Thursday, May 03, 2007

Selfish Sympathies

Mostly, people tend to sympathize with themselves. If you doubt that, read the Letters to the Editor in Monday's Detroit News.

In an earlier editorial, the Detroit News editors suggested congress should pass a $1/gallon federal gas tax.

Except for a few letters, it's apparent most letter-writers (if the sample is representative) believe higher gas taxes are a bad idea. But given a chance to vote, most of these same people have no problem raising cigarette, beer, and wine taxes to penalize others for their indulgences--or for that matter increase taxes on "the rich."

So in a nutshell, people opposing a $1/gallon gas tax increase are saying it's OK to tax other people to change their behaviors but their own behaviors don't need changing. Increased taxes, in their opinion, are helpful to curb other people's appetites but not their own. Naturally, their own appetites are necessities or artifacts of exercising their personal liberties. But as the editorial points out, progress doesn't come without sacrifice, and if we want progress on public transportation, progress halting sprawl, and progress revitalizing downtown Detroit then some sacrifice will be necessary.

It is said that people move away from pain more quickly than they do to comfort. This is why many people won't leave jobs they complain about constantly even when better jobs exist--the current job hasn't really become intolerable--even if they say it has. In the case of our nation's insatiable thirst for oil, apparently it's everyone else's responsibility to change their lifestyles than it is for themselves to bear the price of their own.

Higher gas taxes will certainly change Michigan, for the better I think, but not without some transitional discomfort.

When gas costs $4, $5, or $6/gallon, people may not be willing to sit in clogged traffic and begin demanding subways, elevated rail, or other public transportation that can be financed with new gas taxes.
Buses fall somewhere between personal and mass transit, but are neither personal or mass. Mass transit is progress for Detroit and Michigan.

Cheap gas accelerates urban sprawl. It makes 20, 30, or even 40-mile or more commutes an inconsequential expense. Imagine how real estate costs might change if Detroit and its inner-ring cities like Oak Park, Ferndale, Royal Oak and others suddenly become more desirable properties than Clarkston and Addison because of their close proximity to mass transit, urban infrastructure, office and retail space, and $4-or-higher per gallon gas prices.

Lastly, increased gas prices might spur revitalizations in Pontiac and Detroit. Due to the city's ability to provide high-density housing and plentiful office space, companies may realize the greatest benefit they can provide their employees and their families is to relocate to a city where people can conveniently live near their workplaces, entertainment venues, restaurants, and other attractions.

True, taking responsibility for our own share of America's dependence on foreign oil (or man-made global warming if you believe that) will cost each of us something. And it's also true that it's unfair for people already living close to work or with alternative means to commute to be in favor of higher gas taxes. But that hasn't stopped us from raising cigarette, capital gains, or graduated income taxes on other non-majority groups, has it?

Cross posted at


  1. Tom,
    For once I totally agree with you! Our government would rather force the auto industry to build more efficient cars (CAFE)that people do not want. If the gas was taxed higher the market would force the auto industry to do so to meet demand. We are subsidizing urban sprawl and the slow decay of the inner city and circle cities with cheap gas and even cheaper infrastructure costs. It is not a viable or efficient long term strategy but our elected officials are not generaly concerned about long term issues.

  2. Brian, I agree our elected officials are not generally concerned about long term issues, except those that have no measurable return, like global warming.

    The auto companies don't vote--their unions do--and they're supposedly in the pocket of democrats, so why not posture against the auto companies to meet tougher CAFE standards the public doesn't seem to want.

    Sure, the public wants elected officials to enact strict CAFE so everyone's conscience will be clear, without people having to change their lifestyles.

    Let it be someone else's problem, I think is how the thinking goes.