The Rising Cost of Entry Level

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There is some good news.

The chief piece of it being that on an inflation-adjusted basis, the typical $15,000 or so brand-new economy car – something like a Nissan Versa ($14,830) or Hyundai Accent $15,600) –  doesn’t cost that much more than something like a 1970 VW Beetle cost ($1,839) when it was a brand-new economy car.

A ’70 Beetle’s MSRP today would be just over $13,000, a real-money (or purchasing power) difference of about $2k now vs. then. If adjusted for equipment, it cost about the same as a new Versa or Accent – and instead of an AM radio, drum brakes, a speedometer and a heater you get an stereo, air conditioning, a full set of gauges, disc brakes, power windows and locks.

The bad news is that the cost of a modern economy car is going up – because cars like the Versa and Accent are the only new cars you can still buy for just over $15k.

Mitsubishi – which sold cars for less – is “pulling back” from the North American market. The $13k to start Mirage was the most affordable new car available in the United States.

Bye-bye.

The least expensive new Kia you can buy – the 2020 Forte – stickers for just under $18k to start.

A new Toyota Corolla stickers for just under $19k. A Mazda3 lists for just over $20k.

The 2021 Honda Civic starts at $22k.

Chevrolet doesn’t sell a new car that costs less than $21k – because it no longer sells cars at all. The just-over-$16k Sonic has been cancelled, leaving the micro-crossover Trax as the lowest-priced new Chevy on the field.

It stickers for $21,400 to start.

Ford no longer sells an affordable car, either – having cancelled all of them, too – including the Fiesta and Focus. This leaves the EcoSport – another micro-crossover – as the lowest cost new Ford.

That one stickers for $19,995 to start.

There is nothing on the menu at Dodge that stickers for less than $27,500 – and that one’s a minivan. If you want a car from Dodge, you’ll pay considerably more. A new Charger sedan starts just under $30k; the two-door version of the same thing – a Challenger – is slightly less at just over $28k to start. They are both great cars but there’s nothing Beetle-analogous at Dodge – which once upon a time was an entry-level brand, a notch up from Plymouth – which is a brand no more.

As for VW, the People’s Car is now the rich man’s car, too. Or at least, the not-poor-man’s car. The lowest priced new VW – the Jetta – stickers for just under $19k to start. As in $5 under ($18,895).

Now, the Jetta is also a fine car. It is a Cadillac in comparison with the ’70 Beetle. But it also costs about $6k more than the ’70 did, in actual purchasing-power/adjusted-for-inflation dollars. This would be ok – a net gain – if the purchasing power of the average American had tracked upward along with inflation. If it had, the average American would be getting much more car for about the same money as the average American paid for a car back in 1970.

Instead, he is getting more car – and paying for it. Because he has less money. His income has not kept up with inflation, while his taxes – including those not styled taxes such as the now-mandatory health insurance mordita – have gone up.

A lot.

Since he can’t pay for his car, he finances it – routinely for six or even seven years as opposed to the three or four it took in 1970. And because this hiding of cost has become almost universal, there is less incentive for the car companies to offer actually affordable cars. It is easy to hide the $3k difference between a $15k Hyundai and an $18k Toyota over six years of monthly payments.

It’s just another $50 per month … easy!

Except it’s hard.

People just don’t see it – yet – because so long as they can finance and so long as they can make that monthly payment, the thing seems viable.

Until the day comes when it isn’t.

This has created its own self-sustaining feedback loop. The cost of entry-level goes up because most people are financing more – and for longer. It doesn’t make sense for a car company to sell a $15k car when they can finance the $20k car.

And the more who finance the $2ok car, the fewer $15k cars on the market. There is no longer an incentive to keep prices down when costs can be hidden.

This is why things like air conditioning and power windows and locks are now standard equipment in every new car. It used to be optional. The Versa was the last new car that let you skip AC and power windows if you didn’t want to pay for them.

But now you can’t avoid paying for such things because everyone else is financing them. And once you get accustomed to financing AC and power windows and locks, why not also an LCD touchscreen and an upgraded stereo, too? How ’bout a turbocharged engine while we’re at it?

And so, they do.

But for how long?

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to imagine what a car like the ’70 Beetle would cost today  – if it could be built using modern manufacturing techniques and taking advantage of all the advances that have made it possible to build $15k cars with AC, power windows, locks and so on.

