A Small Step in the Right Direction

Finally, after years of caving into special interests, the US Congress is poised to increase national fuel efficiency standards– to 35 miles a gallon by 2020, up from the current average of 25. In Europe, however, vehicles average 37 miles a gallon right now, and this will increase to 50 by 2012. The current average in Japan is 45 miles a gallon. So, a small step, but we need to keep some perspective here. The American propensity for driving enormous anti-social vehicles is the equivalent of giving the finger to the rest of humanity, those born and yet to be born. Let’s hope this changes.

  • Dustin

    I don’t think it’s really a step of any kind. Hiking up fuel efficiency mandates even to “Eurotopian” levels aren’t going to do much for consumption, considering that demand will eventually bring levels right back up to where they already are. The problem isn’t the model of autos on the road or what they’re running on, whether straight gas, ethanol-enhanced, or hydrogen fuel cells complementing a standard combustion engine. It’s consumption. It’s the fact that no matter what cosmetic changes are introduced into our driving habits, our habits aren’t going to change, because the transportation infrastructure to replace the current individualistic system doesn’t exist. Our cities, suburbs, exurbs and countrysides have been shaped over the last hundred years to accommodate the automobile.

    It should of course go without saying that ethanol is a pitiful, offensive and even dangerous joke, that a gas tax would do nothing but crush the working poor, and that the “green” media offensive of late hasn’t really encouraged responsibility and sacrifice, but just commoditizes environmentalism as a marketing gimmick.

    Others have said it better than I possible could:
    Darwin Catholic on $100,000 Lexus hybrids
    IOZ on Tom Friedman’s eco-idiocy

  • Dustin

    Eek, sorry about those links. Here:

    darwincatholic.blogspot.com/2007/11/image-conscious.html
    whoisioz.blogspot.com/2007/11/your-miserable-preview-of-failure-for.html

  • Dustin

    Also, I realize that there’s been talk on this blog about the necessity of urban revitalization, especially as a way of promoting public transportation. I tend to agree, and IOZ nails it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova Morning’s Minion

    I would propose: (i) higher effiency standards: not 35 by 2020, but 35 by 2010 and 50 by 2015; (ii) European-style gsa taxes; (iii) using the proceeds to fund public transportation projects on a large scale.

    But I’m not sure how much the “American exceptionalist” model works here. Many people choose to move far away from cities because they want to live in McMansions; they could otherwise afford a more modest place within reach of public transport. Many people also choose to buy SUVs without need (and I would assume that is 99 percent of SUV purchases). It’s the over-consumption, not the American model.

  • Blackadder

    As it happens, the cradle to grave energy cost of most hybrid cars is higher than for non-hybrid cars, and the total energy cost of most SUVs is lower than average:

    http://www.caranddriver.com/dailyautoinsider/10871/doubts-cast-on-hybrid-efficiency.htm

    Maybe congress should mandate that everyone drive Hummers. :)

  • Policraticus

    Blackadder,

    Keep in mind that “energy cost” is not so much the issue here. If it were, hybrids, as they currently are, do consume more energy than your standard gasoline consuming vehicle. The question of the consumption of non-renewable energy vs. renewable energy looms large in this discussion, as does the issue of CO2 emissions on a micro- and macro-level.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    The problem is deep and structural: the problem is basically that virtually our entire civilization in the United States is infrastructured based on the assumption of cheap and plentiful liquid fuels – diesel and gasoline. Places like Dallas and Phoenix, not to mention Los Angeles, are simply not habitable places at anything remotely like their current scale without absolutely reliable quantities of cheap[ish] motor fuel.

    There is every indication that gasoline will, on average, get ever more expensive from here on out. New fuel economy standards or no.

    It may be too late to make the investments needed to create habitable places in a post-cheap-gas world: fuel taxes would accelerate the need for alternatives to driving, and there would be a long delay when lower-income people out in the ex-urban hinterlands will literally not be able to afford to commute to work (this may happen soon even without extra fuel taxes.)

    While I am not the alarmist that some “peak oil” followers are, I do think there are some very, very austere and difficult times coming; times more austere and difficult than anything faced by any generation born after 1945.

