Car Creditocracy: An Interview with Julie Livingston & Andrew Ross

In the latest installment of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Chenjerai Kumanyika sits down with Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross to discuss their research on the intersection of cars, jails, debt, and surveillance.
“If you are a car owner, you are red meat for whoever wants to prey upon you, whether it is police, auto lenders, or state agencies.”

I’ve been incarcerated (briefly) twice in my life, and both times my incarceration was linked to a car. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never made the connection until I read Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality by Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross. The many threads that run between cars, surveillance, and policing that this book calls our attention to feel even more urgent in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ fatal beating at the hands of six Memphis police. Like so many incidents of state terror, this tragedy began as a traffic stop.

Regardless of our political orientation, everyone thinks that we already know what we need to know about cars and jails, and we are mostly wrong. I say “mostly” because, by choosing the car as their site of inquiry, Livingston and Ross reveal profound insights about technologies that are deeply familiar but also omnipresent symbols of freedom in the story the United States tells about itself.

But the most important reason I want you to read this book has to do with democracy. One challenge that those interested in protecting and expanding democracy constantly face is that there appear to be so many different fronts of struggle. Fights against racism, climate change, economic exploitation and debt, policing, mass incarceration, and aspects of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “systems of organized violence” compete for our attention. In some instances, movements even compete against each other for resources, especially the human capacity required for sustained struggle. Similarly, each fight for a more just world requires our tired and overworked brains to learn new and often depressing things.

Cars and Jails helps to solve this problem. Rather than presenting the intersection of cars, jails, debt, and surveillance as a distinct movement that we must find the energy and time to add to our list, the book presents “mobility justice” as a site that connects movements and deepens our understanding of how power works across intersecting forms of extraction and oppression. Another part of the magic of this study—and what makes it a pleasure to read—is the way it balances its rigorous analysis with the human stories that connect the conceptual dots. It’s because of this that the book hit me in a deeply personal place. In the few times I have purchased a car, I felt three things very strongly. First, I experienced a brief sense of empowerment or at least capability because of the mobility that the car promises. Second, I felt the setting in of a sustained panic about the debt and financial burden I had just introduced into my life.

Finally, whenever I take my place behind the wheel as an African American male, I feel the gaze of police surveillance dictating my every move, in ways that I’m not as conscious of at other times.

Because the car has been so wrapped up in the mythical promise of American freedom this book has a lot to say about the world in which our choices occur and that is where I wanted to start my discussion with Andrew and Julie.

Chenjerai Kumanyika (CK): This book comes at a time when many confront rapidly changing and alienating working conditions, omnipresent surveillance, debt, policing and incarceration, a crisis of housing and displacement under capitalism and, of course, the crisis of climate change which intensifies all of the above. And yet these challenges are presented to us as the result of our individual choices. For example, we’re told that we chose our jobs, or to commit crimes that police and jails then justifiably punish us for. We choose to use smartphones and computers. And, according to this narrative, if you have debt it is because you have chosen to access luxuries via credit.

However, we also have growing social movements that tell a different story that recognizes that individuals make “choices” inside unfair, predatory structures. Could you talk about how cars fit into this?


Andrew Ross (AR): A car is definitely a compulsory, inescapable daily asset for the vast majority of people in this country because of the auto-centric build-out of US infrastructure after the Second World War. You don’t really have alternative choices unless you live somewhere with fairly decent public transit, like New York City. It’s something you just have to have, not unlike healthcare, housing, or, increasingly, higher education. We have social movements in each of these other arenas; we have Housing for All, we have College for All, we have Medicare for All, but we don’t have Transportation for All yet. And it deserves a movement. One-fifth of household income goes to transportation, it is such an inescapable necessity. We found during the pandemic, for example, people were prioritizing their car payments over all other payments. And unlike the eviction moratorium or suspension of student loan payments, car payments were not suspended.

Moreover, if you are a car owner you are red meat for whoever wants to prey upon you, whether it is police, auto lenders, or state agencies interested in extracting data about your conduct. You are the object of predation and you have no choice.


