Gas Attack

A spike in fuel prices should accelerate a reduction in use, but that's just not the American way.






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Griffin-Nolan, Ed
Date published: May 4, 2011

Each time the price of gas climbs, a predictable political dance takes place. You don't even have to wait for the newspaper to arrive to know what's going to happen. First the New York state attorney general announces that there will be an investigation of price gouging. Not much comes of it. Then the governor floats the idea of suspending the state tax on gasoline for the summer, when most of us drive more and burn more gas.

At the federal level, the president ponders releasing oil from our strategic reserves to lower gas prices, and Republicans and oil-state senators cry out for more drilling offshore and in the Arctic. All this gets played out with a media soundtrack that makes $4 a gallon sound like the end of the world as we know it.

All these proposals and media coverage of the price of gas assume that rising fuel prices are a bad thing. No one has the guts to speak a simple truth: that higher gas prices just might be what we need. Higher prices would force us to use less gas, which for reasons having to do with both the environment and national security, would be a good thing.

Actually there is one guy who has been saying this for a long time. I caught up with Peter Wilcoxen, an associate professor of economics and public administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School, on the day that news reports surfaced that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was contemplating suspending the gas tax for the summer.

When I made reference to the hint of a tax hiatus, Wilcoxen, who directs the Maxwell Center for Environmental Policy and Administration, went from measured to agitated in no time flat. "That is so wrong! That is so wrong!" shouted the good professor.

And why is cutting the gas tax for a season wrong? "It is pandering," opines Wilcoxen, but that's not what bothers him most. Government efforts to suppress the price at the pump are, in the final analysis, dishonest and unproductive. "They're promising something that the government isn't capable of delivering. They're telling people who engage in risky behavior that they don't have to worry about the impact of their own behavior. They're saying it's OK to buy a Hummer, we'll keep it under control."

Why exactly do we act surprised when gas prices go up? Oil is a finite product; it's running out, and gas already costs more at retail in most other countries. It's a no-brainer to figure out that it's going to climb here. Yet we demand that the politicians do something about it, and they humor us with their little investigations and proposals.

Wilcoxen is not against lowering gas prices just because he drives a zippy Volkswagen Passat with great gas mileage. He has done research over the years and concludes that one of the few things that gets us to drive less and drive more efficient cars is a rise in the price of gas. Analyzing trends in U.S. energy consumption, he notes that the big bump in oil prices in the late 1970s broke the trend of climbing consumption. "People respond to higher prices, and manufacturers respond even more vigorously," he notes. "People don't like higher gas prices, and they react."

Politically, he knows it's toxic, but a tax that drove gas prices even higher would move us in the direction we need to go to reduce greenhouse gases-not to mention energy independence and even the deficit. No politician since Jimmy Carter has dared ask us to voluntarily get by on less of anything, with the exception of taxes. Carter famously wore a sweater in a White House televised speech, suggesting that we could lower the thermostat and help out the country. That got him a one-way ticket back to Georgia.

Since then politicians pacify us with promises whenever the $4 mark is breached, and we end up at the red light squeezed between a Prius and a Hummer, not knowing which way to turn.

The ascendant conservative Republican majority in the House of Representatives, including our own Ann Marie Buerkle, give climate change little or no attention. Even Democrats who have no trouble believing in global climate change are careful to tell us that it is technology, not sacrifice, that will save our hides in the end.

Here's a chance to let market forces go to work on behalf of environmental sanity, but no one will dare let it work its "magic." "Even if we can't talk about climate policy in the current Congress," pleads Wilcoxen, "it is imperative that Congress not make the hideous mistake of promising low prices." Don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile, the professor is enjoying cruising in his Passat. "I love it," he says. "It's a four-cylinder turbo, gets 30 miles plus to the gallon and is fun to drive, and it carries relatively low guilt."

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Read Ed Griffin-Nolan's award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@twcny.rr.com.

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