    One thing I’ve heard advocated, which makes a good deal of sense, is to re-vitalize our passenger rail service into something comparable in coverage and convenience to what exists in Europe.

  • Bill H

    I’d be much happier to see a higher gas tax. The problem is not how many miles per gallon our cars get, it’s how many gallons we consume. You deter people from consuming too much by making it more expensive, and then we can leave it to individuals to figure out what combination of greater fuel-efficiency, car pooling, public transportation (where available — and I’d like to see it more available), and shorter commutes they want to use in order to reduce consumption. People who bang on continuously about how terrible SUVs are just remind me of my friend in grad school who did the same, but who decided that she wanted to live 35 miles away from campus in a town that she thought was hipper and commute everyday.

    If there are distributional concerns about a gas tax, then we can just use the gas tax revenue to lower income taxes in proportion to the typical gas consumption of people in a given tax bracket.

  • Bill H

    One thing I’ve heard advocated, which makes a good deal of sense, is to re-vitalize our passenger rail service into something comparable in coverage and convenience to what exists in Europe.

    That doesn’t make much sense to me. At least, there’s no feasible way that you could get comparable coverage and convenience. The geography of the country is just so different in terms of population density and distance between towns. It’s not an accident that the Northeast U.S., which is the one place in the U.S. with similar levels of population density, is also the one place that does have a fair amount of passenger rail service.

  • Policraticus

    Bill H,

    I agree with much of what you are saying. Upping MPG standards seems to address a symptom rather than the underlying sickness, which is the acceptance of indiscriminate and unhindered consumption of energy.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    The geography of the country is just so different in terms of population density and distance between towns…

    True enough – and thus just plugging in European economic assumptions would not work. However, there is a lot more coverage possible in the Northeast and elsewhere. California, for example, has pretty minimal rail service, given its size and population: there is no high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example.

    In other words, rail could be a lot more comprehensive than it is now, even making allowance for the spread-out nature of our situation in North America.

    Spending even a fraction of the highway budget on passenger rail makes a lot of sense as a mid to long-term investment: a world of 6 or 7 dollar gasoline (and, worth mentioning, jet fuel) is going to make the current setup pretty un-doable before too much longer.

  • http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com DarwinCatholic

    Many people choose to move far away from cities because they want to live in McMansions; they could otherwise afford a more modest place within reach of public transport.

    This is a Los Angeles boy talking, so maybe this doesn’t apply as much in some other areas, but in the big city I’m familiar with, it’s the lower to mid middle class who move way out. Those who make plenty of money (in LA, say 75k+) can indeed afford a modest-sized place closer in. But those who make less (and yet do make enough to be able to afford a very modestly priced house) have to move farther out.

    Twenty years ago, my parents were a case in point. They had three kids and one on the way in a two bedroom apartment they could barely afford near where my father worked. Buying a house meant moving thirty five miles away — to get a 1200 sq ft four bedroom: hardly a McMansion than-you-very-much.

    One of the helpful trends in this respect has been larger employers moving out into the suburbs so that employees can afford to live near by. Here in the Austin area, a number of the large tech companies are located out north or west of city center, surrounded by very modestly priced housing.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    One other thing, Bill – there was a time not all that long ago when train travel was, in fact, how most people travelled long distances in the US: I think the long view of history will be that the phenomenon of mass air travel was only a temporary situation, enabled by an extended, but not sustainable or repeatable, period of plentiful, cheap fuel to run all those airliners.

    Trains are the only conceivable way to move large numbers of people great distances in the post-oil future.

  • Blackadder

    Here is an interesting article arguing that increasing CAFE standards is a bad idea:

    http://www.econbrowser.com/archives/2007/03/cafe_standards.html

    The article explains how previous increases in CAFE standards led to the rise of the SUV, and how an increase in CAFE standards might actually lead to their being less fuel efficient vehicles on the road (Cliff notes version: many car makers don’t meet current CAFE standards as it is cheaper for them to pay the fines the law imposes than to raise their standards; raising CAFE standards further gives those companies an advantage over those companies that do comply with the law). The article concludes that if reducing gas consumption is our goal, increased gas taxes, or, failing that, a increased penalties under CAFE, would be a better way to go.