Probably, the 1970 Beetle could be built for less than $10k in today’s dollars, which would put it within reach of many people’s ability to buy in three years or less. But solvency and prudence are as out of fashion in Heliogabalus-era America as showing your face.

. . .

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40 COMMENTS

  1. Eric, how much CHEAPER would that ’70 Beetle have been if the US hadn’t imposed tariffs to protect the domestic car industry? In the 60s and 70s, if a serviceman got an assignment to Europe, which usually meant Germany, the trick was to buy as much car, new if possible, as you could afford. Often, once transferred back to the States or discharged, if the military would pay to move it along with your belongings, as likely it’d be two or three years old and no longer subject to tariffs, as a “Grey Market” car, you could sell it for a tidy profit, or simply enjoy it as often it had features not seen on the equivalent models sent to the USA.

    This also worked the other way. In the Sixties, more than Yakuza prized big American Cadillacs and Lincolns. Japanese law then allowed the sale of two-year or older foreign cars without the prohibitive tariffs, so many a Tech Sergeant bought a Caddy stateside, knowing he was going to Yokota or Misawa, and endured two years of hefty payments in order to cash out.

  2. The biggest impact in terms of value is that compared to a late 60’s early 70’s car, the starter cars of today
    will last a lot longer.

    At least up north, it was hard to get 2 years without rust starting to eat away at a car and it was unusual to see a 5 year old car back then without significant rot in the wheel wells or C pillars. Sure if you were in Georgia the car would last forever, but up north, you started having issues.

    Those VW bugs were rust magnets especially back then. A daily driver would become a kid car within 3-4 years and even small accidents would trash a quarter panel because of corrosion.

    A modern 2010 or later car just seems to last forever. My 2011 Chevy Volt, I rarely wax it, I wash it quarterly at the drive through or if i have been out in serious salty roads and it still looks good. Heck the 99 Camry was just looking nice in 2019 when it went south of the border. That Camry is probably driving around El Salvador still.

    The price of a new starter car is higher but you get a lot out of it if you want.

    Conversely that means a 3-5 year old used car is real value. Lots of life left and still looking good, unlike 70’s cars where the damn thing was leaking around the trunk and door seals, the B pillar was rotted through and the passenger foot wells were reinforced with flywood.

    I don’t look at the 70’s as some wonder era. I like my 21st century car with the GPS display, vehicle systems information display and computer controls. 100K on the clock and still looking good at 10 years old.

    • Clover,

      Everything has its pros and cons. The chief con with regard to modern cars is that the choice of simplicity is denied to people. They are forced to buy six air bags (the current average) as well as (on average) about 500 pounds of deadweight vs. the equivalent car of the past (saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety) as well as a higher throw-it-away to value ratio due to cripplingly expensive parts replacement costs.

      The old (pre-computer) cars did need more regular fiddling – but the fiddling could be done by almost anyone willing and able to read a basic repair manual and who possessed a few basic hand tools. Those old cars had an inherently lower throw-it-away to value ratio and so it made sense to fix and keep them for many years rather than junk it buy a new one after fewer years.

      The current car market is a debt-built Potemkin facade of false prosperity. If you were to take all the cars off the road that aren’t paid for, probably two-thirds of them would be off the road. If you were to take away 6-7 year financing, two-thirds of new cars would never be sold in the first place because two-thirds of the populace could not afford to buy them.

    • Growing up on Long Island with salted roads and salt air from the ocean….., there were still plenty of cars from the 50’s and even more from the 60’s running around in the mid-late 70’s….and they weren’t falling apart. Rust seemed to have become of an issue with the cars of the 70’s, which after a few years would be badly rusted, while older cars would still be solid. Those damn 70’s GM square-body pick-ups – ’73-c.78 would look like swiss cheese after only a couple of years; then ya had Vegas….LOL…. but point is, it’s nmot about technology…it’s more about giving a damn and making a quality product, which was not something American nor Jap car companies were interested in in the 70’s.

  3. Its just mind boggling how mathematically illiterate the masses have become over the years. And it doesn’t matter how “educated” one is – they just simply don’t get that 50 dollars per month adds up over time…. not only that they are conditioned to accept whatever is told to them by a certain class of “experts” And those experts also take their info blindly from the expert above him it seems.

