Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Pulled up to the gas pump the other day and I just couldn't do it.

Couldn't bring myself to fill 'er up.

I had a psychological block. I refused to face the truth of what it would cost. Some part of me was doing the math. 12 to 15 gallons at $3.09 per?

I pumped 20 bucks worth while focusing on the rapidly blinking top numbers, ignoring the bottom that would have told me how few drops I was getting per penny, and drove away, pretending that there was a blank spot on the dashboard where the gas gauge used to be.

I have no sympathy for myself over the high price of gas, though, and not much for the rest of America, at least not that part of it that lives in the suburbs.

I happened to be on my way to the grocery store. Once upon a time---three years ago---in fact, we used to live a mile and a half away from an excellent supermarket. Now we live 12 miles from the nearest supermarket of any quality. Our local Barnes and Noble in Syracuse was 6 miles from our house. The one here is 15 miles away.

We drive 12 miles to church, when we used to walk, at least on nice days. It's 20 miles to JC Penney's and the mall. Back in Syracuse we had our choice---6 miles to one, 8 to the other.

(The relative commutes are another story. I've had commutes of 75 and 90 miles, one way, in my time. When I was doing the 180 miles round trip each day, the blonde was walking to work.)

There are some trade-offs that are somewhat balancing. When I need to run out at night for a quart of milk, I can run out for a quart of milk. I usually walk though. And a visit to the post office is practically part of my daily rounds now. I only walked to the post office back in Syracuse when I had a couple of hours to spend and felt the need for a long hike, uphill. The 10 year old walks to school and next year his brother will be able to too.

Back in Syracuse we only walked or biked to the library on the very nicest of days. Here, if we decided to drive to the library, we'd practically bump into it backing out of the driveway. Same goes for trips to the hardware store, although when I need something that Dom here in town doesn't have on hand and I have to go to Lowes or Home Depot to get it, the drive is twice as long as it was back in Syracuse when Bob at our neighborhood TrueValue shook his head sadly over my list of supplies for a repair job.

All in all, though, the high price of gas and the extra driving add up to our paying a lot more to the big oil companies than we used to.

We don't own an SUV, by the way. Both our cars, even the station wagon, get good mileage. I'm not claiming any virtue here. If we were rich enough to buy an SUV or foolish enough to take on the monthly payments, I still wouldn't drive one...because I'd be too happy tooling around in my shiny new Ford F-150 with a club cab. Hey, I haul stuff. Lots of stuff. Leaves, for instance. Big bags of leaves that I have to take to the town compost heap. Sometimes, in the fall, I have ten or twelve bags to haul. And I have to fold down the back seat in the wagon to fit them in. I need a truck.

There are reasons we live here that include a lack of what would have been more fuel-conserving choices. Most people don't have the range of choice about where to live in relation to where they work that would allow them to pick or reject a house based on how far they have to commute or how far it is from their front door to the local post office. And our living where we did in Syracuse, although what we wanted, was a matter of luck, and, actually, if we'd been more prescient about the real estate market or known that the neighborhood Catholic school was going to fail us when we most needed its help, we'd have passed on that house, as much as we loved it at first sight, and bought something in the suburbs.

So I'm not about to let loose a Kunstlerian rant against the suburbs, although I can't resist noting that while the urban planners and engineers who have been designing and building America since the end of World War II work as if they're in the employ of the automobile industry, which in a way they are, nobody forces people to believe that it is every American's God-given right to live in houses where they can play basketball in the living room and hold Olympic-regulation track and field events in the backyard. It shouldn't be the American dream to spend our lives subsidizing the manufacturers of lawn mowers and fertilizers.

No bubble for the Mannions

When we were trying to sell our house in Syracuse, the combination of fantastically low interest rates and the collapse of the local real estate market made it possible for the most likely buyers for our place to set their sights a whole lot higher. One evening, while I was despairing of ever getting rid of the place, we were out to dinner and I overheard a conversation a few tables over between a young woman and her parents about her hunt for a new house.

From what I could tell, the woman was a single mom. There were several mentions of the kids but not a word about a husband. From the way she and her parents were dressed and their habits of speech, I took them to be blue collar middle class, doing well enough as long as they stayed within their means---which was the father's point as he and his daughter talked over the houses she was looking at.

The woman had her eye on a new four bedroom house in one of the more upscale suburbs. We're not talking McMansion but I knew the neighborhood---2000 square feet of living area, two and a half baths, a nice house, excellent school district, and I couldn't blame her for wanting it. And with the mortgage rate her bank was offering, she was sure she could afford the monthly payments.

