Magazine article The New Yorker

A Lot of Gas

Magazine article The New Yorker

A Lot of Gas

Article excerpt

Last week, Mitt Romney, who, it now seems, is going to become the Republican nominee whether anybody likes it or not, called on President Barack Obama to fire three of his Cabinet members: the Energy Secretary, Steven Chu; the Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar; and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson. According to Romney, the three have spent the past few years carrying out a not-so-secret plan to raise the price of gasoline at the pump. Only by firing the "gas-tax trio," Romney told Fox News, can the President demonstrate that he did not approve of this plan. "Time for them to go," Romney said.

Romney's remarks came just days after Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, also on Fox, accused the Administration of driving up the cost of gas in the service of its "radical" agenda. "The reality is, gasoline prices have doubled under this President--highest prices for oil and gasoline in a hundred and fifty years," Jindal said. "People used to think it was because of incompetence from the Obama Administration on energy. I think it's because of ideology." (As far as "reality" goes, Jindal's characterization of gas prices is inaccurate; they were higher in 2008, under President George W. Bush.) Romney and Jindal, meanwhile, were echoing comments made by Newt Gingrich, who accused the President of adhering to a "radical ideology, which wants to artificially raise the cost of energy." And Gingrich was following Rick Santorum, who, back in February, declared that Obama's energy policies are based on a "phony theology" that "elevates the earth above man."

Like almost anything that the Republican candidates can manage to agree on, the Obama Administration gas-price-hike conspiracy theory is nearly a hundred-per-cent hokum. The fakery begins with the theory's premise: that the President could, if he wanted to, reduce the price of oil. Oil, as it is well known, is a global commodity traded on a global market. Gasoline prices have risen--they are up roughly fifteen per cent since the start of the year--mostly because demand is climbing in countries like China and because instability in the Middle East has prompted worries about supply. (Since sabre rattling on Iran tends to increase those worries, candidates like Santorum, who calls the Administration's policies toward Iran "appeasement," are almost certainly aggravating the very situation they decry.)

But an idea doesn't have to be true, or even especially convincing, to be politically effective, and nowadays it's the most rational policy options that seem to have the hardest time getting heard. When it comes to gas prices, it's been clear for, well, let's just say forever that the cost of gasoline in America is actually too low. Cheap gas generates sprawl and traffic. It discourages the use of mass transit and the development of alternative fuels. It contributes to regional smog and to global climate change. The easiest and most obvious solution has long been to raise the federal gasoline tax, which now stands at only 18.4 cents a gallon. Among economists, there's widespread support for this idea, including from Greg Mankiw, a Harvard professor who happens to be a top adviser to Romney. Writing in the Times earlier this year, Mankiw observed, "Economists who have added up all the externalities associated with driving conclude that a tax exceeding $2 a gallon makes sense. …

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