    Personally, I’m not convinced that raising the gas tax is a good idea. The idea seems to rely on the faulty premise that if the United States uses less gasoline, then the world will consume less gasoline. But that isn’t true. Every barrel of oil the U.S. doesn’t use is a barrel that someone else will.

  • RonPaulForLife

    Raising fuel economy standards is the politically popular method of attempting to solve the problem. How many politicians do you think would support the more logical option of a higher gas tax?

    “Every barrel of oil the U.S. doesn’t use is a barrel that someone else will.”

    Faulty logic which should be evident.

  • RonPaulForLife

    “I think the long view of history will be that the phenomenon of mass air travel was only a temporary situation, enabled by an extended, but not sustainable or repeatable, period of plentiful, cheap fuel to run all those airliners.”

    The far more likely scenario is continued mass air travel enabled by renewable energy.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    RPFL – What “renewable energy” would power jet airliners?

  • Dustin

    Thanks to whoever fixed the links I provided.

  • http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com Darwin

    RPFL – What “renewable energy” would power jet airliners?

    Dude, haven’t you watched Back to the Future? You just throw a little garbage in your Mr. Fusion unit and off you go…

    Oh wait, that was only a movie…

    Actually, hydrogen combustion engine would produce pretty harmless pollutants (water) and the supply of hydrogen could be renewable (water). Of course, first you have to break down the water into hydrogen and oxygen. There’s always a catch. Dang entropy.

  • http://populisthope.blogspot.com Matt Talbot

    first you have to break down the water into hydrogen and oxygen

    Well, exactly, Darwin – there really isn’t a realistic alternative to liquid hydrocarbons that I’m aware of: Nothing comes close to their stability and energy density.

    I think hydrogen, solar, wind, geothermal, etc., are part of the solution; I think, however, that we’re not going to be able to avoid virtually reinventing our infrastructure to adapt to petroleum products that will be both increasingly expensive and scarce as time goes on.

    The 30-miles-each-way commute will be a thing of the past, I expect, in a startlingly short period of time from today.

  • http://crankycon.typepad.com paul zummo

    This is a Los Angeles boy talking, so maybe this doesn’t apply as much in some other areas, but in the big city I’m familiar with, it’s the lower to mid middle class who move way out. Those who make plenty of money (in LA, say 75k+) can indeed afford a modest-sized place closer in. But those who make less (and yet do make enough to be able to afford a very modestly priced house) have to move farther out.

    Not just in LA, but here in DC as well. It’s true that we have our fair share of McMansions out here in suburbia, particularly in my neighborhood, but for a middle class family such as mine it makes no economic sense to buy in the city unless we want to live in a bad neighborhood. I’d love to live in the city, but we just can’t afford to. And so we have to move out, out, and then further out. But at least we do have a decent, though at times infuriating mass transit system.

  • RonPaulForLife

    We can use ethanol from sugar or switchgrass. Yield will only improve in the future. Even if it costs significantly more than gasoline does today, it is a viable replacement. The price of gas has tripled in the last decade and still we haven’t changed our habits.

    We can use hydrogen derived from water using nuclear. OK, so it’s not renewable.

    Solar, wind, and geothermal can be part of the solution, albeit a small part.

  • http://frmartinfox.blogspot.com Fr Martin Fox

    The original post and subsequent comments prompt me to offer the following:

    * Raising fuel efficiency standards is the resentful response of those in power to the maddening refusal of people who buy and drive cars to change to the sort of behavior the elite approve of. In short, not enough people want to buy and drive cars with the higher mileage. Auto makers can’t perform magic: a big car with lots of space, and lots of weight, and lots of power (what Americans like) comes at a cost in mileage. So the automakers will continue to produce them, in numbers that people want. So what will the automakers do? They’ll have to put out more little cars, with higher mileage, and probably slash their prices, so that the sales result in higher “averages.”

    (By the way, raising the cost of driving low-mileage vehicles means adding to the costs paid by larger families. If you have five or six children, you’re going to drive a big, gas guzzler. So hurray, let’s punish all those remaining families who are generously and sacrificially welcoming the gift of life!)

