Marc Fisher

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American auto sales have ticked up since the beginning of our unbalanced economic recovery, but teens are no longer rushing to get licenses and become owners, which sends a mixed message about the idea that we’re passed peak-car, an idea which began reverberating in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. 

The belief was that smartphones, not cars or motorcycles, were now the tools of freedom, and that’s true, but the changes also have to do with the flattening of the middle class, the skyrocketing of college-tuition costs and the emergence of the Gig Economy.

Certainly the sector is bracing for a radical reimagining, with driverless cars in development and more powerful companies hoping to enter the already robust rideshare sector. The auto industry might hope the shift away from purchases are more fashion than fundamental, but for that to be true two major trends–the rush toward urban living and the proliferation of mobile devices–would have to be reversed. And that’s not happening.

One caveat to all this is we may have passed peak-car only according to the rules imposed by Big Auto. 3-D printers might reawaken the want for wheels if costs fall precipitously and vehicles become green and highly customizable.

From Marc Fisher’s Washington Post article “Cruising Toward Oblivion“:

For nearly all of the first century of automobile travel, getting your license meant liberation from parental control, a passport to the open road. Today, only half of millennials bother to get their driver’s licenses by age 18. Car culture, the 20th-century engine of the American Dream, is an old guy’s game.

“The automobile just isn’t that important to people’s lives anymore,” says Mike Berger, a historian who studies the social effect of the car. “The automobile provided the means for teenagers to live their own lives. Social media blows any limits out of the water. You don’t need the car to go find friends.”

Much of the emotional meaning of the car, especially to young adults, has transferred to the smartphone, says Mark Lizewskie, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pa. “Instead of Ford versus Chevy, it’s Apple versus Android, and instead of customizing their ride, they customize their phones with covers and apps,” he says. “You express yourself through your phone, whereas lately, cars have become more like appliances, with 100,000-mile warranties.”

The number of vehicles on American roads soared every year until the recession hit in 2008. Then the number plummeted. Recently, it’s crept back up. Similarly, the number of drivers has leveled off. …

No, it’s the economy, stupid, some car industry analysts and executives say. The recession hit this generation just as it was about to put down roots. Fewer jobs meant less money, which translated into an inability to buy, insure or maintain a car.

Now, as the economy bounces back, auto sales are up 4 percent in the first half of this year. Americans are choosing big vehicles again. Thanks in part to low gas prices, sales of SUVs and light trucks are up. Sedans, subcompacts, hybrids and electrics are down.

“This is all actually economics, not preferences,” says Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit group funded by government and industry grants. When the cost of owning a car drops below 10 percent of income, “young people will stop telling pollsters they can do without cars. You say you’re not interested in owning something if you can’t afford it,” he argues.•

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Here, in no particular order, are this year’s 20 selections. These pieces, which made me think or reconsider my opinions or just delighted me, are limited to ungated material that’s only a click away. (I included work from publications such as the New York Times which allow a certain amount of free articles per month.)

