Sell Clunkers at Auction to Low-Income Workers

Thirteen years ago, living in Durham, N.C., when my wife was starting grad school, we finally ditched the family car, a great light-green Buick station wagon. It had been the last “last year’s model” in Alexandria, Va., where we bought it cheap after our first son was born and we needed something a little bigger than the Subaru. It gave flawless service for a dozen years and over 200,000 miles and had hauled sheep, chickens and a total, at one point, of 43 animals, including multiples of dogs and cats and the four young’uns.

There was a program then to give or sell old cars cheap to the poor on government support. And possession of an old car like that was supposed to be considered tangible evidence that you qualified for support. We sold it to someone in the neighborhood and I saw it driving by long after, a triumph of American vision and innovation that just wouldn’t die.

Finding Canada: A Fast Train Across North America

Tom Friedman has some good ideas. He wants us to wake up, reboot, get going. He’s been at it for months, years, now. We need his energy, his maturity and his perspective.

In a column this week he talks about riding a state-of-the-art fast train across China, then arriving home to the wasteland of Penn Station in New York and heading south on the broken trail to D.C.

We need fast trains and new cars. But to get these new things, we need a fresh start. And instead of looking north to south, from New York to D.C., we might have better luck looking east to west; traveling, like Frasier, from Boston to Seattle. We could make new friends across the way in Canada.

Staying Grounded

When the treatment offered to passengers by the airlines probably violates the Geneva Conventions, the question is obvious: Why fly when you don't have to?

When the airlines raise prices and fees for their torture and treat their customers with contempt, the question is: Why fly when you don't have to?

It is true that fuel prices have hit hard, but the real problem is a deregulated system where the greedy profiteers who run the corporations have cut staff to the point that they can't keep their miserably uncomfortable planes in the air.

Commonly, the poor sap who has to fly is forced to take up residence at the airport. So the question recurs: Why fly when you don't have to?

The Infrastructure Party?

Henry Clay was the first American politician to really understand the power of infrastructure to build a strong economy. His American system demanded better roads and bridges and modernized the American economy, allowing it to compete with the Europeans.

Taking a page from Clay, Dwight Eisenhower built the federal highway system, helping America secure its world economic dominance for generations.

The elections in Virginia last week remind us that infrastructure remains a potent political issue. Northern Virginia has exploded in population and its rapid growth has caused massive gridlock.

Jammed in Flight

I am violating one of my own rules. I am flying on a U.S.-owned airline when it is not absolutely necessary. I am on Frontier flight 721 from Washington to Denver in the very back row in a seat that is for contortionists only. They shouldn't even use such a cramped space, even though it was the only seat available, even though I made the selection online 24 hours ahead. I'm told by both the ticket agent and flight attendant I should consider myself lucky I have it because we were overbooked. As always.

Protecting Profits

Let me get this straight. The government decided to spend billions of dollars to create the Transportation Security Administration because private security firms were not up to the job of protecting American air travelers. At the same time it is spending billions for private security firms in Iraq, because the government is not up to the job of protecting Americans on the ground in that country.

And only now are we proposing to bring them all under U.S. law. Am I getting all this right?

Air Travel Unraveled

OK, fellow travelers. We have President Bush on board. Or we will pretty soon.

Apparently realizing that it's not all that long before he'll have to fly commercial again, the president announced that he's aware there is a problem in the unfriendly skies (and the terminals and tarmacs) that somebody has to do something about. Or at least study.

Of course, there's a big row about which somebody. The airlines insist that this is not their fault, and that limiting the number of flights that cause impossible gridlock during rush hour is not the answer. It's the traffic cops, the controllers and a system that is too obsolete to handle the bumper-to-bumper — make that wing-to-wing — traffic.

Flying Low

What single sentence do you hear more than any other in the airport these days? That's easy: "Watch out when you go to the men's room." I'm tempted to say it's the hands-down winner, but I have my pride, you know.

Of course, anybody who flies anymore has had just about all his or her pride stripped away. Overheard nearly as much is "Damn. I'm going to miss my connection." And of course there's "I despise the airlines!!!" — although that might actually be No. 1.