    * Some note that the price mechanism is more likely to work, but again, a coercive, manipulative method is proposed — namely, to raise the price artificially. Doesn’t anyone ever think about the moral problem of empowering government to manipulate the price of essential things? It’s one thing to say, government must set taxes in order to collect needed revenue; but it’s a whole other thing to say, we want government to tax behavior we don’t like, and encourage behavior we like. I don’t particularly like the idea of a tyranny of the majority; and you won’t, when you find your self on the wrong side of the majority that doesn’t like what you like, and so makes you pay dearly for it.

    * Some will say, but it’s justified by the environment or public good or so forth. That is very far from clear. Of all our choices in energy-production, every means has disadvantages, whether environmental or cost or net gain in energy. Oil has the fewest disadvantages (I didn’t say it has none.) Who says? The marketplace, which is to say, everybody, says, by actual choices rather than wishes. Other than the active resistance to nuclear power (and a certain powerful senator from Massachusetts, vis-a-vis wind power) no one is stopping alternate energy methods from taking their rightful place. You think the powerful energy corporations wouldn’t be delighted to make money from solar or wind or what-have-you?

    If it’s true oil is running out, they want to have a successor cash-cow, right? If they, plus government subsidies, can’t make them work, then maybe we’re up against an unpleasant reality, at least for now. Meanwhile, we have the sad, strange side effect of the virtuous-feeling ethanol-subsidies: the price of corn is skyrocketing; how nice for hungry people!

    * Someone lamented the layout of our cities, and how people spread out, in this country. Well, there are two reasons for this; the first one is freedom. Or, put it another way: if people like to live in houses that are farther apart from each other, and from cities, exactly how do you propose to stop them? Not build roads? Who thinks our country will be more–or even as–prosperous if we built only a few good roads?

    Mass transit, such as trains and buses, don’t fit our nation for one, main reason: population density. The underlying infrastructure that is needed for such systems requires a certain sufficient quantity of people who (a) all want to go to and from the same destinations, day after day and (b) prefer to do it in buses or trains, rather than in their own cars; and only high-density areas provide that.

    I live in a town off I-75 that used to have Greyhound bus service; not anymore. The bus whizzes by on the interstate. Why? Because Greyhound executives hate us? No, because not enough people here prefer riding the bus to alternatives. There are very sensible, rather obvious reasons why people like to drive. I don’t agree that they should be punished for those choices (through hiking the price they pay). No doubt, there are hidden subsidies all through the system, and by all means, wring them all out. But anyone who believes mass-transit would beat autonomous transit, sans all subsidies, is kidding himself.

    * One reason, by the way, for outward development, is the effect of yesterday’s environmental cause du jour. Remember when we built up the EPA as a powerful advocate for the people against those dumping toxins; the EPA was going to make sure those areas were all cleaned up? Wonderful, right? No doubt it did have lots of wonderful effects, but less well known is one of the consequences: cities have a much harder time having anyone re-hab or redevelop declining areas within their boundaries.

    I learned this lesson innocently enough: when I sought to buy a residential house, in slum condition, near my parish, to raze the house and use the lot for parking. “Be careful,” warned the diocese’s lawyers: you have to make sure there is no asbestos or oil tanks or other environmental concerns, first: because once you buy the property, you get to pay the tab for the cleanup, and that is high.

    Providentially, none of these hazards was found, so we bought and razed the house. But it was an eye-opener: had I been a developer, looking to create a new housing development, why would I go through the hassle of acquiring all this potentially costly-to-rehab property, when I could buy farmland, with fewer nasty surprises? After all, which will be cheaper to do, and hence, can be sold for a better price? Hence what Darwin said: living in those nice, old neighborhoods is great, if you can afford it. (And that’s only one of the reasons older center cities can’t compete with suburbs.)

