Over the last week, Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have engaged in a serious policy debate over energy policy. With oil pushing $140 a barrel, and gasoline breaking $5 a gallon in some parts of California, the debate shows the contrasts between the two candidates and, unfortunately, the shortsightedness of American politics in general.
John McCain’s proposals to bring down energy costs are based primarily on the economic theories of supply and demand. McCain wants to increase supplies by allowing offshore drilling and domestic exploration, and constrain demand by challenging the private sector to develop new, gas-sipping technologies. What else would you expect from a Republican?
Barack Obama’s idea for bringing down oil and gas prices, however, should offend anyone who got a passing grade in their freshman economics class in college. Obama’s plan to bring down gas prices would be to tax oil companies’ profits. Of course, after those profits are taxed the cost of the tax would have to be passed on to the revenue-generating side of the equation, to the consumer. Obama would then redistribute these taxes to help poorer Americans pay at the pump. What else would you expect from a Democrat?
But what we need in America are not partisan “solutions” like those but real alternatives for Americans to stop using gasoline altogether. The best way to end America’s dependence on foreign oil is to get Americans to stop using oil. And the fastest way to accomplish this in a long-term way is to adopt new transportation and planning policies which allow Americans to abandon their automobiles altogether.
Out of the blue this weekend, my parents commented that they really liked my story about the cobwebs growing on my car eight weeks ago then struck the fear of God asking me if I thought they could live in my neighborhood without a car. After catching my breath, I found the polite response: “I am sure you could live without a car in Texas, too.”
But, really, such a lifestyle is impossible in a subdivision outside San Antonio’s Loop 1604, but there are plenty of parts of the city where such a lifestyle would be possible as long as two elements are present: density and mass transit.
Detroit won’t like it and neither will our “friends” the Saudis, but if enough Americans abandon the idea that they must have a half-acre estate with the white picket fence, a haven best accessed by car, not subway, bus or train, we really could use less oil. Instead of suburban sprawl, we should pursue a model of Jeffersonian Urbanism, where we live in dense, but walkable and livable, neighborhoods. Only when we can get out of our cars will we forget about the price of gas.
With transportation infrastructure – highways and subways – the axiom is and has always been, “build it and they will come.” Expand the freeway and, over time, people will just move further away from their jobs and the freeway will be congested. Build a subway and jobs and housing density will increase near the subway stops until a natural built-in ridership exists. One clearly reduces car and oil dependency, the other doesn’t.
So let’s take those royalties from John McCain’s offshore drilling, or the receipts from Barack Obama’s windfall profits tax, and invest them in mass transit. Let’s also ease environmental rules not on oil companies, but on towns and cities, so that they can use their planning process to create livable, dense, walkable, urban neighborhoods. Do that, and only those who choose to live a car-oriented lifestyle would complain about gas prices. But it would be their choice, and American’s don’t look kindly on poor lifestyle choices.