Friday, August 1, 2008

The (Re)Creation of the Traditional (?) American Community

Depending on where you live and what your existing community is like, it might be inconceivable to think that in a few summers from now your summer will be spent at home. In modern times, “at home” simply means you are either at your house or within your community. It means you do not take a long roadtrip, you don’t venture to a foreign locale, in short, you just don’t go anywhere that’s more than, say, 20 or 30 miles away. Does your community offer what you need or want to make a summer at home tolerable? What is there to do, see, think about, explore, etc.?

One of the most beneficial (for the long term) but potentially difficult modifications American society will soon have to make as a result of generally unaffordable gasoline is the rebuilding of the true community. Or, should I say, the forced rebuilding of the traditional community. We are going to have to make our communities more inhabitable, more packed with opportunities to feed our ever-growing lust for diversion, and in general, more conducive to just plain hanging out in. We are going to have to create more on our own and learn to live without as much selection.

In this still golden (albeit quickly tarnishing)age of cheap-ass gas and a full tank that cost less than a good meal out, many of us have and often drive our cars. This means we can go places, shop around, have the world delivered to our doorstep by men in brown uniforms, get our food shipped in from across the country in less time than it takes us to get ready for bed at night. In short, many of our identities exist within but also outside of our communities because we have the potential to be somewhere else, do something new, experience something out of the norm…. all of those American “grass is always greener-isms” we share.

We have multiple options for goods and services presented to us and we are used to the idea of multiple providers of essentially the same thing, simply as a matter of competition. However, this competition that allows us the diversity in goods and services that we so value is all based on keystone of cheap transportation for the delivery of these products.

The lack of choice we will eventually be forced to experience will be the topic for a host of entries on this blog, as this fact alone composes one of the most potentially difficult social and consumer-related difficulties we will face. For now, that is something I just want to touch upon, but back to the matter at hand….

At this point I do not believe in a true community spirit exists (unless you live in a commune, which more power to you, I guess) that is universally accepted voluntarily by all of its denizens. This suggestion is likely to ruffle a few feathers simply because a lot of us (myself included) like to think we live in close communities. We feel good about our communities when we shop at the local farmer’s market or independently-owned grocery, volunteer for community-related organizations, attend community and neighborhood events and socialize primarily with people in the general vicinity. What we will come to acutely understand in coming years, however is that the concept of community extends far beyond what we do. It includes who we are; as individuals and as a society and this is a brand-new notion for a country obsessed with places and things from places that are only accessible by a drive, whether it’s a short trip or an extended journey. What will happen when we’re all forced to stay at home? We will create new, local and hopefully community-member owned enterprises, restaurants, shopping venues, etc.

It just has to happen that way.

As gut-wrenching as the economic (and, for that matter, recreational) effects of unaffordable gasoline will be for the masses for the next couple of decades, America’s loss of driving privileges will recreate the traditional concept of community with the added dash offered by internet, satellite, and communication technologies. In short, far from reverting to the “old world” community of yore with a singular community groupthink enforced by geographical isolation and a lack of diverse information coming in from the outside world, the new American community will be enhanced by easy access to global information, entertainment, news and worldviews while simultaneously being tight-knit and driven, economically, socially, and otherwise, by local interactions, businesses, organizations and educational/recreational outlets.

In the coming time of the New American Community where staying close to home is a necessity rather than a choice we are going to need to find new ways to make our communities somewhere we want to be. For far too long now we have been able to ignore glaring issues and brush aside the persistent notion that life is always better when we’re away from home, away from what we know… We are going to have to make our communities somewhere we want to live, work, and play in because as the years roll on with no realistic alternative to affordable transportation on a whim, it is the only place we can afford to be. We will have to learn with less of a choice but make the most of what we do have and take pride in what has been created out of necessity.

The complexities related to this issue are astounding and specific topics related to it will be added in future posts… In the meantime, however, think about your community. Is it where you want to be? Can you find common ground with your neighbors and build into something more, if for no other reason than that you have no choice? Can you imagine living with less selection, fewer choices?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Getting Full on Filling Up?