    Bottom line: we do better to accept the messy reality of how people actually live, and realize their choices are, fundamentally, rational, rather than wish away that people wanted different things or valued other things according to a different scale. The marketplace will work; either petroleum will continue to be fairly plentiful (there is a lot out there we prevent ourselves from drilling and using, or it won’t be, in relation to demand; in which case, the price-mechanism will gradually drive changes in behavior as it has over the last 30 years — our economy is far less dependent on oil than it used to be, evidenced by the non-crisis that has resulted from rising gas prices. (Remember the ’70s? It was very different when it happened then.)

  • http://frmartinfox.blogspot.com Fr Martin Fox

    By the way, who says using (“consuming” is a loaded term because the energy doesn’t disappear, it’s turned into something; that something is the issue) lots of energy is a bad thing? Yes, the U.S. uses a great deal of energy today, likely more than ever; but that this is somehow bad for everyone else remains to be proved.

    I mean, on balance. All our energy use does, as I said, produce something. It produces, to speak broadly, a society that has successfully dealt with, and conquered, any number of things that have been the scourge of humanity for all our history — and still are for much of the world. Maybe that’s why the rest of the world is trying to reach the point we have; because it means living a whole lot better. South Korea uses a lot more energy than North Korea; you think that’s coincidental with the vastly better lives they live in South Korea — which, by the way, helps keep North Korea from starvation?

    Of course, not everything our society produces, with its energy, is positive: Original Sin and freedom are pesky things.

    Some may think that the whole world can’t sustain the same high-energy way of living that America does–hence the idea that when we use so much of the world’s energy, we are “taking” it wrongfully, from others. All I can do is refer you to the works of the late Julian Simon, who demonstrated so effectively the fallacy of this sort of thinking, and his insights have the advantage of being validated by actual, human experience.

  • Blackadder

    Father,

    God bless you.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/ Morning’s Minion

    Fr. Fox:

    I’m sure you are familiar with Catholic social teaching. And yet hwo can somebody who I assume gives full assent to Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno start making ideological statements about the government interfering with market prices? In fact, you are off the mark not on on Catholic social teaching, but on economics. Every economist worth his salt understands the concept of social cost and negative externalities.

    You argument is almost Marxist in its reach, in that you are arguing a materialist conception of value “we produce, production is good, therefore moral”. Again, where does Catholic social teaching fit in. Are you seriously arguing that Europeans should not be producing the same as America at far less energy efficiency? (By the way, productivity in Europe is the same as in the US, so you can’t use that old argument). Are you seriously arguing that Americans have a “divine right” to drive whatever cars they like and not give a hoot about the impact on the rest of humanity, both present and future? Very Calvinist of you.

  • http://frmartinfox.blogspot.com Fr Martin Fox

    Morning’s:

    I was not proposing to offer an exposition of Catholic Social teaching, nor economics for that matter; I was offering critiques of the post and its comments, as I said.

    Where did you get the idea that Catholic Social Teaching says government intervention in the market is something to be all cheery about, and anyone who has any qualms is not in “full assent” to Catholic Social Teaching? I said, and I reiterate, that when government does so, it raises real moral questions, and i do maintain that it’s something to be leery about. I do not assert that government may never, ever act in such a way as to affect prices and availability of goods and services; that would be ridiculous. That the government may do so, at times, is not in question. Or do you maintain Catholic Social Teaching says government can do it whenever it pleases, without any great concern about when, and why? Or did you forget about the right of private property, subsidarity, and Centessimus Annus? I stand my what I said, that such intervention is morally problematic: “Doesn’t anyone ever think about the moral problem of empowering government to manipulate the price of essential things?” Do you disagree? Do you disagree with me that government needs sufficiently good reasons to do so?

    Another Straw Man: I never said “we produce, production is good, therefore moral,” and I do not accept that as a fair description of what I did say. Again, I was responding to the original post, which said, “The American propensity for driving enormous anti-social vehicles is the equivalent of giving the finger to the rest of humanity, those born and yet to be born. Let’s hope this changes.” I find the moralism in that statement unsubstantiated. What is “anti-social” about a Range Rover?

    I think what I actually did say to be lucid enough, perhaps you might want to comment on that.

    You conclude with, “Are you seriously arguing that Americans have a “divine right” to drive whatever cars they like and not give a hoot about the impact on the rest of humanity, both present and future? Very Calvinist of you.”