Julie Livingston (JL): Moreover, unfair structures can be hidden inside of the fact that a car is also very intimate, very personal. It is a real choice which car am I going to get. What color is it going to be? It’s the place where I can have that conversation with my teenager that’s easier side by side rather than facing one another over the kitchen table. It’s where I listen to my own music. It’s an expression of my taste. But that hides how compulsory it is. That hides the dread or anxiety I have if I’m a person of color driving by the police. Those personal choices are the gloss on the surface of a dense system.


CK:  Yes! The car seems so personal—and so linked to different kinds of freedom, yet looking more closely you can really begin to see that compulsory and carceral matrix unfold within it. I often see people trying to use the concept of racial capitalism to better understand the way that race, economics, governance, and geography intermingle to produce oppression. How does this play out in our relationships to our cars?


JL: In our interviews for the book, we can see clearly that people’s credit scores, their loan opportunities, their vulnerability to fees and fines captured by the state as they are driving, all of these things are calibrated in one way or another to the racial structure of American society. There are overtly racist actors out there. But the effects still happen even if a Black police officer imposes a traffic fine on a Black driver. One of the people that we interviewed talks about how she specifically went to a Black-owned car dealership in Indianapolis where she lived because she didn’t trust that if she went to a white-owned dealership that she wouldn’t experience these forms of racial capitalism. But she discovered that at that particular Black-owned dealership at least, it was even worse.


CK: Right. In this case supporting a Black business didn’t rescue her from being preyed on. And not because the Black-owned dealership was more greedy or profit-seeking than other dealers but because they are also embroiled in the same set of systems and incentive structures.

One of the great things about your study is the way that it balances deep dives into the weeds of things like auto loans or highways but then balances it with deeply relatable human experiences like this one that show us how these structures show up in people’s lives. How did you develop a research process for the book to capture those dynamics?


AR: We started with the interviews, which are all-important. We didn’t start with an overarching theory of racial capitalism. We end up with theories, of course, but that is not where we began. All of our interviews were with formerly incarcerated men and women, mostly in New York, but also some in Indiana, where you have absolutely no choice about whether you have a car or not.

We also adopted a holistic approach. There are people who do work on fines and fees in a carceral context. There are people who do work on auto loan debt. There are people who do work on revenue policing, which is used to fund local governments. So, there are people who look at these different pieces, most of whom are very legally minded because they are reformist. We respect all the work that is being done, and we cite a lot of it in the book, but we really saw our task as taking a holistic approach—showing how these two vast systems of predatory lending and predatory policing intersect in the inescapable asset of the car.


JL: When we started out as a laboratory looking at the relationship between incarceration and debt, we really benefited from the community researchers in our lab, all of whom are formerly incarcerated NYU students. When the project came to focus on the car, the student researchers really helped drive home the aesthetic, personal, and social dynamics. On one level, most of our researchers felt some level of freedom or empowerment behind the wheel, they helped us see what gets covered up by those feelings of freedom when you are driving your car, the pleasure you get in your car, the status you get from your car, and why status matters particularly to people who are denigrated by society. It is not a small thing. It is not a self-interested thing. It is not a superficial thing. It is a very necessary consideration. They opened up a whole set of questions that interlock with these structural pieces and show why the structural pieces are so tenacious.


AR: Yes, we decided early on that we were not going to ignore or neglect the pleasure aspect of driving or possessing a car, or the hedonism associated with joyriding. Some of our interviews with the folks who had been incarcerated even featured dreaming, while in prison, about getting back on the road.

During the pandemic people were prioritizing their car payments over all other payments. And unlike the eviction moratorium or suspension of student loan payments, car payments were not suspended.

CK: We are talking about the car, but you actually start the book with what the car drives on: highways. Could you say a little bit about that history and why highways themselves are so wrapped up in politics?


