are also likeliest to choose the inscrutable survey response of having “personally experienced” “living in their units.”) Another idly theorized threat to the storage industry is the success of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The idea seems dubious: consumer storage use recently reached 10 percent of U.S. households, and if anything threatens the business, it would be the pandemic, which appears to have spawned vacancies and depressed rents. It is plausible, however, that a number of Americans attempted a Kondo purge—getting rid of possessions that failed to spark joy, often thanking them for their service before relinquishing them—but wound up storing those things. Since Kondo’s sensibility derives from both Zen’s ideal of nonattachment and Shinto’s respect for the animate dignity of the “inanimate” world, it would be an acute irony for these objects to become imprisoned, like the diverse species of Japanese undead, in a state of irresolution.

Even as Americans have the largest new houses on average in the world and may purchase these homes to store their stuff, many need even more space. There are multiple reasons for this: an emphasis on consumerism; difficulty in parting with objects; lots of land for self-storage as well as relatively low costs for storage; disposable income. Kicking the acquisition cycle can be hard to do.

Two additional thoughts: some argue Americans consume to show off or display their status. But, using self-storage is truly a private act. If items are stored there, they cannot be at your home or in your yard or on hand to use.

Second, if only 10 percent of Americans are using self-storage, there is more money to be made! Imagine a country where tiny houses become more normal but people cannot part with all of their goods and need to store them somewhere. Or, as noted above, Baby Boomers cannot interest their family in all they have accumulated and resale stores and markets are flooded with too many items. Or, some fancy self-storage system where drones find and deliver goods when owners want them.

Advertising yourself through your vehicle

What does your car say about you? It can say a lot according to one Washington police department:

RichlandPDcars

The emphasis here is on limiting exposure to crime. Put a lot of information on your car, people might see it and take advantage.

But, this goes against what Americans argue is a feature of consumerism: the products purchased plus their customization and deployment reflects individuals and their personality. Americans do not just buy cars to get from one place to another. Instead, what model and trim and color buyers select reflects something about them. The pick-up truck reflects rugged individualism. The Toyota Prius reflects different sensibilities as does the Nissan Versa or the Subaru Outback. And then owners can modify the vehicle in a myriad of ways, including adding stickers or decals or a vanity plate to the back. And driving is essential to the American way of life.

Not all information given in public will lead to a crime. Of course, the tweet above does not cover all of the information one could add to their car. This includes messages about particular religions (think Coexist or fish emblems), political bumper stickers, and sports teams, just to name a few.

Contrasting tiny weddings to reduced interest in McMansions and SUVs

I first read about “tiny weddings” yesterday – and the lede suggested they are the opposite of consuming big items:

Big SUVs, McMansions and the term “bigger is better” are all things that used to connote living your best life. Now, consumers are shifting to the opposite end of that spectrum, including those who want to tie the knot.

Tiny weddings (aka microweddings) are a growing trend for couples who want to have their special day with less worry and spend less money (think $2,000 to $3,000) at a time when annual reports like those from The Knot state that the national average cost of a wedding is $33,931. The smaller ideal also comes at a time when families are picking up less of the tab for the big day and student-loan debt is infringing on wedding dreams and goals. The tiny wedding limits the numbers of attendees. The average wedding in the U.S. has 126 guests, according to the WeddingWire 2019 Newlywed Report.

To some degree, McMansions and SUVs are back. And linking the two might be in vogue for a long time.

But there is a bigger question at play here: is the suggestion correct that Americans are now less interested in purchasing big items? I have heard this for years: Americans are past the garishness and ostentatious purchases of the 1980s through the early 2000s. They learned their lessons about too much debt, too much emphasis on material objects, and the impact on social life. They are now more interested in consuming experiences than items. They want to live simpler, less cluttered lives. Tiny houses are in, McMansions out.

At the same time, with an economy that slowly recovered after the housing bubble of the late 2000s is this true in regards to SUVs and McMansions? Both are expensive, particularly compared to other options in their categories. They both have their critics and these criticisms have dogged them for decades. Yet, both seem to be thriving among the sectors of the buying public that like them. Both appear to have a future. If Americans continue to desire single-family homes and there are still forces arranged to push them toward large homes, McMansions will continue.

