March 9, 2011

The Upside of $5 Gasoline

One of the most frequent bumper-sticker arguments from politicians in tough times is that we have to share some short-term pain for long-term gain. Usually you hear it from conservatives who contend lower-income Americans will have to do with less so they have more in the future (trickle-down prosperity). (You never hear the conservatives call for a little pain for their core constituency – the well-to-do – but that's another rant for another time.)

Most days my wife and I go to the YMCA for an hour of short-term discomfort. I'll ride the stationary bike, she'll attack the treadmill, and then both of us will work on the weight machines. We get a little sore sometimes but we know the long-term benefits cannot be denied.

My feelings on energy policy are the same. We can benefit from some short-term pain, specifically the pain of significantly higher fossil fuel taxes.

It's like cigarette taxes which are now massive. It is a fact that the higher taxes have 1) raise a lot of money for vital public programs like healthcare, and 2) encouraged people to quit smoking. Duh: win-winning!

We know we need more money to repair our transportation system (roads, bridges, airports), and we know the long-term benefits of evolving our energy production to renewable resources for both economic and environmental reasons. (I also support nuclear, by the way. It is proven safer than coal, it is environmentally more responsible, the technology is proven, and it is for all practical purposes an unlimited resource.)

This isn't just a theory. Western Europe and Japan have been doing this for decades and they have reaped the rewards. Have you ever used public transportation in Tokyo? London? Berlin? Rome? It's awesome. Urban subway systems and intercity railroad networks in the rest of the world should embarrass Americans.

We drive the highest percentage of low-mileage cares of any developed nation in the world. And everyone else is now or will soon generate most of their electricity with nuclear and/or renewables, because the economics make sense.

Americans simply have been unwilling to voluntarily accept the short-term pain. Going back to my exercise comparison, it is comparable to the reluctance all of us fatties experience when we first consider starting a workout regimen. Too many of us wait for the heart attack before we actually do something.

Our friends in the oil companies are doing it for us (and doing it to us). Relying on the oil companies, though, means we'll get less benefit from the pain.

We will still be pushed in the direction towards fuel efficiency and alternative fuels, but instead of taxes being used for the public good the extra money goes into the rather humungous treasuries of Exxon-Mobil, BP et. al. I'd rather have my money fixing roads (and creating jobs) than funding 9-figure bonuses for oil executives and buying another mansion for some Saudi sheikh.

Our politicians, including the President, continue to pander to our desire to avoid pain. Republicans, unwilling to learn from a long history of environmental disasters, continue to scream "Drill, Baby, Drill." President Obama talks the talk when it comes to our energy future, but he's looking at artificially lowering the cost of gasoline by releasing oil from the strategic reserve. Bad move. He should run the political risk of walking the walk, and letting market forces move us towards a more rational energy future.

As for the rest of us, Americans should stop complaining about $3.50 or $4 or $5 gasoline and do something positive. In addition to buying a Volt, I've started riding the bus. I live one block from a bus stop and can get just about anywhere in metro Lansing in a reasonable amount of time. It is selfish and stupid for me to ignore a low-cost alternative to driving.

And I will continue to argue in favor of our governments doing what foreign governments have done for years: investing as much as possible into alternative fuel research that is vital for our economic and environmental future.

Do we really want to be held hostage by Middle East sand barons forever?

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