“These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now; do not fall for it, Mr. President.”
Ann Coulter, on Sunday, was speaking to that famed audience of one—Donald Trump—in the language whose grammar and idioms both of them understand intuitively: that of the Fox News Channel. But the pundit wasn’t speaking to the world leader so much as she was warning him. And she was concerned, she suggested, not so much for the presidential mind as for the American soul. You may be tempted, she noted to the president and the larger audience, to feel for the children who wail as they are torn away from their families at the American border; resist that temptation. Do not feel for them; they don’t deserve it. They’re faking it. As Coulter reiterated on Tuesday, in a follow-up interview with TMZ: “They are trying to wreck our country through a political stunt.”
The images, moving and still, are searing, in part, precisely because they are images. They capture something in immediate and visceral and urgent terms that words, even at their frankest and most effective, cannot. The Getty photographer John Moore’s viral photograph of a 2-year-old girl sobbing as she watched her mother being frisked by an agent of the American government—the pink shirt, the matching shoes, the pudgy cheeks, frozen in an expression of despair and disbelief—is worth many more than a thousand words. The audio of children crying for parents who cannot come to comfort them—the recording a symbol of both human tragedy and governmental opacity—is wrenching, emotionally, precisely because it is, rationally, so raw and so real. And because it is, in its starkness, so profoundly undeniable.
And yet: Ann Coulter has found a way to deny it. Her repeated accusation—“child actors weeping and crying”—is attempting to destabilize not just the facts on the ground, but also another kind of truth: the emotions most humans will feel, automatically, in response to children who cry in agony. Coulter’s warning to the world leader responsible for the tragedy—Do not fall for it, Mr. President—is a repetition of the logic deployed by some as a matter of moral reflex in response to the otherwise unimaginable, and otherwise inarguable, tragedies of Newtown, and Parkland, and so many others: They’re just actors, those people will insist. It’s all fake, they will assure. It is a moral claim as much as a factual one: You don’t have to act. You don’t even have to care. You can look away from this and still manage to look at yourself in the mirror.
Tragedies that need not be treated as tragedies at all, because the tragedies, in a fundamental way, are false: In one way, certainly, these are extremely fringe ideas—Ann Coulter, Coultering once more. But in another way—an ever more familiar way, as the Overton window flings ever more widely on its rusty hinges—they are not fringe at all. They have been summoned, instead, this week, across platforms that are decidedly mainstream. They have been, as it were, decidedly normalized.
The press conference conducted by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday was, overall, dedicated to the proposition that the reporting coming out of the holding facilities along the American border—the audio, the video, the images of tiny bodies held in massive cages, as a portrait of the American leader looks on—is wrong. (“Don’t believe the press,” Nielsen said, echoing one of the core intellectual and emotional propositions of Trumpism.) The president himself has embraced the corollary idea to Coulter’s claim that the screaming families are actors: that the compassion for them is misplaced. The real tragedy here, he has suggested, is the one perpetrated by Congress/the Democrats/the fake news/an infestation—again, an infestation—of people who are not American and therefore do not deserve the same level of sympathy that Americans might. Crisis actors of a different sort.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, similarly dismissed the moral questions at the heart of the family separations by suggesting that there is a more sweeping moral code than the fickle workings of your own heart. (“It is very Biblical to enforce the law.”) The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, suggested the same. Humans, ever fallible, must practice humility, this logic goes; part of that practice must involve the recognition that even empathy must answer to a higher power. The higher power that insists, despite so much evidence to the contrary, “I alone can fix it.”
And so: You are looking at the wrong thing, insist the current stewards of the national soul. You are caring about the wrong thing. Sleight of hand meets sleight of heart.
In 1977, Susan Sontag wrote about photography—a century-old practice whose cultural transformations, as tends to happen when the slow march of new technologies is involved, had only become clear after decades of human experimentation with the medium. Photographs, Sontag argued, “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” An extension of those ethics, it has become urgently clear—particularly in this age defined by the new technologies of the internet and social media—is distinctly political: In a democracy, if the people are to have a meaningful say over the world and its workings, those people are, fundamentally, obligated to look. And, much more fundamentally, to see. To avert one’s eyes is a privilege that those of us who have the power to act cannot afford to exercise, even when we are complicit in the images. Especially when we are complicit.
It is a dynamic—the democratic alchemy that converts seeing things into changing them—that the president and his surrogates have been objecting to, as they have defended their policy. They have been, this week (with notable absences), busily appearing on cable-news shows and giving disembodied quotes to news outlets, insisting that things aren’t as bad as they seem: that the images and the audio and the evidence are wrong not merely ontologically, but alsoemotionally. Don’t be duped, they are telling Americans. Your horror is incorrect. The tragedy is false. Your outrage about it, therefore, is false. Because, actually, the truth is so much more complicated than your easy emotions will allow you to believe. Actually, as Fox News hostLaura Ingraham insists, the holding pens that seem to house horrors are “essentially summer camps.” And actually, as Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy instructs, the pens are not cages so much as “walls” that have merely been “built … out of chain-link fences.” And actually, Kirstjen Nielsen wants you to remember, “We provide food, medical, education, all needs that the child requests.” And actually, too—do not be fooled by your own empathy, Tom Cotton warns—think of the child-smuggling. And of MS-13. And of sexual assault. And of soccer fields. There are so many reasons to look away, so many other situations more deserving of your outrage and your horror.
It is a neat rhetorical trick: the logic of not in my backyard, invoked not merely despite the fact that it is happening in our backyard, but because of it. With seed and sod that we ourselves have planted.
