Miles Per Dollar (mp$)
The increases in gas prices, so long overdue in America, have finally arrived. Well, somewhat. In Europe gas has been outrageously expensive, compared to America, for decades. The reasons are obvious: Europeans recognized long ago that the transportation system is an absolutely vital component of a successful society, and, therefore, the responsibility of the government. They also weren’t afraid to pay for government’s proper role in such a system’s development. In Europe, for as long as I’ve known about it, taxes have been one of, if not the, largest portion of the cost of petrol.
Automobiles and trucks are a central element of transportation, but not the only ones, and far from the best ones, especially in denser populations. Europeans saw, early on, that the price of gas is one of the most powerful tools for controlling the reliance on oil and directing the use of that resource in what should be a balanced, frugal, system.
Recently I had occasion to fill my camper van’s tank. The van’s not big, even though I rightly call it “the Bus.” It’s heavy, being 2.5 feet longer than a standard van, but it’s tiny compared to the RV’s that made up the vast number of available campers in 2004, when I bought it. Still, it only gets about 13 miles to the gallon, so I don’t drive it much.
I happened to evaluate the cost of the fill-up in a couple of different ways. Thirteen mpg translates, at today’s prices, to about 3.4 miles per dollar (mp$)–a much better way, from the environment’s point of view, to look at it. Especially when it’s so small. Of course, focusing only on the monetary price ignores the wars we fight for oil–the lives we’ve lost and taken for the big money the average guy never sees in those cheap prices and, of course, global warming. Big oil makes big money, no matter what, but not mainly through the prices; it’s mainly through the volume. And, of course, volume implies global warming–the link that forces so many interests to deny global warming so actively.
Environmentalists have long said that the low prices of gas in America promoted irresponsible consumption and they’ve advocated the government reverse the trend by instituting taxes and applying the money to promote more environmentally sensible approaches to transit. But government hasn’t been in a position to do anything of the sort, for “tax” has become a four letter word in America.
One of the most closely held secrets of modern America is that, largely because people don’t want to be burdened by the task of supervising how the money collected in taxes is spent, government’s purpose morphed into something more closely resembling a device to transfer money from the masses to the pockets of the rich than a tool to provide for the general welfare.
Oh, remnants of the earlier concept survive, like public education, general fire protection, various regulatory agencies–even if strangled for funds–but, mostly, if the rich can’t see a benefit of a government activity, it’s on the short list for elimination, as more and more people become disdainful of taxation. That doesn’t serve the greater good well, and, hopefully, as vital components of civil society continue to collapse like a bridge over the Mississippi, more people will realize it.
How our fear of the word ‘tax” has served, in thousands of ways, to transfer money from the public, escapes most people’s notice. It usually happens via profits on endeavors that should be conducted for the general good, going to private enterprise instead–most of it to large corporations. Things like health care, insurance, garbage collection, State and Federal parks, feeding the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, oh yes, outsourcing torture and V.I.P. security. Some things, like the post office, government just wants out from under altogether–otherwise every postal office in the country would be a highly wired, free internet provider for anyone who walked in the door.
Mpg speaks not at all to the failure of America to provide viable transportation alternatives. Mp$ might. Our governments’ practices, outside of about three or four major cities, have conspired to destroy the competition to the oil industry. Government is directly responsible for the demise of trains in the U.S., for the lack of adequate rapid transit in even our larger cities, and for providing a free infrastructure for consumers of big oil’s favorite product.
If transportation, which clearly makes better sense if viewed as a societal problem, were run by government instead of left in the hands of craven capitalists, the issues wouldn’t be posed in the form of “more miles per gallon.” They’d be in terms of “fewer miles driven,” for that’s the aspect of our transportation system that ‘s really destroying both our economy and, even more importantly, our environment.
There’d already be trains to everywhere, running frequently and on time, as there already are all around Europe and much of Asia. You wouldn’t have to give up doing things, just taking 2000+ pounds of metal with you and finding a place to park it when you get there. But the inertia is well established. If we’re ever to have a good transportation system in America, built on a more Earth-friendly machine than the auto, there’s going to be a transition period when we won’t be able to do whatever we want. Painful times. Times that will, eventually, get better–much better–but painful times at first.