But her father was advising her to forget it. Sure, she could afford the mortgage payment, even after figuring in the taxes, which she hadn't done yet, apparently. But, he pointed out, she had to heat the place. And she had to drive farther to work. An extra 20 miles a day, that adds up, he said. This was three years ago, fuel prices were a lot lower, but I could hear in the sound of her voice her hopes fading as she considered what her father was telling her.

Her hopes were fading but they weren't dashed. When she got the subject back to schools and the big yard the kids would have to play in, her confidence began to climb again. Her father grew very quiet and her mother began to talk about something else. No way for me to know whether they were just being tactful and decided it was time for them to butt out or if they knew their daughter well enough that they could see her mind was made up. My sense was that she'd made her decision to buy the house she probably now can't afford to heat.

The President to the rescue

Three, even four bucks isn't that much to pay for a gallon of gas. The problem isn't how much it costs to fill up the tank. It's how often we have to fill up the tank. Since the gas crisis of the 1970s we as a nation drive more, drive farther, and drive faster. We've increased the demand, decreased the supply, and the result is gas prices have gone up.

Sure, the oil companies could afford to keep them lower. But why should they? If I ruled the world, I wouldn't make them give up some of their profits. I'd make them pay higher taxes, that they couldn't pass on to consumers, and I'd make them use their profits to pay their blue collar and pink collar and lower level white collar employees more, while paying their CEOs much, much less. But I wouldn't make them give the money back to us at the pumps.

Because we all should be driving less. Even those of us who are forced by circumstances to live where long car rides are necessary and unavoidable can cut down. We have it in our power to decrease the demand. This actually began to happen after the gas crisis, but then Ronald Reagan became President partly by promising us two cars in every garage and a third in the driveway and all of them big and fast. I don't remember what he said about chickens in pots.

The real problem in the country, though, isn't the high price of gas. It's the low cost of labor.

The upper middle class can save money by buying more fuel efficient cars, thinking twice about making that trip to get a latte in the middle of the night, telling the kids to walk or bike to places instead of being chauffeured everywhere. They can cut their heating and electric bills by insulating their houses, buying new, more efficient furnaces and putting timers on the thermostat, replacing old appliances, replacing some incandescent bulbs with florescents, turning off the television and the computer now and then (Lance!).

The lower middle class, the working class, the poor, and the elderly on fixed incomes can do some of that too, but they're already practicing lots of "energy conservation" measures, forced into it by their just not having the money to waste...or, often, the money to spend on what they absolutely need.

President Bush has finally noticed that folks are not happy about the high price of gas. He has responded by being his usual compassionately conservative self, promising to help by doing things that will make his rich oil buddies richer.

To which Nancy Pelosi says, more or less, go to hell.

If you want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and therefore improve our national security situation, you can’t do it if you’re a Republican because you are too wedded to the oil companies. We have two oilmen in the white house. The logical follow-up from that is $3 a gallon gasoline. There is no accident. It is a cause and effect. A cause and effect.

How dare the president of the United States make a speech today in April, many, many, many months after the American people have had to undergo the cost of home heating oil? A woman told me she almost fainted when she received her home heating bill over this Winter. And when so many people making the minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised in eight years, which has a very low purchasing power, have to go out and buy gasoline at these prices? Where have you been, Mr. President?

The middle class squeeze is on, competition in our country is affected by the price of energy and of oil and all of a sudden you take a trip outside of Washington, see the fact that the public is outraged about this, come home and make a speech, let’s see that matched in your budget, let’s see that matched in your policy, let’s see that matched in and you’re separating yourselves yourself from your patron, big oil, cut yourself off from that anvil holding your party down and this country down, instead of coming to Washington and throwing your Republican colleagues under the wheels of the train, which they mightily deserve for being a rubber stamp for your obscene, corrupt policy of ripping off the American people.

Go, Nancy! Two cheers for you! This is almost populism.

In the years since the last gas crisis, while we've been building thousands and thousands of miles of new highways to fill bumper to bumper with SUVs on their way to and from sprawling developments of ticky tacky McMansions, we've pretty much divested ourselves of a blue collar middle class and now we're working on getting rid of a white collar one.

Three dollars a gallon for gas isn't too high. If anything it's too low. It's just that there just are too many people right now for whom 50 dollars to fill up the tank just to go to work the next three days is a potentially crippling blow to the weekly budget.

Increased conservation would have a number of benefits, among them driving the price of gas and heating down some. But for an awful lot of people even if the price goes down below two dollars a gallon it will still be too steep.

