Sunday, February 8, 2009

Which Came First, the Chicken or the (R)Egg(ulated)?

Who do you blame for America’s inability to break its dependence on oil? It’s a question that didn’t have a clear answer as I walked through the Washington Auto Show this week.

Blame the auto industry?
At the auto show, an industry expert pointed out that GM sells plenty of fuel efficient cars in Europe, where gas is the equivalent of $6-7 per gallon. But that’s because European nations put a heavy tax on gas. Meanwhile, America
ns make their car-buying decisions knowing a gallon of gas is reliably cheaper than gallon of milk. If you want us to sell fuel-efficient cars, says the auto industry, give us and consumers the signals that fuel efficient cars are a long-term good buy.

Blame Washington?
Politicians relentlessly flog independence from oil on the campaign trail, then refuse to support any policies that might accomplish it. Raise fuel economy standards? You’ll cripple the auto industry! Raise the gas tax? You’re taking food off people’s tables! Promote smart growth and public transportation? It’s the American way to live in a McMansion and drive alone an hour to work!

Blame drivers? At some point, from housing to vehicles, Americans stopped buying based on need and started going for volume. Just a generation ago, people with big families would upgrade from a car to a station wagon. Today, every suburban couple demands a Canyonero to tote their 1.5 children to soccer practice. Several mammoth SUVs at the auto show were so big, they didn’t even have fuel economy ratings – they’re classified not as passenger vehicles but as trucks. Americans drive ever more inefficient vehicles on longer and longer commutes while simultaneously demanding a cheap, never-ending, consequence-free fuel supply. If there’s a way the consumption habits of Americans could be less in the national interest, it’s hard to imagine.

In the end, any attempt at finger-pointing ends up in a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” paradox. Americans don’t demand real change from their elected officials, who are content to pander to voters and accept excuses (and contributions) from the auto industry, which fights regulations and tries to misled us into thinking the status quo is the only equilibrium that wouldn’t bankrupt them and us.

So who to blame? To steal a theme from Time’s Person of the Year a few years back … I blame you.
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