In a general survey conducted by the temporary employment giant, Manpower, and published in the academic trade journal T&D, high gas prices are having an enormous impact both on the balance workers are finding between their jobs and work and, perhaps more importantly, that some employees, even those who are relatively satisfied with their current positions, are looking for employment closer to home. According to this survey of 900 folks, 65% claim they “have reduced their spending on entertainment and hobbies, 29 percent have cancelled their summer travel plans, and another 29 percent have restricted their children’s extracurricular activities” (T&D 2006).

Oh, yeah, did you happen to see that citation? This survey is from 2006 when the average cost for a gallon of fuel in the United States was $3 and was causing mild panic.

In my opinion, $3 per gallon on average was enough to get people thinking, enough, at least enough to fearfully respond to this survey about their plans and projections. What this survey did not analyze was the retroactive effect of these higher gasoline prices and how they had an impact on what really happened as opposed to what the respondents speculated upon; did these people truly cancel their summer plans and nix the idea of summer camp three states away or were things not quite scary enough then to make a big difference? Did they eventually just decide to suck it up and pay the pump after all?

At what point, or, better yet, at what price, does gas really need to be before we genuinely do alter our plans for recreational travel and activities? Is the current $4.10 national average going to do it or is $10 per gallon enough to break us?

There is a lot of moaning going on, but consider this, “the number of Americans traveling more than 50 miles from their home is expected to drop by 1 percent this year [2008], to about 38 million travelers” (Crouch 2008) and although the article recognizes this as a disturbingly mild statistic, especially given the sour economic news coming out of the U.S. more generally, it does say that this is a significant drop-off in travel.


Well, let’s see. Maybe some recent figures by the airlines can offer a more indicative idea of the pain behind the pinch. According to the Air Transport Association, “airlines are expecting 2.7 million fewer passengers this summer, a drop of about 1.3 percent” (Crouch 2008). Okay, so I guess when we consider the number of people rather than the ineffective-sounding statistic it does seem a little less distressing. 2.7 million less people in the skies this summer means roughly the equivalent, statistically speaking, of every single person in the metropolitan area of Indianapolis, Indiana (and some of the suburbs to boot) not getting on a plane this summer period. Now it seems a little easier to fathom.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with statistics. 1 or 2 percent sounds like nobody at all when considering the American population but if you look at such a percentage in the context of a city and its localized population, the numbers gain strength and clarity. The whole city of Indy…every man, woman and child, says “heck no, we won’t go” to the airlines. Geez.

So, this year might mark the first truly significant dip in travel plans for the summer, particularly if we find some median between conflicting statistics reporting, erroneous or optimistic responses to surveys, and the general act of attrition between consumers faced with a boring summer at home versus an unaffordable but much-needed foray across state lines. We are still paying it, folks. Most of us are still sucking it up and paying the pump. We bitch and moan, we huff and puff, but pretty soon…. Yikes.


(2006). High Fuel Costs Affect Work-Life Balance. T+D, 60(9), 18.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Ghostly Green Light of False Hope

Today, and as expected for the rest of the week, barring, of course, any unforeseen calamities that will allow for a sudden increase in gas prices again, most of the United States will see the average cost of fuel hovering just below the $4 mark, except in the cases of the usual suspects as far as unaffordable gasoline go (California, Alaska, etc). Fantastic! Hooray! What a deal…thank you random deciders of the future of American transportation!

America is go this week! Load up the kids, visit the Grand Canyon, drive across a few states just because you can, people.


While it’s difficult to argue with the point that we are all getting a welcome break this week, the constant fluctuations in gas prices are leading to a sense that we should all remain calm and keep filling up our tanks because pretty soon, there will be some kind of break in the spike and we can return to life as normal.

This lowering of pump prices and subsequent high levels of publicity surrounding such drops makes us complacent as it lends to the feeling that all of our bitching is having some kind of impact; that someone high up in an office in Dubai or Washington is listening to the complaints of ordinary citizens and has decided to step in and save us all from what we know is forthcoming. The fact is, there are a number of variables having an impact on this sudden but not really significant dip in the price of crude, thus the amount you pay to fill up your tank and rest assured, none of them have anything to do with feelings. Yours, mine, or theirs. In a few weeks, something will happen and they will be back again, higher than before, although who knows by how much.

