Whatever: Moto Inequality

John Burns
by John Burns

Hey, I can see your invisible hand!

A few MO commenters are always encouraging me to keep my politics to myself, which I do as much as I can because I understand people want to read about motorcycles and look at pretty pics when they come here to get away from it all. The problem for me is that if you’re paying attention to your life, including motorcycles, politics can’t be avoided any more than you can just ignore the family of bears who just decided to share your campsite. Politics affects my bottom line.

Stop me if I’ve already addressed this topic before, but what got me onto it again was people lamenting the other day how the motorcycle industry is dying off because the kids don’t want to go outside and ride; they just wanna sit in a sensory deprivation hyperbaric chamber all day and take selfies and play video games. It’s their parents’ fault, they also say, for not exposing them to the Great Outdoors as children.

Personally, I think what’s wrong with the millennials is this: None of them are buying motorcycles because none of them have any money. So, fine, let’s not talk about politics: Let’s talk about economics.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a pretty fun film about a couple of guys whose clapped-out Norton causes them to become Commies.

I might be willing to go along with the millennial bashers if I didn’t have my own dog in the fight (my son), and if he didn’t have a bunch of friends in the same holey boat. To begin with, if we Boomers had had Playstations, “Call of Duty” and VR headsets, you can be damn sure that the Indulgent Generation (children of the Greatest Gen) would’ve been all over that action, and just like the current one we would’ve grown eventually tired of those toys, too. I can’t remember the last time I saw mine (now 23 years old) shooting up the forces of evil from my couch. He does have his nose in his phone a lot, but every time I expect to find him playing Candy Crush or looking for Pokemons, he’s reading something for a school assignment or doing homework.

I do wish we’d spent more time camping and hiking and doing Great Outdoors things when the kid was growing up, but with his mother and me both working full-time and then some, there never seemed to be enough energy or money, for much of that on the weekends – though for years we did pack up the Ranger (the kid’s still driving it with almost 180,000 miles showing) nearly every weekend for a trip to one of the local MX parks, none of which were nearer than a two-hour drive.

Not like when I was a kid, where you could ride your minibike all kinds of places not necessarily legally but nobody much cared. And I don’t know anybody who packs the kids up in the station wagon every summer for a two-week vacay anymore like we used to do (on one income), though I do know a few people (mostly on Facebook) who are constantly checking in from Monaco or Hawaii or a really expensive restaurant. Their big garages, already groaning with collectible Ducatis, are always gaining new bikes and expensive cars.

I manage not to be too bitter mostly because my MO duties sometimes have my own garage stuffed with great motorcycles, but that wouldn’t be the case if I was having to pay for them. And my son, who was kind of soured on bikes there for a few years after a couple of frightening RM85 mishaps involving gravity, is back into motorcycles now in a big way, so we do have that going for us. We Burnses are simple peasant stock who don’t need much.

If he hadn’t had me for a role model, though, I don’t know that my kid would’ve ever caught the motorcycle bug in the first place. What I see in his generation isn’t a lack of enthusiasm for letting the good times roll, but a much greater and earlier awareness of the harsher realities of life than we Boomers had: Faced with the high cost and need for education, and the expensiveness of lots of things we took for granted (a garage, healthcare, Rolling Stones tickets), I see a frugality that’s more in line with my Children of the Depression parents (save that aluminum foil!) than with my own.

A buddy in Solvang who was looking for new digs sent me this Craigslist: $1450 / 2br – 400ft2 – 5th Wheel on 15 acres (Full Hook-ups) (Solvang)

That kind of overarching worry about finances had them wondering the same thing: Why would you ride around on a vehicle that’s 38 more times likely to get you killed than a nice sensible Pontiac Bonneville? A lack of money creates a cautious worldview that excludes things like motorcycles, which are both dangerous and toys to outsiders. Google “millennial earnings” to find tons of stories like this one at Forbes.

In the ’60s, we bypassed our parents’ concerns because the world was our ever-expanding oyster and bell-bottoms and bongs were in; shooting guys to the moon was also a dangerous thing with no real economic payoff, but we all got behind it anyway. And the astronauts got Corvettes!

In that era, a lightly-used Camaro or Mustang was not out of reach of the average 20-something; neither was a decent middle-class living for just about anybody who worked 40 hours a week. Homelessness wasn’t yet a thing, not where I grew up anyway. The future, in short, looked rosy, and motorcycle sales, especially cheap Japanese ones, soared. A quick run over to Chevrolet.com informs me that the cheapest new Camaro with a V-8 starts at $37,295.

It’s not like there’s not still plenty of money sloshing around in the economy. The problem is very little of it is leaking down into the pockets of people who buy motorcycles anymore, which used to consist mainly of young males. For a while there the Occupy Wall Street movement gained a little traction complaining about things like the CEO-to-worker pay ratio, which has climbed from 42-to-1 in 1980 to its current level of 335-to-1, according to the AFL-CIO. GlassDoor has it at only 204:1. Either way, we’ve moved on to more pressing concerns like transgender bathrooms and walling off Mexico.

Do Americans buy motorcycles when they have money? I think this little chart from webbikeworld.com is worth a thousand words.

One man’s “wealth redistribution” is another man’s “tax reform,” but lately both terms are code for even less disposable income for those just launching themselves into the job market. We worship the wealthy in the U.S. Nobody has a problem with the six heirs to Sam Walton’s Walmart having a net worth greater than the bottom 42% of Americans combined, but make no mistake their six fat straws are drawing from the communal milkshake. Good for them and Sam Walton; I don’t begrudge them their wealth at all. I do know the country was better off when the top tax rates were a bit higher. I was there.

I seriously doubt that the small percentage of us who gravitate toward motorcycles has grown any smaller; blaming the youngsters for a faltering motorcycle industry is a classic case of blaming the victim (even if E-i-C Duke deduced in this editorial that fewer kids today are riding bicycles, creating a bigger hurdle to riding a motorcycle one day).

Meanwhile, the people who do have a few bucks continue to keep Harley-Davidson, BMW and other builders of upscale motos afloat. Ducati and its Scramblers are one bright spot among several, but my intel is that the average Scrambler buyer is 47 years old. (And that’s not even a bad thing if said 47-year old trades in a nice, clean bike for a disadvantaged youth to pick up on the cheap.)

I’m almost ready to throw up my hands and not care anymore, really, since it looks like my own offspring, after taking only five years to secure his four-year degree, appears to have landed a jay-o-bee after he graduates in a few months where he’ll make more than his dear old Dad right out of the chute. I couldn’t be prouder and when it comes to pass, I think it means he’ll be giving back my old R1 – and maybe even the old Ranger truck.

First thing he wanted to know when he called me with the news, was ‘what’s up with that new Ducati Supersport anyway?’ He thinks he needs one. I think I’m going to offer him a smoking R1/Ranger package deal and see if I can finally achieve the Buell XB-9S of my dreams, then pull up the prosperity ladder behind me.

I’m glad we’re able to have this discussion without getting into politics.

What’s a nice pre-owned RC213V-S down to now? Maybe I’ll get one of them…
John Burns
John Burns

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