Yes, yes, there are tiny hands, reaching out for people who are not there … but those are not the point, these arguments insist and assure. To focus on those images—instead of seeing the system, a term that Nielsen and even Trump, a man not typically inclined to think in networked terms, have been invoking this week—is to miss the larger point. On MSNBC on Tuesday, the host NicolleWallace noted to The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker that “our eyes do not lie with the images we’re seeing from the border.” He agreed, of course. (What could be more true?) But on the other hand, the powerful people whisper: Maybe eyes can lie, too. The images, the sounds, the video, the stories: Perhaps, instead of telling truths, they are obscuring them. Perhaps they are baiting your emotions. Perhaps they are trying to manipulate you into misdirected empathies. Do not fall for it. Do not feel for it.
This is a moment in America in which people are talking, with mounting panic, about the slow encroachments of autocracy. One of the truisms of that discussion: For a democracy to erode into something else, the infrastructures of collective truth-telling must to be allowed to crumble into disrepair. (Hannah Arendt’s prescient concerns weren’t just for the fate of facts, but also for a broader worry: that widespread cynicism would make facts, in some ways, irrelevant. That people would cease to believe that anything at all can be true.) It’s an urgent concern, of course, in this age of fake news and do not believe them and I alone can fix it; it’s also one that tends to be rendered as an epistemic argument—a matter of news and information and the way we understand the world, intellectually. The future of facts, and all that.
Those ideas of destabilized truth are, of course, at play in the telling of the family separations, as a story: the Orwellian debates over whether human children are being kept in cages. The government official in charge of implementing the policy that puts them there suggesting that the news reports are, in ways so obvious they do not require specifics, simply wrong. (Don’t believe the press.) But there is also a corollary to the traditional Orwellianism: a kind of emotional doublespeak. Appeals to the failings of the head, met with appeals to the failings of the heart. Do not believe your eyes, but also, Do not believe your eyes when they fill with tears at the sight of a wailing child.
When you hear a little girl screaming for her absent father, yes, you may, as a human person with a human soul, reply with automated empathy. You may recall, without trying to, those moments when you yourself were small, when you yourself were separated from your own parent, for an instant or the opposite—how impossibly tiny you felt, and how impossibly big the world was at that moment. You may recall, without trying to, all those times you, as a parent, could not find your child—all the panic, all the fear, all the love frantically seeking its home. You may feel it, just a very little of it, the pain of strangers that is not yours but in another way very much is. “[Children crying],” the image accompanying ProPublica’s audio informs you, against a screen that is infinitely dark, and the simple fact of the stark juxtaposition might make you cry. It might make you do what Rachel Maddow did on Tuesday evening, as she read from a breaking-news bulletin from the Associated Press about detention centers for very young children that are referred to, in the language of the state, as “tender-age” shelters: Break down. Lose your words. Erupt into involuntary tears.
It is precisely such an eruption, though—the connective tissue of a world that is at once sweeping and small—that many representatives of the United States, elected and not, are claiming to be false. You are being duped, they are suggesting—by the hysteria of the biased media, by the cherry-picking of images and truths, by your own easily manipulable humanity. On Tuesday, Corey Lewandowski, the former manager of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, made news on Fox News for, in response to a fellow guest’s mention of a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome who had been separated from her mother, interruptingthe story with a dismissive “womp womp.” The heckle was callous and glib and deserving of the have-you-no-decency drubbing Lewandowski got in response; it was in the service, however, of the argument that the fake news are at it again, refusing to show you the full truth, the full stakes. Tucker Carlson summed it up this way: To profess horror at the events taking place at the border, the host said on his show, is to capitulate to those who “care far more about foreigners than about their own people.” It is to have lost the battle, and with it, the war. This is a matter of us and them, Carlson is sure. Your own weary heart might counter that the true subject here, as it always will be, is we—butyour heart, he insists, is wrong.
These are strange times for America’s car industry.
This month, the White House will decide the fate of a set of federal rules called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, or CAFE standards. These laws regulate the miles-per-gallon number of “light-duty vehicles”—that is, sedans, minivans, Ford F-150s, and anything else that’s street-legal and weighs less than 10,000 pounds.
The rules work mostly by getting a little more stringent every year. In 2018, CAFE requires new vehicles to average about 29 miles per gallon (or mpg). By 2025, they must hit 39 mpg. (The government talks about fuel economy with two different numbers: A “CAFE” figure, which estimates a car’s idealized miles per gallon; and the EPA’s “window sticker” number, which is used by dealerships to estimate real-life fuel economy. In this article, unless otherwise indicated, all mpg estimates approximate the window-sticker scheme.) Note that these are fleet-wide numbers: Some small cars will run more efficiently, pushing 50 mpg; pickup trucks will probably hunker in the high 20s.
Or, at least, that’s how the law has worked. It now seems likely that the Trump administration will freeze the standards in 2020. In other words, starting next fall, the U.S. government would no longer require new cars to become steadily more fuel-efficient. For environmentalists and consumer advocates, it amounts to a nightmare proposal.
Does the car industry want the same? That’s an interesting question. They certainly seem to find the CAFE standards frustrating. For the last two years, they’ve claimed the rules are expensive and out of step with what Americans desire; they also argue that the Obama administration rammed CAFE down their throats. And the industry’s lobbyists have been complaining about the rules to any Trump administration official who would listen, up to and including the president.
But now they claim they don’t want the freeze. What gives?
Setting the stage for this farce is a development that almost everyone—including the car industry—says is a good thing: New cars and trucks sold in America burn much less fuel than they did a decade ago. In 2007, new vehicles in the United States averaged about 20.0 mpg. Last year, they averaged 25.2 mpg.
This happened, in short, because the government ordered it.
On May 21, 2010, President Obama unveiled an ambitious new set of CAFE standards. They aimed to get idealized U.S. fuel economy to 50 mpg by 2025. (Real-life fuel economy would lag behind this number.) They also doubled as climate-change policy, since more fuel-efficient vehicles release less carbon-dioxide pollution. Obama said the rules would save Americans money and “create or save more than 700,000 jobs.”
