Friday, April 20, 2007

The Car and Energy Hog Societies: Nature or 'Nurture?'

by Tom Bozzo

(Maybe first in an occasional series.)

There's much to like about Jim Kunstler's takedown of Thomas Friedman's Sunday NYT article on the Brave New Green World. You could almost feel sorry for The Mustache. The article's overriding message that the world economy needs to green-up, and pronto, is certainly valuable — especially given the NYT's bizarre history of overplaying global warming skepticism.

Kunstler is dead-on that there's an underlying wrong-headedness to Friedman's piece that outweighs the positive messages, though, at least with regard to the implications for energy-related policies. Emblematic of this is Friedman's assurance that Americans will not need to "radically alter our lifestyles," and in particular his declaration that "We are who we are — including a car culture."

Inevitability and immutability arguments should be recognized as having little economic content. The factoid that the supposedly immutable often will give way to adverse price changes is part of the secret to the Big Bucks (or at least some fish-in-a-barrel shooting) for the econ profession. Marketing gurus such as Clotaire Rapaille may tell automaker clients that our lizard brains want to drive cars that are an M1A2 on the outside and the Drones Club on the inside, but come high gas prices and people buy Toyota Yarises anyway.

That Friedman's assertion is in exactly the next paragraph after a description of how our "culture" results from the combination of cheap oil and federal highway construction money (something Kunstler explicitly and frequently recognizes) just highlights the underlying economic emptiness. The cheap oil underpinning of the car culture seems to be on its way out; as the price tags soar for road construction projects that offer little real hope of untangling traffic snarls (see, e.g., Stephen Karlson here and here), policy makers and politicians might get a clue that there are higher-valued uses for the money.

This is just to say that durable infrastructure investments like suburbia may seem like they can't go away, but you need only turn to this article from Friedman's paper recounting the extent of the depopulation of the city of St. Louis (and lots of other mostly rust-belt cities) to see that ain't so.

Next: Our wacky views of transportation modes.

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