Unfortunately, if you're running for public office, you don't win many votes by trying to make the upper middle class care about the plight of the poor. You win votes by making everybody feel hard up.

A Democratic plan for dealing with the gas "crisis" isn't as disgusting as the President's, but it's not admirable. A gas tax holiday.

Democrats are set to introduce a measure that would create a “federal gas tax holiday” by eliminating the federal tax on gas and diesel for sixty days, RAW STORY has learned.

The measure, proposed by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), would reduce the cost of gas by $0.184 per gallon and the cost of diesel by $0.244 per gallon. The move, aides say, will provide $100 million dollars per day in relief.

Democrats say the money will be made up by cutting six billion dollars in tax breaks to oil firms. Currently, the money from the federal gas tax goes to the Highway Trust fund.

Eighteen and a half cents a gallon. That's about three and a half dollars on every fill up, if you're driving a moderate sized car. Say you fill up twice a week. Let's say three. Let's say you're saving about 10 dollars a week now. Forty dollars extra a month will come in handy for a lot of people.

Of course, people who drive gas guzzlers will save more than 40 a month. Lucky them. They'll be able to drive the SUV to that restaurant five towns over they've heard so much about.

Great plan. I'm sure some Republicans will be glad to sign onto it, at least the first part of it. They'll even be glad to make the gas holiday permanent. Don't see them agreeing to raise taxes on the oil companies, especially since the President's plan calls for doing the opposite. So we increase the deficit even more while encouraging SUV owners to drive more, which will increase demand which push gas prices higher and there goes that forty dollars a month working people thought they were going to save. A really great plan.

Of course, the point is to have something to run on in November, not to actually do anything now.

Maybe if the Democrats win they'll come up some responsible suggestions.

I'd love it if they came up with them now, conservation measures being at the top of the list.

But I'm not holding my breath.

I just don't see voters rewarding politicians who tell them that they need to walk more.

All links today are courtesy of always reliable, high-octane Susie the Suburban Guerrilla.

This is a good place to reprint a comment from the last post I did on this subject. Responding to my post Jeremiah in the Crosswalk, in which I linked one of Jim Kunstler's anti-suburban screeds, Grizzled wrote:

True. As a nation, a culture, we are a bunch of self indulgent and delusional hypocrites on so many levels it's often difficult to unravel issues enough to address them in any meaningful way. In this particular case, you really don't need to divide it into a liberal or conservative cause. Short of a civil uprising resulting in a dissolution of the Union, we're in it together, kids, whether we like each other or not. We're just starting to get a taste of what it's going to be like when we truly have to pay for our poor behavior.

I cannot change the ill-conceived policies of both Democratic and Republican administrations that have been implemented since the early '80s. I can only assume responsibility for my own actions and make individual decisions that hopefully balance the practical needs of day-to-day living with my belief that I should behave in some socially conscious manner.

I own two large American-made vehicles; a 2000 Cadillac DeVille and a 1999 Ford F-250 Super Duty pick up truck. My grandfather always told me it was important to buy American because it's good for the economy, and I still think it's valid. Both have V-8 engines, and between the two we probably average about 16 miles to the gallon. I also have a wife, two kids and a couple of large dogs. It's a fairly tight fit in either vehicle. Nonetheless, I sleep reasonably well at night. We drive less than 10,000 miles/year on both.

I bought a house in the 'burbs so I could afford to send my kids to reasonably safe schools and be closer to my aging mother, but tried to balance the longer commute to work by using mass transit. I take the train to work now, but rode my bike when I lived in the city. I rode my bike to work from here a few times. Unfortunately, my lily-livered, liberal 50 year old knees objected to the daily 40 mile round trip.

I have Kunstler's book. I started reading it on the train, but haven't finished. The material is too depressing to follow my previous train reading; Iris Chang's, "The Rape of Nanking". Instead, I started reading the Department of Energy's, "Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies Program". One of the results of the secretive energy policy established by the current administration in 2003, this document outlines the multi year objectives (2003-2010) the DOE is trying to achieve to transition us into a hydrogen economy. This 'major' inititive is funded to the tune of $1.2 billion. That's about 1/9th of the funding that has gone unaccounted for by mismanagement in Iraq war effort last year alone. That's $1.2 billion for a seven year project that is supposed to push us to make an enormous transition in our use of energy. Given that perspective, either this transition is going to be really easy (like the war), or we're in for some rough times ahead. I'm betting on the latter.

Demythification update: Via Jenny, Frank O'Donnell at TomPaine has a few facts President Bush forgot to mention.


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