Friday, January 26, 2007

Andrew Sullivan is promoting a gas tax. I felt compelled to tell him why it's a bad idea:

"Raise the price and people change their habits" may well be the essence of capitalism, but it ignores the situation most of America is in. I live in a small city in the midwest, and there's not a lot of room for me to change my behavior as far as gas comsumption goes. When I bought my last car, I actually looked at the Prius, but there was an 18 month wait to get one, and I need a car right away, as my last one was destroyed in an unfortunate demonstration of the laws of physics involving a sheet of ice and a phone pole. Besides, I ran the numbers, and given the price difference, gas would have to get up to about $3.50 a gallon for it to actually save me money.

I could bike or walk to work, I suppose. Except for in the winter, when I'd be courting frostbite and hypothermia, or in the summer when I'd be courting heatstroke. But, yea, there are about 3 months out of the year when it's gorgeous, and I could do it, except for the long sections of my commute where there's no sidewalk.

I could do mass transit. The bus stop is only about 3/4 of a mile from my house, after all. It would take about 40 minutes to get to work that way (as opposed to 8 minutes if I drive myself), and I'd have to leave about 2 hours earlier than I do now because of the bus schedule (and that's when the buses run on time), then rush to get from my desk to the bus stop across the street by 5:05, when the bus comes, or wait till the next one comes at 7:00.

The sad thing is, I'm on the upper side of middle class, living fairly close to the city center in a town that prides itself on being as ped-friendly and green as it can manage. Most of the people around here live in small towns (or out in the country) at least ten miles away, because they can get so much more house for the money out there. They drive whatever car they can afford, and they only replace it when it wears out. A lot of them need 4-wheel drive so they can still get to work when the weather sucks (as it often does), and they've already seen the resale value of their car drop drastically after the last time gas prices went up. Since they had to borrow money to buy the truck in the first place, a lot of them are upside down in their cars, so there's no way they can sell them (to who?) and buy something more efficient.

Increasing gas prices (for whatever reason, through whatever mechanism) for these people mean fewer trips out of town to visit family or friends, and more careful planning so that they run all their errands at once. That's it. That's as much change as they can afford, and it adds up to a measly 5% or so reduction in consumption, while the extra cost of gas takes $40 or $50 bucks a month out of their already tight budget.

Why? Why put the hurt on so many people instead of just changing the CAFE standards for cars, which would not only cut consumption, but result in US-made cars that could be sold overseas, where the mileage standards are much higher? That seems like quite a sacrifice purely for the sake of ideological purity.

And, yes, most of us out here in the hinterlands have lifestyles that overuse our natural resources. But changing that is going to take time, and can't be done purely on an individual level, driven by market forces. It will require infrastructure changes that will need to come from government and industry.

Errata: I misremembered Kevin Drum's post on this when I pulled that 5% number out of my ass. Actually, when gas prices were at their peak, gas consumption dropped by 0.4%.

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