AR: Yes, that history is important to grasp. It was by no means inevitable that we would end up with that infrastructure in this country. It happened at the legislative level in the name of national security. This was how advocates of the interstate highway system made the case for this massive transformation of the nation’s geography. Of course, the national security label was a ruse. It was basically an excuse for the so-called “road gang” to generate commercial infrastructure.


CK: When was this process unfolding?


AR: After World War Two. The idea was that under the threat of nuclear war, the United States military would be able to move materiel and troops efficiently around the country and away from targeted population centers. If it really had been a national security infrastructure, highways would have been built in such a way to circumvent densely populated areas. As it turned out, most highways connect population centers. And so local and state officials who had to pay for a percentage of the infrastructure captured the project for commercial reasons. Once it was decided that highways would become such a central fixture in the mobility landscape that meant that the car became unavoidable as a result. We are dependent on that infrastructure. Today, at this stage of things, it is very difficult to retrofit this reality. In addition, as we know a lot of the urban freeways devastated inner city communities by being built right through their centers. The Biden administration’s latest infrastructure bill tried to introduce some reparative financing to remedy those past harms, but the funding got reduced to a miniscule amount of money. Even the climate bill that the administration passed recently puts all the eggs in the basket of the electric vehicle. It will putatively result in a lower carbon footprint overall, but it is not going to remedy any of the harms and injustices that we lay out in the book.


CK: Could you say more about the limitations of the electric car as a catchall solution?


JL: Andrew has heard me say it before: the electric car is better than a combustion engine right now, but we are going to militarize all of the minerals that are required for the lithium-ion battery. So, if you think that the militarization of the petroleum economy is just going to go away with a shift to those batteries, you are wrong. Any look inside the Congo is going to show you that. So, there is racial capitalism built all the way through. Including inside of the content of the highway itself, which is made of sand and petroleum.


CK: Wow. It’s so interesting how many of us attend to the extraction and exploitation that takes place in relation to goods that travel over the highway but not the material relations that constitute the highway itself!

How else does the taken for granted status of cars and highways limit the revolutionary imagination?


JL: It is interesting to think about these questions of infrastructure and mobility justice and think about how else it could look. What if all those people who had to sit in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina because they did not own a private vehicle or have enough money to put fuel in a private vehicle could have been put on a bullet train to Memphis? Or Atlanta or Houston? Once you build public transportation that is user friendly, that is much better than sitting in your car in traffic raging at the person next to you. Then you have the ability to scale it in ways that allow people, whether it is senior citizens or low-income individuals or whatever, to be able to access it through public policy.

There are very different ways that we could imagine an infrastructure for the US. Surely that doesn’t mean eliminating private cars entirely but it certainly means scaling down our extreme dependence on them.


CK: One really powerful component of the book is the way that it takes these insightful critiques around mobility, cars, debt and surveillance, and links them to tangible demands. And instead of presenting this as a disconnected campaign you highlight how the movement for mobility justice can be deeply linked to sites of reparative justice.


AR: And it could work pretty well for everybody. The evidence is there. But we also think that the beneficiaries of those patterns of infrastructural injustice aren’t going to give their profits up easily. You need progressive taxation if you are going to compensate for the loss of revenue policing. You really need an alternative mode of financing transport to do an end run around the predators who currently control the car economy. And, especially given that varieties of on-demand transport will be activated through cell phone apps, the opportunity for data mining, for harvesting our personal information, is just going to explode in all sorts of directions. The smart infrastructure currently being imagined for us by consultants and startups is already very rich in the possibility for profiteering.


CK: Those are questions I just don’t see being really lifted up elsewhere quite like this but it seems like we better ask them and ask them quick. If I’m understanding you correctly, it’s precisely the moment when solutions appear to be embraced that advocates for justice must be the most vigilant.


JL: Yes! Simply getting rid of the car and moving to, for example, a train system does not mean that that train system is not going to be avidly policed. It does not mean that poor people are not going to be turned upside down and every last coin shaken from their pockets. Any one shift is not going to solve these problems, but these problems have to be considered at every turn. They have to be undercut at every single juncture in a very agentive and determined way. Part of what we seek to do is to make it so highly visible that now it can’t be unseen.


