It must be an election year. Ten years ago, when he wasn't running for president, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., mused about the value of raising the tax on gasoline by 50 cents a gallon (in 1994 dollars). Now, Kerry has hit the road to campaign for cheaper gas prices and to accuse President Bush of not lifting a finger to lower prices at the pump.
The Sierra Club, which endorsed Kerry for president, is on board with the idea of cheaper gas prices, too. What gives? I asked Sierra Club spokesman Dan Becker (who drives a hybrid car): Don't you guys still lust after high-priced fuel?
I say this because the environmentalists have long advocated steep levies on gasoline to discourage driving. In 1998, energy officials in the Clinton administration figured that meeting the greenhouse-gas-reduction goals in their beloved Kyoto global warming treaty would require a 50 percent spike in gas prices.
As American Enterprise Institute fellow Steve Hayward put it, "If you hook an environmentalist to a lie detector, he'll tell you our gasoline is too cheap and that we ought to have European-style taxes. But whenever the marketplace raises the price, they scream bloody murder."
Judging by Becker's answer, however, it seems that those days are gone. Sure, Becker said, he would like to see higher gas taxes, but it will never happen. "We'd be happy to meet with all the other advocates for a higher gas tax in a phone booth somewhere," he said.
Besides, he added, "We've seen 50 percent increases in gas prices over the past few years with no improvement in mass-transit ridership, increased carpooling or a reduction in driving distances. I don't think there's price elasticity" in gasoline.
I've thought as much for years. People commute in cars not only because gasoline is still cheap -- as The New York Times reported, in 1981, gasoline cost almost $3 per gallon in current dollars -- but because cars generally are more convenient than mass transit. And time is money. It is a good day when enviros finally recognize that social engineering schemes to get people out of their cars won't work.
Becker argued: If you can't change people, you can change cars. He approves of Kerry's support for new rules that would require carmakers to boost sedan fuel efficiency to 36 miles per gallon by 2015. Today's mandate: 27.5 mpg.
I like the idea, too. It's incremental and would allow Detroit to reduce auto pollution as technologies improve. It doesn't try to force consumers to make choices they won't make. It will boost the price of cars, but it also will result in cleaner air.