Curse of the Falling Gas Prices

There is no recession. So what if Americans have dying 401(k)s, are getting foreclosed on their homes, or are telling their children they cannot have their first choice for college. Never mind that nearly 4,200 US soldiers have died in two wars. No worries. We have Pax at the Pump.

Gasoline has dropped back to between $2 and $3 a gallon after soaring past $4 a gallon. This week, the Globe had the headline, "Old habits return fast: As gas prices fall, some drivers are less worried about being fuel efficient." On the same day, The New York Times had the headline, "Drivers Take to the Road Again as Gas Prices Fall."

In the Times, economist Christopher Knittel of the University of California, Davis, said, "If oil prices continue to fall and the economy recovers, I would expect consumers to return to wanting larger and less fuel-efficient cars."

In the Globe, Hobart and William Smith economics professor Tom Drennen said, "I think if they had stayed at four bucks for awhile longer you really would have seen dramatic change in people's behavior. Now we're being hit with a double whammy. Credit is so bad and the lots are overflowing with SUVs that people sold when prices went up, so now is really a good time to get a deal on a SUV."

This makes you scream. Can Americans ever forgo the good deal and get a grip on the future?

Once again, the world's leading per-capita oil addict is off the wagon.

On the same day of the above stories, the Times and USA Today had stories on the electri-frying storm of gizmos for cars: navigational devices, iPod outlets, refrigerators, Wi-Fi hotspots, DVD and video-game stations.

No matter if the electronics in just one of these cars makes it more loaded than all the Apollo missions combined, or that the car is still worth less the moment you drive it off the lot.

Moreover, the social ramifications are quite appalling. The parents may be wired and the kids may be distracted, but has anybody thought of this as the ultimate irony of the Inactive Interactive American?

For instance, my youngest son and I still laugh about how we used to compete to count our chosen color of VW Beetles with the winner being the first to reach 100, with bonus points if it was a vintage version. How many kids are going to sit at the deathbed of papa and say, "Dad, before you go, I want to tell you that one of the coolest things we used to do driving cross-country to Grandma's was when you were on the hands-free cellphone telling me to shut up because you were closing the deal at the office, Mom was incoherent, mumbling Springsteen lyrics on her headphone, Sis was on her cellphone yakking about the boys at school, and I was so excited killing clones on my 'Star Wars' video game?"

This makes you teary-eyed about old-school car arguments about whether the kids had to be bored by jazz or the parents had to grit their teeth at hip-hop.

It would be nice if the presidential campaigns addressed this, but, alas, John McCain flat-out says that one of his economic goals is to reduce the price of gas. Barack Obama rails about Big Oil profits (ExxonMobil just announced another all-time American record quarterly profit this week of nearly $15 billion). But lacking is the JFK admonishment to individual Americans: Ask not what Big Oil can do for you; ask how you can do without Big Oil.

The challenge is clear.

A Louisiana Ford dealer told the Times, "We're used to the comforts, frills and whistles, and so if gasoline goes down to a reasonable level, people will not stay in a little boxy fuel-efficient car."

There is no recession until we whistle the epistle of the fuel-efficient car.

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