(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
As gasoline prices passed $3.50 a gallon nationally, the politicking predictably kicked into overdrive. “There’s no reason we can’t get gasoline down to $2 and $2.50 a gallon,” said Newt Gingrich, who in February promised he would accomplish this via an agenda he called “Drill here, drill now, pay less.” Two days later three prominent Democrats, including Representative Ed Markey, called for President Obama to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower gas prices.
The huge difference between the thinking of Republicans and Democrats disappears when it comes to gas prices. Both subscribe to the same dubious premise: we can lower prices by increasing supply. But over the past decade, such policies have had little effect on the global oil market. It’s time to change our approach: rather than trying to increase supply in a vain attempt to cut prices, progressives should be embracing policies that will reduce the amount of gasoline we use, thus reducing the impact of prices on household budgets and the national economy.
High prices this early in 2012 put us on track for a repeat of 2011, when Americans spent nearly $500 billion on gasoline. Last year’s increase in prices in effect wiped out the benefits of the $100 billion payroll tax cut. Now increased gas prices may affect the outcome of the presidential election. More crucial, they are hampering the economic recovery, and the growing costs of cars and fuel are driving middle-class budgets into the ground.
Last September I interviewed Darren Flenoy, a Northern California security guard who had lost his full-time job in 2008 and counted himself lucky to work part time seven days a week. Unfortunately, he has to commute 560 miles a week—so he spends an astounding 51 percent of his income on gas, insurance, car payments and tolls. A complicated set of economic realities trap Flenoy and dozens of other workers I interviewed last year for EnergyTrap.org, a project of the New America Foundation: they hold mortgages on houses far from low-wage jobs and own old and inefficient cars that force them to spend more and more of their income on gasoline—wreaking environmental as well as economic havoc. There is almost no limit to what Flenoy will pay to get to work. “If gasoline goes up to $5, I have to pay it,” he told me.
People should not be forced to pour their salary into a gas tank. We should have other ways to get to work and spend our income. Progressives should establish a new green agenda that takes the dialogue away from the empty promises of Republicans, who persist in the fantasy that more drilling will bring lower prices. We have much to gain if we make energy (and by extension the environment) a tangible pocketbook issue for the middle class. Instead of talking about abstractions like green jobs and green energy, candidates have to focus on greener rides—and greener wallets.
Three big policy initiatives could put families back in control of their money and their lives: a loan guarantee program for efficient cars, a set of incentives that involve employers in worker transit, and a reorientation of highway and transit funding to encourage innovation and choice in transit. As I’ll discuss below, these strategies—while markedly different from most of the green proposals under discussion—deliver large environmental, economic and political benefits quickly, while building a platform for deeper cuts in carbon emissions and larger markets for green services in the future.