Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Gas Tax Will Encourage Us To Do What?

I'm a cheerful proponent of public policy as behaviour modifier. You don't want people to drink to excess? Limit when the bars are open, where alcohol can be obtained, tax the beverage and crack down on DUIs. You want people to take public transportation? Put more buses/trains into service, cut the rates - and stop building garages and parking lots and raise the rates on the ones already in use. We may be uncomfortable with the shifts at first, but chances are efforts like this to modify how the citizenry handles undesirable behaviour will be successful in the long run.

However, public policy to change behaviour needs to be presented with rational goals which can actually be met without incurring more hardship than benefit. This is why the proposed gas tax, which I otherwise support, raises my hackles when its proponents talk about such things as "downsizing commutes" as if in the current economic situation downsizing one's commute were a viable option without other horrific impacts.

To be sure, Ryan Avent makes many good points about how energy demand brought us to this nasty place. And most certainly I agree with almost all his points about how we got here and how we can get back out again. But expecting the overextended commuter to relocate closer to work or find work closer to home, when the real estate market is in shambles and there are seemingly ten layoffs for every new hire, is remarkably shortsighted and ignores the hardships the consumer now faces even as it touts this idea as a solution to those hardships.

When The Daily Dish picked up this particular facet of the argument - that the gas tax might be worth reconsidering - I fired this off:

In this case, I must take issue with one point that keeps cropping up in the energy consumption debate: the idea that citizens of any country, particularly the US, can manage their commutes as described.

The Right's argument, that each citizen has the right to drive his/her H2 Hummer 100 miles each way to work if s/he feels like it, fails to distinguish affluence from waste. By elevating choice over practicality this argument panders to the same culture of decadent excess that other segments of Conservatist thinking denounce, and the philosophical disconnect seems invisible to the Conservatist theorists. Pop culture, when thinking of wealth, celebrates Larry Ellison and Donald Trump over Warren Buffett and Sam Walton, and made much of Lay, Skilling et al when Enron was in vogue. While FORBES may take notice of the distinction, the American Right as a movement does not, and pop Rightspeak continues to confuse excess with success.

The Left's argument seems to break down to some basic concepts. First, frugality is a virtue that ought to be encouraged. Second, wasteful habits can be successfully discouraged through public policy. Third, adjusting one's lifestyle in such drastic terms as shrinking one's commute is actually manageable in the short term. The first item is easily defended: the second, while less so, is still defensible. It's the third concept that really irks.

The current economic conditions in the US are savage: mushrooming unemployment, successive waves of commercial contractions, diminishing opportunity. Those of us left without employment by the recent turmoil are faced with difficult choices, and one of those is whether to remain in a given job market or relocate to better areas. Any commute in those circumstances is acceptable to the jobseeker. Conversely, however, employers are presented with a massive range of applicants for ever fewer openings, yet steadfastly holding on to the illusion that a given candidate from outside the immediate market is a risk due to the relocation or commute effort.

Were this any other economic crisis mobility wouldn't be such an issue. But as this one first exhibited as a real estate collapse, relocation for employment is a double-edged sword. Anyone lucky enough to be secure in his/her housing faces potentially catastrophic loss if s/he sells, and is forced to factor unemployment into that equation; this ugly arithmetic has to be weighed against the benefit of opportunity elsewhere. Anyone paying a substantial mortgage who becomes part of the newly unemployed faces foreclosure as a very real possibility if s/he remains in the local market and short sale at best if s/he moves. Anyone renting faces possible eviction and increased difficulty finding new housing in any market. In each case, prospective employers are increasingly disinclined to entertain candidacy from anyone not immediately available and within a very narrowly defined geographical radius.

Against this backdrop we have the argument that "downsizing commutes" is not only a worthwhile endeavour in the abstract but an achievable end of US energy policy within the next few years.

The electorate is beginning to understand that it is fortunate to HAVE a commute at all, and that making changes to it are beyond difficult: with the house worth too little to merit selling or the rental deposit too high to forfeit, and credit too tight to consider replacing the daily driver without angst, reengineering a commute on one's own makes little sense. For those without, employment is increasingly something to be found elsewhere: if that "elsewhere" is within an acceptable driving distance then it saves the personal disaster that moving has become in the current conditions.

For those still working, making ends meet with what they already have has become the order of the day: drastic changes are out of the question, and "downsizing" one's commute equates to either risking one's income in the ever-harsher job market or destroying one's net worth with a classically ill-timed residential move. For the unemployed, the net worth hit is a given at this point: the difficulty lies in convincing a prospective employer of that. Neither side is in any position to alter commute habits substantially without far more severe consequences.

I am tired of seeing US auto manufacturers obstruct energy efficiency in the name of short term profit. I am tired of civic bodies consistently failing to address public transport in a meaningful way. And I wholeheartedly support any practical means of encouraging energy efficiency. But suggesting that one's commute is a manageable part of that equation when housing values continue to gyrate and new employment opportunities are dwindling is ludicrous.

H/T Andrew Sullivan.

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