The car industry seemed less frustrated on that sunny morning. The chief executives of Daimler Trucks and Volvo flanked Obama as he made that announcement, nodding along with the young president. An overwhelming coalition endorsed the rules: Environmentalists, labor groups, consumer advocates, and every single automaker endorsed or acquiesced to the new CAFE standard.
But then again, the industry didn’t have much choice. Obama used Chrysler and GM’s government bailout to require them to comply with the rules. And if that wasn’t enough, he had twin Democratic majorities in Congress. He could write new fuel-economy laws, if need be.
It hadn’t always been this way. At the birth of the American car industry, the government didn’t do much about fuel economy. Though it belched toxic air pollutants, the Ford Model T could run at 25 mpg, almost tying today’s Ford F-150. But in the fat decades that followed World War II, cars became engorged, yacht-like, and wasteful. In 1973, new cars averaged 12.9 mpg, an all-time low.
The oil embargo changed all that. Gas prices shot up to 55 cents per gallon (or about $2.80 in today’s dollars). In 1975, Congress ordered the Department of Transportation to create the first fuel-economy rules. The CAFE standards were born, working much as they do today, with fuel economy increasing a little bit every year. By 1991, new cars averaged 19.6 mpg.
But gas was cheap again, and the Reagan administration had declined to increase the standards after 1990. Soon Congress defunded the office that wrote CAFE. Over the next two decades, the fuel economy of new cars only improved by 0.4 mpg. Innovation fell off: The data suggests that many newborns came home from the hospital in 1991 in cars that burned less gasthan the cars in which they learned to drive in 2007.
Never mind the fleet average: By the gas crisis of the late 2000s, the EPA’s fuel-economy methodology was so outdated that consumers struggled to cost-compare vehicles. The CAFE standards assumed no one would ever run an air conditioner. And the rules as written did not apply to the largest SUVs, like the Pantagruelian Hummer, which averaged 11 miles a gallon.
The public demanded action, and California roused itself. Under the Clean Air Act, the state has a special right to regulate toxic air pollutants from car tailpipes. In 2005, it tried to extend this ability to regulate greenhouse gases. The state’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, argued that climate change posed a special risk to the state’s air quality, and that it should therefore be allowed to enforce its own fuel-economy rules.
The car industry balked: Would it really develop one set of cars for California, and another set for the rest of the country? The Bush administration denied the state’s request and vowed to fight it in court. But gas prices kept rising, and eventually Bush had to act as well. In 2007, Congress reauthorized the CAFE program, ordering automakers to improve their fuel economy every year through 2030. At the same time, the Supreme Court issued a historic ruling, allowing the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as an air pollutant.
Then the economy collapsed, the automakers faltered, and Obama won. The new president moved quickly, granting California’s request and beefing up the EPA. But he also tried to spare the industry. He proposed that there be just one unified set of national rules: a new CAFE standard, which would regulate fuel economy and greenhouse gases, and which would be issued by the the EPA, the Department of Transportation, and the state of California.
With the new rules in place, fuel economy began to chug again. In a few short years, it climbed by almost five miles per gallon. It hit 25.1 mpg in 2014, according to the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan. The whole thing seemed to be working: Cars were getting lighter, hybrids were on the rise, and every automaker was rolling out more fuel-efficient cars.
And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
According to the University of Michigan, new vehicles averaged 25.1 mpg in 2015. The next year, they averaged 25.1 mpg again. In 2017, they averaged 25.2 mpg. In the EPA’s data, things looked even worse. From 2013 to 2016, the agency showed new cars improving from only 24.2 mpg to 24.7.
What had happened? The fuel economy of all vehicles actually was improving. Ford, for instance, cut 700 pounds from its F-150s and managed to get the truck to 22 mpg.
But the market had changed. The United States began drilling for more oil—and suddenly gas prices plunged. Meanwhile, as Americans considered buying their first post-recession vehicles, they gravitated toward a new kind of car. Writing in this magazine in 2014, Alexis Madrigal described a “mutt” vehicle that was “part SUV, part car, part minivan.” It was the crossover. It had taken over the market: Soon, two crossovers were sold for every three cars.
Every car and truck sold in the United States could get steadily more fuel efficient—but fuel economy as a whole, nationwide, could stop improving. Americans seemed to be trading their sedans for crossovers and light SUVs, driving into dealerships with Camrys and leaving in Highlanders. And carmakers had little incentive to stop them: Crossovers, which cost as much as passenger cars, can be sold for tens of thousands more. The crisis had passed.
When the automakers endorsed Obama’s CAFE standards, they still exacted two concessions. These set the stage for what was to come.
First, the new CAFE standards would apply differently to different cars. Light trucks would have to meet less stringent rules than cars. And all the rules would automatically adjust to match the “footprint” of new cars—the idea being that the rules should account for the size of car that’s popular with consumers. If one automaker sells mostly crossovers and pickups, it shouldn’t be held to the same standard as another that sells mostly sedans and coupes.
Second, the rules would be revisited. The EPA and the Department of Transportation had to look at the data anew and tweak the rules to match reality, and they had to do it “no later than April 1, 2018.” Since the toughest rules were always scheduled to bite in the late 2010s, the car industry would basically get one more chance to fight.
Four years in advance of that date, the EPA began making sure it would meet the deadline. Agency researchers spent two years poring over thousands of pages of economics, engineering, and air-quality research. In July 2016, they published their preliminary conclusions. In a 1,200-page report, the EPA, the DOT, and California argued that new technologies would let carmakers hit their goals even more cheaply than once anticipated. The rules would also improve safety and add jobs, they said.
In short: The CAFE standards were working, and they should not change.
