Economy & Budget

The gasoline trap

Gas prices are much on everyone’s mind right now.  They’ve gone up “12 cents on average in the past three weeks,” as reported by Fox News, en route to $4.50 or even $5.00 per gallon this summer, depending on where you live.  A surge in oil prices is making its way toward the pumps.  Iran’s decision to cut off oil exports to the U.K. and France will increase the demand those nations place upon other sources, and since America has been very deliberately prevented from developing its domestic energy supply, we’re heavily plugged into the turbulent global market.

This is widely thought to be bad news for President Obama, because the public tends to hold the President accountable when gas prices spike.  The degree of swift consumer anger produced by rising gas prices is an interesting phenomenon.  Nothing gets their blood boiling faster, especially if the media makes a big deal about it, as they did under George W. Bush.  Remember how every news report kicked off with a hypnotic montage of gas pump prices ticking up, and forlorn drivers gripping the high-pressure umbilical cords connecting their wallets to their cars?  Last year, Newsbusters found that networks linked Bush to rising gas prices fifteen times as often as Obama.  That sounds about right.

There are many theories for why rising gas prices are so immediately irksome.  Of course they’re hard to ignore – those escalating pump numbers are, quite literally, “in your face” on a very regular basis.  I’ve always thought another reason is that people view trips to the gas pump as more akin to paying a penalty, rather than purchasing a product.  Somewhat like medical care, fuel is an expense we must endure, not an item to acquire and enjoy.  It’s a hassle that provides nothing to savor, but if you don’t buy gasoline, your car will stop moving.

However, people become accustomed to these higher gas prices over time.  It’s the sudden, sharp increases that really make them angry.  Socialists, who desire high gas prices as a means of both funding government and reducing the mobility of the population, have long understood this.  Barack Obama, for example, went on the record during the 2008 campaign saying that he thought higher gas prices were good, but added:

I think that I would have preferred a gradual adjustment.  The fact that this is such a shock to Americans’ pocketbooks is not a good thing, but if we take some steps right now to help people make the adjustment… first of all, by putting more money into their pockets, but also by encouraging the market to adapt to these new circumstances more quickly, particularly U.S. automakers.  (CNBC, “Your Money, Your Vote,” June 10, 2008.)

We went from $1.84 gas at the time of Obama’s inauguration, to $3.56 and climbing today, but it took a little while to get there, so panic hasn’t quite broken out at the pumps.

Over the long term, high gas prices fuel the “transformation” of the populace, which has always been one of Obama’s most important stated goals.  For one thing, it’s easier to hide a few more cents of tax in $4 gas than $2 gas.  More insidiously, expensive gas begins changing public expectations about the ability to travel, and the ability of average people to afford automobiles.  For an example of the former, look at the blossoming trend of stories about “staycations” as summer approaches.  That’s a vacation where you don’t actually go anyplace.  The Associated Press wrote about them over the weekend. 

Soon you’ll begin seeing carefully placed stories about how wonderful staycations are.  You’ll hear about the stress of packing the family into a car or airplane for a long journey, versus the marvelous relaxation of camping out in the backyard, or connecting with one another over kitchen-table games.  Remember how the media started writing about “funemployment” when Barack Obama got his hands on the economy?  Meanwhile, two months after her previous luxury vacation, Michelle Obama whisks the kids off to go skiing in Aspen.

For a glimpse of long-term transformation, consider a recent Fox News story about automobile dealers pushing back against the increasingly unrealistic fuel-economy standards being placed upon their products – standards that will price nearly 7 million drivers out of the new-car market by 2025:

Throughout the Obama administration’s campaign to jack up fuel efficiency, officials claimed that for consumers, the upgrades would pay for themselves. Sure, buyers would pay more for a new vehicle off the lot, but they’d make up that cost in fuel savings in just a few years. 

But the changes from two sets of fuel efficiency standards could add $3,000 to the price of a new car by 2025. And the National Automobile Dealers Association argues that if buyers can’t qualify for a loan up front, the rest is fantasy. Cash-strapped buyers instead will go for gas-guzzling used cars or put off buying another car altogether, leaving the fuel-efficient marvels parked in the lots of auto dealers across the country. 

“Where’s the environmental savings … if you can’t get the older cars off of the road?” NADA spokesman Bailey Wood said. 

Ah, but you’re missing the big picture, Mr. Wood!  If Democrats can choke off America’s energy supply, slap new taxes on the oil industry, add more retail taxes at the pump, and maybe slip in that mileage tax they keep talking about, it could become impractical for the middle class to drive anything that doesn’t get over fifty miles to the gallon. 

And then we’ll get to the really good part, as the enlightened keepers of the no-growth Big Government flame announce that it’s simply unfair to watch The Sainted Middle Class priced out of the sustainable eco-friendly car market.  Why, instead, we should just tax The Evil Rich a bit more, and provide a lovely government subsidy for that extra $3000 per vehicle imposed by Big Government mandates!  Gratitude at the polls for this act of redistributionist compassion will be expected.

Dependency created by government, fulfilled by government, and rewarded at the ballot box.  Who says there’s no such thing as a perpetual-motion machine?

Update: It’s really automobile dealers pushing back against the steep rise in fuel efficiency standards, not auto makers.  I have corrected the reference accordingly.

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