Charles Krauthammer thinks he has the solution to high gas prices: increase gas taxes. If $4 a gallon gasoline gets a few more people to ride transit and buy more fuel-efficient cars, just think what $8 a gallon gasoline would do!
That’s a little bit like saying, “Oh, you got shot in the gut? Well, here is the solution for you: just shoot yourself in the head.”
Or think of it this way: suppose food prices were so high that some people were starving. I know! Let’s increase taxes to double the cost of food. That’ll teach ’em.
Just what will it teach them? That nothing is so bad that the government can’t make it worse? Or that people like Krauthammer are totally out of touch with ordinary Americans?
To the Krauthammers, Kunstlers, and Holtz Kays of the world, automobiles are by definition evil, and anything that reduces use of them is a good thing. In fact, mobility is the good thing, and automobiles provide far more mobility than their precious transit systems.
I have to admit I am biased. If I hadn’t had the mobility to visit more than half the national forests in every region of the country in the 1980s, I never would have gained the insights I did on what makes the Forest Service tick. If I hadn’t had the mobility to visit urban areas all over the country in the 1990s and 2000s, I never would have gained the insights that help me understand how cities work. Somehow, I doubt that Charlie Krauthammer, James Kunstler, or Jane Holtz Kay would be satisfied never traveling beyond the borders of their towns. But they all imagine that their mobility is more important than other peoples’, and so we can sacrifice general mobility without giving up our own.
(To be fair, Kunstler and Holtz Kay also imagine that transit and trains can provide equal mobility to autos at no higher financial cost and a lower energy cost — all three of which points are doubtful. But ultimately, their ideas will require a drastic reduction in mobility for many people.)
Experts are divided on why oil prices are high and whether they will stay high or may soon fall. According to Goldman Sachs, growing demand combined with limits on supply mean that oil prices will go nowhere but up. Others point out that Goldman Sachs has a vested interest in creating an oil bubble and that it is speculators, not actual shortages, that have driven prices up.
It doesn’t matter a whole lot either way. If prices stay high, Americans (and others) will adapt by buying more fuel-efficient cars and conserving in other ways. If prices go down again, we will have more time to find new sources of energy. But, for the most part, we won’t want to give up our mobility. Raising taxes to suddenly double gas prices will only make the transition more costly and painful.
One blogger tells a possibly fictitious story of a friend who panicked and traded in his SUV for a Prius — without consulting his spouse. Whatever this says about marital relations, the blogger concludes with sage advice: “It’s actually pretty simple when it comes right down to it. Make smarter choices on your next vehicle purchase, and for now just sit tight, grit your teeth and exhale.”
Though I prefer to bicycle, I have a 1986, 33-mpg Mazda with 250,000 miles on it. I’ve thought about getting a Prius, but it seems a shame to waste a car that still has a lot of miles left. It takes energy to build cars (and the energy required to build hybrids is a more than ordinary cars, which is why McKinsey says hybrids cost $100 per ton of greenhouse gases abated), so wholesale junking of our existing fleet is not going to save much.
Encouraging everyone to buy new cars now may actually be a mistake, like asking everyone to buy the first IBM PCs when many preferred to see what improvements the future would bring. Diesels get better mileage than gasoline vehicles. Plug-in hybrids will be available in a year or so. Electrics might actually become affordable. There are always Geos. We don’t know yet what technology will best deal with rising oil prices, and there is no point in locking us into the wrong one.
So don’t panic and don’t encourage panicky government policies. Let everyone deal with oil prices in the way that best suits them.