John Buell

On Cell Phones and SUVs

I hate cell phones. They are unattractive. Cutesy "ring tones" interrupt meetings, concerts and lectures where concentration is required. On the few occasions when I have felt compelled or was persuaded to borrow one, I could hardly figure out where to talk and where to listen. Dialing remains a mystery to me. I can't even stand being on the other side of cell phone calls. At least half break up, necessitating repeat calls, thereby further disrupting my work. I wish they had never been invented.

I know, I can hear what some of you are saying or thinking: "He is some sort of anti-technology nut, a modern day Luddite who wants to smash the machines that lift the burdens off our backs. If he doesn't like cell phones, there is a simple answer. Don't buy one."

For the record, I am not a Luddite. I was one of the first to buy a VCR. It allowed me to follow my beloved sports teams on their periodic West Coast swings without having to stay up all hours of the night.

I wish decisions about cell phones were as simple. VCR purchases by neighbors had little effect on my life and were no factor in my purchase. For cell phones, however, the case is murkier. For over a decade I played tennis periodically during the winter at a Holiday Inn in Ellsworth, Maine, half an hour from my home. If I was running late or needed to get in touch with family members at home, a pay phone was available in the hallway outside the courts. That phone is now gone, a casualty of an era where the purchase of cell phones by most affluent and even many working-class consumers has led phone companies to discontinue public pay phones as insufficiently profitable.

My travel is also more difficult. I was recently invited to Denver to give a talk. The airport is a cavernous labyrinth and I had trouble finding my host. I figured I'd find a pay phone to establish a new rendezvous point. I asked an airport security person where the nearest pay phone was, only to be told that most public phones had been eliminated but there might be one in a concourse about three football fields from where we were standing. (Fortunately for me, he was right.)

Many professionals in various fields also face dilemmas. Lawyers, accountants, and contractors risk losing clients if they aren't readily accessible by cell phone, but there is a little noted paradox here. The first few purchasers of cell phones reap a decided advantage, but as soon as most lawyers, accountants, and contractors have their own, no one has an advantage. Everyone in fact is paying several hundred dollars a year more just to stay at square one.

A far more consequential product whose sale and introduction has altered -- generally for the worse -- the lives of those who do not choose to purchase one is the SUV. After landing in Denver and eventually finding my host, I hopped into his SUV. He was a careful driver and stayed well within the speed limit, but we were surrounded by a constantly swerving stream of SUVs, Hummers and light trucks. Virtually every other vehicle was a metallic monster going at least eighty miles an hour.

The SUV was introduced by US automakers as "light trucks" to avoid safety and fuel economy standards applied to cars. It is touted as a great instance of the sovereign consumer's ability to choose what he or she wants and thereby improve the quality of life for all. Yet its growing popularity adds to pollution, greatly increases demand -- and thus the cost of -- fuel for all. Worse still, it makes the highways less safe for those driving small cars and increases the pressure on many other drivers to buy large cars in self-protection. The arms race has its equivalent on our highways, and the latter may even be seen as a major impetus to the needs, anger, and psychological anxieties that spur the former.

Markets, technological innovation, and consumer freedom are great achievements of modern capitalist societies. I love my VCR. Nonetheless, technology and the free market are not as simple and unalloyed gifts as they are often portrayed. In a world of increasing interdependence the spillover effects of products and technologies go beyond such issues as the discharge of pollutants into the air and water. If consumer freedom is not to lead to ever more self-defeating traps and bottlenecks for most consumers that freedom will require regulation and periodic readjustment. Today it would hardly be unreasonable to tax cell phones to pay for a minimum level of public phones and to impose much stricter limits on their use in cars. Even more importantly, the auto industry today would be more stable and the average driver far less burdened if politicians and regulators had insisted on applying safety and fuel economy standards across the board.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2007

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