Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Death of the SUV

Last night I attended a lecture at Colorado College, just a few blocks from my apartment, where economist and author, Steven Levitt was speaking. Levitt, the co-author of the bestselling book, "Freakonomics," drew a huge crowd to discuss his unique (some would say, rogue) way of looking at economics as it cross-pollinates with other disciplines such as sociology, psychology and even religion. Always fascinating and often controversial, Levitt's wide range of studies include everything from crime, politics and even sports.

Steven Levitt

Freakonomics, which has been a New York Times bestseller for over a year now, draws unbelievable (until you look at his data) economic behavior correlations between such random and diverse groups as school teachers and sumo wrestlers and the KKK and real-estate agents. It also examines the quantifiable link between legalized abortion and a drop in the crime rate, and the business model of drug dealing.

Levitt took questions at the end of his lecture but had to cut himself short long before I was ever able to ask mine—how would his economic model play with the current energy crisis? But I think I know what his answer may have been. I got clues from how he answered other current event questions, namely illegal immigration (“The more people paying into and purchasing things in an economy is always a good thing. Economically, the legality of their presence is irrelevant. Besides, I doubt so many people would be up in arms if these illegal immigrants came from Poland or some other location in Europe. This anti-immigrant anger is simply because they're Mexican.”) and the war on drugs (“You want to destroy the war on drugs, then you have two very simple options—crack down severally on the consumer instead of the distributor thus cutting off the demand or legalize drugs immediately.”)

In terms of the latter example, he admitted that legalizing drugs was a horrible idea, at least, he said, in terms of the higher class narcotics such as crack cocaine. While he is confident that legalization would do the trick, no one has the political will (or moral resolve for that matter) to deal with the fallout such a choice would incur. Legalizing drugs would obliterate their street value, remove the gang equation, negate the violence that accompanies their sale, and provide an added national income in the form of exorbitantly high taxes that could be stamped on every purchase. However, he said, what would happen first is that the initial generation who experienced legalized narcotics would become hopelessly addicted. Preceding generations would learn from their self-destruction and cast aside drugs altogether, but not before all hope was lost for the vanguard generation. So, in an economic cost/benefit analysis, while legalization would take care of the problem in the long term, it would create short term ramifications that no one is willing to endure.

The cost/benefit analysis issue brought me back to our current energy crisis. Somehow I have a feeling that, given his “short term pain for long term gain” perspective, Levitt's opinion might mirror author Thomas Friedman's...and, incidentally, my own.

You see, I have a rather unique perspective on our current energy crisis—I am happy it's here and I only want it to get worse.

Before you burn me in cyber-effigy, allow me to explain myself. I see our current energy woes not as a curse, but as a blessing in disguise—an unprecedented opportunity to make a real and lasting change for our country if our government and its citizenry has the courage and fortitude to do what it takes—short term pain for long term gain.

Right now, we're ignoring the energy crisis, slapping the national equivalent of band-aids on a patient whose body is being eaten away by leprosy and patting ourselves on the back for our phenomenal life-saving technique.

What we need to do is let the patient die.

Think about it. By doing nothing but treating the symptom instead of the root problem we are merely perpetuating the burden for future generations. What we need is what Freidman refers to as a “'geo-green' strategy that would marry geopolitics, energy policy and environmentalism.”

Thomas Friedman

What we are currently doing is financing both sides in the war on terrorism and bolstering some of the worst governments on the planet—throwing monstrous amounts of cash at both our military juggernaut and the very jihadists we seek to overthrow—through our gasoline purchases. We continue to buy vast amounts of oil from the same countries who support those with whom we are “at war” (I put war in quotations because the “War on Terrorism” is the most idiotic thing I've ever heard. Wars are waged against definable enemies with delineated borders through quantifiable progress to a foreseeable endgame. This “war” has none of those). Furthermore, the oil boom is entrenching the autocrats in Russia and Venezuela, to say nothing of setting up a global tug-of-war with China.