    I mean how else can a bug, which according to the CDCs own papers has a 0.0000something percent chance of killing you be sold to the sheep as a zombie apocalypse for which you have to do whatever the gov says or die….

    • There’s one thing you have to keep in mind…the Beetle was originally designed for the roads of 1930s Germany, they had barely begun the Autobahn. A 25 hp “Bug” was more than adequate, as seldom did it see more than 75 kph (about 40 mph) or go more than 20 km (about 12 miles). They were literally the “People’s Car”, intended to be functional, practical, fixable, and inexpensive (as opposed to ‘cheap’, there’s nothing ‘cheap’ about the magnesium, air-cooled engine or the workmanship of vintage Beetles), but with no emphasis on comfort, gadgets, or style.

      It’d do most kids a world of good to have to drive and maintain a VW Beetle…they’d not only learn practical skills, but they’d appreciate simplicity, functionality, and VALUE, things lost on today’s younger generation.

  4. Keep kicking out the bottom rungs of the ladder, and then wonder why fewer people even get ON that ladder……….

    It’s ain’t entry level if you can’t even access it.

    Can we get even dumber?

    • Hi Rich,

      I’ve often wondered whether a basic car would sell in today’s market. I think the only way economical sanity returns is when this idea of debt servitude ends. It used to be considered the mark of the fool to get in over his head; that it was laudable to be frugal. Now it is the opposite. “Buy” anything you can get a loan for. It is common for people to be carrying thousands of dollars in credit card debt (at usurious interest) in addition to their mortgage and car payments… which is why this irresponsible life-management has been normalized.

      • The system wants people living hand to mouth and be slaves. And when the majority is signed up for it they can by force through the ballot box drag everyone else into it. And they do exactly that a little bit at a time.

        • Hi Brent,

          Yup; it’s no accident that the “lockdowns” focused on the small, independent businesses and not the big corporate chains. The Diaperers cannot abide people who aren’t dependent, as you say. I’m one of the ones with a target on me. But I don’t plan on passively sitting still while they draw a bead…

      • It wouldn’t be ALLOWED. In India they make such cars, which don’t meet US DOT regulations for S-A-A-A-F-T-E-E-E-E-E. “C’mon, man”, I thought you KNEW this one!

  5. The other thing that’s pretty impressive is what those inflation adjusted dollars will buy a 1.5L engine (same as the Type 1 Beatle), but instead of the 24 HP of the Beatle, that Hyundai Alpha-II turbo will make 106 HP.

    • The VW 1500 made closer to 60HP, and in 70 they were on to the 1600 dual port at closer to 70hp. Unless you’re talking SAE net HP of which I have no idea. To get 36HP or less you have to go back to early 60’s 1200 or smaller/older engines.

  6. The rising cost of cars — and trucks!!! — is getting to be a serious problem. I have a ’16 Ford Focus I bought as a leftover in January of ’17 in the high $12k range with some rebates and incentives. With tax and shipping added, it came to just over $14K OTD.

    Yes, I got a deal on it. But the full sticker price was only $17k without tax and shipping.

    And it is a FINE car, I have zero complaints. Sure, it’s a compact, so it’s not as comfy as a Lincoln on 12-hour highway drives, but it has given me zero problems and for 99% of the driving I need to do it’s great.

    But when the time comes… I won’t be able to replace it, because they don’t make it any more. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay $20,000 for that ridiculous little “Ecosport” POS they’re peddling with a 1.0 liter TRIPLE in it.

    And in this day and age dealers are asking forty thousand bucks for USED trucks, so that’s not an alternative either. Perversely, I might end up with a Lincoln someday because relative to used trucks, used Lincolns are actually CHEAP.

    • Ditto, X –

      I love my ’02 Nissan Frontier, which cost about $16k when it was new. Today, the base price of a “compact” (actually, mid-sized) truck like the current Frontier is almost $27k. It is madness. Well, madness for us to “buy” in. It is genius for the car-banking cartel, which chains people to debt service in perpetuity.

    • And when that dual-clutch gearbox gives out, your Focus will be JUNK. May never happen, or may happen after 60K miles. Sweet dreams.

