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Eating Our Greens

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 28, 2006

That was no impostor, that was the actual George W. Bush the other day, wagging his finger at the good people who run the oil bidness and pledging to hold them accountable, or at least pretend to. Pushing alternative fuels? Investigating windfall profits? Is the president unwell?

No, he's fine. His fixes for high gasoline prices also include loosening some of those bothersome clean air regulations and, as usual, a call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He's just scared, and I don't blame him. With gas prices soaring over $3 a gallon, it's time for some serious panic.

One of the unwritten stanzas of the American creed is that a tank of gas, whenever an American needs one, is a birthright. The gauge gets low, you pull into the service station, you pump your gas, you're back on the road. Gas isn't a purchase you're supposed to have to weigh against other things you need.

Gasoline isn't fuel, it's freedom -- and when freedom is priced like a luxury item, Americans tend to turn on incumbent politicians with a snarl.

It's true that gas is still cheaper here than in the rest of the industrialized world, although the gap is shrinking. It's also true, in my view, that the world would be better off (though it would put Americans in a really foul mood) if the price went a good deal higher, perhaps through a big hike in the federal gasoline tax. That would raise much-needed revenue, since Bush is the most profligate spender since Louis XIV, and also discourage people from driving so much, which would cut carbon emissions and push back the day when palm trees take root at Kennebunkport.

So, yes, we should all eat our peas. But here's what I want to know: What are the implications of gas prices of $3 and higher for our collective relationship with our alter egos, our suits of armor, our advertisements for ourselves, our dreams made tangible, our autobiographies written in steel, glass, rubber and plastic: our automobiles?

That Americans are in love with their cars is a cliche, but often cliches are true. In other countries people have a much more sensible view of automotive hardware. In London, for example, a city where petrol costs an arm and a leg and the streets are barely wide enough for a Victorian hansom, people tend to drive small cars. If all Londoners were replaced by Americans tomorrow, I suspect one of our first projects would be to widen the streets so that two Hummers could pass without slowing down.

I'm not being judgmental here. I don't own a Hummer, but neither do I own a Prius or one of the other little gas-electric hybrids that sip fuel by the demitasse rather than the gallon. (Volvo XC wagon, if you must know.) My conscience tells me I ought to own a hybrid, and I applaud those who do -- economists say this guilt makes no sense, since whatever gas I didn't consume would be used by others in Seattle, Shanghai or Seoul, but that strikes me as shortsighted economist-think that ignores the future of the planet.

I could plead the excuse of being tall, but I've actually sat in a Prius, and it was pretty comfortable. The truth is, I have trouble with the idea of puttering around in an oversize golf cart with skinny little tires, grandmotherly acceleration and an aura that's all virtue, no vroom.

And what about that one snowy day every year -- well, most years anyway -- when I really need that four-wheel drive? What would I do then?

If humans were perfectly rational beings, life would be boring. Different societies have different subjects about which their views are, basically, insane. One of America's defining insanities is the automobile. Look around as you drive in to work tomorrow. Why is that woman driving alone in an SUV as roomy as some Tokyo apartments? Why is that guy driving a Porsche that'll do 150 when he'll never have the nerve to push it past 90, even on a clear stretch of interstate with no county mounties in sight?

But the economists are right about one thing: Irrationality can make a valiant stand against price, but ultimately it succumbs. At $3 a gallon and more, fewer people will buy SUVs. At some higher figure -- maybe much higher, but that seems to be where we're headed -- we'll all downsize into Prius Nation.

But could I have fatter tires on mine? And four-wheel drive? You know, for when it snows.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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