I'm heading up to Northwestern Ohio tomorrow to visit the parents and filled up the tank today after an almost 20-minute wait at the pump. I passed by the closest gas station because their prices were about 4 cents lower than the one I ended up at and the line to fill up was spilling out over a major roadway. People looked hot and tired this afternoon and while normally, people probably might have seemed a bit crabby to boot, there was actually a palpable sense of eagerness in the air. The same vibe I get when I am at a store with a big sale and there are people ooing and ahhing to themselves, impressed with the delivered promise of a deep discount. It was primal. And frankly, a little depressing.

It's a green light for me tomorrow too and I will readily admit it was nicer to fill up for 3.80-something rather than over $4. I noticed again as I was filling up that I seem to kind of glaze over as I watch the cents add up to dollars before I've even had time to flip the little switch that holds the pump trigger down for my convenience. I rationalize and wonder when the day will come that when I go home to visit I have to budget for it like I would if I was taking a flight instead. Is that two years from now or ten? Am I jumping the gun? Is there nothing to fear?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What Makes You So Special, Wichita, Kansas?

And so today in arbitrary gas wackiness; a few hours ago, in fact, the Lundberg survey came out with its assessment that gas prices have fallen to the discount rate of under $4 per gallon and, on a feverish note, quickly sent it out on the press swill. The highest prices are in Alaska, which one can easily understand given the transportation costs to lug the stuff up there, no surprise there but get this: the lowest national price is in Wichita, Kansas. Wichita. While I’m happy for the good folks there who can expect to fill up for a tick over $3.64, I am, like many others, forced to question why Wichita? Why not King of Prussia Pennsylvania or Hell, Michigan (they both exist) or the Speedway down the street from me with the mustache lady and 98 cent gallon-sized cups for fountain drinks?

In cases such as Hawaii and Alaska, for example, gas prices are high for quite obvious reasons. It costs quite a bit to transport the gasoline and the base price is far higher than anywhere in the country. In states with crazy prices such as California, for instance, it is worth keeping in mind the fact that the taxes on gasoline vary from state to state. Oftentimes, the states that already might be facing higher fuel costs because of (and who knows how valid this really is, as often as we hear it) transportation costs also have exorbitant taxes on top. States with notoriously high gas prices like California and Michigan also have upwards of 7% in taxes to pay whereas there are plenty of states, such trusty old North Dakota, for instance, that have spared their citizens that cost.

If you have ever been curious about how much you’re really spending on tax versus the gasoline itself, I recommend this chart that offers a state-by-state breakdown of gas taxes with revealing comments about the nature, function and amount of the tax. It uncovers a rather enlightening bit of information, all neatly organized into pretty graphs, which is always a bonus for me whenever numbers are involved. Chances are, the first thing you’ll notice is that wild variation between taxation across state lines that might help to explain the current situation that presented us today with record nationwide lows in Wichita. While some states have no tax and relatively low prices that are commensurate with rest of the country, Kansas is only slightly above average in terms of pre-tax gasoline per gallon and only has a 1 cent per gallon “environmental” tax (which sounds a lot better than other taxes such as the ubiquitous “Petroleum Products Gross Receipts Tax” in Jersey or the equally nefarious-sounding “company franchise tax”—both of which sound like they line the pockets of oil companies themselves).

Before I hit the sack I’ll leave you with some good news and some bad news. According to the same report from Lundberg making the web circuit at this very moment, gas prices, “barring any dramatic change in the global oil market…may soon pull back another 10 cents per gallon” which is sweet. And a nice gesture. But the bad news is, none of it makes sense, all of it is illogical and the only way to interpret it is to pick between 10-20 reliable news sources, mine for quotes from oil industry experts and then cry. Taxes do account for some of the price variances across states as do transport and related costs, but in general, don’t feel silly for ever saying that it is still kind of arbitrary.

Dude, Where's My Job?

I recognize this is hardly a newsflash, but lately there have been rather staggering job losses and even position eliminations across the employment spectrum—all related to the skyrocketing cost of gasoline and we are only just teetering on the edge of $4 per gallon with a projected increase over successive years.

Already I have heard stories, both in my personal life and on the news about the effect these high prices for fuel are having on a number of jobs. For instance, one man I struck up a conversation with owns a moving company in Columbus, Ohio and has already had to retire two of his trucks and four of his employees. For one thing, he suggested that it seemed to him that less people were moving (which is odd, considering the drastic foreclosure situation, particularly here in my neck of the woods) and that when people were moving, they were simply taking less crap with them. Part of me thought that he might have been denying the simple truth; people can no longer afford to hire movers. Plain and simple. I wanted to just come out and ask him that but that pained look on his face….no way.