AR: Usually when you mention infrastructure people have hardware in mind: concrete, steel, titanium, what have you. We try to draw attention in the book to software. For example, the current generation of cars is already spying on us. What is hidden under the console are computers that gather a lot of data about our conduct, our whereabouts, our phone conversations, then send that data back to the car makers, who sell it in the open market to whoever wants to buy it. As Julie said, any alternative form of mobile transport will likely be wired in the same way.

CK: We talked about the highway. We talked a little bit about the car. But there is also a whole matrix of legislation, technology, and enforcement mechanisms that has grown up around cars and highways. It seems like these might be harder to critique because we’re told that something like, say, traffic laws, are here to protect us. How do you address these structures?


JL: I take very seriously that cars are deadly instruments. They are massive pieces of steel that are hurtling down the road at high speed. They kill tens of thousands of people in this country every year and millions globally every year.


AR: We have to remember that the primary reason for the growth of police departments in the first place was to protect public safety on the roads, to adequately monitor traffic, and, well today, just look at what powers police departments ended up with and what they have become.

There are very simple steps we could take to improve things. We have a wish list at the end of the book where we lay out simple reforms. For example, we advocate yanking armed police officers away from any traffic monitoring in the same way they have been taken out of parking or tollbooth enforcement. They just shouldn’t be interacting with motorists, especially motorists of color.


JL: Traffic laws are vast and labyrinthine, and they put so much arbitrary decision-making into the hands of individual police officers in ways that are bound to lean into the racial structures of our society. There is a law on the books about driving with low tire pressure, but I have yet to meet somebody of my own race and class position (i.e. a middle-class white woman) who has ever, ever, ever been pulled over for that. But the number of working poor African Americans who have encountered or heard about it is much higher. Maybe, maybe, there is some safety mechanism inherent to that regulation, but it doesn’t strike me that it is actually serving the safety of drivers as much as it is working in the opposite direction.

So there are probably ways to comb through the vastness of the traffic law and to streamline it, to think about what actually makes the population safe with these vehicles moving around and what doesn’t.


AR: Yes, even with a body cam. The statistics show that despite widespread criticism of pre-textual traffic stops, despite the body cams that police often have to wear (though sometimes they switch them off), and despite all the cell phone footage witnesses take, the number of fatal police driver interactions has not budged over the last few years.


CK: Let’s take something like the driver’s license. There are people who say, yes, the driver’s license is here to make sure that people who are on the road have some training and are assured that they are safe. Car registration exists because you need to know what cars are on the road. You can’t just be driving anything. Then of course you have courts that can administrate these things. So, again, from that perspective, these things are all here to protect people. But what else is going on here?


JL: I do believe that nobody should be allowed to drive a three-ton piece of metal down the road at 70 miles per hour without having had some training in how to do that. I can see the basic logic behind some form of licensing.

But what we discovered was that the state holds the license as a form of collateral against all kinds of debt, and there is nothing to say that owing money to the state makes someone a poor driver or that not owing money to the state makes somebody a terrifically safe driver. If the purpose of the license is to ensure that people operating vehicles understand how to do that in an effective and community-minded manner, then all the other uses of the license can be sidelined.


AR: We could also say the same about fines. Unlike in other countries which have sliding scale fines or income-graduated fees, all reckless drivers in the US are issued a flat fine. Therefore equality of treatment necessarily results in inequality of outcome because a $200 fine means nothing to a wealthy motorist. It is not a deterrent to a rich person on the road. But for a low-income driver with limited cash flow, it is a real challenge and we find that this initial penalty cascades through their lives in the form of additional fines, fees, and surcharges. Indeed, there is a very smooth pathway from that initial fine to outright detention. You can end up behind bars very easily.


CK: I remember driving at earlier points in my life when I didn’t have the job I have now and confronting something like an emissions inspection. I wasn’t thinking about the environment, I thought, My God I’m going to lose my car, I’m going to lose my job, I’m going to lose my freedom and any joy associated with all those things.

