A Political Economy of Junk Cars on Blocks in Back Yards

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In the United States, one crucial trait of the redneck or hillbilly stereotype is that they hoard their old, broken-down cars instead of hauling them to a scrapyard as respectable bourgeois Yanks do. Junk cars usually end up on blocks or otherwise tireless and propped up in side yards or back yards, because intact tires are soon switched to the redneck's next running vehicle or sold off.

Middle-class Americans generally have enough money to pay for towing* cars to a junk yard when the time seems right, and enough money to buy another vehicle that won't break down right away. What they do not have, however, is enough sense to recognize that it may be a sensible economic decision for some people to hang on to junked cars. When you can barely afford to keep a vehicle running, when you have to devote weekends and time off to fixing vehicles because it's too expensive to pay someone else to fix them, and when you can't afford the exorbitant prices for new auto parts, it makes sense to keep an assortment of used spare parts in your back yard in the form of your assembled junker.

Saving and Waiting and Weather

Another reason that people may hold on to old cars is that they haven't classified them as junk yet (even if other people would). They may be hoping to fix the car eventually, waiting to save up the money or time to repair it. Not everyone has a garage or lives in a tropical climate, so some people who have saved up the parts and a long weekend and gotten psyched up for the big overhaul may not want to fix the car in six inches of snow while more snow or freezing rain pelts them. They may be waiting for a warm, dry period to complete repairs, or a warm, dry season.

Alternately, a person might have decided that the car isn't worth repairing but that the engine or transmission is still valuable. They may be saving the whole heap until they have the time and resources to switch the valuable parts to another suitable vehicle, or trying to sell the valuable parts at a price that will not find immediate buyers.

How long should a person wait for supply and demand to synch up? How long is too long? Neighbors don't really care if an immobile car is sitting there because it's being saved for parts or because it's taking a long time to sell. In fact, the only appreciable difference between a licensed junkyard and a private citizen who is waiting to find the right market for that semi-valuable engine, is the license. A junkyard is basically a place where they've given up on aesthetic considerations, maybe far enough out in the country where nobody cares or maybe they put a fence around it so it doesn't "blight" the neighborhood. It's still ugly, but suddenly we put "Joe's Junkyard LLC Inc" on it and people shrug and ignore it, whereas the same stuff on a residential property would be cause for alarm.

Property Values and Personal Values

Having a junkyard next door, whether it's owned by a company or a private citizen, does not necessarily mean that crime and drugs and violence will become rampant in the area. The more realistic complaint is that yards cluttered with junked cars may result in lower property values, a.k.a. "decay" or "blight." This is because "decay" and property values are bourgeois aesthetic judgments. I would argue that property values fall because people move away or try to sell cheap when they don't like the looks of other properties nearby. In Detroit and some other segregated areas of the US, white people moved away rapidly in the Sixties and Seventies when black people moved into their neighborhoods. Property values plummeted, not because people assessed properties with black owners lower, but because the whites were so desperate to sell and get away. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. "My house is going to be worthless if one of them moves next door! I have to move right away! I'm willing to sell cheap!" -- not realizing that their property value plummeted due to their behavior, not the neighbors.

In some other equivalent urban areas in the US, black people moved into neighborhoods, white people stayed where they were, and the property values remained the same or increased. This is somewhat apples-&-oranges. I know racial discrimination isn't exactly comparable with trashy neighborhoods, but my point is that property values are affected by personal standards of taste. If we put this much value on people's assumptions about decay or anything else, we might be repeating the problems that put Detroit in its current condition.

Local ordinances in some parts of the US require that all vehicles on a person's property be licensed, insured and able to run. You may receive fines for having indiscrete numbers of disabled vehicles on your property, because your neighbors or local officials are too bourgeois to sympathize. Why can't these rednecks stop being so unfashionably poor and have the good taste to earn adequate incomes?

It's a common image, so you'd think people would reach that conclusion and understand it as a symptom of poverty or personal financial needs, not usually an aesthetic decision. For example, a few years ago when a six-year-old boy brought his uncle's gun to school and killed a classmate in Flint, Michigan, many news stories pointed out that the crack house where he lived with his uncle included "an old car on cinder blocks on the muddy front lawn". Bonus points for leaving it on the front lawn, but was the child really warped by the unfashionable car on blocks, or could it have more to do with the fact that the boy and his mother had been evicted from their apartment and the best place to house him afterwards was his uncle's crack house?

I don't mean to say the only reasons people hang on to junk cars are the economic ones mentioned here. Some lazy people may skip it even if they are able to afford towing their cars away and paying full price for parts later. But most middle-class Americans seem to ignore the obvious possibility that people keep junkers because they are poor, or because personal financial considerations sometimes trump bourgeois aesthetic considerations. We shouldn't look down our noses at a distasteful situation that naturally results from capitalism. You might as well laugh at someone missing a few teeth who fails to get shiny replacements.

...Oh, right. We do. Ah well, what are you going to do? Not many conclusions you can draw from the fact that some Americans keep junk cars on blocks in their yards. Maybe you can draw conclusions from the fact that rich Americans enjoy teasing others for being poor.

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A Political Economy of Plastic Garbage Bags as Carry-On Luggage on Greyhound Buses...


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