And all of this ignores what we've now known for years, that by doing nothing to reduce our county's appetite for oil, we are only hastening the impending ecological crisis. It used to be that those who cried that the environmental sky was falling were regarded as kooks. Now, with the avalanche of data we possess on our fragile planet and our surprising ability to harm it, the kooks are those who continue to deny it. The longer we wait to do something, the worse it's going to get.

Today, there are about 800 million cars on the road. In just under a half century (as China and India flex their economic muscle), that number is expected to be closer to 3.3 billion. Quadruple the cars means quadruple the devastating pollutant emissions. We have got to do something to create cleaner, less gas-hungry vehicles right now.

Which is where our current gas prices come in.

Left alone to rise, high prices (which unsubsidized Europe has had for years) will force consumers to abandon their gas-guzzling SUVs for more economical forms of transportation. It's the 70s all over again. Even if they don't adopt mass transit, it will encourage the purchasing of more energy efficient cars such as hybrids. Moreover, R&D into cleaner, alternate fuel source vehicles will become a matter of necessity rather than simply political hot air—research that will, no doubt, spill over from transportation into all areas of our country's energy needs.

Imagine a world in which America's hunger does not involve ingesting the natural resources of the Middle East, where we are not beholden to or dependent on any other country for our energy sustenance.

In the words of John Lennon, it's easy if you try.

Sure, high gas prices hurt me every time I visit the pump. But temporary pain is nothing compared to long term gain—or, in this case, long term pain. It's a price I'm willing to pay.


Anonymous Nate said...

I'm with you and the spastically gesticulative Friedman all the way on this.
You should credit me for going to see Levitt. Much better than unsubtitled German films, eh?
I scrounge for what credit I can get.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Reacher said...

I'm reading "Freakonomics" now, so I can't comment on the conclusions, but it strikes me as a vehicle for Stephen Dubner. His NYer colleague, Malcolm Gladwell, had big hits with Tipping Point and Blink, so now it's his turn. So far "Freak" is like those two books to me. It's very interesting dinner conversation, but no real arguments. When the writers attempt to transcend ideology by arguing that the numbers never lie, I have to cry bullshit on that. Numbers only communicate what they are arranged to communicate. The numbers we choose to report, the way we present them, and the interpretations we bring to them establish their meaning. I don't know if I disagree with the conclusions (again, haven't read much yet), but I'm suspicious.

I usually find economic arguments to be arrogant and ultimately less than satisfying. For instance, economists have told us that increasing gas prices would drive down consumption. Hasn't happened yet. So, the economists back up and say, "Well, there will come a threshold ($5 a gal.) that will send consumption down. What, you mean a tipping point?

We possess the capacity to create our own extinction. Economics is not our savior. The "invisible hand" of God (read: the market) is not likely to save us.

By the way, Brandon, did you really mean to say John LENIN? It's funny if you did. And it's funny if you didn't.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

And don't forget The Wisdom of Crowds and now Instapundit's Army of Davids. It's like a whole micro-genre of popular-numbers-sociology-that-makes-interesting-cocktail-conversation.

No, I'm reading Freakonomics now too. If by read you mean sit on nightstand and flip to a random page from time to time. I find late night tidbits of obscure statistical minutiae leavens the wild partying I normally get up to.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

It's funny, he mentioned "Tipping Point" and "Blink" as inspirations of sorts. He didn't set out to write a book but after a 7,000 word story on him in the New Yorker times or New Yorker (can't remember which) he was approached to write it. Unaware of anything he might focus on, he and his co-writer (who wrote the original piece on him) choose to do something very similar to the aforementioned works. He said he's convinced the only reason the book's sold as well as it has is because of the title which is sister came up with and for which she now "demands" royalties.

I look forward to reading the book. I thought about getting it last night but what kind of economic-lecturer-listener would I be if I bought it from him at $29 when I can get it online for half that. I honor his vision more by not buying his book from him.

And no, the Lenin/Lennon thing was a Freudian goof. You're right--funny either way.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

May it be known and proclaimed throughout the land wherever liberty is found and evil confronted, that on this 3rd day of May, in the year of our Lord, 2006, Brandon Fibbs, son of Jack and Charlene, has officially acknowledged that Nate, son of...somebody...introduced him to the aforementioned Steven Levitt, also the son of somebody, and did, with intention of forethought, encourage Brandon Fibbs to attend a lecture by said Steven Levitt, with the full knowledge that Brandon Fibbs would derive enjoyment and stimulation from the experience, so help me God. He's a spiffy guy, that Nate.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

That sounds about right.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Son of somebody?

Dude, you slept in their house!

4:47 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Yes, I know, I am such a bad person. Baaaad, I tell you. Bad. I must go home to my wife now. I must be spanked.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Gilly said...

You want to solve energy when I am president I will fix it for you! Its called biodiesel and ethanol out the the millions of bushels of crops that go to waste every year in the midwest!

6:21 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Steam Power. Powered by hot air from blogs.

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Kim said...

I am always amazed at the depths that you can shock and sadden me Brandon. I once believed that you would be an impressive addition to our government and would make lasting and beneficial changes. Sadly that is no longer so.

I'm not sure what has prompted this shift in your political views but it deeply saddens me. Please don't forget that many of those whom you still call friends are currently fighting this "war" on terrorism. And proudly so.As a direct result of America’s occupation of a country in the fight of a very similar type of government I know what horror such political oppression can result in. My Mother had an older brother ,I say had because he died shortly after his 16th birthday when the North Vietnamese army burst through my grandparents doors, pulled my Uncle out of his bed and forced him to fight for the very government that was unleashing "terror" on my Mothers country, or risk the remainder of his family be killed. My Uncle died so that my Mother could live and in time give me life.

That very life I have valued from the very day it was given. Despite the constant ridicule I received growing up from the American children I went to school with, I am PROUD to be an American. Even PROUDER to be married to a man who has WILLINGLY made a career of fighting for his country thus fighting countries similar to that that took my Uncles' life and tore apart the country of my birth. Still MORE PROUD that he serves a president who will make the necessary decisions to ensure that such a war WILL NEVER AGAIN take place on our soil.

I rarely make such outspoken political remarks but I must defend my beliefs.

Our current "energy" crisis, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the "war" financing "other" governments or anything even remotely associated. I feel it has more to do with the gas companies cashing in on the current political climate.

I've said my peace and don't fault any of you for your opinions. That is what is so great about being American, we are entitled to not agree with anyone if we so choose.


12:24 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...


I am always amazed at the depths that you can shock and sadden me Brandon. I once believed that you would be an impressive addition to our government and would make lasting and beneficial changes. Sadly that is no longer so.


I've said my peace and don't fault any of you for your opinions.

That's awesome! All in one breath, too!

10:30 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Sorry I no longer tow the conservative line, Kim, though the truth is, it was a squiggly line even when you first met me. There are others in my life, like those who knew me when I worked on Capitol Hill for the Republicans whose heads must have exploded long ago. I suppose if there is an upside, there are new people who think that, "I would be an impressive addition to our government and would make lasting and beneficial changes"--they're just on the other side of the aisle from you.

I haven't forgotten for one moment that I have friends and family engaged in the "war on terror."
Had fate not set the historical timeline as it did, I would have been fighting the same war.

But I don't understand why you and others think that one cannot support the troops and be against the war at the same time. If one of your lovely kids were to go severely astray, no doubt you could not condone their lifestyle and would tell them so, all the while continuing to love and be there for them as your children.

This is the same thing.

Obviously I cannot compete with your personal stories because their emotion will always trump my rationality. But the two, in my mind, are far from equal.

I too am proud to be an American. I too am proud to have served my country in both government and the military. And it is as a proud and loving American that I feel it my duty to confront my country when it is going astray. Patriotism, as much as many would like to believe it so, is not blind devotion.

I like how President Teddy Roosevelt put it, "Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country."

11:26 AM  

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