NPF: HORSE WARS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 6th, 2014 by Ed

As a (hobbyist) drummer I've never understood the fascination with "retro" drums. I get that anything old automatically confers Cool Points upon the owner but drums from the 1960s are, to put it charitably, shit. The metal hardware is beyond flimsy, the shells rarely stay in round, and the (critical) bearing edges often look to have been cut with a butter knife. There are some gems to be found – a day on which everyone at the old Gretsch factory performed flawlessly and they happened to grab the most perfect wood and the strongest lugs and screws – but the quality is wildly inconsistent and generally poor. It's inarguable that while old drums look cooler to a lot of people, the "beginner" drums on the market today are vastly better than the best, most expensive ones made in the 1950s in terms of build quality, design, and sound.

The same is true of cars. Buy the cheapest new economy car available today and you're driving the technological, performance, and safety equivalent of a Rolls Royce from the 1980s. Old cars have a lot of panache and style, and people love them because they are reminders of what most people define as their Good Old Days. But when was the last time you drove a car built in, say, the 1960s or 1970s? They're terrible cars by modern standards. They're loud, primitive, lacking in all but the most rudimentary safety features, and they suck down oil and gas like a Formula 1 racer. They look cool and some of them drive quite well. You wouldn't want to drive one to work every day if you had the option of driving, say, a mid 2000s compact instead, and you certainly wouldn't want to get in an accident in one unless you're weary of life.

I recently came across this Motorweek video of a comparison test between the "Hot Hatches" of the 1986 model year. I daresay some of the older readers found themselves driving one of these vehicles at some point: the Volkswagen GTI, Acura Integra, Dodge Colt Turbo, Toyota Corolla FX16, and Ford Escort GT. As is the case today, these are cars that are intended to be affordable to the average new car buyer but with lively performance emphasized over luxury or interior space. The GTI (many generations down the road, so to speak) is still the most popular car in this segment today.

The most powerful car in that group of five boasts 123 horsepower. This is less than you would get in the most basic transportation type car today – and yet in 1986 these were "performance" cars. For example, pedestrian 2014 offerings like a new Ford Focus (160 hp) or Hyundai Accent (138 hp, and one of the very cheapest new vehicles for sale today) would blow the doors off of 1986's performance compacts. And their gas mileage, safety features, and creature comforts are all significantly better as well.

The lame excuses made by the auto industry for so many years have been exposed in the last few as fuel economy has finally started to improve sharply. For years they claimed that the technology was too expensive, yet every new generation of cars had dramatically increased horsepower. This horsepower arms race means that today even the dullest vehicles on the road (Camrys, etc) can be equipped with 270+ hp engines that would outperform a V8 Corvette or Ferrari from the 1970s. Hell, a modern kid-hauler SUV comes equipped with a more powerful engine than a Ferrari 348 or a 1996 Corvette. And if the technology to offer such an unnecessarily large amount of power can be offered affordably, then better fuel economy is also possible (since equal power can be achieved with successively smaller engines). Only recently have manufacturers started taking advantage of this, offering even expensive luxury cars (Audi A6, BMW 535, Cadillac ATS, etc) with 4-cylinder engines.

Obviously, comparing any technology with its predecessor from 1986 is going to reveal some dramatic changes, but the average (not all that interested in cars) driver has no idea how staggering the increase in power has been over the past two decades. In 1995, Cadillac's full-sized offerings featured 195 hp V8 engines. Today, not only are there engines literally less than half that size producing over 200 hp (VW's 2.0L 4 cyl in the Audi S3 is rated at an insane 296) but the largest Cadillac now comes with a 415 hp V6. What in the name of god the average elderly Cadillac driver needs with 415 hp is beyond me (other than that the rapidly ballooning weight of modern cars, with their frivolous tech toys and heavy safety accommodations) but he can drive with the confidence of a man who would have needed to pay $250,000 for an exotic sports car to get that kind of power in the 1990s.

As much as it pains me to say it, a choice between Steve McQueen's Mustang in Bullitt and a new 2014 Ford Focus would be no choice at all. And the latter could blow him away in a road race anyway.

CAREENING

Posted in Rants on November 6th, 2014 by Ed

Another election, another autopsy of the American electorate.

Here's what we know. Americans generally believe that the minimum wage should be increased, that the War on Drugs is stupid, that draconian prison policies should be scaled back (if for the wrong reasons), and they elected by sizable margins what may be the least likely human beings on the planet to enact policies along those lines.

On the surface it makes no sense, but this pattern is becoming familiar. Democrats do well or something approximating well during presidential elections when a larger share of peripheral voters – younger, poorer, generally disenfranchised, and more cynical voters who can be enticed into voting only with great effort – show up at the polls. Then the midterms roll around and turnout is embarrassingly low, limited mostly to old white people. This certainly contributes to the schizophrenic nature of our elections in comparison to public opinion on major issues, which is generally pretty stable over time. Our preferences don't change dramatically yet the balance of power swings back and forth regularly. Why?

Differences in who turns out across elections are part of the answer. The other is that American voters have extremely limited choices. Third parties, leaving aside the occasional billionaire independent candidates as anomalies, have no realistic hope of winning elections beyond the local level. When people are highly dissatisfied (which they are) and feel that the country is a clustercuss (which it is), what option is there when the Democratic Party appears to be in control than to vote for Republicans? When the GOP has been in charge for a while, what else is there to do but vote for Democrats (see 2006, 2008)?

Unwilling to devote the kind of time and energy it would take to be well informed about the issues and demand decent candidates – not that we could compete with the influence of unlimited and unaccountable money – we have little choice but to mix and match different combinations of institutions of government and the jackwagons that are offered to us on the ballot. The only inherent advantage Republicans have is their superiority at playing the "They're comin' for your guns!" game. With the demographic tide firmly against them, that trick won't work forever. In the meantime we all have to live with the consequences of constantly electing people who are hellbent on doing things large majorities of us find either reprehensible or merely stupid.