Rear view of Chevrolet Avalanche pickup truck parked on the driveway of a suburban home in San Ramon, California, December 27, 2019. The truck was discontinued in 2012. (Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

The Media Frenzy Over High Gas Prices Obscures an Inconvenient Truth

Many Americans seek a villain, but they forgot to look in the mirror.

Journalist and media critic James Fallows did us a service by recently pointing out in a couple of his of his posts that among the media's most unexamined and hoary cliches is that fabled phrase, used whenever the media senses a subject it can beat to death: "prices at the pump." I Googled it, and turned up over 1.4 million hits. So what's wrong with it?

Such vehicles impose significant costs on the environment, increase congestion, and impair national energy security. Not least, they make the squawking about high gas prices seem grotesquely hypocritical.

It's certainly a redundancy when you're talking about prices that retail consumers pay for motor fuel. They don't buy it in 55-gallon drums or have it delivered by Amazon Prime. No, pretty much 100 percent of the time it comes out of a pump connected to an underground tank at Arnie's Sunoco.

The other problem is that it's a lazy story, breathlessly telling people what they already know if they own a vehicle. It's an issue unlike, say, the war in Ukraine, an earthquake in Chile, or some other event they can't personally verify. The media suits typically send a reporter with a camera and mic to get a shot of the gas price on the sign at the station, and then coach some woman--it's usually a woman, for a sympathetic impression--to say words to the effect that she has to choose between gas and shoes for her kids.

Reacting like Pavlov's dogs, the American public becomes hysterical about gas prices, and they need someone to blame. It might be the government, which for many is the default bad guy responsible for every vicissitude of life. Or the Arab sheiks, who are not exactly popular. Or Big Oil execs, whose sensitivity to public needs is demonstrated by bragging about how they are giving back to the American people by paying dividends to shareholders at a time of record profits.

No sane American is going to go to bat for Mohammed bin Salman or Vladimir Putin or the CEO of Exxon, and in fact they deserve all the opprobrium they get and more. But why do incensed American consumers go out of their way to add to the incomes of these oligarchs?

Glancing at the statistics of new vehicle sales in America, one will notice that the top three sellers are full-sized pickup trucks, with a couple more pickups in the top ten. These models can weigh upwards of 6,000 pounds, are available with 400 cubic inch V-8s, and have the turning circle and parking footprint of a Carnival cruise liner. Optioned up, they can cost north of $80k. The V-8 models, which all the real men apparently want, get less than 20 mpg on the highway; the four-wheel drive models even less than that.

By contrast, the world's best-selling motor vehicle model in history, the Toyota Corolla, is modestly priced (translation: no gargantuan dealer markup), as reliable as the sunrise, and even non-hybrid models get 40 mpg on the highway. It clocks in at a lowly ninth in popularity. Many of the rest of the 25 most popular vehicle models are large SUVs.

People had a choice, and over the years they have opted for larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles. Perhaps they need all those pickups for work: maybe there is a vast number of farmers, ranchers, and contractors out there.

Except there isn't. According to the Washington Post, "once the auto companies realized the rural market for pickups was saturated, 'they still needed to sell more trucks. So they really start[ed] to turn to targeting the suburban white man.'" The pickup trucks for this demographic were hardly essential work tools: "75 percent of truck owners use their truck for towing one time a year or less (meaning, never). Nearly 70 percent of truck owners go off-road one time a year or less. And a full 35 percent of truck owners use their truck for hauling...once a year or less." Among the attributes buyers desired was "to present a tough image."

To Paul Waldman, the author of the Post piece, it's more political and cultural signaling than anything else, "enabling men to spend as much as $100,000 on an identity that may have little to do with their actual lives." There may be something to that. Twenty-five years ago Fairfax County, Virginia, where I live, was mostly filled with government workers and government contractors who drove Toyota Camrys and Honda Civics. Now it's mostly filled with government workers and government contractors who drive monsterous pickups or equivalent body-on truck-frame SUVs.

They may be expensive, but they automatically impart a weird social vibe, as if the neighborhood were transported to Dothan, Alabama. When one sees a pickup in somebody's driveway, one's instinctive thought is that the plumber has come to unclog their kitchen drain, or maybe their cousins from eastern Tennessee have arrived for a visit. Except that it is unlikely that a real blue-collar worker or rural dweller would or could plunk down 70 or 80 large for a vehicle that, however massive and powerful, has an oddly short pickup bed that can't hold a sheet of plywood. On the other hand, the truck might boast adjustable mood lighting, a built-in drink cooler, and more USB ports than you can count.

One can make an amusing parlor game debating the Freudian impulses of the buyers of these rolling leviathans. But more important, such vehicles impose significant costs on the environment, increase congestion, and impair national energy security. Not least, they make the squawking about high gas prices seem grotesquely hypocritical. That is not to say there are not people of modest means experiencing genuine hardship--but high gas prices are not just a function of supply, but also consumption, which is greatly increased by America's armada of luxury gas-guzzlers.

The political issues caused by the American obsession with gas prices (which are actually among the lowest in the developed world) also incentivize bad policy. The Biden administration has proposed and implemented many significant green energy and environmental initiatives, so their sincerity on the matter is at least arguable (right-wing panic-mongering on the subject shows what the fossil fuel interests think). But sheer political survival in the present situation pushes the administration in bad directions, such as releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a resource that should stay in the ground for the sake of a genuine, rather than political, emergency.

It is politically understandable that Biden would jawbone Big Oil to drill for more petroleum rather than engineer stock buybacks. But long term, the country should be transitioning away from fossil fuels rather than setting up more drilling rigs. The oil executives also know how to play poker: they're already making record profits, why invest in difficult-to-recover oil in played-out fields when, if they wait a bit longer, the Republicans will let them frack Yosemite?

Luxury trucks are just one strand in a vast skein of the conspicuous waste that many people believe they are entitled to as a birthright. Why are so many Americans addicted to pointlessly idling their engines for long periods? That's $6 billion annually in motor fuel burned up for no reason; presumably the driver thinks a Ford V-8 Raptor on idle makes an efficient cell phone charger. Extensive idling can also damage the engine.

All of this stands in glaring contrast to the opportunities presented by current events. The International Energy Administration has released a report concluding that the supply crisis caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine has hastened global energy transition. Energy Intelligence summarizes the effects: "an accelerated energy transition, the end of Russia as the world's pre-eminent fossil fuel power costing Moscow some $1 trillion in revenues to 2030, and an end to what has been a golden age for gas."

But can Americans set aside their tradition of conspicuous waste and release themselves from the grip of fossil fuel oligarchs both foreign and domestic?

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.