The report also addressed the crossover boom—and here, the Obama administration’s footprint rule came into effect. Surveying the new popularity of crossovers, the government downgraded its projections: By 2025, average fuel economy would only hit about 37.0 mpg, it said. (It had once aimed for nearly 39.0.) But as this adjustment occurred automatically, the text of the CAFE standards did not itself have to change.
Carmakers didn’t like these results. They argued that the crossover boom necessitated much more sweeping changes to the CAFE standards. And with the auto bailout well in the past, they didn’t need to pull punches. Mitch Bainwol, the president and CEO of a major auto lobbying group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (a.k.a. the Auto Alliance), told the EPA in September 2016 that the rules assumed consumers would buy more hybrid and electric vehicles than they were actually buying. Carmakers were making these cars, he said, but Americans weren’t buying them: While the number of electric or semi-electric cars on the market had almost tripled since 2010, they only made up 3 percent of car sales in 2015.
And this all mattered, he said, because the rules were impossible for gas-powered cars. “Less than 4 percent of current models meet [the] 2021 targets, and the sales of these most fuel-efficient vehicles remain extremely low. Currently, no diesel or gas-powered (non-hybrid) vehicles make [the[ 2025 targets,” he told the agency.
The rulemaking was expected to run into 2017. And on Earth-2, where Hillary Clinton won the presidential election, perhaps the agency would have heard the industry’s complaints and modestly weakened its rules. Or perhaps it would have introduced some new mechanism and let carmakers buy their way out of the problem. Or maybe the EPA administrator would have called every major auto CEO into her office, thumped the 1,200 pages of research on the table, and said, We know these rules are possible, see you in court.
Here on Earth-1, Donald Trump won. The Obama administration, which already possessed plenty of technical support to affirm the rule, accelerated its schedule. On January 13, 2017, the outgoing EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, announced that it was her final determination that the CAFE standards should remain unchanged.
Automakers went nuts.
To hear Gloria Bergquist tell it, the car industry alsothought it was living on Earth-2, for a time.
“During the election, as we always do, we prepared an introduction to the auto industry for the new administration,” she told me last week. Bergquist is a spokeswoman for the Auto Alliance, which represents Ford, GM, Toyota, Volkswagen, and eight other carmakers. “We prepared it, and we were going to give it to both camps. But then we figured, a week or two before the election, let’s just give it to Hillary Clinton.”
Then Clinton didn’t win. “So we just put Trump’s name on it and gave it to his team,” she said.
The letter called for the incoming administration to undertake a “comprehensive regulatory review” of everything Obama had done since September 1. It asked for Trump to “harmonize and adjust” the CAFE standards, and it depicted the EPA as a bogged-down car: “Technology and change are swamping the regulatory capacity to manage our emerging reality. Reform is imperative.”
Obama’s EPA, perhaps eyeing these letters, gave its final approval just days before Trump took office. The automakers attacked. In February 2017, both of the industry’s major lobbying groups wrote letters to Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator. They begged him to reverse the rulemaking, lamenting that the fate of an entire sector was at stake.
The new “standards threaten to depress an industry,” wrote Bainwol, the Auto Alliance president. “If left unchanged, those standards could cause up to 1.1 million Americans to lose jobs due to lost vehicle sales.”
Bainwol reserved special condemnation for the Obama-era EPA. Its rule was “riddled with indefensible assumptions [and] inadequate analysis,” he said. The technical report suffered “egregious procedural and substantive defects.” And its decision to lock in the CAFE standards “may be the single most important decision that EPA has made in recent history.”
And how should Pruitt deal with the rule? “EPA should promptly withdraw it,” Bainwol said.
The automakers, and not just their lobbyists, aggressively courted Pruitt. Auto executives from across the industry met with Pruitt throughout 2017, according to internal EPA documents recently released by the Sierra Club. In April of that year, Pruitt met with GM’s general counsel and its executive vice president for public policy. The next month, Pruitt sat down with Ford’s vice president of government relations. “Administrator Pruitt regularly meets with constituents impacted by the agency’s decisions,” said an EPA spokeswoman when reached for comment.
In late August, Pruitt met with Toyota executives. In November, a Toyota vice president secretly arranged to drive Pruitt around D.C. in a Lexus worth around $100,000. The agency and the automaker agreed in advance not to tweet or post about the meeting in public.
Pruitt, who has questioned basic climate science, was not an obvious ally of the carmakers. Many manufacturers have integrated climate change into their public messages. On its website, Ford brags that its strategy is “based on climate science and modeling by recognized authorities, including the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research.” And Toyota warns that “extreme weather phenomena around the world ... [attest] to the reality of global warming.”
But as fall turned to winter, these same carmakers appeared to get desperate. The Auto Alliance, which represents Ford and Toyota in Washington, openly questioned settled scientific findings in a February letter to the EPA. It suggested that climate scientists were “tuning” their models to get certain results, and it cast doubt on whether global warming would cause droughts, floods, and more intense hurricanes.
It also cited a study that said tailpipe pollution does not cause early deaths, a claim that runs counter to decades of settled environmental science. The study was published in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, a journal notorious for publishing research in defense of cigarette smoking.
Even as it pushed junk science, the industry hasn’t been clear about how, exactly, it wants the CAFE rules to change. I asked Bergquist, the Auto Alliance spokeswoman, whether the agency should do something technical, like change its climate models or economic simulations. “I couldn’t say that,” she told me. Instead, the agency should “be transparent about what the rule’s going to be and why,” she said. “Let’s have a discussion.”
And it’s clear that some parts of the rule haven’t worked as planned. As written, CAFE allows automakers to trade pollution credits, so that companies that don’t meet the standards (like Chrysler and GM) can buy away rights from carmakers that exceed them (like Toyota, Nissan, and Tesla). But there’s a lot of secrecy around the credit-selling process, and automakers can only trade credits in one-to-one deals. “No one knows what it costs to buy a credit,” says Sam Ori, the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “If you were trying to set up the most inefficient, least liquid, and most difficult-to-understand market available, this is it.”