  7. Why bother purchasing a new vehicle when you have to take out a mortgage to pay for it? When I look under the hood of my ’05 Silverado 2500, I get lost with all of the computer crap. I would rather own a reliable used vehicle that my mechanic doesn’t have to pull out 45 books just to see what the computer is telling him. Maybe I could fix it, too!

  8. The adjusted-for-inflation cost of the Versa or Accent may be about the same as the 70 Bug….but unlike the Bug, you won’t see any Versii or Accents still running around when they’re half a century old. You’ll have to buy 5 or 6 Versas over what would be the lifespan of one Bug…so in reality, it’s more like $90K to drive a Versa…..vs. the $13K for one Bug.

    • Hi Nunz!

      This is very true. And can you imagine how long a “new” Old Beetle would last given modern manufacturing techniques, including corrosion protection and paint?

    • I think we get a skewed sense of old cars. Not withstanding that they were simple and the metal thicker just since it had to be to compensate for less refined engineering and manufacturing (cars now get rigidity from the geometry of folded sheets rather than just material thickness).

      But VW made a crap load of Beetles and a crap load minus a few have long since returned to their elemental iron beginnings. So the ones we see now lived in rust-free environments or have been rebuilt a couple of times over (repairability is of course not to be discounted). Often a Beetle you see now is actually comprised of 3 or 4 that have been salvaged for their useful parts. I do miss junk yards.

      It’s same with houses, housewares, tools, really everything. We say they don’t build ’em like they used to but the reality is all along there was well made stuff and poorly made stuff. It’s just that all the slipshod made shacks have been torn down and repurposed so all we see now are old houses that were built well and worth keeping. The Beetles was just worth keeping. You don’t see many 1980s Escorts.

      • Hi Sparky,

        I think it’s in the middle. What I mean is, old Beetles routinely lasted 30 years or more; it was common to see them on the roads well into the ’90s as daily drivers even though the last new one was sold here in 1977. Part of the reason for that was they could be bought for almost nothing kept running for almost nothing. New cars require almost nothing to keep them running… for about the first 12 years or so. But they cost a great deal more to buy and when they do begin to need repairs, it takes a lot more than nothing to keep them going. This is why they disappear from the roads at around the 20 year mark; expensive systemic failures make them inherently disposable. They reach a “critical mass” of disposability abruptly – as when a new $2,500 transaxle is needed and the car itself isn’t worth $2,500.

        The old Beetles, you could rebuild the entire drivetrain for that – or less – and then you had a new Beetle, basically, that you could drive for another ten years or more.

        • Exactly, Eric! In addition to what you said; people didn’t tend to maintain cars quite as scrupulously back in 1970- even changing the oil wasn’t a universal practice- partly because new cars back then weren’t as expensive comparatively, and people tended to replace them much sooner. The relatively new used cars were given even less [often NO] maintenance in the hands of their second or third owners- who may’ve been some hippie or Bohemian chick, who’d just keep the thing going with duct tape and spit until it dropped….and STILL those things (Not just VW’s] would be resurrected by yet another owner, and or make it’s way back to decent condition when they started to become worth a lot of money as a “classic”.

          AND, there were so many of these old cars still extant, that even now, there are tons of businesses still making parts for them! As you know, you can still get just about anything you’ll ever need for any old Bug ever made…..but what a job my neighbor had finding a new computer for his 20 year-old pick-up.

          • Another factor, Nunz, is that motor oils are far better today than they were decades ago. If you do maintain your old bus (as I have) using modern synthetic oils and greases they’ll last practically forever as long as you can keep rust at bay. (If in the rust belt it helps a lot to spray the underside with a rust-preventative oil compound each season.) And as you and others have said, when an old vehicle does finally wear out you can overhaul it with mechanical – not electronic – parts and get even more use out of it. (For an extreme example see what the Cubans have done.)

            I wonder how good the Mexican-built bugs are? They were built there until 2003 weren’t they? Under Uncle’s 25-year rule you could bring one in and start out with a Mexican bug that’s “only” about 25 years old instead of over 40 years like the U.S. ones.

    • I could instruct a high school shop class of pimply-faced teenagers how to tear that Beetle down and rebuild damned near EVERYTHING, if needed, and for not too much money and/or effort.

