America's deadliest sin: petro-gluttony

A noted columnist, thrice Pulitzer-prized, has now “plagiarized” an old idea: mega-taxing gasoline at the pump. Such advocacy, for all the trimmings and apparent good reasons, never had much popularity with politicians before. Perhaps Mr. Friedman can bring some originality in 2005 and obtain a better media reception… although we seriously doubt he’ll find much support from the oil-intoxicated average Joe.

America’s love affair with the automobile, a beautiful and lasting courtship entering a fifth generation, has finally matured into a sordid affair… a true fatal attraction.

As Americans have grown older, half their memories carried to old age have stamped in them models and makes… always traveling on four wheels and a tank with enough gas to get them to their happy or sad destinations. Unfortunately that low-to-high octane need has evolved beyond the realm of transportation to a symbol of independence and personal identity connecting us, as if bio-mechanoids or Borg, to a brain center: the gas pump. The addiction is about to experience some dramatic change. But… is it an addiction?

An old friend who teaches geology at a Brazilian university thinks he has a better name for it. As a doctoral student in California during the 1979-81 petro-crises, he does remember those long lines at the pump. He also recalls how politicians then denounced the oil-dependence… and their patriotic pronouncement of never-again. “More than an addiction,” my friend states,” Americans’ gasoline consumption is a deadly sin; a sin committed through ignorance, unrestrained hedonism, and lack of political leadership.” A mouthful coming from an ex-pat who is well aware that acceptance of criticism is not an American virtue… never has been.

We seem to march masochistically towards economic doomsday, closing our ears to the prophets sent to us by the god of common sense. On occasion we have even had political leaders doing the heroic thing, telling us the truth… not just what we wanted to hear. But as many kings did in ancient times with messengers bearing bad news, we have a way of terminally-dealing with leadership that reasons our needs instead of rationalizing our material wants. No better case than Jimmy Carter and his political decapitation in 1979 after the prophetic malaise-speech. No, we don’t like criticism from any quarter, and do not welcome prophets of doom… not from without, not from within.

One can envision the late Walt Kelly telling us from swamp-heaven: “As it was half-century ago, America keeps meeting its enemy, and the enemy continues to be us.” If we can identify the problem, and have the means to solve it, why are we so lax? If we now import over 60% of the petroleum consumed, are we so blind as not to see the ticking time-bomb in front of us? It should be obvious that international producers are likely to keep prices increasingly higher while protecting their diminishing supplies. For all our technology and smarts, it’s the OPEC nations that are forcing their optimal econometric models on us… only winners at our end: the rapacious oil industry and those in Washington clearing obstacles for them.

If curbing consumption is what we are after, I, like Tom Friedman, have a suggestion to make. The US spends more on “defense” than the rest of the world combined. And there is no secret to the fact that much of that spending to create such military might is not a matter of national defense… but a way to protect America ’s access to foreign oil supplies. Why not then add another $5+/- per gallon at the pump as a user’s fee, enough to cover the budget for the Department of Defense? Our “conservative” instinct tells us that those who benefit from the service should pay for it, right? It may seem as unfair taxation but heck, that’s a step closer to the Bush Administration dream of a regressive flat tax.

As in the past, we remain unrepentant, not ready to do penance for our petro-gluttony sin. Have we become lepers without the hope of a messiah… only a volunteer army to do our bidding?