And of course, there is a whole underground economy of ways to avoid these things. People who say, I got a sticker for you.


JL: Yes, all through my youth that’s how I used to get my car “inspected,” because I couldn’t afford to repair my 1972 Volkswagen Beetle in a way that would meet the Massachusetts emissions standard.

And that underground economy is all the way through! We talked to many people who were pulled over by the police and, in addition to receiving a ticket, had their personal cash and maybe even other objects in their possession removed from them by the police but not entered in any official record. So, there can be a private shakedown going on alongside the state taking their cut. It is part of how the structure works—by having so many interested parties taking their cut they are all invested in the maintenance of the system.

The second thing I would say is we need safe cars to drive and it is not safe to drive with bald tires or a car that hasn’t been properly maintained, that has so many cracks in the windshield you can’t see through it. For working poor people or low-income people, putting them through a set of legal regulations is not a solution to the problem. It is just driving them further into the hole. Now the money they maybe were trying to save to fix the windshield they need to use instead to pay for a ticket.


AR: In a sense you can see that the choice to organize things in this particular way also generates a lot of illegal activity in and of itself. If people struggle with that financial liability, they have to seek other forms of income in order to make their creditors whole. We did come across evidence of people who had to take up an illegal hustle in the informal economy, which is very risky and obviously can lead to jail time.


CK: Auto loan debt or “the car note” as it’s called where I’m from is another taken for granted feature of everyday life for so many people. I thought I understood its predatory character. But after reading this book, I was blown away by how little I understood. What has happened with the economy of auto loans?


AR: There may be some awareness but not a lot of public consciousness about the fact that auto loan debt has doubled over the last decade at the same or at a similar rate to student debt. The entry of subprime lending is a big part of it. That you can have car loans now for up to 84 months is another. When you look at the explosion of auto loan debt, the numbers are quite staggering. People, on average, are paying $700 or more monthly for their car payments. That whopping sum does not include insurance, it does not include any maintenance costs.


JL: After the mortgage crisis, a lot of that subprime lending moved into the automobile industry. But it doesn’t carry the same risk to the economy that it did when it was in housing. Unlike a home, cars are assets that plummet in value the second you drive them off the lot. Unlike a home where you hope that you’re building equity, with a car, people are defaulting all the time and the car is easily recycled into the system.


AR: Theoretically, it does create a bubble though. Wall Street pundits occasionally talk about an auto loan bubble.


JL: I see them reassuring themselves that it will not create a bubble that will pull things down because of its scale. When these mortgages are ten or twenty-fold higher than the value of the car itself!


CK: Is there any person’s journey or story from the book that you thought was particularly illustrative?


JL:  The one that stays with me is a man who lives in Gary, Indiana. He was incarcerated in federal prison for over two decades. He was a Black nationalist, he considered himself to be a political prisoner. And upon his release back to Gary he spent a long time on a ten-speed bicycle trying to get to work and back, get to parole and back. He carefully saved money earned at his minimum wage job. Friends of his who recognized that this man, who was in his early 6’’s, was riding a bicycle in the Midwestern winter gifted him a used car that was on its last legs. For many people that we talked to, this was such an important thing when they came out of prison— friends and family pooling their resources to get them a used car that was on its very last legs as a bridge to being able to make their way in the world. And when his car gave out, he drove it in first gear—which it was stuck in at that point—to a car dealership that had sent him this thing in the mail letting him know that he had been preapproved for a loan by his bank. He had every reason to believe it. But when he got there, he got upsold a car that was nicer than the one he was looking for originally. By the time he was there signing the paperwork, he went and looked up the Blue Book value of the car and it was half of what he had paid for it. He knew as this was unfolding, Uh-oh, this thing is a scam. These people have done a bait and switch, they are making me do this deal with a very high interest rate and he knew he was trapped. He is not a fool. He understood what was happening as it was happening, but what choice did he have?