Automakers argue CAFE has other drawbacks. It costs money to put all that fuel-saving technology on every car, they say, and all that gear makes new cars more expensive. Americans are driving progressively older vehicles: In 2016, the average car on the road was nearly 12 years old, a record high. The car industry says that if new cars were cheaper, more Americans would replace their vehicles with comparatively more efficient cars.
The industry likes to highlight a fluke in the way that fuel economy is described in the United States: When measured in miles per gallon, the biggest fuel savings are concentrated at the lower end of the scale. Consider four cars that all travel 100 miles. The first car gets 20 mpg, and it requires five gallons of gas to make the trip. The second car, at 25 mpg, needs only four gallons. The third car, at 35 mpg, burns 2.9 gallons. And the last car, a 40-mile-per-gallon-er, uses 2.5 gallons. In other words: An increase of five mpg produces progressively less gas saving. (European countries avoid this problem by largely describing fuel economy in liters per 100 kilometers.)
Car companies use this fact about mpg to imply that the current standards are good enough: The government would best bring down emissions, they say, by getting Americans to trade their old, inefficient vehicles for new ones.
Consumer-advocacy groups loathe these arguments, as they calculate that Americans save more money withthe rules than withoutthem. In a recent report, the Consumer Federation of America found that nearly half of “all-new 2017 models” cost less to buy and fuel than their 2011 counterparts did.
“The retail cost of cars doesn’t go down; it always goes up,” said Jack Gillis, an author of that report and a researcher for the federation. “But one of the most remarkable aspects of [CAFE] is that the fuel savings that result from the standard more than pay for the annual increases to cost of the vehicle.”
“The fuel savings also cover—and this is what’s more important to me—the cost of new safety features, like automatic crash protection, automatic braking, and automatic lane changing,” said Gillis, who has also written every edition of The Car Book since 1980.
Defenders of the rule also say that we’ve been here before. Since the mid-1950s, automakers have resisted government regulation about passenger safety, air pollution, and fuel economy. Yet every time, the rules have cost much less than feared, argues the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group. In the ensuing years, air pollution has plunged, fuel economy has more than doubled, and the vehicle-fatality rate has been cut in half.
Whatever the automakers did, it worked. On April 3, Pruitt announced that he would direct the EPA to change the CAFE standards. Next to him stood Bainwol, the leader of the Auto Alliance, and John Bozzella, the president of Global Automakers, the industry’s other major lobbying group.
It had not been a good couple weeks for Pruitt. He faced questions over the more than $100,000 of taxpayer money he had spent on first-class flights and the lobbyist-owned condo that he had rented on Capitol Hill. That morning, The Atlanticreported that Pruitt had defied the White House to give raises totaling $84,000 to two senior staff members.
The car industry had found a new friend in government—and he was really embarrassing. In his remarks that morning, for instance, Bainwol gave a lengthy explanation of why the CAFE standards were not being rolled back. They were only, he said, being “revisited” and “adjusted.” Individual automakers picked up the same talking point: A spokesman for Fiat Chrysler referred me to the “adjustment” comment, and a Ford spokesman told me, “We have not asked for a rollback.”
Yet that same day, Pruitt proudly tweeted that he had just announced the “rollback” of Obama-administration fuel standards. He decorated the tweet with a photo of a grimacing Bainwol and Bozzella.
A few weeks later, Bloomberg reported that the EPA was considering freezing the standards in 2020 at roughly 30 mpg. (The EPA declined to confirm Bloomberg’s reporting, and a spokeswoman added, “We will not provide comment on rules undergoing interagency review.”) It was as drastic a “rollback” as could be imagined: Automakers would have no legal reason to increase fuel economy starting next year.
But at least automakers had what they wanted. They spent months making sad puppy-dog eyes in Pruitt’s direction. They had driven him around and cited junk science. And they had secured their victory: a total freeze of the standards.
But then they balked.
Initially, Pruitt had planned to announce the CAFE rollback on April 3 at a Chevrolet dealer in Virginia. But other Chevy dealers hated that idea, and the administrator canceled the event. Soon other automakers had backed off the administrator. “We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback,” wrote Bill Ford, the executive chairman of the eponymous automaker, in a Medium post. A Honda vice president told The New York Times: “We didn’t ask for that.”
In May, Bainwol—who had once said “EPA should withdraw” the CAFE standards—told lawmakers that the government should continue to raise its fuel-efficiency standards every year. It was an implicit rebuke of the 2020 plan.
In a separate letter to the White House, automakers said that “climate change is real and we have a continuing role in reducing greenhouse gases and improving fuel efficiency.” Four months earlier, auto lobbyists had suggested that climate scientists were all “tuning” their models; now, they echoed liberal lawn signs across the country.
“It’s sort of a case where the dog actually caught the bus,” Gillistold me. “Nowwhat’s it going to do?”
Something had spooked the car industry. Perhaps they feared a permanent affiliation with Trump and Pruitt, whose endless scandals and anti-climate policies run counter to their prudent, green-conscious image.
Or maybe they fretted about a lawsuit from California. Some auto executives have privately speculated that the administration proposed the freeze specifically to annoy the state. And if the White House denies California’s ability to regulate fuel economy, then the state would sue, placing Trump and the car industry on the same side of an acrimonious public fight.
Ori, of the Energy Policy Institute, told me he didn’t believe automakers’ protests. The industry wants the CAFE standards frozen, he said. They just fear the consequences of saying so.
“They’re concerned about the public-image aspect of this,” he said. “They’re concerned that everyone’s going to see they’re self-interested, that their image as environmental stewards will be tarnished.”