    Haha, that’s funny.

    While I rather doubt God gives me the “right” to “drive whatever car” I like, I do question the assumption that God gives you and sanctimonious environmental and anti-growth pressure-groups (Al Gore and likeminded folks come to mind) , armed with questionable science propped up by fad sentiment, to tell me what sort of car I ought to drive.

    I do happen to give at least three or four hoots about the impact of my decisions on the rest of humanity. But your statement evades the more important question: is that impact good or bad? Compared with what alternatives?

    How much energy the Europeans use is entirely their business; I am not attempting to boss anyone around, but rather opposing that sort of behavior in others. Whether their policies are as good as they might be– by all the way “good” can be measured — is another question we aren’t going to address here.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova Morning’s Minion

    I question your market absolutism, and you accuse me of the opposite, which is not what I argued. I do not adopt the statist position that the government may intervene “when it pleases”. I am merely pointing out that, as a philosophical basis, it is wrong to ascribe an inherent morality to the individual hand of the market. You mention affecting prices “artificially” as if the market price was normative, You know well that Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI argued that the market outcome was often not in accord with justice, justifying state intervention. Only in laissez-faire liberalism does the market outcome embody justice (arising from free exchange). Americans need to realize that this is the same individualism that led to Roe v. Wade (it is by no accident that Reaganism followed Roe).

    And, no what Europeans do is not just their business– it is the business of our common humanity. Their policies are more geared to safegaurd creation than is the case with SUV-driving Americans. You implicit assumption is once again the radical individualism that often flies in the face of the common good.

  • http://frmartinfox.blogspot.com Fr Martin Fox

    Morning’s:

    You really are confused.

  • RonPaulForLife

    Did I miss something or did Fr. Fox completely ignore negative externalities? I would go as far as to say that failure to mitigate negative externalities is immoral.

  • http://frmartinfox.blogspot.com Fr Martin Fox

    RonPaulForLife:

    Well, it’s entirely possible I did. Help an old guy out, and translate “negative externalities” into smaller words, and then I’ll know if I ignored them.

  • RonPaulForLife

    Negative externalities are detriments to third parties to a transaction. Pollution is the prime example. Suppose I build a factory next to your house which emits harmful pollutants into the air. I benefit and my customers benefit but I have harmed you and I’m getting away with it. “Free market” does not mean that people are free to deprive others of the enjoyment of their property. The social-benefit maximizing solution is to force the creator of the negative externality to internalize the cost. This concept is recognized as a necessary function of society by even the most diehard laissez-faire economists because it reflects the true cost.

    And that’s why (almost) all of us advocate a tax on gasoline. At the very least consumers should have to pay for the pollution that gasoline consumption causes. Those of us who are concerned about global warming also want the price of gasoline to reflect that cost to society.

  • http://frmartinfox.blogspot.com Fr Martin Fox

    RonPaulforLife:

    Okay, that’s clear enough, thanks.

    I don’t disagree; but it would be invalid to assume:

    (a) That the costs of such negative externalities are not already applied, reasonably, to the creator of it. For example, there already are taxes on gasoline, about 40 cents per gallon here in Ohio. I don’t know if that is too high, too low, or just right. But there is a tax. And there are other taxes, on licenses and car sales, that are supposed to pay for some of this. And,

    (b) That these things can be completely quantified and assigned fully. The factory next door case is fairly blatant. But you can only get so far. Or, another way to put it, you experience the law of diminishing returns.

    After all, if we’re going to talk about third-party negative consequences, how about the third-party negative consequences of the policies, taxes, regulations and mandates that are aimed at solving the problem, but create new problems?

  • RonPaulForLife

    If pollution was all we were worried about, gas may be taxed enough as it is. But if we’re taking global warming into account, gas isn’t taxed nearly enough. IMO, gas should be taxed at rates that cap our national emissions at our international share (measured by GDP) necessary to meet the IPCC 450 ppm target.

    Certainly, there are transaction costs to imposing a tax but that’s no justification for not imposing it. Besides, as you mentioned, we already tax gas, simply raising the tax would not increase transaction costs.