CK: And, of course, now the new car he bought will almost certainly assist the state in hyper-surveilling every move he makes during the re-entry process. Thereby making it more likely that they will have the data to find him in violation in the future.


AR: Yes, and it will quite likely be repossessed by the dealer because that is what they want. They want to give you a more expensive car that you can’t afford. Because they know you can’t afford it, and they will be able to repossess that car in a year or two and sell it on to someone else.

Or take the LeMarcus story. A dealership would not sell him the Honda that he wanted. His credit score was shot, most formerly incarcerated people’s credit scores are. The dealer said, This bank that might have financed the Honda wants a good credit score, but you can have a top-of-the-line Mercedes with a shot credit score.


CK: Oh wow.


JL: E-class, if I remember correctly.


AR: Yes, they were quite happy to have him drive off the lot there and then. But the denouement, the outcome of that, was not going to be happy for him. And that is how the system is set up, quite frankly.


JL: It is poignant that most of the people we talked to understood that this was not in their favor. A few people we talked to at the site of the dealership said, What, no, no, I’m not signing that, I’m not participating in this, and left. But most of them said, Alright, this is what I have to do. And, moreover, I don’t want to know too much about it. I’m just going to execute my car payment and try to build my credit score, because if I look too closely at what this is, then I have to reckon with how badly I am being shaken down.

CK: You’ve talked already about things that we can concretely advocate for and start to build movements around—moving armed policing away from traffic, shifting to income graduated traffic fines. One thing we didn’t quite talk about is the closure of what you call the “back door to debtors’ prison”: collection agencies. Do you want to say more about that?


AR: Debtors’ prisons were abolished in 1833 in this country but the back door to debtors’ prisons has been wide open in a lot of local courts for some time now. Whether it is a public debt from a traffic fine or civil debt, you can find yourself behind bars not because you can’t pay, but usually because judges are quite susceptible to pressure from creditors to issue contempt of court judgments on debtors who don’t show up for a court appearance.


CK: So technically the charge is contempt of court?


AR: Yes. The creditor will ask for debtors’ examinations repeatedly, a series of them, and inevitably someone who can’t take a day off work because they can’t afford it is going to miss one of those.


CK: And that is the moment at which a private dispute between you and the person that you owe loan money to becomes something that the state intervenes in?


AR: Yes, especially if the judge decides to disregard your ability to pay. There are Supreme Court decisions that mitigate against that, but judges do it anyway. The Department of Justice has sent out advisories that judges should take into account the ability to pay. But it has a very weak regulatory hand when it comes to this thing.


CK: And if you don’t show up for court, or show up but can’t pay, you can be imprisoned?


AR: Yes, you can be put behind bars or sentenced to probation. The small claims courts of this country were initially supposed to bring about justice for the small guy. Instead, with the rise of this debt economy, they have become inundated with those kinds of judgments. And creditors are increasingly taking advantage of the willingness of judges to be leaned on in that way. And then the courts take their cut from fines and fees so it’s a win-win situation for them.


JL: The question is, why does fine and fee profiteering look natural to us? For example, when I see all the debates about bail reform, people often miss something that I missed at first too: why should somebody be profiting off the fact that people are incarcerated before they have been convicted of anything?


AR:  The even bigger question is whether there are limits to the extraction. Because in a sense it is a whack-a-mole situation: you abolish bail bonds, you abolish fines and fees, and that opens up new opportunities for others to extract. Are there limits in a creditocracy to how much you can extract?

But that just underscores that this will be an ongoing process. We feel that we were still learning a lot as we wrote this book, and we hope readers will also learn a lot if and when they read it. Our wish list of reforms at the end was provisional, just a place to start. We really need a movement that is focused on mobility justice in all sorts of ways to elaborate that list, to give it substance and push into the public and political consciousness. We hope the book is a contribution to that, but it is really just a beginning.


CK: It sounds like we need a nice mobility justice manifesto.


AR:  Hopefully, there are people working on that.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured-image photograph by daves_archive1 / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)