      There’s no way these kids could be taught to do anything beyond oil changes and tire rotation on a ’13 Versa or similar. Nor could the school afford the specialized equipment just to render a diagnosis. The days of having all you needed to know in fixing a car from a Chilton or Motors repair manual are GONE.

  9. Low entry level pricing is very visible in motorcycles, which remain less severely regulated than closed passenger vehicles (“cages,” in two-wheeler parlance).

    Consider the adventure bike category pioneered by BMW in 1981 with its R80-G/S. Most adventure bikes are large displacement and, equipped with all the accessories needed for touring, expensive. A BMW R 1250 G/S will set you back $17,895 before you even start hanging panniers and nav systems on it.

    The rising unaffordability of big adventure bikes opens a market niche for smaller adventure bikes, particularly as more power is squeezed out of smaller engines. KTM for instance is developing a 490 twin adventure bike in the 500 cc sweet spot where adequate power intersects with lower weight and lower cost. But it’s not due until 2022.

    Meanwhile, two Chinese manufacturers have beaten the big-name Japanese and European motorcycle makers to the punch. Last year, the CSC RX4 adventure-style bike hit the US market at $5,395, putting it within reach of buyers who can’t sink five figures into a motorcycle. It’s powered by a 450 cc thumper, which some may see as a drawback.

    This year, Benelli (now Chinese owned, despite the Italian name) launched its made-in-China TRK 502X adventure bike, equipped with a 500 cc parallel twin producing 47 HP. It stickers at $5,999.

    Point being, automotive makers likewise would cater to the budget end of the market — if insane, fanatical old Uncle only would allow them to!

    • Don’t forget about the Royal Enfield Himalayan. That’s a 410cc adventure bike for what, $4,700? Even when hanging panniers and everything else on it, you’re all-in for what, $6K at most?

  10. I love cars.

    Just not the new ones.

    If you squint, I’ll bet you couldn’t tell one of these new cars from another.

    Today, form follows function to a fault.

    Governmental regulations dictate what a car looks and feels like. That removes much of the spirit of car enthusiasm that car guys once had.

    Sure, there are some interesting vehicles out there, but are they within the grasp of the average guy (or girl, lest we leave them out and be branded misogynistic over simple day to day terminology)?

    I don’t think so. As you mentioned, salary has not kept up with inflation, no matter what metric is used.

    I don’t want a new car.

    I like my old cars.

    They have style, I don’t ride around in what amounts to a melted jellybean shaped rapidly depreciating transportation device, I cruise in cars many 20 year olds don’t even recognize. I liken most new cars to a microwave. I really just don’t care.

    My Grand Prixs have been called GTO’s and my Trans Am (s) have been called Corvettes. FWIW, I owned a C4 Corvette, which was a dream of mine in high school and the best ever day of owning it was seeing it on the flatbed going to the new owner, much like boat ownership. It’s nonsense. And illustrative of the mindset I aspire to get away from.

    Few people take as much care of a car in terms of maintenance, repairs and detailing as I do. Compared to “financing” a new car or leasing one, with all the upkeep and repairs, I come out on top.

    But I’ve been stupid.

    I’ve bought 3 new cars that I custom ordered. I lost every single time. The house almost always wins. Plus, with my penchant for mods, the neighbors ask me why I’ve got a brand new car apart in the yard, lol.

    It’s all bullshit. It’s keeping up with the Joneses. It’s justifying “buying” a new car because the old one isn’t as shiny as it used to be.

    And nobody really buys a car today. They just make endless payments on one whether a lease or a buy.

    For fun, I jotted down some numbers from a local dealership who advertises to the point of ad nauseam, on a radio station I currently tolerate.

    It espouses the great deals on a lease you can get.

    But after the bullshit “taxes, tags, dealer fees (whatever that is other than gouging, I don’t know), new customer and a bunch of other nonsense, if you want one of these entry level cars on a lease, you have to come up with close to 7500(!) dollars first.

    And then a monthly payment.

    I’m betting the average person doesn’t have that sitting around and if they did, it was due to hardscrabble savings they wouldn’t waste on a lease.

    They just add it to the credit card, which is only legal because the mafia will break your kneecaps and eardrums when you don’t pay, but the credit card companies are happy to bend you over the figurative barrel until you can’t pay, which is somehow legal and accepted.

