Wanted: $20 a gallon gas, and free public transportation

by Mike Long, ASR 51

$150.00 for a barrel of oil and $4.00 for a gallon of gas earlier this year did more in six months to change U.S. life-styles and protect the environment than ten years of research reports and dire warnings about greenhouse gases, carbon footprints, climate change, and a devastated planet. Suddenly, there were fewer cars on the road, and gas-guzzling V8s were as fashionable as the ‘Bush-Cheney 2004’ stickers many still display on their rear ends. Try selling a Hummer these days, let alone the plants that used to make them, or any used pick-up or SUV, for that matter; nobody wants them, not even dealers as trade-ins for new ones. If $4.00 a gallon can achieve all that, think what $20.00 a gallon could do.

Prices have since fallen to around $50.00 a barrel and below $2.00 a gallon, due to the deepening global economic recession sharply reducing demand, but that is temporary. Industry experts predict they will rise to $200.00 a barrel by around 2013 (see, e.g., the recent Chatham House report1) once normal capitalist service is resumed. In the medium term, let alone the long run, known world supplies cannot possibly meet demand, especially that from emerging economies, like those of India and the People’s Republic of China. So, while more vehicles are back on the road now, the potential long-term positive effects of (predictable, stable) high prices are still visible.

In the wake of the rapid increase in gas prices, as well as years of consumer dissatisfaction with their outmoded products, Ford, GM and Chrysler are reeling, with plummeting sales, staggering losses of two to three billion dollars a month each, plant closures, and – despite low-interest, multi-billion dollar government loans – massive lay-offs. Bankruptcy is a distinct possibility in at least two cases. The dollar-euro and dollar-yen exchange rates make luxury German and Japanese imports a fading dream for all but the wealthiest, and the dying breed that still covets the ugly monsters all three U.S. auto manufacturing dinosaurs produce can no longer afford to run them.

The abyss looming, GM and Chrysler are in merger talks. Meanwhile, wait-lists lengthen and premiums are paid for small Japanese hybrids. People who never thought they would consider such a thing are participating in car-pools, and the few U.S. cities that have a viable bus or metro system are struggling to cope with huge increases in ridership.

And over the summer, it was the same around the world, or worse. Irate truckers and fishermen organized blockades of roads and ports in Europe and Asia. Poverty-stricken millions already suffering in what is still referred to euphemistically as ‘the developing world’ were looking at paying more than a week’s wages to fill up their tank if they had transportation of their own, or at sharply increased costs for rides on buses or the backs of trucks to get to town to buy food or market their wares. Food, already scarce, was made prohibitively expensive by the increased cost of oil involved in its production, e.g., in fertilizers and transportation. The rich could pay their way through this latest “economic downturn,” enjoying the prospect of fewer and fewer cars on the road as they drove about in luxury automobiles. As usual, it was working people and the poor who suffered.

U.S. politicians and their corporate owners were predictably full of bright ideas – essentially, different ways of reducing cost by increasing supply. Eliminate America’s dependence on foreign oil – meaningless, because impossible, but good for a few votes.2 Relax the (minimal) legal restraints on drilling off-shore and in national parks. Waive the 19-cent gas tax. Build “nucular” power plants. Tell that schmuck Malaki to sign the damn contracts, or we’ll find someone who will! But while your average SUV owner has no problem with sacrificing a few endangered wildlife species (hell, they’re dying out anyway, aren’t they?), he or she understands that any oil that comes from new exploration will take years to arrive (there’s a three-year wait-list for new rigs, for starters), saving 19 cents a gallon is not going to make much difference to anyone, and “nucular” supposedly has nasty side-effects. (What, and where, were those places, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? And aren’t the Indians in Nevada already making a fuss about nuclear waste being buried in their back yard? Or was it the casino operators?) They want solutions now, as do truckers, deep-sea fishermen, airline workers, and many others whose jobs depend directly or indirectly on cheap oil, or more accurately, on stable oil prices.

All the wailing and gnashing of teeth sounds pretty good to some. What goes around comes around – and the rapacious oil-fueled U.S. economy is the latest casualty. With America weaned from its love of the automobile and the corresponding addiction to other people’s oil, the chief motivation for modern wars would evaporate. Imagine, Muslims could be treated as human beings, not bazooka-toting terrorists in bed sheets willfully obstructing foreign exploitation of their natural resources (“How did our oil get under their sand?”). Vast sums of taxpayers’ money now spent on the military and weaponry to fight oil wars could be used at home, instead, for luxuries like hospitals, schools, housing, parks … and public transport. Get even more cars off the road – hell, why not all of them? Yeah, it sounds pretty good, logical even, and maybe it is. But before breaking out the home brew, a reality check.

The death of any major industry, including automobile manufacturing, means unemployment for hundreds of thousands of workers – in this case, in the United States and Canada, and elsewhere – and misery for their families, including young children. And it won’t just be the assembly-line folks who put the cars together, but countless others whose livelihood currently depends on them, directly or indirectly – the workers who supply the parts, distribute the finished vehicles, sell them, service them, tow them, repair them when they go wrong, and dispose of the carcasses when their time is up, not to forget all the driving instructors, license and registration issuers, gas station attendants, rubber growers, tire manufacturers, and insurance agents along the way. When all those people’s income dries up, so does their spending, which, in turn, hits the folks whose businesses they used to patronize. Unable to pay their mortgages, more homes are foreclosed on, with knock-on effects in construction, household goods, and the rest. Workers in those industries have their livelihoods jeopardized, and on and on it goes, a microcosm of the recession we are now just beginning to experience.

