Consuming Mass Quantities
By A.D. Freudenheim

14 February 2003

For anyone who cares about the environment – and we all should, if we’d like to go on living – the Bush administration’s plans to encourage the sale of unnecessarily large, gas-guzzling automobiles should seem nothing short of crazy. Aside from the fact that larger cars can be more difficult to handle, and can cause proportionately more damage when involved in an accident, they are simply tremendously wasteful vehicles, using two (and sometimes three) times the gasoline required for a smaller, more efficient car. The subsequent impact on pollution (which affects all of us), not to mention the drain it represents to the world’s limited oil supply, is obscene and dare I say, unpatriotic. Vehicles of this size should not be criminalized – but there should definitely be a premium required for anyone who feels it is imperative to drive a car with such a strongly-negative environmental impact.

One solution might be to impose new restrictions on auto makers, to force them to produce better cars. We have tried this before, and it has been slightly effective, but it is complicated by the research and development time necessary for the slow-to-innovate-and-improve Big Three auto companies; we could all die waiting for them to develop and build more efficient cars. Meanwhile, these same companies are already trying to win the PR war: in a turn-around, they have very publicly signed on to produce hybrid cars – which might use a combination of gas and electric engines, for example – even though they will not be selling such a vehicle for at least a year (and even though Toyota and Honda already have cars like this for sale, on the road, and running very well).

Rather, the easiest place to capture the money from these wasteful gasoline sales is at the pump; this is the best, most direct solution to the problem. However, instead imposing a simple, additional flat tax on the cost of gasoline, the tax should have a built-in incentive, by charging for fuel based on a car’s actual average usage of miles per gallon of gas. In other words, the person who pulls up to the pump in a 4-cylinder, manual-shift Toyota that gets an average of 38 miles to the gallon will pay less per gallon of gas than the person who pulls up in a Hummer2, getting roughly 13 miles to the gallon. It’s that simple. (I would suggest that the price increase by a factor of 50% for every 5 miles of fuel efficiency lost, but the ratio can be adjusted.)

This change in fuel pricing – perhaps it should be called the Saving America’s Soul Fuel Tax – is well within our reach technologically. Implementation can be phased in over time; new cars could come with a bar-code that can be scanned at each gas station, at the pump, which will tell the pump the average miles per gallon, and the pump can compute the new price accordingly. As older cars across the country go back in for inspections every year or two, depending on state law, they can be given a bar code too (along with a test to determine average fuel usage). Within four years, ever car in the country could be coded this way. (And there’s no libertarian arguing about tagging vehicles and all that; every car is already required to be tagged, by virtue of having both a unique serial number and a state-issued license plate. This is not another manifestation of Big Brother, so let’s not confuse the issue.)

In practical terms, this makes a lot of sense. After all, both state and national laws already regulate the kinds of vehicles that can be put on the road, and dangerous cars are supposed to be removed – that’s what the inspection process is for, to determine periodically whether a car is still roadworthy. This is a similar process; gas-guzzling cars are dangerous to all of us, and there should be a higher threshold of cost required based on the choices one makes of what to drive (or whether to drive at all, in places like New York City).

Some will complain that this unfairly taxes the poor, since a lower-income family of five driving a car large enough to hold their family will be paying significantly more in fuel. That is true on the face of it, but there is also a wide variety of cars to choose from even within the large-and-fuel-inefficient spectrum; for example, the family that buys the Kia Sedona minivan (estimate average MPG: 17[1]) instead of the Ford Windstar minivan (estimated average MPG: 20[2]) has made a choice of vehicles, and if they chose a car that is substantively the same size and yet less efficient, then there should be a clear and unambiguous cost – since the rest of us have to suffer the results of their added pollution. (And yes, in this instance the American car is more efficient.)

Complaints that this kind of pricing either unfairly taxes the rich or gives them an unfair advantage should also fall on deaf ears. First of all, the rich can afford it, by definition, so let’s not hear anything about how it’s unfair; nor do the lifestyles of the wealthy obligate them to drive inefficient vehicles,a nd there is no reason they cannot and should not be held to the same standards as the rest of society. As for whether it gives them a disproportionate advantage, since they can afford the higher fuel costs ... perhaps. But do they not already have that advantage? (The fact that the wealthy can afford to do something others cannot is only “unfair” if you think the rich are themselves unreasonably so – and that is a very different discussion.)

Anyone who buys a certain class of expensive, fancy (and wasteful) car already already pays a luxury tax on the purchase; anyone inclined to change their behavior based on these costs shows an intuitive understanding of their purpose. Likewise, appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers, and refrigerators also come with price incentives for those buy the more efficient models, the ones that use less water and less electricity. This is only an expansion of the same incentivization concept, taken to the next and most logical level of implementation.

As for what should be done with the proceeds of this new fuel tax: how about spending it on developing new and better technologies? Or using it to fix other pollution problems, like the poisons dumped into the water table by horrifying industrial farming practices, or by chemical manufacturing companies like Dow and Monsanto? Or improving public transportation systems, to reduce the need for and reliance on cars? There is no guaranteed right to drive, nor is there a guaranteed right to pollute the environment. So far, we humans have taken extreme advantage of the earth and its resources. If this tax begins to change American behavior and purchasing patterns – encouraging people to buy smaller cars, or to use public transportation – so much the better. At a minimum it might provide a larger and more substantive pool of funds with which we can address the damage we have done to the earth, instead of pretending as though we are gods, roaming freely and with the right to destroy at will.

[1] See:
[2] See:
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