    I’m happy to fix my old cars and not bother with outrageous payments on a monthly basis. I’d rather enjoy 4 old Pontiacs and one old Chevy than pay for some forgettable thing I don’t even want in my driveway.

    As with many things in life, choose your emotions and what you’re willing to pay to see them satiated.

    For me, I’ll take cool old cars that cost me much less than a new one.

  11. Regulations too. One wonders what sort of mordida the various idiot bureaucratic regulations for airbags, crash bracing, tailpipe emissions, control shape and labeling, etc. add to the cost of a car? I contend that many of the true advances, like EFI, would have come to pass on their own absent Uncle’s dead weighty hand on the scale, and either for less cash, or as an option one could pay for or not. EFI as an example, when the cost of manufacturing and tuning of carbs became more than the cost of a simple EFI system, we’d see them. Or, EFI would have become an option, as it was in the 70’s for certain European cars. We would have been spared the pain of electronically controlled feedback carbs by the market forces path in this example, IMHO.

    • I agree. It’s all about government meddling in business. There have been great advances in terms of what enthusiasts appreciate (power delivery, smoothness and to a lesser degree fuel economy), so at least we get that.

  12. Debt is rewarded. You get to pay it off with dollars that aren’t worth as much as the ones you borrowed. Frugality and saving are likewise punished with the same tool. If you save money, you are losing money, since there are no savings accounts which pay more in interest than inflation takes away. Of course this pushes savers into the stock market, which is exactly what the bank cartel wants. Never mind it’s little different from a casino, except the bank cartel owns it, and the house always wins. You aren’t likely to make much investing in precious metals, because their price reflects the value of the dollar, but you aren’t likely to lose anything either, since the inflation/deflation of the dollar is the basis of their price.

    • For the last 25 years the FED has been pushing on a string when it comes to inflation. The massively low interest rates (relatively speaking), the debt on debt and constant refinancing, and all they produce is asset bubbles. The only reason working people haven’t been buried under is the constantly lower prices on certain products because of productivity increases thanks to silicon and cheap data networks.

  13. “Probably, the 1970 Beetle could be built for less than $10k in today’s dollars, which would put it within reach of many people’s ability to buy in three years or less.” — EP

    Thanks to Mahindra, we know for sure that the original 1942 Willys MB jeep, with only a few modern refinements such as a 2.5-liter turbo diesel and a 5-speed manual transmission, can be built for a starting price of $15,999. That’s a little over half the entry level price of a Jeep Wrangler, which shares little with its Willys MB progenitor other than a slotted grille.

    But the Mahindra Roxor is not street legal, thanks to an elaborate regulatory moat that keeps humble “peoples cars” off US roads — even those with the distinguished pedigree of having helped America win WW II.

    India and China recognize the limited purchasing power of their emerging middle class, as well as their lack of the vast US consumer credit establishment. The latter allows relatively risky auto loans to be sliced and diced into tranches of Asset Backed Securities that a yield-starved Wall Street finds appealing, for now.

    Consumer credit is the Achilles heel of the US auto market. It caters to those with limited buying power — to their detriment — through high-priced “Buy Here, Pay Here” credit, rather than with affordably priced and easily repairable “peoples cars.” Wall Street likes it this way. And so do GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, who have their own financing arms.

    If the ultimate objective of our overlords is to phase out private vehicle ownership, then the collapse of consumer credit in the next recession will not cause any tears to flow in the marble halls of the imperial capital. You won’t find any shrine to the spunky little Willys MB there — only bronze statues of deceased politicians; and even those recently curated by removing politically-incorrect Confederates.

    As members of the ruling Depublicrat party vigorously chant in their closed-door caucuses, “The People, disunited, must roundly be defeated!”

    • Regulation is nonsense. Apart fro keeping people safe (which regulation has proven to not always look out for), it’s a pariah. I say leave industry alone and let them innovate based on the market, not what some unelected organization says must be,

      • Hi James,

        One can discern a common thread from the beginnings of the Safety Cult to Sickness Psychosis now. It’s all the same principle; i.e., that it is the government’s job to protect us – as opposed to protecting our rights. Two very different things. One leaves us free to protect ourselves; the other takes away our ability to do so.

        • The protection the government offers isn’t for our safety at all, it’s the protection of government’s power and authority. The deadly air bags and the governments refusal to allow their disconnection is a perfect demonstration.

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