“[Freezing CAFE] reduces their regulatory costs,” Ori said. “The bottom line is just that industry wants the lowest costs possible. If you’re telling me that for some reason, in this case, industry doesn’t want the lowest costs possible, then you have to have a really good explanation—because that would run completely counter to the relationship we’ve seen between government and industry and climate policy throughout the entire history of this business.”
The carmakers are stuck with Trump—and I’m not sure they realized it would go like this. At the beginning of the administration, it was possible for certain aspects of corporate America to squint and tell themselves that they were getting a normal Republican administration. They seemed to think that they could bring their stridently phrased concerns to the EPA and get the rule changed—but changed in such a way that the public would not take notice. But this administration is so motivated by anti-regulatory fervor, so automatically against whatever Obama did, that they instead found themselves fighting off a rule change larger than they ever anticipated.
And that could harm the automakers down the road—because they are not the only groups who hate CAFE. Environmentalists defend the CAFE rules now mostly because they’re better than no rules at all. But climate groups also thought CAFE’s mechanisms—and its “footprint” auto-adjustment especially—represented a kind of compromise with the industry. If carmakers and the Trump administration fillet the rules, then future Democrats will have little reason to concede ground to them. Lawmakers could come up with a scheme that lowers carbon pollution more efficiently: by implementing an economy-wide carbon tax, or by compensating consumers if they bought smaller cars.
“It’s really hard to go to bat for CAFE,” Ori told me. “It’s an extremely expensive way to reduce emissions.” Miles per gallon is also a “very inefficient way” to regulate greenhouse gases because it’s several steps removed from the problem, he added. “It doesn’t account for lifetime consumption. You can have one car that’s driven 100,000 miles over its lifetime, and the other driven 200,000, but they’re regulated the same under CAFE.”
Along with the economist Michael Greenstone and the former Obama official Cass Sunstein, Ori has proposed regulating cars by their lifetime emissions. The government already keeps sophisticated data on how long cars are driven before they’re scrapped. He thinks it should use that data, guiding the carmakers to make the longest-lived cars be the most efficient. The government could also build a cap-and-trade market in the same scheme.
“When a new administration comes in in 2021 or 2025, they’re going to be past the specific targets” of the 2007 bill that reauthorized CAFE, he said. “There is a good reason to believe the table could be set to do something different on fuel economy.”
Gillis, the consumer advocate, wondered if automakers thought all of this through when their crusade began. He noted that the Japanese and Korean automakers endorsed the deregulation effort, even though they make many cars that could meet the 2025 standards today. “A diabolical explanation” might best describe their logic, he said. “Why not join the domestics and ask for a rollback, while they continue to forge ahead with the fuel sippers?” he asked. “The domestics will sit back and say, Well, isn’t this wonderful, we don’t have to worry about fuel efficiency anymore.” Meanwhile the Asian automakers will keep making smaller cars and prosper.
The easiest way for the auto industry to meet the standards would be to sell smaller cars. Automakers swear that consumers don’t want passenger cars right now; they want crossovers and small SUVs. One expert who has worked closely with CAFE data for years suggested to me that the market is not doing the pushing alone. He wondered if automakers were guiding consumers toward crossovers, which have looser standards under CAFE and also much higher profit margins. CAFE might not have caused the crossover boom, he said, but it might help explain why automakers embraced them.
Every other expert I talked to disagreed with this finding. “This particular class of vehicle is not being jammed down consumers’ throats,” Gillis said. “Consumers really like an open storage area. They really like having three rows of seating.”
He continued. “Years ago, there were lots of convertibles. There are not many convertibles right now. Why? It’s not because there’s anything wrong, necessarily, with convertibles; it’s because they’ve slowly fallen out of fashion. Sedans are slowly falling out of fashion now and they are being replaced by these boxier vehicles.”
Yet automakers and Wall Street really like crossovers, too. They cost about the same as a sedan to produce, yet carmakers can charge much more for them. And as CAFE sits in the twilight zone, neither dead nor alive, carmakers are hugging them even tighter. Not long after Pruitt said that he would revisit the fuel-economy standards in April, Ford had a major announcement of its own. The company would stop making sedans altogether—the Mustang excepted—and focus on high-margin trucks, SUVs, and crossovers. But by 2020, it would release all of its SUVs as hybrids and debut a long-range electric car. It captured the strangeness of the moment. Oh, I will build fuel-efficient trucks, the automaker seemed to say. But not yet.
At the end of last month, the California State Senate passed a bill that would impose a version of net neutrality on ISPs and wireless carriers in the state. The bill calls for tougher measures than the original Obama-era regulation, which was overturned on June 11th after the Trump FCC voted to repeal net neutrality by a 3-2 party line vote. But with most of the public in favor of having all internet streams and content treated the same by providers, more than two-dozen states are now considering bringing back net neutrality through legislation. California is currently ahead of the pack.
I arrive in Dover, England, on a Thursday evening in late spring, a few hours before sundown. On my left as I emerge from the railway station is a pale cliff face with a castle on top. I go right up Folkestone Road, passing a flurry of guesthouses and allotments. It is golden hour and, apart from some furious seagulls, peaceful and quiet.
You wouldn’t know it from where I’m standing, but Dover is home to the busiest seaport in the United Kingdom. Situated on the southeast tip of England in the county of Kent, it is the nearest British port to France, with the city of Calais a scant 27 miles away. Every year, 2 million lorries pass through this small town on their way to and from the port.
Through the past two bruising years of British politics, Dover has been emblematic of all the chaos that followed the referendum to leave the European Union, a.k.a. Brexit. Described as the “Gateway to England,” the town and its scenery are constantly invoked in rhetoric around borders and national identity. On the day that Article 50 was triggered, the right-wing tabloid The Sunprojected a series of messages onto the cliff face, including DOVER AND OUT and SEE EU LATER. The following month, the betting company Paddy Power erected a gigantic effigy of Prime Minister Theresa May on top of the cliffs, wearing a Union Jack and making a V-sign (an offensive gesture in the United Kingdom) out to the continent.
