Fuel efficiency = bankrupt highways?

Brian hit the issue almost a year ago, but Jordan Weissmann at the Atlantic recently re-focused attention on the problem of funding U.S. highways with fuel taxes:

Since back in the Eisenhower era, the federal government has maintained a Highway Trust Fund, paid for mostly by taxes on fuel, that helps cover the repair and construction of our country’s roads, bridges, and mass transit. The idea was that drivers themselves should bear some of the cost the roads they used. Unfortunately, Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1993. Since then, inflation has eaten away at least a third of its value…[and] two new challenges [have] emerged. First, Americans started caring about the fuel efficiency again, as skyrocketing oil prices ended the era of gas-guzzling SUVs. Then the recession struck, and penny-pinching drivers logged fewer miles to save on gas.

The upshot, of course, is that

less money is flowing into the Highway Trust Fund, which is now facing potential insolvency in 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

I guess it’s good that fuel efficiency gains are having an impact?  (Ah, unintended consequences.)  Looks like we’re headed into a world where cars will have to start paying by the mile–or the highways are going to get a lot worse.

The sociological department at Ford

I stumbled across an interesting piece of information the other day: Henry Ford established a sociological department at his company in 1913. Here are some interesting tidbits about the short-lived department culled from some varied sources:

From a University of Michigan website:

The Sociological Department of the Ford Motor Company was organized in March, 1913, and oversaw a broad array of social benefits for Ford employees, including assistance in living in well-maintained single-family homes as opposed to small apartments. After the announcement of the Five Dollar Day in 1914, the Sociological Department was responsible for determining if employees’ personal lives and personal habits made them eligible for the full wage. This phase of the Department’s activities terminated with the reorganization of the company in 1920.

From a blogger:

On January 5 1914, Ford announced the revolutionary five-dollar, eight-hour day:

What the company announced was not a plan to pay workers an hourly rate equivalent to five dollars a day. Instead, the company announced a plan to allow the workers to share in the company profits at a rate that promised five dollars a day … The five-dollar profit sharing plan was designed by the company to include only those who were ‘worthy’ and who would ‘not debauch the additional money he receives’.

The Sociological Department, under the leadership of the Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, was put in charge of administering the programme and investigating the home lives of workers: “investigators from the Sociological Department visited workers’ homes and suggested ways to achieve the company’s standards for ‘better morals,’ sanitary living conditions, and ‘habits of thrift and saving’.”…

Inspired by welfare capitalism, Ford’s “philosophy adopted a paternalistic attitude toward workers that, in Ford’s case, was rooted in the Protestant work ethic. Ford believed in it and wanted his employees to adopt it…” And Ford’s social standards reached far beyond the confines of work-life. The PBS film Demon Rum documents the Sociological Department’s efforts to “end the working man’s drinking habit” and how the “success of the small program led to a national prohibition campaign.”

-A 2004 article in American Culture titled “Ford’s Sociology Department and the Americanization Campaign and the Manufacture of Popular Culture Among Assembly Line Workers.”

A two-day lesson for (high school?) students on the topic.

I am not surprised by Ford’s actions: there was a lot of pressure at the time to improve efficiency and a number of companies tried other tactics we might consider paternalistic today (example: the Pullman town which is now part of Chicago).

I am also reminded about the changed role of sociology. Ford seems to have viewed sociology as a means of “social engineering” or enforcing particular ways of living. This involved very strong value judgments and a lot of company control over workers. I imagine this would make most, if not all, sociologists today very nervous.

“Mandatory energy star ratings” for Australian houses

I’ve asked before whether McMansions can ever be green. Australia is proposing energy star ratings for homes and such regulations would especially affect McMansions:

The Federal Government aims to introduce, by as soon as next year, mandatory energy star ratings for homes being sold or rented out…

Housing experts said most McMansions would score very poorly on the ratings system, which would be similar to the methodology used to identify the energy efficiency of whitegoods…

There are significant financial implications for owners of these homes – and most older dwellings which are also likely to rate lowly.

Owners would need to either spend up on going green or face the prospect of a lower sale price.

This is one way to push homeowners to improve the efficiency of their homes. This isn’t terribly surprising considering that many consumer goods or appliances these days are rated along these grounds (from electricity cost to miles per gallon). But at the same time, I can’t imagine these sorts of regulations being instituted in the United States anytime soon unless it was solely limited to new construction.

The slow death of Christmas cards?

One of the traditional objects of the Christmas season, the Christmas card, is on the decline:

After experiencing slowing growth since 2005, Christmas card sales declined in 2009. While the drop was slight, 0.4 percent, according to research firm Mintel International Group, evidence is building that the next generation of correspondents is unlikely to carry on the tradition with the same devotion as their parents.

The rise of social networking, smart phones and Apple iPads is changing the way friends and family stay in touch, diminishing the Christmas card’s long-standing role as the annual social bulletin…

Americans sent more than 1.8 billion Christmas cards through the mail last year, according to greeting card industry statistics. That figure is expected to drop to 1.5 billion this holiday season.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Compared to other forms of communication, the Christmas card takes time and money. Interestingly, the same story says the Christmas card was born out of an interest in saving time:

A British businessman is credited with creating the Christmas card in 1843 — as a way to save time. Too busy to write a personal holiday greeting, Henry Cole hired a well-known London artist to design a card he could send to all his acquaintances, according to a version of the story recounted by greeting card maker Hallmark Cards Inc. Louis Prang, a German immigrant, is said to have brought the Christmas card tradition to America in 1875, printing a card depicting Killarney roses and the words Merry Christmas.

Some of my thoughts about this tradition that may die a slow death:

1. I’ve always enjoyed getting and reading Christmas cards (and the letters within). It is the one time a year you can count on getting mail and updates about people’s lives.

2. Many of the letters that are included in the cards are just fascinating. The typical one reads something like this: “We all had a great year, Son #1 did amazing things, Son #2 was comparable, and Daughter #1 is only 7 years old but is setting the world on fire!” On the whole, the letters are upbeat and tend to produce the image of “the perfect family.” And if they are Christians, there might be a paragraph or two at the end (or perhaps a verse printed in the card or at the top or bottom of the letter) about bringing the focus back around from their wonderful family to “the real reason for the season.”

2a. Perhaps I am too cynical about these cards. But on the whole, it seems like an exercise in taking a few moments to paint a particular image of one’s family.

2b. Perhaps this is exemplified best by the picture card, the one that puts the family in some sort of Christmas pose.

3. Even with the general tone of such letters, it does suggest someone has put some time into it. The idea that a card or letter (even though most of these letters are typed) is more meaningful than a Facebook post makes sense to me. But maybe this is just nostalgia talking and if the original cards were just a quest for efficiency, perhaps Christmas cards are just another symbol of the efficient modern culture.