At least 12 reasons Americans have the biggest houses in the world

Why do Americans have the largest houses in the world? A lengthy list of reasons:

  1. Americans like private homes. This often means they desire detached single-family homes in the suburbs. So why not have a lot of private space? Similarly, Americans place a lower priority on pleasant public spaces or spending time in public.
  2. The trend toward larger homes really took off in the postwar suburban era. At the time, this could be linked to growing family size with the Baby Boomer generation. (Interestingly, as household sizes decreased in recent years, homes continued to get bigger.)
  3. Americans like to consume. With relatively large amounts of disposable income, Americans need space to store their stuff, ranging from clothes to media to new technological devices to cars. The answer is not to get rid of stuff but rather to have a big house to store bulk goods. Garages are important parts of homes since driving is so important.
  4. Americans have increasingly viewed housing as an investment rather than just a place to live and enjoy. If the goal is to get a big financial windfall later in selling the home, it could pay off now to buy as much as possible.
  5. Compared to some countries, Americans have a lot of land to build and sprawl. Americans have also made different land use decisions to prioritize lower densities and sprawl.
  6. There are regional differences regarding large homes. McMansions are everywhere in the United States but more culturally acceptable in Dallas than in New York City. Many metropolitan regions have housing prices that make having a big house possible (compared to New York, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle).
  7. Developers and builders are less interested in constructing starter houses as there are more profits in bigger homes.
  8. A number of communities will only allow homes of a certain size in order to maintain their character and status.
  9. The government has provided funding and support for mortgages, suburbanization, and driving over the last century.
  10. Americans have a bigger is better mentality as well as believe that growth is good. This applies to population growth and also applies to houses.
  11. McMansions are popular with some but America has plenty of large homes that would not qualify as McMansions. From large urban condos and homes to large rural properties, Americans can find plenty of big homes to purchase.
  12. The space in homes does not have to be used to be desirable. For some owners, the space itself is just worth having.

(This post was inspired by this recent article. Also, see this earlier post “Explaining why Americans desire larger homes.”)

Waterbeds and “straitlaced suburban living”

A 2016 piece from Mental Floss connects waterbeds to suburbs:

Although many associate waterbeds with strait-laced suburban living, back in the ‘70s they were a symbol of the free-flowing counterculture movement—more likely to be sold with incense and Doors albums than with fluffy pillows and high thread count sheets. “That fluid fixture of 1970s crash pads” was how a New York Times story from 1986 described them. The names of manufacturers and distributors reflected this: Wet Dream, Joyapeutic Aqua Beds, and Aquarius Products were a few that rolled with the times.

Sex, of course, was a big selling point. “Two things are better on a waterbed,” an Aquarius ad stated. “One of them is sleep.” Another ad proclaimed, “She’ll admire you for your car, she’ll respect you for your position, and she’ll love you for your waterbed.” Hippies and hip bachelors alike were the target market for the bed that promised the motion of the ocean. Hall even got in on the act, offering a $2800 “Pleasure Island” setup, complete with contour pillows, color television, directional lighting, and a bar. Hugh Hefner loved the craze, of course—Hall made him one covered in green velvet, and Hef had another that he outfitted in Tasmanian possum hair.

By the ’80s, waterbeds had moved from the hazy fringe to the commercial mainstream. “It has followed the path of granola and Jane Fonda,” the Times noted. Indeed, waterbeds were available in a variety of styles, from four-post Colonials to Victorian beds with carved headboards to simple, sturdy box frames. Allergy sufferers liked having a dust-free mattress, while back pain sufferers were drawn to the beds’ free-floating quality. Advertisements by sellers like Big Sur Waterbeds played up the health benefits with shirtless, beefy dudes like this one…

By 1984, waterbeds were a $2 billion business. At the height of their popularity, in 1987, 22 percent of all mattress sales in the U.S. were waterbed mattresses.

While the particular history (and then demise) of the waterbed is interesting in itself, it hints at larger patterns. Is this is an isolated story of a product that goes from the counterculture to suburban homes or is this a common pattern among American consumer goods and cultural products? What was once radical or born out of a subgroup can become simply a run-of-the-mill item found in millions of homes. Cool often can only last so long. I am reminded of the argument that the retailer Gap lost its edge when it became another company looking for suburban consumers.

Of all the consumer goods I could think of that are associated with the suburbs, it would be a long time before I made it to waterbed. I might have to start such a list with cars (after ruling out single-family homes because they are too expensive to really quality for such a list).