The Port of Dover lurks in the shadow of the chalk and flint. Today, it operates smoothly within systems that permit people and freight to seamlessly bounce between one country and another: the customs union and the single market. There are many questions about what will happen when—and if—the United Kingdom extricates itself from these systems; how goods will flow, how the port will operate. When quizzed, British politicians have frequentlyinvoked notions of new and emergent digital technologies, which will somehow permit business as usual in Brexit’s brave new world. But most of these promises have been shot down by European politicians as “magical thinking.”
Whenever this phrase is invoked by Brussels, I think of the writer Joan Didion. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion describes the rituals she found herself performing following the sudden and unexpected death of her husband. In extreme shock and grief, her thinking steered into an irrational place where, as she writes, “there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible.”
The outcome of the European referendum, with its narrow margin, came as an enormous shock to the British populace. The then–prime minister, David Cameron, resigned directly in its aftermath. The country remains incredibly divided, newly vulnerable and dealing with an irreversible psychic change about its place in the world. Brexit is an excruciatingly complicated proposition—a thicket of regulations and relationships whose complexity seems to surprise everyone involved. I’ve come to Dover to find out how one aspect of world trade, a major port between Britain and the continent, is reacting when its political leaders, like the grieving Joan Didion, seem to be in denial of the reality of the situation.
The next day I sail from Dover to Calais and back again.
There’s a foggy haze in the air on the walk down to the port. At a T-junction on the seafront there is a huge trompe l’oeil mural by the artist Banksy, depicting a worker in dungarees chipping off one of the twelve golden stars from the European flag. The action of his hammer sends fault lines into the wider structure. It’s not subtle.
The lorries are everywhere, barreling across the junction. Richard Christian, the head of policy and communications at the Port of Dover, tells me that extensive traffic-management systems have been implemented to guide heavy vehicles toward the port via two major roads, the A20 and A2, rather than spilling into the town itself. Very occasionally a lorry driver gets lost down a side road and, mis-calibrating the size of the vehicle against Kent’s built environment, crashes into a bridge.
Digital sensors at Dover Port detect anonymous Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals from local vehicles to map the flow of traffic across the highway system, but ultimately are in service to the roadways that cars and lorries drive along. This “innovative roadway system,” as Christian describes it, continues into the port through a series of curved, raised roads that split inbound and outbound traffic to control flow.
I cross several lanes to the plain and unassuming passenger terminal. Inside, a micro-branch of Costa Coffee serves up hot drinks and pastries. There, a laminated sign on the counter testily reminds workers that their Dock Pass discount is not an entitlement but “a polite gesture on our behalf.” The port is the major employer in the city, currently supporting around 22,000 jobs, and hundreds of extra border staff are anticipated to be recruited in the run-up to Brexit. On the wall opposite, a poster from Essex police offers a £10,000 reward for information leading to the capture of a man wanted for murder. The port funds its own police force, and my host in Dover tells me that these positions are favored over the usual “bobby on the beat” work in Kent—more prestige and a sense of contributing to international security.
I buy a coffee but see no murderers. My passport is checked, and then checked again, swiped through a device attached to a Samsung phone. I am given a blue tag reading BON VOYAGEbefore my fellow foot passengers and I are ushered onto a small bus to take us to our ferry.
Think of a port and you’re likely to get visions of shipping containers hoisted onto and off of huge vessels. A few days before coming to Dover, I attended the Tenth Annual U.K. Ports Conference in London, which is a pretty big deal in maritime-logistics circles. Opening the event was Maritime Minister Nusrat Ghani, who brightly stated, “We spend a lot of time thinking how many boxes we can fit on a ship, but sometimes we have to think outside of the box!” It was a slightly cringeworthy moment in an otherwise sober conference, and also misplaced: Containerization has certainly transformed the global shipping industry, but the majority of freight that comes through British ports arrives on ferries via lorry, not in containers to be placed on rail flatbeds. Richard Ballantyne, the director of the British Ports Association, cites Great Britain’s physical form: “Given our island nature, and that we’re a relatively small geographic nation, getting things onto rail can be costly. It’s much cheaper to just have a lorry drive [freight] to its destination,” he tells me.
There are 51 major ports dotted around the U.K. coastline, all privately owned and in competition with each other. Of these, 35 are “Ro-Ro” ports where vehicles—cars, lorries, buses—roll on and roll off the ferry on their own wheels. If a container port like Rotterdam is a glitched landscape of cuboid mountains, a Ro-Ro port like Dover resembles a motorized loading bay for Noah’s ark: scores and scores of variant vehicles waiting patiently in parallel lines to be summoned aboard.
Everything is in constant motion: Flow is at the heart of a functioning Ro-Ro port. Unlike containers, lorries cannot be stacked, and many carry livestock or perishable goods that need to get to their destination as soon as possible. “You have two minutes to get a truck through Dover,” the freight-transport economist Chris Rowland tells me. Any longer and things start backing up horribly. There is only so much space, landside and wet-side, where vehicles and vessels can wait.
Right now, by dint of being in the EU customs union and single market, the level of friction trucks experience when traveling through the port is minimal. Even so, the authorities have still been introducing low-tech tricks to shave further seconds off processing time, such as steering lorries into the inspection sheds with nonverbal notifications. “Rather than stopping a vehicle and holding everyone else up and saying, ‘Ooh hello Mr. Driver, we need to have a look at you, would you mind awfully going into this area over here where we can look at you a bit further?’ we’ll hold up a paddle and wave them into a separate lane,” Christian tells me.