  • The Reality Show” (Mike Jay, Aeon) Brilliant essay that points out that the manifestations of mental illness are heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. In our case: ubiquitous technology.
  • Invisible Child–Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life (Andrea Elliott, New York Times) A tale of two cities in present-day New York told through the story of a talented grade-school girl trying to make it through the hard knocks of class divisions. What’s expressed tacitly is that if the best and brightest homeless children only have a so-so shot at success, those less gifted have almost none. 
  • The Robots Are Here” (Tyler Cowen, Politico Magazine): The best distillation yet of the economist’s ideas about where the technological disruption will lead us as a society. I’m not completely on board with his forecasting, but this article is smart and provocative.
  • In Conversation: Antonin Scalia(Jennifer Senior, New York) Amazing interview with the Supreme Court Justice which reveals him to a stunning, and frightening, extent.
  • Return of the Oppressed (Peter Turchin, Aeon) The father of Cliodynanics forecasts a dark future for humanity thanks to spiraling wealth inequality.
  • Omens (Ross Andersen, Aeon) With a focus on philosopher Nick Bostrom, the writer wonders whether humans will survive into the deep future.
  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia(Ariel Levy, The New Yorker) Heartrending story of a reporter’s loss in a far-flung place is personal journalism at its finest.
  • Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013 (Alex Pappademas, Grantland): A master of the postmortem lays to rest not a person but a way of life which is disappearing brick by brick and mortar by mortar. 
  • The Corporate Mystique” (Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic) A reminder that a female CEO is not a replacement for a women’s movement.
  • The Global Swarm” (P.W. Singer, Foreign Policy) The author considers privacy as drones get smaller, smarter and seemingly unstoppable.
  • The Master” (Marc Fisher, The New Yorker) A profile of a predatory teacher is most interesting as an extreme psychological portrait of the cult mentality.
  • Why the World Faces Climate Chaos” (Martin Wolf, Financial Times) An attempt to understand why we cling to systems that doom us, that could make us the new dinosaurs.
  • The Hollywood Fast Life of Stalker Sarah” (Molly Knight, New York Times Magazine) Thoughtful article about celebrity in our age of decentralized media, in which fame has entered its long-tail phase, seemingly available to everyone and worth less than ever. 
  • Academy Fight Song(Thomas Frank, The Baffler) The author plays the role of designated mourner for common sense in U.S. higher education, which costs more now and returns less.
  • The Wastefulness of Automation(Frances Coppola, Pieria) A smart consideration of the disconnect of free-market societies that are also highly automated ones.

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The reason why cults and other mind-control systems seek out the young isn’t only because they’re energetic and lack familial responsibilities, but because they’re “impressionable.” What does that mean? When we’re not yet formed, when we haven’t had enough repetition of thought to set ourselves, ideas can be pushed into our brains–and pushed out–more readily than later in life. And as deprogrammers can tell us, once something does become deeply ingrained at that age, it’s a chore changing a mind. That’s why you see otherwise intelligent teens become Manson Family members or an American Taliban. It’s not a lack of intelligence, but a lack of experience. And that applies whether it’s a cult based on religion or sex or anything else, because it’s all about power. 

From “The Master,” Marc Fisher’s painstaking and painful exploration of the Horace Mann sex-abuse scandal, a passage about one of the victims of a charismatic teacher who maintained control over some of his students even when they grew into adults, assembling them in a country house to be his makeshift ‘family”:

“The other original owner of the house, the bond trader, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said that he first encountered Berman in tenth grade, when his relationship with his parents was crumbling. ‘I didn’t know it, but I was looking for someone like Berman, who had authority, who was a leader,’ he says. ‘In a school that made everyone think he was special, this was the hardest guy to have approve of you. I needed somebody to talk to and he offered himself as a counsellor.’

Like the other boys, he was invited to Berman’s apartment, in eleventh grade. ‘We didn’t think of ourselves as gay, and I never was, though I engaged in homosexual activities, obviously,’ the bond trader says. Berman would describe the sex as a natural part of the teacher-student relationship, dating back to ancient Greece. ‘We might spend a night and then go home to our parents, and other kids would come in,’ he says. ‘He took great pleasure in stealing kids from the parents he hated.’

The trader also says that, while he lived at Satis House, Berman kept him on a restricted diet, to hold his weight at about twenty-five pounds below the level at which he had played football in college. In the early years of their relationship, he says, Berman regularly beat him with a belt buckle. Berman wrote to me that this wasn’t true: ‘I do not recall ever striking anyone with a belt buckle; I guess I’d remember if I had. (Excellent idea, though.)’

After four years at Satis House, the trader left, and he has spent the subsequent decades trying to figure out why he stayed so long. ‘There was always the threat of excommunication, lack of approval, castigation,’ he told me. ‘We weren’t even allowed not to like the food he made—and it was awful. And there was always alcohol, lots of it. You drank one woolie and you were relatively pliable after that. I never knew I was part of a cult till I got out.'”

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