The other day, I read a post on Treehugger about conservative columnist David Frum and his not-so-conservative answer to reduce American’s consumption of oil: tax the crap out of it. According to Frum,
“[A] politician who wished to move America away from oil would begin by saying something like: “$4 a gallon gasoline is here forever. Even if the price of oil on world markets declines, we’ll impose extra taxes here at home. Make your plans accordingly…
We want to get the country off oil? Tax it. (Politicians may not wish to say it, but their advisers can at least think it.) Then liberate people to find their own best alternative — and incentivize industry to develop alternatives that make sense at the new higher price. And be prepared to argue candidly and straightforwardly in the marketplace of ideas why this new tax is right and justified.”
Interesting take, Frum. I thought about this, and there is something to be said about his approach. Based upon the conservative values of the free market, his logic is that if something is too expensive then the market will naturally weed it out and consumers will be forced to find alternatives. And there is a part of me that totally agrees. If we paid $7-8 a gallon for oil like a lot of Europeans do, then Americans would think twice before buying gas guzzlers or driving everywhere.
However, there’s a catch: if politicians were to put a high tax on oil, then what alternatives would be offered to people? Frum doesn’t mention this; he simply wants people to “plan accordingly.” We have built a car-and-suburb culture for the past 60 years, and we cannot expect Americans to change their lifestyle overnight – especially if no other solutions are offered.
As a suburbanite myself, I hate that I have to depend so much on my car, but what choices do I have? I live near grocery stores, but there aren’t many sidewalks or safe crossings available for pedestrians, making it really unsafe to walk to most places. I work in another suburb, but there’s no public transportation to help me get there, so I have to drive to work. There really isn’t any public transportation in the suburbs, and those that do exist are difficult to find, have infrequent schedules, and only travel to certain areas (i.e. not mine). And, like many other people, I had to move to the suburbs to be closer to my job and to afford decent housing. I tried to live and work in the city, but what I could afford was not exactly safe, and the suburbs have more jobs and less competition for those jobs.
So exactly what are the millions and millions of suburbanites supposed to do?
In order for Americans to truly rid themselves of the dependency on oil, we need practical solutions. Go ahead, tax the hell out of oil – but you better make sure that those tax dollars go towards public transportation so people can still get to work and function. Governments would have to put money into subsidizing grocery stores within walking distance of all houses – not just in strip malls on busy streets. Bike and walking paths would have to be built. The far-sprawled suburbs would need to be reeled in and most people would have to move closer to cities – which means that housing costs would need to be controlled so all people (not just yuppies) can afford decent housing. Telecommuting would need to be a viable option for businesses and education so not everyone would have to drive to work. And, all of this would have to happen before oil became too expensive for most people. Hey, if we can spend billions and billions of dollars on a war to protect our oil, then I think we can spend the same amount of money on de-oiling ourselves.
It’s nice to think of a quick-fix solution for our oil problems, but it’s always a lot more complicated than that.