The Breakfast Table

Car Inspection; Steel Protection

Dear Atul,

One of the reasons I’ve been running late all day is that I had to take a car to get inspected (OK, it was actually past expiration). Last year they closed one of the city inspection stations, so now there’s only one, and it’s in the most awkward part of the city entirely. But I schlepped down there, and to my astonishment the line was so short it couldn’t actually be called a line; the guys who did the inspections were friendly and courteous and all that good stuff, and didn’t even laugh at me when I managed to slam my finger in the glove compartment door; and there was not only a bathroom available but a clean one. What is this city coming to? You have no idea what a miracle this experience is, for one who’s lived through the past decade of D.C.’s decline.

Not that this has any connection to the subject(s) at hand, except perhaps for the fact that it’s an imported car. We have one American (a Taurus wagon, themostpopularfamilycarinAmerica), and one Japanese. The Taurus is only one step away from being a lemon, I’m afraid; Ford started sending us a blizzard of recall notices just a month after we bought it.

As to the steel-imports vote: I read the Republican defections as one of those childish gestures made in the secure knowledge that the grown-ups will step in and make sure nothing happens–either the Senate by defeating the bill or the White House with a veto. But it is a really interesting question, why the politics of protectionism seem to be rigidifying in a time of such supposed economic ease. When Clinton’s fast-track legislation was defeated, it was widely described as an anti-Clinton vote (Washington’s favorite fallacy–that all of life is a horse race–in action again). The steel vote makes us think again. Presumably the problem of dumping has gotten worse, with the crumbling of Asia’s markets, but could that explain it all? Another question: If free trade is becoming a big bone of contention again, isn’t it curious that the Democratic party hasn’t produced a candidate who represents this point of view? On this, as on almost everything, Bill Bradley is Al Gore’s ideological twin.

We have just reached the limits of my ability to form hypotheses on this subject. It was naughty of you, Atul, to end our week of breakfast talk on such a sober note. I suspect you of having been the kid who used five different pen colors in your biology notebook, for extra credit. But it’s been great fun, not even taking into account your huge tolerance for news of my suffering kin. (They’re on the mend, thanks.) I hope the doctor thing doesn’t get out of hand, and stand too much in the way of your writing career.

All best,