Are Gas Prices High Enough?

Gas prices work themselves into nearly every conversation occurring in the US right now, and politicians from both parties are tripping over one another to propose a range of ill-conceived "solutions," ranging from a $100 tax rebate to a tax "holiday" on gas taxes for two months of the summer driving season. The political commentators have been weighing in on these proposed solutions, and while most of them demonstrate the same lack of imagination as the political class, a few pundits caught our eyes (and our imaginations) last week with more genuine, and even radical, proposals for addressing gasoline prices. Both Time's Joe Klein and the San Francisco Chronicle's Mark Morford take the position that perhaps the prices for gasoline aren't yet high enough.

While Klein is definitely the more low-key and moderate of the two columnists, he doesn't hold back in noting that 1) the American publics' BS meters have been amazingly well-tuned on this issue (the rebate proposal, for instance, met with little but derision), and 2) perhaps its time we start thinking of gas taxes as "sin taxes" that punish or reward behavior based on its societal and environmental impact. Klein goes so far as to propose a revenue-neutral carbon tax, something that economist ranging from Paul Krugman to N. Gregory Mankiw have suggested for years, and which noted green business expert Paul Hawken proposed in the early 1990s in The Ecology of Commerce. Perhaps we Americans are ready for major tax changes that address our "oil addiction."Morford, on the other hand, is more radical in his approach just as he's more aggressive in his writing style (if you don't read Morford's "Notes and Errata" column regularly, start!). That aggressive style, though, never masks the writer's optimistic view of human nature, and in this column, Morford argues that the pain of much higher gas prices could actually bring out our better selves:

Here's what we could do: Give gas discounts to cab drivers (at least initially) and metro transit systems and low-income folks, those who have to drive their busted-up '78 Honda Civics to their jobs scrubbing restaurant toilets and flipping burgers and vacuuming the residual cocaine from the seat cushions of numb SUV owners. Everyone else, 10 bucks a gallon, across the board. Eleven for premium.

It would take some finessing. Maybe also give a price break to some truckers and trucking companies (so vital to the overall economy), but not so much to global delivery companies (FedEx, DSL et al.), because not doing so would force them to raise shipping rates and force you (and me) to reconsider buying everything online and hence will encourage you to shop locally once again, thus reviving a stagnant local economy.

Voilá -- gas crisis, oil crisis, warmongering agenda, pollution issues, road rage, traffic congestion, urban decay, oil profiteering -- all completely almost totally somewhat solved. Or at the very least, dramatically, gloriously shifted toward ... I don't know what. Something better. Something more humane, less greedy, more sustainable. Could it work? How outraged and indignant would you be to have to pay that much for gas? How long would that feeling last?

That something better, Morford argues, is what we saw after 9/11 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:

Shocking change brings people together. Brings out the best in humans. Or at least, makes you rethink what's truly important in your life.

This is the unappreciated, under-reported magic of the human animal. We are infinitely adaptable. We can accommodate far more than politicians and pundits and the morally knotted Christian right would ever have you believe.

Lots of food for thought here as we Americans have to look in the mirror and see our conspicuously-consuming, gas-guzzling selves looking back. I don't know if higher gas prices will bring out our better natures, but they're definitely something to consider as we recognize the party fueled by cheap energy can't go on forever. We were once a country that prided ourselves on our capacity for innovation, and could certainly use a little of that spirit now. :: Joe Klein, Time magazine and Mark Morford, The San Francisco Chronicle