The Reckless Driver! TM Narrative

Charles Marohn is the founder and president of Strong Towns, an organization that leads and supports

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  1. As follower of both Strong Towns and ET, this note was a joy to read. I knew Chuck was a Pack member, but to be able to hear his message in “Pack parlance” was a real treat. Thanks for this @clmarohn!

  2. This analysis of narrative construction and control is a reasonable start but needs to be taken further in order to better understand the underlying causes, and what’s needed to address them
    To be clear I don’t have any problems with Marohn’s main points. Yes, increased highway injuries and fatalities were not surprising given the major changes in driving patterns. Yes, the MSM effectively established a brick wall to prevent its audience from hearing and evidence and views inconsistent with its preestablished narrative. Yes, the MSM loves narratives that absolve its core audience and powerful elite groups from any responsibility and blames everything on ill-defined “others”. Yes, to some extent this narrative lets the public officials nominally responsible for minimizing highway injuries and fatalities off the hook.
    The author is clearly aware of the overwhelming political forces backing massive highway expenditures but seriously underemphasizes their role here. These are dominated by private sector construction/auto industry interests but work in conjunction with the government agencies that provide the funding. As with any other powerful economic interests, the political alliance structure creates some idiosyncratic outcomes (e.g. massive overspending on new construction, underspending on maintenance). As with other powerful economic interests, public policies and expenditures have been completely divorced from any consideration as to whether they help maximize broader public interests. As with other powerful economic interests, some funding for nominally public objectives is provided (studies on how to reduce drunk driving and highway carnage), but it is structured so that neither elected state officials or the safety professionals can ever publicly criticize the larger gravy train and can never propose anything outside a narrow range.
    Every one of these powerful interest groups has been spending decades constructing and promulgating narratives justifying their economic power and protecting them from any accountability for their impacts on the rest of society. The keys are creating the appearance that their power results from benign “market” forces and/or the will of the people as expressed through democratic elections. This creates the appearance that there is no other sensible way these activities could be organized, and that no respectable person has any meaningful disagreement with what they do (e.g. There Is No Alternative, and anyone who thinks so must be a luddite, Marxist or deluded conspiracy theorist).
    For the Highway Industrial Complex these high level narratives include the idea that increased highway construction expenditures drive massive economic growth and that America’s highway system was fully paid for by user fees. No one in the pack will have any difficulty identifying high level narratives supporting military spending, our current health care system, trillion dollar tech valuations, the growth of finance, the two-party duopoly, etc.
    All are based on kernels of truth, but are now totally divorced from objective evidence, but so powerfully ingrained that they are immune from criticism. America’s highways are funded by taxes, there is little correlation between personal tax payments and benefits received, and the most heavily used highways (urban commuter expressways) are massively subsidized. Saying the cost of highways is funded by users is like saying the cost of the United States Army is funded by users.
    The first MSM issue is that no story about specific issues (e.g. unexpectedly increasing fatalities) can make any mention of the well-organized forces that dominate the sector, or let any readers think that any of the arguments in the story might be influenced by the economic and political interests of those well-organized forces. None will mention the campaign donations received by elected officials pushing for increased spending.
    The second MSM issue is that it will always favor stories with only one side, as these require a lot less effort. It will quickly leap from “the dominant political/economic interests are powerful and well-organized” to everyone agrees with them and alternative views don’t exist. There is never any discussion of whether the broader public interest is being served. As the author discovered, proactive efforts to raise alternative views will simply be ignored. Occasionally out of laziness or prejudice, but often due to the inability to see the water they are swimming in.
    The third, and perhaps most important MSM issue is they will never ever admit previous reporting was wrong or deficient. Nothing is more important to the MSM than the status reflected in their ability to tell their audience what to think (and tell their audience what issues they ought to be thinking about.) If they were totally wrong about Weapons of Mass Destruction, they are certainly not going to publish anything conceding that earlier stories claiming increased fatalities were caused by massive sudden driver behavioral changes were not supported by any evidence and weren’t accurate. For decades many powerful interests co-opted the MSM by ruthlessly exploiting this weakness. Since they want readers to accept their pronouncements without looking behind the curtain, they can’t admit how many times they blindly promulgated manufactured narratives pushed by much more powerful interests who didn’t want the MSM looking behind their bigger curtain.
    Keep in mind that Pack members—with above average income, education and political involvement—play a role in this system as well. Massive highway spending so that people in distant suburbs can travel at high speeds whenever they want is very popular. Even more popular is that people don’t have to pay anything close to the true cost of that convenience Some portion of that popularity is because the Highway Industrial Complex successfully blocks public consideration of the true costs and benefits of alternatives.
    But the people who most like (and feel entitled to) free high-speed expressways are also the people who will most enthusiastically promulgate the manufactured narratives that help produce the goodies they like. And support the politicians who deliver them and feel aggrieved if anyone suggests something (e.g. higher gas taxes, really strict drunk driving law enforcement) that would limit their freedom.
    Propaganda can only be really powerful when it convinces some of the broader public to takes sides and fight on its behalf. You can’t fight back against that propaganda without breaking that link.

