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Gas and gripes: What price self-restraint?

By Marion Edwyn Harrison, Esq.
web posted June 14, 2004

Much, maybe too much, has been written about gasoline-at-the-pump prices. Senator John Forbes Kerry in 1994 roundly advocated increasing the gas tax by 50 cents per gallon (with which, incidentally, I agreed then and agree now -- more on pricing if you read on). The Senator now leads, or attempts to lead, the not uncommon, if transparently phony, challenger's chorus of blame: Blame it all on the President and the Republicans; the public is unhappy about something; Republicans are (except, realistically, in the Senate) in power; it's got to be the Republicans' fault.

Prices back in March for gasoline at an Exxon in Maryland
Prices back in March for gasoline at an Exxon in Maryland

The "it" is (in dollars, if not in percentages) modestly higher gas prices. What are the causes? They are manifest and uneven. Economists and others familiar with oil and gasoline production, taxation and distribution apportion causation in varying degrees. One need not attempt to count the angels -- in this instance, devils - of apportionment.

Suffice it to say, in no particular order, that (1) gas distribution, pricing and State taxation in this country over many years have evolved into a complicated and uneven puzzle; (2) the United States is fighting the War on Terrorism, disturbing thereby production and distribution of considerable New Eastern oil; (3) the more rabid environmentalists, many metropolitan-area Members of Congress (from both Parties but predominantly Democratic) and others oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Range or other untapped domestic fields (even though the Alaskan caribou population increased in and around the big Alaskan Pipeline after it was built -- caribou smarter than some politicians?); (4) the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (commonly, "OPEC") naturally is interested in selling the maximum quantity of OPEC oil production at the highest price; (5) American antipathy to coal-burning has lessened industrial coal use while increasing gasoline use; (6) America is behind many other economically developed countries in building mass transit; (7) many politicians oppose ethanol development; (8) many oppose tax incentives for hybrid vehicles, which burn less gas; (9) huge numbers of Americans show no restraint in their lifestyle and consequent personal gas consumption.

Many such Americans are the pinched victims of their own lack of self-restraint. American gas prices always have been a fraction of European prices, now in the $5.00 - 6.00 per gallon range. Is it prudent to assume that, somehow, our prices always will be dramatically -- some economists would say, absurdly and unrealistically -- lower than those of the balance of the world? And, so assuming -- or maybe just not thinking at all -- some people buy a gas-guzzler, live an hour or two drive from work, or both; and advocate more and bigger highways (ignoring the more and bigger gridlock) and have no interest in, or even oppose, taxes for mass transit.

(An illustration in point. As you read, an otherwise somewhat conservative Northern Virginia Republican Member of Congress, with lots of uninformed support, engineered a $1,000,000.00 appropriation of federal taxpayers' money to "study" -- a Washington word meaning "justify" -- widening I-66 through Arlington. If widened, more of his constituents from Fairfax County, grown to more than one million people, and even further west, commuting into Washington, can shove the beginning of their traffic backup nearer the Potomac River bridges because, quite obviously, Washington streets can't be widened and more bridges can't be built. The same I-66, of course, readily could support extensive ground-level or elevated mass
transit.)

The automobile industry, incidentally, is only partially at fault -- and arguably its role is justified because manufacturers manufacture what consumers will buy. Hence, there is advertising hype about power, quick acceleration and no comment about operating costs or 46,000+ traffic deaths annually. Ford Motors' William Clay Ford, Jr., honestly has observed that in other countries in which Ford operates "fuel prices are very high relative to here and customers get used to it, but they get used to it by having a smaller vehicle, a more efficient vehicle . . .." General Motors' CEO Rick Wagoner similarly has observed: "If you want people to consume . .. less, the simplest thing to do is price it more dearly . . .."

Over time there may or may not be a combination of actions, domestic and international, which would reduce pump prices. Siphoning off the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as Senator Kerry has both opposed and favored, clearly is not among them. That storehouse is for use when war or terrorism blocks imports, not to reduce pump prices and placate poorly planning people. Further, the experts say limited draining of the Reserve wouldn't much affect pump prices anyway.

What some Americans need is a sense of reality and, with it, recognition that (1) we need to develop more nuclear power (notwithstanding NIMBYs, some environmentalists and the contingent-fee "Trial Lawyers"); (2) we need more mass transit; and (3), given worldwide oil production, pricing, distribution and taxing phenomena, pump prices, which already are worldwide low if domestic high, over time probably will rise.

That translates into the need for self-restraint. Americans have adjusted to westward land expansion, to the Industrial Revolution, to a deadly Civil War and dismal Reconstruction, to two World Wars and lesser wars, the Great Depression, civil rights carriages and miscarriages, the Nuclear Age, as well as Islamist terrorism at home and abroad. Onerous though it will be for many whose lack of self-restraint has snared them, we must be optimistic that all the Kerrys and others will cease irrational blaming, the affected public will cease griping, and those of our fellow citizens in need of self-restraint will exercise it.

Surely we Americans face greater challenges than coping with pump prices higher than usual and a third or so as high as those abroad.

Marion Edwyn Harrison is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation.

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