Datsun, the Japanese motorcar extinct for more than a quarter century, returns from the junkyard to drive again in 2014. More remarkable than the forgotten automobile's reincarnation is its price: $3,000-$5,000. This is less than Nissan charged for a new Datsun upon the brand's early-'80s phase out.
Drivers will be traveling back to the future -- just not in the United States. Nissan will market the dirt-cheap Datsun in Indonesia, Russia, and India. It's a car aimed at emerging markets.
Why can't we have a $3,000 car, too?
Because Americans like their poor people where they belong: on the bus.
Like Indonesia, Russia, and India, America has poor people desirous of cheap transportation. Unlike Indonesia, Russia, and India, we have regulations making cheap transportation impossible.
"Regulation is essential," Mitt Romney announced in Wednesday's debate. "You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation. As a businessperson, I had to have -- I need to know the regulations. I needed them there. You couldn't have people opening up banks in their -- in their garage and making loans. I mean, you have to have regulations so that you can have an economy work."
Leaving aside whether depositors are so stupid to need regulations to save them from putting their own money in a bank in a stranger's garage, what works for a businessman doesn't always work for the little man. Big businessmen can endure regulations because, aside from putting their smaller competitors out of business, they ultimately force their consumers to endure their costs.
The Ford Motor Company can afford the federal government's edict that its automobiles travel 54.5 miles for every gallon of gas by 2025. A low-income worker can't.
Worse than the American government is the American consumer, who has forgotten that a car is primarily a transportation mechanism and not an entertainment center, computer, or a traveling living room with comfy chairs.
One senses that the new Datsuns won't come with Bluetooth compatibility, sunroofs, or, for that matter, automatic windows, automatic transmission, or perhaps even air conditioners. One also senses that their drivers, unable to currently afford any car, won't mind much. All that remora weighs down a car's price. Getting from point A to point B quickly by a motorized vehicle, rather than slowly by foot or bicycle, is the creature comfort that inhabitants of emerging economies crave.
It's easy to laugh at the front-view camera (isn't that what a windshield is for?) on the Ford F-150 Raptor, the Fiat 500's perfume diffuser, and the Honda Element's "Dog Friendly Package," which offers a spill-proof doggie bowl, a canine ramp, and a fan for the cargo bay in case you prefer not to put man's best friend atop the roof. These are options, and if it startles us that anyone opts for them it comforts us that nobody forces us to pay for them.
Alas, the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect makes yesterday's options today's standard features. If Thorsten Veblen weren't such a Marxist bore, here would be a perfect place to say something about conspicuous consumption.
Do consumers really clamor for the rear heated seats on the Hyundai Elantra Limited? How much more pricy is the Pilot Touring model because an in-car DVD player has been deemed a necessity by Honda's honchos? Since when did the seven-inch touchscreen found in the Chevrolet Malibu become an essential feature of an automobile?
American consumers can have all the gadget and gizmo accessories. They can't, apparently, have a $3,000 car. We're not more advanced than Indonesians, Russians, and Indians in every way.
Their poor will soon be able to afford a car. We still tell ours to take the bus.