  3. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    Thanks for this great piece. Fits with my observations about mask wearing and Othering as well. Although in passing, I was very surprised with how quickly everyone’s masks came off in public, no matter their social strata, when California ended the statewide mandate last week.

    One question: Did you try to shop this story to Fox News or other Conservative™ outlets?

    I’d expect, eg Fox News would be more approving from the Othering angle, as many of their viewers are in fact being Othered. But maybe they’d still reject because neither does your story fit the classical Libertarian™ narrative of I Drive As Fast As I Want Because Freedom.

  4. We moved into a new apartment in February of 2020, about one month before our CA lockdowns started and we all started working from home. Even though our new place advertised parking for two cars, the reality is that it’s a one car spot. We decided to park my smaller and newer (8 year old) car in the spot and have my wife’s older (20+ years) car on the street knowing that it wouldn’t matter (and might even provide an insurance windfall) if it got hit/damaged. We made this decision because the traffic on our 4 lane street is pretty heavy and fast as it is the beginning offshoot of a major road into another different major commuter road. If memory serves, the posted speed limit is 35 but cars were regularly doing 50-60.
    But lo and behold, about 3-4 months after we moved there road work began and lines were repainted on the street. Fortunately for us, the city decided to add a dedicated bike lane to this section of the road and shrank the lanes.
    Traffic speeds changed dramatically. People still speed but its more like 40-45 now. Getting in and out of the car parked on the street doesn’t feel like a game of roulette anymore and pulling out of the parking space area exit (a blind alley essentially) is much easier.
    All of this to echo @clmarohn 's call to action - getting your local city government to add dedicated bike lanes, parking spaces, expanded sidewalks with greenery, etc and shrink the lanes to force lower speeds really does happen in the physical world. I am extremely grateful for whatever (or whoever) caused my city to add that bike lane and while I didn’t have to do the lobbying myself this time, in the future, I’m ready.

  5. Thanks. But I am going to be in more trouble with spouse for buying another (your) book. Damn.

  6. Posts like this are why I am an Epsilon Theory subscriber! It is so refreshing to be provided with an explanation that is backed by empirical evidence instead of being just another “this is why you should hate those bad people over there” motivated reasoning “thinkpiece!™”.

  7. Avatar for Pat_W Pat_W says:

    In the 1990s in my massage practice I had a client who was a highway construction/maintenance lobbyist in Kentucky. He told me about the fancy dinners he went to in Frankfurt, where he was expected to attend meetings with KY legislators at least once per month. He had plenty of money to spend and his tips were generous. This was my first encounter with the highway industrial complex. The smell of corruption was arresting.

    Since that time I have noticed seemingly small things- like the way the roads in my small city get repaved every three or four years even though I live in the desert and the town could easily go 10 or more years between resurface jobs. Of course, that would force drivers to go a bit slower, ha ha. The speed limits on our main thoroughfares which are often 5 lanes wide, are 45 to 50 mph. The population of the Coachella Valley is a little under 1/2 million yet. you can travel between any two points in under 30 minutes. It’s astonishing and no doubt extremely expensive.

    Up in the high desert, in a town like California City, roads were paved when the town was laid out in the 1960s and most early residential streets still have only that original pavement. It is cracked and faded and perfectly serviceable.

    Thank you Hubert for your detailed description of the influence and intransigence of the HIC. It gives me the broader context I needed.

  8. What stands out here is the difficulty in creating a counter-narrative. Of course, intuitively, we know this to be hard. But when equipped with all the right tools (authority) and attempting to use them in the same way that the dominant narrative leaders use them (news media) it still fails to take hold.

    It’s a reminder to me that the actual tools here are more than just credible authority, but the collective fear and apathy that has been successfully weaponized over a longer period of narrative building. I can accept a reminder of that.

    What I have difficulty accepting is that we’re stuck in this situation. I enjoy, as most others do, an individual metanarrative cleanse with a cigar from time to time. But we need to find a way to scale that cleansing as a society. We still don’t have enough collectively tipping our way to rebuild the narrative or assert new narratives.

    This is a common theme on ET, but this post really nailed the sensation for me. Great read.

  9. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    Maybe the issue is that as an otherwise disinterested commuter who likes nice smooth black asphalt, I have no real personal skin in this game?

    (Of course, I have a little bit of skin as a lazy ER doc who enjoys getting paid to sleep. But that’s a pretty idiosyncratic situation.)

    What do I lose if these corrupt contractors take a little more of all that money we’re printing?

    Devil’s advocate. Find a counter-narrative that speaks to the above situation and we may have success.

  10. Thank you! It was a real treat. I’ve long been hanging out here at ET, reading everything and occasionally chiming in. It was a fun challenge to speak the language with some fluency. So much overlap.

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