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Triumph of the Petrophobes

by James Lileks

Don’t worry about six-dollar-a-gallon gas. The president can sign an executive order demanding pumps be rebranded to deliver the juice in half-gallon increments. Swift, decisive action! A 50 percent drop in price! But since that would be swift and decisive, the president will probably stick with his original plan — a Task Force will look into the matter. This is slightly less efficacious than sending Jed Clampett out to shoot at some food and stumble across a pond of bubblin’ crude. (Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea.) The Task Force will labor for weeks, investigating the strange and inscrutable forces at work here, breaking into subcommittees: Okay, you guys work on “supply,” you guys work on “demand,” and we’ll get back together next week to see if there’s any connection.

Why is gas high? Asian demand. Middle East instability — the Libyan conflict, at press time, has not been solved by the introduction of two Predators, nor have Qaddafi fighters melted away in terror upon hearing that Italian military advisers will assist the rebels. (You will want a loose fit in the sleeves of your uniforms, here, so that when you throw your arms up in surrender, there is not the chafing.) There’s the seasonal shift to summer-blend gas, mandated by one of those Clean Air Acts intended to make exhaust-pipe discharge indistinguishable from the breeze across an alpine meadow, and there’s the impact of an enervated, watered-down dollar. Real-world problems. Naturally, the president suspects speculators and other forms of warlocks who use their dark, alchemic powers to turn money into more money.

What angers some on the left isn’t the price of oil, it’s the fact that the government isn’t profiting. In the halcyon days of cheap gas, when you didn’t have to check the pump to see if you’d selected Glenlivet instead of Regular, there were constant calls to slap enormous taxes on gasoline. It would have several salutary effects:

It could fund trains that went so fast the G-forces would make even Nancy Pelosi’s Botoxed visage show signs of acceleration.

It would discourage people from moving to the suburbs, where they turn into Republicans, possibly because of continual exposure to lawn chemicals.

It would help the planet, since NASCAR rallies alone are expected to raise the global temp by 0.00006 degrees by 2457 a.d.

People who insist on owning cars for some peculiar reason will buy smaller vehicles made out of lightweight materials, like dried, pressed kelp.

Andrew Sullivan made the case in Time magazine in 2004: “Such taxes are relatively easy to collect,” he noted, establishing the moral virtues of his case; ease of confiscation is always the first thing you want to consider when taking money out of people’s pockets. “By adding a cost to the wanton consumption of gasoline, you actually encourage conservation,” he added. Wanton! Those hussy pumps with their shapely hoses, seducing the innocents. Drive to Costco. Go on. You can afford it.

As for the economic impact of the tax, he barked this crisp refutation: “Others say it penalizes those in remote and rural areas. So what?” Spoken like someone who looks at a subway map and sees HERE BE DRAGONS signs where the lines end. He does elaborate, to be fair: “Very few taxes are perfect, and our electoral system — with its over-representation of big agricultural states in the Senate — already pampers the rural.” So there: So what? If it costs more to fill the family tractor, well, no tax is perfect, Jack.

Well, now the dream’s come true. Gas is as high as the petrophobes want it, and the result will be depressed consumer spending, inflation, a depressed summer-vacation sector, malaise, rending of garments, gnashing of teeth, and — worst of all — a growing lack of faith in Presidential Task Forces. Imagine if we already had a two-buck tax on gas. If we didn’t get one in the mid-2000s, it’s because politicians lacked the ability to make the case as plainly as Sullivan (“Some conservatives say it’s antithetical to the American Dream,” he wrote, adding: “Hooey”). But once upon a time politicians had spines. Vision. Foresight. They gave us the gas tax in 1932, when Old Man Depression had pummeled federal revenues so hard the budget deficit stood at a mortifying $2.7 billion, or roughly the amount the current government loses in the sofa cushions every day. The rate went up to one-and-a-half penny to help finance WWII — when you fill your tank, you’re socking it to Hitler! — and it’s drifted up to a little over 18 cents today, with almost three cents funding mass transit.

But there’s another invisible tax: the price we pay because we don’t expand our supply. The EPA just told Shell they can’t drill in Alaska, after five years of permit wrangling. Add that gas we won’t be getting from Alaska to the gas we won’t get from the Gulf to the gas we won’t get from anywhere we could be drilling. No, drilling won’t help us today, but it might help us in the future. You know, that thing we’re supposed to win.

Speaking of winning the future: Will there be an award ceremony? Because it would be great if the Chinese came in second, and drove to the event in limos, and we showed up to get first prize on horses and bikes. No, make that bikes. Horses issue pollution, too. As soon as we’ve gotten everyone out of their cars, we can start hectoring them about their carbon hoofprint. People think they can trot anywhere, as if it’s a free country. Wanton oat consumption, that’s the problem.

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