Brexit has the potential to upend all this. How border checks, freight tracking, and goods agreements will operate as the United Kingdom extricates itself from the EU is unknown. “Certainly what we need is more clarity and certainty on which route the U.K. wants to go down,” Christian says. And yet, even if any real technological solutions were on offer, “there’s still not a lot of time to implement anything.” Instead of clarity, there are only more ambiguous promises for how technology will magically alleviate the port’s forthcoming challenges.
There is an intimate relationship between magical thinking and technology. The sociologist William A. Stahl has described how magical language has been used historically to diminish tensions and anxieties brought about by advances in information technology. Such language is, in his words, a “declaration of hope in the face of fear and powerlessness.” As the deadline to Brexit advances, such thinking seems rife in the face of seemingly impossible questions around how to construct Britain’s new borders.
The language of “smartness” floats across these discussions. Some witches’ brew of automated number-plate recognition, smartphone apps, and radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems is imagined, all of which might yield a perfect, frictionless border. A report prepared by the European Parliament, “Smart Border 2.0,” imagines what post-Brexit borders might look like if they become embedded in a fully electronic environment. The document offers vague invocations of the “latest technology” and “international standards,” and finishes with hopeful comment that Brexit might even be an “opportunity to redesign the border concept.”
Any uncertainty about post-Brexit port operations is brushed aside with the assurance that there will be a technological fix to it all. In March of this year, Brexit Secretary David Davis claimed that a “whole load of new technology” existed to create an invisible border in Northern Ireland, free of checks. He was promptly slapped down by the opposition politician Chuka Umunna for creating infrastructure “out of nothing but spiderwebs and magic.” The favored approach of the U.K. government—maximum facilitation—relies on some as yet undeveloped and untested technology to electronically track and pre-check goods with customs authorities, removing the need for physical checks. The second, a customs partnership, also relies on new IT systems that would remove customs checks and allow the United Kingdom to collect tariffs set by the EU Customs Union; this, too, has been dismissed by the EU as “magical thinking.”
Back in Dover, the bus takes us into the 11 demarcated entry lanes that funnel into the port, allowing traffic to be separated out and managed. “In the past, if one ferry operator had a problem then everyone got caught up in it, but now we take it off-line and keep the rest of the traffic moving,” Richard Christian explains. There is a perfunctory sweep through French border control (located on the British side of the Channel), and then we zip along to the edge of the dock where our ferry, the MS Pride of Canterbury, is waiting. Foot passengers are last on; seconds after we hop up the ramps, the doors are closed behind us and the ship sails.
It’s the start of a public holiday weekend, and inside the ferry feels like the domain of the leisure traveler with slot machines, duty-free shops, and a sizable canteen serving full English breakfasts. Schoolchildren careen about, making a break for the smoking bay. After a stroll through the decks I see signs of the international supply chains that the ship is stitched into. Around the corner from the canteen is the Routemasters restaurant—a place for exclusive use by freight drivers with showers and places to sleep. Out on the bow are two lorries nestled side by side, ready to roll off as soon as we hit Calais.
Calais and Dover are intimately entangled—as Rowland puts it, if Dover gets a cold, Calais sneezes. When industrial action happens in Calais, lorries back up in Kent. Richard Christian tells me that the two ports work closely together to stay in lockstep: “It’s no good if one side expands capacity and the other doesn’t, or one puts in a berth that can take one size of ferry and the other doesn’t. The system doesn’t work.” The same holds for any of the proposed, if hypothetical, magical technologies—anything introduced at one end has to be replicated, tested, trained at the other.
A fog of uncertainty shrouds the fates of both ports over the next year. At the end of a downcast Brexit panel at the U.K. Ports Conference, one audience member asked, with some slight exasperation, what the upsides to Brexit might be and what systems might be built to support it. The panelists responded that until they knew what Brexit would entail, they didn’t know what they should build for it. The technologies used in border crossings between other friendly nations aren’t necessarily useful in thinking about Dover because of the issue of flow, Richard Ballantyne explains. Queues caused by checks, which are a minor annoyance between the United States and Canada, or Norway and Sweden, could lead to massive tailbacks and lockdown in the time-sensitive space of Ro-Ro.
At the Ports Conference, several heads of U.K. ports associations indicated that they are consulting with the British government on possible technological solutions but, due to nondisclosure agreements, they were unable to give specific details. In a coffee break, I joined a gaggle of attendees who quietly wondered if there was any “there” there in the presentations, or if this was all smoke and mirrors, another way for the government to buy time against the looming deadline of exit.
We sail across the Channel in a swift hour and a half. The sea is still and the mist burns off. I only notice the border crossing into French waters when my mobile phone carrier changes. The Pride of Canterbury docks into a mirror of Dover’s port at Calais, and I do the switch-around in reverse for my return journey—another bus, another set of inspection sheds, another round of passport checks (British border control, so more Union Jacks), another poster depicting murderers, another patriotically named ferry (the MS Spirit of Britain).
We arrive back in Dover as the sun is low. The cliffs are glowing and seem permanent, unchangeable geological megastructures.
Brexit was promised as a great and disruptive change; a magnificent unfolding of new trade structures as borders tightened. Its outcome grumbles slowly, miserably forward. Yet at this physical place where the change will happen, the ports and the people hope things stay the same. Richard Christian emphasizes that the majority of traders don’t want to change their supply chain; the cross-channel routes are the shortest and most efficient way of getting just-in-time goods to where they need to be. “It’s replicating what we have now which is the challenge” Ballantyne tells me.
For Joan Didion, magical thinking permitted a way of denying the material brutality of death and the flimsy vulnerabilities of the human form; a way to survive and perform normality against a sea change. “I was thinking,” she writes, “as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.” As the juggernaut of Brexit rolls into view, British politicians seem to be operating under the same delusion.