Saturday, April 22, 2006
It’s as inevitable as the tides: Whenever gasoline prices rise, the media fill with doom and gloom reports of how “working Americans” are suffering and politicians issue stern warnings about profit-craving oil companies and potential government responses.
Why this obsession with gas prices? It could simply be that the topic makes good “copy” for the media, in that it’s a human interest story that everyone can relate to, while politicians chase votes with oil-company-bashing (Were Exxon and Chevron less concerned about profit back in 1990, when gas was barely a dollar a gallon?). The social fixation also highlights a number of policy issues of transportation and land use.
First, the phenomenon of lamenting gas prices shows the shallowness of America’s claim to environmentalism. While environmentalists and even President Bush encourage curbing our addiction to oil, and while even moderate policy thinkers propose a gas tax to dissuade consumption, the average American, when push comes to shove, would rather complain about high prices and hear their politicians talk about intervention. (Six years ago, with crude oil and gasoline prices about half of today’s nominal figures, both President Clinton and supposedly environmentally friendly Al Gore briefly supported a plan to tap the national petroleum reserve to lower prices).
Moreover, America’s love affair with huge and gas-gulping vehicles shows few signs of abating. Here’s an interesting side phenomenon: When I was a kid in the ‘70s, the goal of every red-blooded young American male was, as it had been for most of the century, to buy a sexy sports car to whiz around corners in. What ever happened to the sports car? I think its disappearance relates to the fact that one can’t whiz around corners anymore; there’s simply too much traffic. In our sedentary culture, most Americans would rather just sink down into a cushioned SUV seat and take comfort in the fact that we’re riding high above the ground, even if we’re not moving very fast.
Gas is now approaching $3 a gallon nationwide; this compares to a nominal price of $1.35 a quarter-century ago in 1981 (a little less than $3 in inflation-adjusted prices). How does this compare with the price of automobiles? In 1981 the average price of a new auto was a little less $9000; today it is about $28,000 – more than thrice as much. A key factor in this rise is, of course, the size of today’s vehicles. If consumers are looking to assign blame for their big bill at the gas pump as they head to their exurb, a look in the mirror is a good place to start.