IF YOU KEEP your car's tires properly inflated, according to the secretary of energy, you will save a little gas. If everybody keeps them properly inflated, the country will save about 4 million gallons a day. It's one small example among many. Not all the proposals for cutting the United States' oil requirements are harsh or disruptive or expensive.
The boycott of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil reduces the world's supply by 8 percent. Some of that gap can be made up by raising production elsewhere in the world. Another way -- more secure and cheaper -- is to use a little less here. People's first reaction is to say, a bit defensively, that they can't possibly use less because every teaspoonful is an absolute necessity. But Americans' actual performance over the past decade suggests that in fact they are very ingenious at keeping consumption down.
The country is currently using slightly less gasoline than it did in 1978, the peak year, even though there are nearly 30 million more cars on the road. The chief explanation is that the average car in 1978 ran 14 miles on a gallon of gas and now runs 20 miles. It's also important that in some cities -- this one, to take a leading example -- there have been great improvements in public transit. Perhaps the country has not done as much to reduce its dependence on oil as it should have. But its progress has been substantial and demonstrates that even in a country as addicted to driving as this one, it's possible to get very large savings of fuel without lowering the standard of living or throwing people's lives into turmoil.
Among customers at the gasoline pumps, there's been a good deal of resentment recently at the speed and enthusiasm with which most of the oil companies have lifted their prices in response to the boycott of Iraq. Is there nothing that you can do about it? Yes, there's one very effective thing -- you can buy a little less gas. It's like an election: one person's ballot alone may not make a big difference, but if enough people vote the same way the message will get through. It's hard for suppliers to raise prices against softening demand. That's the democracy of the market. A drop in gasoline sales is not only the best way to keep the pressure on your friendly neighborhood filling station. It's also a good way to give a measure of protection to the American economy as the Middle East crisis continues to unfold.