I know we are a fuel-based economy. Hell, these days, I’m starting to think we are a gas-driven society to boot as so many of our diversion, shopping, recreational, and other societal habits are balancing on the availability of cheap (or at least affordable) fuel for our vehicles. But really, when you sit down to think about the jobs that are based on this fuel and what might happen to these positions—it is scary. One goal I have with this blog is to examine, using a close focus, the multiple people in various industries and sectors who will experience an enormous impact when the gas price bomb truly explodes. At present, I have compiled a very short and non-exhaustive list, including:

Cab drivers, truck drivers, and pretty much any job with the word “driver” in the position description, with the exception of slave drivers. Oh, and what about pizza delivery? Will that be a vestige from a era long passed in the next decade? To continue…. Car and RV salespeople, repair personnel, manufacturers (and this includes an astounding number of related positions like the staff required to run auto parts stores and the people who make the little gaskets that go on parts of your car, truck or RV that you never even see or think about)…

How much will it cost just have the garbage man drive out to your house and pick up your trash?

Will the police, ambulance or firefighters tack on fuel sub-charges for public services?

Will public schools have to charge out the wazoo to pick up your kids in the morning because you never anticipated that living five miles from the local schools would ever be an issue?

Will the price of a stamp need to be high enough to accommodate that gallon of gasoline it took your mailman to get to your house to bring you the letter of apology from your boss because she can no longer afford to keep you on board?

Oh, and what about all of those roadway construction jobs (and the beneficial construction itself) that are funded through taxes that come from a transportation and fuel-based source?

And the list goes on; importers, exporters, farmers, and all of the retailers that depend on these transported goods to stay afloat…

Christ, I’m about to have a panic attack.

And here I was worried about the possible availability of pizza delivery in a time of unheeded crisis.

And but yes, that list keeps going… Any additions? What is going to happen to your job?

A Preliminary Post

About Suspended License

The title of this blog, “Suspended License” refers to the now-dawning era in which the driving privileges of ordinary Americans are going to be, as a result of unaffordable gasoline prices, revoked. With the exception of the wealthy and a few other select groups that require the cost of transportation to conduct daily business, the average American is going to be facing dealing with having a suspended license—not because it has been revoked for driving violations, but because of the prohibitive cost of fuel.

Considering the potential implications of an economy and society without access to affordable fuel and transportation is a daunting and often frightening task. While it is easy to speculate, it’s almost impossible to fathom the strange new world we will be experiencing in our lifetime—in fact, the world we are already beginning to catch glimpses of.

While there are a number of issues related to the problem of sky-high fuel and energy costs, particularly as they relate to matters of home heating oil and other transportation/logistical matters, the purpose and focus of this blog is, if only for the sake of trying to make sense of one piece of a staggeringly complicated puzzle, how car and transportation costs are going to have an impact on our society and economy.

Questions about the process of moving from a suburban to an urban culture, the shift into community versus external community focus, the economic impact of higher fuel (and consequently higher grocery and other) costs, the possibilities of transit and other viable alternatives, and the more general discussion about what in the hell we should expect at large will be topics that will be addressed here. In short, the focus on this blog is on matters of transportation and economic and social viability, sustainability, and other implications we will be forced to consider in the near future.

The primary author of Suspended License, Nicole Hemsoth, has a formal academic background in English and Cultural Anthropology from Ohio State University, but over the course of a few years has been gravitating away from literature and into the realm of socioeconomic and political matters. With so many rapid changes taking place as a result of the forced need for all Americans to recognize the upcoming paradigm shift in how we do everything in our lives, including what we buy and how we buy it, how we create diversions and entertainment, how we choose to spend our hard-earned money and budget in the event of crisis, and what we will make of a world we no longer recognize, literature seems like a concern that should be left for a society with more free time and the social focus necessary to concentrate on finer matters of artistic development. This is a work in progress with the aim of communicating a sense of urgency and all comments and request for guest contributions of articles, interviews, thoughts and other written words is welcomed and appreciated.

So, here we go....