Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Boring and Controversial

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:25 pm, August 11th, 2006

WARNING: I generally avoid politics in these journal entries, but the following is something I’ve been mulling over and want to record so that I can re-read it in years to come. If I’ve bored you already, stop reading. And Aaron, you said I should write more about my thoughts, so here goes.

Given the state of the world today it’s really easy to complain and criticize, and I definitely do my fair share. However, when I do complain I often think of a quote from the book Shogun:

‘Always remember, child,’ her first teacher had impressed on her, ‘that to think bad thoughts is really the easiest thing in the world. If you leave your mind to itself it will spiral you down into ever-increasing unhappiness. To think good thoughts, however, requires effort.’

That quote has stuck with me – it’s easy to be negative, but more difficult to be positive. In the past years I’ve become increasingly worried about the direction that America is headed in, but I don’t think I’ve really done anything about it other than criticize. I’ve tried to learn as much as I could, I’ve voted in elections, and I’ve talked to people who were willing to discuss rather than lecture, but I haven’t really offered solutions or done anything truly meaningful.

So instead of criticizing I started thinking about BIG things that could be done to make the future better. One of the answers seems (to me) to be to use less oil. Terrorism, global warming, and economic problems all seem to be direct or indirect results of America’s use of so much oil. If America uses less oil it will have fewer interests in the Middle East, and thus not need to interfere with politics there. Using less oil means less carbon dioxide, and thus less contributions to global warming. And finding alternative energy sources means benefits to the US economy, as a new industry could be born.

People won’t voluntarily use less oil, because even at $3 a gallon oil is still cheaper in the short term. So how can people do what’s right without a major upheaval? For years everyone argued against higher gas taxes, saying consumers wouldn’t pay them and the economy would be damaged. But at $3 a gallon, it’s clear that people will pay whatever they have to for gas, and the economy will find ways to cope. So what if gas taxes were higher, but the government offered incentives to use less? Less demand for oil would bring down prices, and less use of oil would benefit the environment. Similarly, if there were incentives for developing more economical alternative energy sources it would have the added benefit of driving new sectors of the economy.

Gas taxes vary by state, but the federal portion of that tax is 18.4 cents per gallon, which generated $20.4 billion in revenue in 2001 [1]. Raising that tax by ten cents each year over the next three years (thirty cents total) would generate an additional $33.3 billion each year in revenue. For argument sake, let’s assume that money gets split, with one-third going to tax credits for fuel-efficient vehicles, one-third going to mass-transit, and one-third going to alternative energy research and development.

In the US there are about twenty million new cars sold each year [2], getting an average fuel economy of 20.8 mpg [3]. $11 billion in additional revenue should be enough for the government to offer a $500 tax credit for cars getting over 30 mpg, and an additional $500 for each five mpg thereafter. Someone buying a Prius (50-60 mpg) would get between $2500 and $3500 in tax credits. I don’t have a study to cite, but my gut tells me that such a move would make fuel-efficient cars more economically feasible and would drive price-conscious shoppers to buy more efficient cars. If average fuel economy goes up five percent annually until 2010, that saves 1.5 million barrels of oil each day and as much as 4.7 million barrels per day by 2020 [4]. Less demand for oil should translate into lower oil prices.

In addition, plowing $11 billion each year into mass transit triples the amount of money available for mass-transit projects, while investing $11 billion per year into renewable energy would spur development of new energy options. LA might finally get a decent transit system, wind and solar power would become more attractive, and construction and commercial opportunities would abound. To my small brain it seems like this could position the United States as a world leader in renewable energy technology, a market that is growing rapidly around the world, thus producing potential economic windfalls for the future.

The downside is that no politician wants to propose raising the gas tax by thirty cents per gallon, even if the long-term benefit is cheaper gas, a better economy, and a cleaner environment. However, if the issue is re-stated as “What can we do to ensure a better future” then a few cents extra at the pump doesn’t seem like such a large cost. I might be crazy in thinking that this is a good idea, and it’s very possible I’m missing something obvious; maybe someone has already tried to do it and failed. I’d be interested in other people’s opinion on the matter – is this a bad idea, is there something else that could be done, is it a good idea that can’t happen, what? And remember, it’s easier to be negative than positive, but in the long run it’s positive thinking that changes the world.

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