Make Them (Somehow) Pay
12:01 PM, Feb 24, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
With a gallon of regular around $4 and climbing, the White House is paying close attention to the price of gasoline. President Obama and his team are, no doubt, wondering how high it can go before it takes them down.
The president and his allies argue that it isn’t their fault. More crude is being pumped from American wells than ever before, they say. Which is true, no thanks to them, and thanks chiefly to the drilling in North Dakota which happened without benefit of government stimulus programs. Still, the oil from the Bakken field is being extracted and refined. Also, more offshore drilling is being opened up, say the president and his supporters. Furthermore, permitting the Keystone pipeline wouldn’t have made any difference. Besides, the Republicans are to blame for killing that project.
And so on.
The higher the price of gas goes, one suspects, the less traction these arguments will have. More and more voters will see them as lame alibis and feel like the pain they feel at the pump has been intentionally inflicted. But not by the manipulations of speculators, the rapaciousness oil companies, or the greed of Arab princes. In their minds, the high price of gasoline is what you get when the people in charge hate petroleum and all its spawn, including—and maybe especially—the automobile.
These are people who believe, Americans are “addicted” to oil and in need of an intervention. That they must get clean and go green to save not just themselves but the entire planet.
One part of this rehab would be accomplished through tough love. Namely by making gasoline painfully expensive. Before President Obama appointed him head of the Department of Energy, Steven Chu said, “Somehow, we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” The implication that the Europeans are more enlightened in these matters and should be our model is troubling enough. But it is that “somehow” that really gets your attention and has you thinking, as you pay $70 to fill your tank, that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Chu and his boss have found themselves a way.
Unfair? Well, it is undeniable that the Obama administration, Washington, and the political class in general are populated by people who come out of an autophobic tradition. It goes back at least to John Kenneth Galbraith and his patronizing disapproval of big cars with conspicuously tall tailfins. Then, there was Ralph Nader who viewed cars as death boxes that were “Unsafe at Any Speed.” During the Carter years, Nader's disciple, Joan Claybrook made a national nuisance of herself by keeping speed limits at 55, which she justified as both a safety measure and a means of cutting down on our use of imported oil. Many suspected an animus against the freedom and mobility that come with owning a car. To them, she was a humorless scold and the poster child for the nanny state.
The anti-automobile forces are, of course, in favor of anything the government can do to get people out of their automobiles. High speed rail is sold as a way of delivering us from our bondage and worth any price, even one high enough to bankrupt the state of California.
California? Yes, California where the driving experience can be something just short of sublime and where the Beach Boys sang, “She’s real fine, my 409,” when they weren’t doing hymns to surfing.
In the autophobes' ideal universe of high speed rail and 55 mph highways, if the car is not driven to extinction, it must be domesticated and greened up, powered by electricity and not by gasoline. If the electricity is generated by burning coal, pending the dawning of a new age of green . . . well, that is the price you pay.
And it is a pretty steep price. Over forty grand for the Chevy Volt, which is the car most loved by people who hate cars. The few people who’ve bought them make around $170,000 a year and still the government subsidizes each Volt. The subsidy started at $7,500 but that, evidently, was not enough and the administration wants to bump it up to $10,000. Soon, perhaps, they will be giving Volts away, which GE is already doing. GE, of course, is a major player in the crony capitalism casino.
But it would be better if the Volt were to succeed on its own. And the most plausible route to that outcome is to make it attractive to buyers who think price. If much cheaper gas-powered vehicles should become prohibitively expensive to operate . . . well, that might do it. When you start talking $6 gasoline, people might somehow get interested in Volts.
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