When I hear complaints about today's high gas prices, a line by the Bard immediately springs to mind: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves ... "
Having lived through the gas crisis of the '70s, the high prices and possible shortages we face today were not merely completely predictable and largely avoidable but plainly caused by Americans' love of gas gluttons and politicians' inability to lead us toward the future.
Every time I drive by a Hummer or a super-sized SUV, I grit my teeth. Those people now spending $100 per tank to fill it up should really be paying twice that to pay for the true cost of not only their environmental arrogance but also their overuse of precious resources. If Congress and the White House had the leadership to impose a hefty gas-guzzler tax, the rest of us could have reasonably priced gas and oil, and breathe cleaner air. (I exempt from the category of wasteful gas-guzzlers those who need huge engines for legitimate work purposes, such as farming or towing.)
I heard a statistic that if Americans would only use 3 percent less oil and gas, our appetite would not have sparked the current run-up in oil prices. A 3 percent drop surely could be accomplished not by driving less, not by imposing artificial constraints, but merely by forcing wanton energy wasters to pay the actual costs they bring to bear on the marketplace.
In case you didn't live through the '70s crisis, or have forgotten about it, here's a reminder of a bit of what went on, courtesy of Wikipedia: "The crisis was ... exacerbated by government price controls in the United States, which limited the price of 'old oil' (that already discovered) while allowing newly discovered oil to be sold at a higher price, resulting in a withdrawal of old oil from the market and artificial scarcity. The rule had been intended to promote oil exploration. This scarcity was dealt with by rationing of gasoline (which occurred in many countries), with motorists facing long lines at gas stations."
It's clear that what we face today pales in comparison. But it taught us a lesson that should have stuck: Price controls don't work. So how, in a free-market society, do we discourage capricious overuse of limited resources? We tax the heck out of them -- that's how. We should use tax policy to drive a reduction in oil usage the same way we use it (through deductions for mortgage interest) to drive homeownership.
Right after the oil crisis of the '70s, consumers and automakers were running scared enough; we didn't require much by way of government policy to guide us. The then-Big Three automakers downsized their fleets and compact cars came into vogue. Wikipedia relates: "By the end of the 1970s, 121-inch wheelbase vehicles were a thing of the past." But guess what? They're back! The 2005 Hummer's wheelbase is a stunning 122.8 inches.
If some Americans (and it only takes a few) aren't responsible enough to control their own gourmandizing, then the government must step in.
Regulation is not the answer. But fair taxation is. Four-cylinder and hybrid engines should be exempt from gas taxes, and guzzlers should be slapped with excruciating tariffs to the point where they squeal.
In 2003, CBSNews.com reported, "Dealers say Hummers average 8 to 10 mpg, while General Motors, which markets and distributes the latest version of the vehicle, the Hummer H2, puts the figure at 10-13 mpg. By comparison, the Ford Expedition gets 14-19 mpg, and the three-quarter-ton Chevy Suburban gets 13-17 mpg. 'It's irresponsible to put a car like this on the road,' said Gary Skulnik, of the Sierra Club."
That's right, Gary. And it should be frightfully expensive, too.
Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.
© 2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer