Wed Jul 16th, 2008 at 05:27:25 AM EST
Crossposted at Economic Populist
My basic argument is that America's oil addiction has less to do with inefficient engines, than with an economic system that promotes conspicous consumption as a means to indicate social status.
America is dangerously dependent on foreign oil.
In 2007, the United States imported around 13.44 mbd (million barrels daily) from other countries. This represents an almost 2% reduction over the preceding year. Nonetheless, oil represents a huge economic Achilles Heel for the US.
At the current $145.29/barrel
price for crude on the spot market, a year's worth of oil imports would cost the US $713 billion. Or 5.2% of 2007 US nominal GDP. Or almost three times our trade deficit with the People's Republic of China. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is bound to impact the US economy.
I'm going to be lazy today, and err to the use of graphics to make my point. Much of the current energy debate in the US centers on how inefficient our motor vehicles are compared to the rest of the planet. Look they say at the following graph that shows just how inefficient our vehicles are. This is the average fuel economy for various national fleets.
Promoted with edit to put more content above the fold - afew
released from the 2001 National Household Travel Survey shows that there is a great deal of truth to this.
First, while the oil shock of the late 70s produced a noticeable increase in fuel efficiency, since the early 1980s increases in engine efficiency have been channeled into greater horsepower.
So we've been buying more powerful cars, and it's not only that. We've been building larger vehicles.
America's automotive proclivities demonstrate perhaps better than any other single area the extent to which our country has become inclined to conspicuous consumption, the waste of economic resources by individuals so as to convey their social standing to others. I'm convinced that much of modern American society is better understood through a careful reading of Thorsten Veblen than an exaggeration of what was said by Adam Smith.
After all, Smith himself famously said that defense is superior to opulence.
The irony of this though is that just as SUVs have become an object of conspicuous consumption, environmentally friendly vehicles like the Prius have arguably become the same. Yet much as our latter day leisure class finds merit in the supposed social superiority of their little hybrid, Jonathan Tasini reminds us that merely because an object is environmentally friendly does not mean that it is socially beneficial. Who know that the Prius came out of sweatshops?
Back to the main point. While the Prius people have managed to convert what is ostensibly a socially beneficial act into yet another manner in which to demonstrate the intellectual (and hence social) deficiency of those who haven't the money to engage in this type of conspicuous consumption, the single largest component behind increasing oil consumption is an increase in vehicle miles traveled.
From the Energy Information Administration:
So lets take a look. I'm going to convert some of the numbers here for ease of use. In 1983, energy intensity was 66.2 per 1000 miles, by 2001, that number had decreased to 49.5.
Converting this to miles per gallon.
In 1983, vehicles received on average 15.1 miles per gallon. In 2001, that had increased to about 20.2 miles per gallon.
Yet between 1983 and 2002, gasoline consumption increased more than 40% from 80.3 billion gallons in 1983 to 113.1 billion gallons in 2001.
But you say. In 1983 there were only 233.8 million Americans while in 2001 there were 285.1 million Americans. So that means that in 1983, each American consumed 281.6 gallons of gasoline annually. While in 2003, each American consumed on average 396.7 gallons of gasoline.
So clearly it wasn't that the increase in population that made America consume more gas, so what did?
Math isn't my forte, but I'll give it a try.
Gas = Population (Miles traveled/Miles per gal.)
So, yes rapid increases in population can outweigh any increases in engine efficiency. However, there's a component we've overlooked: Miles traveled.
In order to avoid double counting, I'm going to use vehicle miles traveled rather than passenger miles traveled Some times more than 1 person is in a car, so you have twice number of passenger miles that you have of vehicle miles even though the same amount of gas is used.
So in 1983, 1215 billion gallons were consumed, while in 2001, 2287 billion gallons were consumed. In 1983 there were only 233.8 million Americans while in 2001 there were 285.1 million Americans. So that means in that without double counting 1983, on average each American traveled 5,197 miles annually, while in 2001 each American traveled 8,022 miles. This a 54% increase since 1983.
We've been blamed bad cars, but might, just might it be that all the self-righteous Prius People skitting who live 30 miles from work might be at fault?
I mean, as US DOT numbers show most trips are taken to and from work.
Then again, maybe not.
So let's get down to business. What would happen to our national gas consumption if we had the same number of people, and the same engine efficiency, just reduced the miles traveled per person to the 1983 number?
Gas =285.1 million(5197/20.2)
That would bring the gas consumption per person down to 257.27 gallons, or 73.35 billion gallons annually. Again as things stand now Americans use 113.1 billion gallons. That cuts gas consumption by more than a third without even touching existing engines. This has the same effect as increasing the fleet average fuel efficiency to 30.2 gallons per mile.
Perhaps in asking how to allow people to drive more efficiently to cut gas consumption, we are asking the wrong question. Maybe we need to ask what improvements in urban planning are needed to get people out of their cars.
The Prius people strike me a lot like methadone junkies, the question they ask isn't how to kick the habit, but how to keep it rolling. And the real tragedy is that keeping people in their cars perpetuates one of the key means by which individuals indicate social status in our unequal society.
I hope I haven't rambled on to much.
(I first wrote this for The Economic Populist, and American blog focusing on economic issues, but I thought I'd cross post it to get feedback and comments here.)