Friday, April 04, 2008

The Gasoline Tragedy, Revisited

The letter I just sent to the Seattle Times:

Nearly four years ago, with gas prices touching the unheard-of level of two dollars per gallon, the Times published the following letter from me:

The tragedy of the current (and likely permanent) runup in gas prices is one of a gigantic missed opportunity. When prices zoom, we dumbly open our wallets and say "Gee, guess we have no choice"--while more billions go to multinational oil companies and the corrupt governments that finance terrorism against us.

Had we chosen--say, back in 1993, when President Clinton proposed a modest fossil fuel tax--to set aside a few cents per gallon for energy research, we could be well on our way to a future where oil doesn't destroy the environment and make us hostages to foreign despots. Those exported oil dollars that are draining away our national wealth would instead be recycled into our economy, creating millions of jobs. Unfortunately, craven politicians seem determined to ride the "no new taxes!" horse right off the cliff of economic and environmental collapse.

When will Americans get it: cheap gas is not our eternal, God-given right! Emerging countries like China daily compete harder for the limited supply. Shall we conquer them all and tell them "No, it's our oil"?

When even Ford's Chief Executive says that gas taxes should be higher, it's obvious we need fresh thinking. We should have started 30 years ago. But for God's sake, let's start now!

We all know what's happened since then. Let's consider an alternate universe, in which forward-thinking politicians bit the bullet in 2004 and enacted a dollar-a-gallon tax on gasoline. What would have happened?

1. Gasoline would probably be cheaper today, even with the tax. A stiff tax would send a signal that we're serious about conservation and alternative energy. We wouldn't need to mandate higher fuel efficiency for vehicles: consumer demand would take care of it. Reduced consumption would lead directly to lower prices.

2. We'd have half a trillion dollars to invest in a new energy economy. We're nowhere near prepared for life in the post-oil age. Time is rapidly running out for us to avoid the twin catastrophes of climate disruption and energy starvation. We need major investments to reform our unsustainable way of life.

3. We'd be a lot less worried about the loss of American jobs. It's going to take a large, trained workforce, right here on American soil, to build and operate our new energy infrastructure. With the gas tax revenue we could jump-start new industries that would employ millions in good, living-wage jobs. And we wouldn't have to send our money (and jobs) to foreign countries to buy wind turbines and solar panels and passenger rail systems, the way we do now.

4. Our troubles in the Middle East could be ending. From Saudi Arabia on down, we have to coddle the most despicable tyrants, and hand them vast amounts of our wealth, because they control our energy lifeblood. If they knew we were serious about making their product obsolete, don't you reckon they'd be a whole lot easier to deal with? (The cost of the Iraq war would pay for the proposed gas tax several times over.)

It's never going to be easy to break our oil dependency. That's the nature of addictions. Just as with drugs, beating the habit will involve painstakingly learning new behavior patterns. And each time OPEC jacks up its price, the idea of higher taxes on fuel becomes even less "politically palatable". But we have to make a choice: either we continue the current death spiral, sending ever more of our dwindling wealth to people who don't like us, or we join forces, roll up our sleeves, share the sacrifices, and build a bright new future together.

And that's what I wish the people running for President had the courage to tell us.