Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing

Interesting article on gas prices here, with plenty of points to agree with and to heckle. First off, he's right that blaming the Saudis or Big Oil or whoever, and endorsing a "gas-tax holiday" or SPR moratorium is just stupid. These things don't even qualify as band-aids, so temporary and useless they would be. Those ideas are scams every bit as much as ethanol.

But the idea of comparing today's prices with those of 1922 rings false, because the factors of demand, supply, and costs of extraction, refining, and transportation were entirely different. Transportation needs were also competely different then; you didn't have hordes of suburbanites commuting for hours every day in and out of the cities where they work, like you do now. There may be comparable factors along the way, among several historical points, but it seems pointless to use these to declaim the complaints about rising fuel costs.

It's also inane to point out that they pay twice as much for gasoline in Europe, for reasons everyone should be at least moderately acquainted with. Europe has extensive and very well maintained public transportation systems, light and heavy rail all over the continent, which is paid for in part by that heavily taxed gasoline.

American fuel is taxed heavily not through the actual taxes, but the externalities -- a defense budget larger than the next couple dozen countries combined, infrastructural improvement and maintenance, heavily favoring air travel over rail travel, etc. And now rising food costs are sufficiently offsetting (and then some) any putative savings conferred by ethanol. Some of these externalities can be attributed to larger geographic distances here than in Europe, but it is a tax all the same, and surely drives the actual price of American gasoline much closer to European levels (where, oddly enough, you don't hear much whinging about prices because there are other options available).

Americans need to get something straight, and sooner rather than later -- gas prices are never coming back down, and most of it is our own damned fault. People allowed themselves to be gulled into buying immense exurban assault vehicles for the most mundane of chores. It's as if it never occurred to them that driving an RV to the fuckin' supermarket was wasteful. Well, it is, and when you multiply it by six million or twenty million or what have you, and run those numbers over the years, you have an aggregate impact on demand and consumption.

And globalization has empowered a billion Chinese with those same toys and desires, and needs for the precious. And they're much closer to most of it than we are, and they have a lot more cash to throw around. And there's not a goddamn thing we can do about it; Fredo's latest hat-in-hand genuflection to his Saudi overlords was rebuffed almost before he got there. Funny how easy he thought all that there jawbonin' would be back in the day. Then again, he was against nation buildin' too, which shows you how reality keeps rudely interrupting his power-nap approach to serious thinkamatin'. This is a guy whose ability to suss the intentions of other leaders basically ends at the tip of his nose.

(Of course, Junior immediately returned from Saudi and tried to sour-grapes the whole prospect anyway, and insists that it just emphasizes the need for more exploration and refining capacity, rather than, say, spending that money and time developing infrastructural uses for photovoltaic technology. There is no reason that air-conditioned office parks across the Sun Belt cannot be solar-powered, right now.)

I do agree (against my own rational self-interest, as it turns out, since I commute) that higher gas prices are the only thing that will get people's heads out of their asses sufficiently to stop being wasteful. But comparisons such as this are completely useless:

(Gasoline is also cheap compared with other essential fuels. A Starbucks venti latte costs the equivalent of $23 per gallon, while Budweiser beer runs $11 per gallon.)

I've also argued with people who used the per-gallon cost of bottled water in comparison. How many gallons of bottled water or Starbucks are these people drinking every day to get to and from their jobs? It's asinine.

Look, this is the free market everyone pretends to worship. If oil companies thought the market could support $200/bbl, that's what it would be. Hell, if we attack Iran, it almost certainly will be there overnight. There is only one thing individuals can do to make a difference on this, and that's to use it as efficiently as possible. Drive smaller; drive less. I'm not sure what sort of yahoo really thinks that an 18¢ price reduction over the summer -- even on the wild notion that the oil companies wouldn't just put that in their pockets and keep prices right where they are -- makes any sort of difference at all. It barely qualifies as stupid.

The real thing that sucks is that working families who already eke their way through life as it is are stuck; gasoline expenditures simply become a rising percentage of where their income goes. All their options -- find a more efficient car; find a job with a shorter commute; move closer to the decent jobs -- tend to be cost-prohibitive, especially in a tight job market. (Yes, yes, unemployment is 5%, which is great news for the folks who need to get a second Kwik-E-Mart job on nights and weekends to cover their nut.)

It would be nice to see a news story focus on those factors. At least the candidates -- even McCain, to a certain extent -- have proposals to start moving in the right direction. But nothing will impact prices so quickly or so extensively as addressing the issue of waste and consumption. It doesn't mean we all have to bicycle to work and raise hemp in communes, it just means that driving a 10mpg schooner to the goddamned post office is no longer feasible. Something's gotta give, and some things will have to be given up. Maybe we start with waste.

1 comment:

Dr. Know said...

A perfect caption to descibe the American Dilemma.

And say, haven't I heard all this "conservation" rhetoric before? Yeah, it was fucking Jimmy Carter in 1976. We live in a nation of myopic idiots.

A newcomer here, and you have a depressingly humorous blog. Keep it up.