And what about providers of emergency and other social services who have to be able to reach specific locations quickly to do their jobs, or ordinary folks who need a car to get to work or take their children to school? And if public transport is rotten in U.S. cities, it is lousy to non-existent in rural areas, where distances are great and populations often insufficient to make anything more than the most rudimentary bus service financially viable. Farm workers, poor trailer-park residents on fixed incomes, and many others depend on that old fuel-inefficient pick-up to get to town to buy provisions, visit a doctor, and more.

Like so many social problems that are a product of capitalism, fallout from the rapid increase in gas prices is massive and complex, and requires complex, creative solutions. The solutions, moreover, often entail distasteful compromises, at best resulting in steps towards just one aspect of an anarchist society, not the real thing. Some anarchists may prefer to wash their hands of it: “They created the mess, let them clean it up. Anyway, it is way too big for us to get involved.” But if anarchists believe in solidarity for fellow workers affected by current events, hope to remain relevant, and want anarchist ideas to be recognized as relevant by non-anarchists, then anarchists solutions need to be proposed and made known. In fact, times of crisis may be when workers – governments, even – are more open to radical ideas, especially in light of the rubbish emanating from above, and when it may be possible to begin to create part of the new society within the decaying shell of the old.

Here is not the place, and I am not the person, to provide a detailed plan. That will take wiser, more expert heads than mine or of any one individual. It would require a cooperative effort by the likes of Colin Ward3 and the many gifted anarchist urban planners, geographers and economists, probably starting with municipality-level demonstration projects. But the broad outlines of a solution are surely straightforward enough.

Reduced demand, not increased supply, is the way to go. A sharp increase in U.S. prices (still relatively cheap, incidentally, even at $4.00, compared with those in many parts of the world) has already dampened enthusiasm for driving. Why not learn from that? Raise the price of gas to, say, $20 a gallon (or proportionately roughly equivalent figures as prices increase still further), and agree that a high minimum (not a maximum) price will be maintained from now on. Announce that this will happen well in advance, and introduce the price increase in steps – perhaps an additional $2 a gallon over the market price every six months for four years, adjusted for inflation. That will give folks time to adapt, e.g., by switching to public transport, or moving closer to where they work or go to school, and give federal and local authorities time to expand and improve public transportation systems. Provide free fuel or fuel vouchers for those in certain occupations, such as purveyors of emergency services and truckers, and income-adjusted vouchers for fuel for home consumption (cooking, heating, cooling, etc.), so as to avoid the poor being unable to pay the increased utility bills that would follow if prices at the pump were duplicated elsewhere.

Three-quarters (or some major proportion) of the eventual new price would be a gas tax. Use the (say) $15 a gallon, plus revenue from heavy taxes on new car sales, to improve public transportation. Make it as comfortable and reliable, and hence, as attractive a proposition as it already is in many European cities – and most importantly, make it free. Bring back the non-polluting trams that worked so effectively in many U.S. cities before the corporate alliance of automobile, rubber and oil-paid politicians ordered the lines dug up. Ban all but forms of public transport (buses, trains, cabs, etc.), emergency vehicles, and delivery trucks from city centers, and impose stiff fees on private motorists who still want permits to enter them. In cities with relatively flat centers, supplement traditional public transport systems with various forms of the Provos’ old “white bicycle” schemes currently proving so popular in Scandinavia and elsewhere.

The combination of stiff price increases, and knowledge that they were inevitable, plus a viable free public transport alternative, would reduce demand fast, and in turn, stabilize prices, allowing for long-range planning by individuals and by society as a whole. Invest public money in the long-overdue major shift to clean energy sources, e.g., wind, solar, and sea-powered turbines, not ethanol or anything that pushes up world food prices. Allocate large sums of money over several years to ease workers’ transition into what will quickly become a much smaller domestic automobile-manufacturing sector turning out smaller, differently powered, e.g., hybrid, vehicles and public transport vehicles, and into other occupations altogether. The environment wins. Workers win. The quality of life improves immeasurably. A major motivation for states to go to war, and maintain large standing militaries to do, so is reduced.

Needless to say, there would be strong opposition from those whose interests in the status quo would be threatened – automobile manufacturers, oil companies, the politicians they pay to put in office, and others. What leverage do workers possess to resist such opposition and bring about major policy changes in this or any other area? No magic bullets. Educate, agitate and, above all, organize.

Notes: 

1. G. Lahn, V. Marcel, J. Mitchell, K. Myers, & P. Stevens: Report on good governance of the national petroleum sector. Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs), April 2007. 

2. For several well-researched reasons why energy independence is impossible for the United States now, and will remain so for decades, see Paul Roberts: “The seven myths of energy independence. Why forging a sustainable energy future is dependent on foreign oil.” (Mother Jones May/June 2008, 31-37). 

3. See, e.g., Colin Ward: Freedom to Go: After the motor age. Freedom Press, 1991.

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