Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Scourge at the Gasoline Pump

The second definition of the noun "scourge" in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is "A person or thing seen as a figure of severe punishment or retributive justice." I first learned the word through a series of lectures on William Shakespeare's Richard III. The lecturer took the position that Shakespeare saw Richard as a scourge to rid England of all the corrupt figures that had emerged in the wake of the Wars of the Roses. In other words they all deserved all the cruelties that Richard dished out, after which all that remained was for "young blood" (Henry, Earl of Richmond) to dispense with the villainous Richard and begin the Tudor line as Henry VII. Of course, as Josephine Tey pointed out in The Daughter of Time, Shakespeare's primary source for his play was a biography of Richard written by Thomas More, which was basically a propaganda tract to justify that Tudor line; and, given Shakespeare's needs for support for his work, there is no doubt that pro-Tudor propaganda was good for business. As further context, since the primary definition of scourge (a whip or lash used for punishment) figures in the last days of Jesus, one could easily see "the Sainted More" (as Tey called him) invoking Richard as the instrument of chastisement of a corrupted England.

It would be easy to take a similarly moralistic view of current economic conditions, particularly in the United States, where it seems to take very little to stimulate a culture of living beyond one's means. It is hard to raise too much sympathy for a family in front of a television camera talking about having to sell the Mercedes in order to make the next mortgage payment, just as Shakespeare allows us little sympathy for most of Richard's victims. More interesting is when the scourging escalates from individual follies of finance to a more institutional level.

This brings us to a report that AP Business Writer Adrian Sainz filed yesterday under the headline "Dealers see SUV glut as drivers trade in gas guzzlers." Here is how Sainz began his report:

For used car dealer Ivan Hoyos, accepting a sport utility vehicle as a trade-in is no longer good business. The only SUV he's offering at his Florida Auto Sales and Finance is his mother's red 2004 Mitsubishi Endeavor.

With only 21,000 miles on it, he's advertising the six-cylinder vehicle with the online network Craigslist for $13,991 — about $200 less than Kelley Blue Book's suggested retail value. Hoyos' mom purchased a Mazda 5, a smaller crossover vehicle with plenty of interior room but better gas economy — up to 28 miles per gallon as opposed to about 20 for the Mitsubishi.

"Nobody is buying used SUVs," said Hoyos, 35, who stopped accepting them six months ago. "The truth is more and more dealers are staying away from used SUVs and large trucks ... It doesn't pay. You can't have a unit sitting on the lot forever."

As gas prices pass $3.50 a gallon nationally and the economy teeters on recession, independent used car dealers like Hoyos and massive chains like AutoNation Inc. are having trouble selling used SUVs as buyers prefer smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles likes hybrids and crossovers (CUVs). Crossovers such as the Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4 have more interior room and more rugged styling that the average car, but with a lighter chassis and generally better gas economy than an SUV.

Used SUV sales in March were down 14 percent nationally compared to last year, according to data compiled by CNW Marketing Research. That follows drops in used SUV sales of more than 8 percent for the first two months of the year, compared to the same months in 2007.

That trend has sent used SUV prices plummeting, giving owners a shock when they try to trade theirs in and find out how little they can get.

At the risk of sounding too vindictive, I must confess that I find myself thinking less of Richard III and more of Hamlet, particularly his meditation on the skull of the deceased jester Yorick:

Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Mind you, I do not think of Hamlet addressing these words to all those duped consumers. This is a text for all of those engines of propaganda that flooded consumer minds with the gospel that all of these big wasteful toys were absolutely necessary for all the fun they provided. In the face of such intense advertising, it is extremely difficult not to be duped.

Fortunately, Sainz is much better than I am at keeping vindictiveness out of his text:

David Tivadar has spent three months trying to get fair trade-in value for his 2005 Lexus SUV, which gets about 17 miles per gallon. He would like to trade it in for a minivan that gets better mileage and can accommodate his baby daughter.

He bought the Lexus new for about $33,000, and said the monthly payments of $465 "would be more manageable if gas prices weren't so high."

Tivadar would rather trade in his SUV than deal with the hassle of selling it himself, and he plans to visit other dealers to see if he can get better trade-in value.

"At first gas mileage was a secondary issue — we wanted something bigger and safer for the baby," said Tivadar, an operations manager in Murrieta, Calif. "But the gas issue becomes more and more important as the price goes up. It's already $3.79 here."

For a decade, many Americans bought big SUVs like the Ford Expedition, the Chevrolet Tahoe and the Toyota Land Cruiser as they benefited from a booming housing market, low fuel costs and a steady economy. The SUV became a status symbol.

"What is unusual is that a segment that had grown very quickly in the '90s and the early 2000s has really shrunk dramatically," said Mike Maroone, AutoNation's chief operating officer. "The difficulty is in valuing them, because the market has clearly softened on those vehicles."

What strikes me most about Tivadar is that he was well aware that he was making a trade-off; but it is far from clear that his final decision was grounded on the sort of rationality that too many economists worship. He may well have tried to be as objective as possible before making a purchase decision; but, even now that our economy is so bad that we argue over the words we use to describe it, the advertising is still out there, beating potential consumers over the head with bigger and bigger sticks.

The one benefit that may emerge from this fiasco is the possibility that people will begin to see that "green" purchasing is more affordable. At a time when every penny counts, this may make for an ironic advantage for environmental movements. Perhaps we may ultimately see a King Kong ending, where the beauty of Mother Earth ultimately brings down the beast of over-polluting self-indulgent vehicles!

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