19.8.04

THE LEFT CAN DEFECT TO NADER. Derrick Jackson is not happy that John Kerry is "chasing the SUV vote."
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many cars, many of them SUVs, brandished American flags. Nearly three years later, many cars sport yellow ribbons in continued support of our troops. One of Bush's favorite lines of late, in a dig at what he says is Kerry's indecisiveness on Iraq, is, "There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat."

The Democrats on the defensive about defense at their recent convention also tried to sound as uncomplicated as possible on supporting troops in combat. The need to appear uncomplicated has prevented politicians from asking a more complicated question: whether the best way to support our troops mean changes at home so we do not have to send them abroad in the first place to protect "our" oil.

That question, of course, is seen as too offensive, even when the current issue of Fortune magazine publishes a 6,300-word article on how the nation needs to stop its "two-decade oil pig-out, gorging like oversized vacationers at a Vegas buffet." We have pigged out to the point where imported oil has gone from 30 percent of our supplies to 60 percent in the last three decades.

One of Fortune's four major prescriptions is -- surprise! -- improved fuel economy. "The real market test will occur in coming months as the frugal efficiency of hybrid technology is married to the profligate embodiment of conspicuous consumption: the SUV," Forbes wrote. Even that is an arrogant American solution. While Europeans long ago simply went to smaller cars, here we are, performing the equivalent of open-heart surgery on an elephant, offering it the engine of a hummingbird. It might work, but it would work better if Americans were simply not so vain.

So Americans want to drive a great big SUV? There's no news there. The news will be if Kerry finds a way to say that this is not a terrific way to be an American.
Let's leave aside the snarking at ordinary Americans and think about the policy options here. First, the United States could develop its Alaskan and Floridian reserves, and explore around its shores of the Great Lakes. (I leave aside a somewhat more obvious question: why are those other countries willing to sell oil to the U.S. so cheaply?) Second, hybrid technologies are an adaptation to circumstances. The Europeans chose long ago to tax gasoline steeply and use some of the money to underwrite the operating deficits of their passenger railroads. (Some of them sold their freight railroads to North American companies, but that's another matter.) The Northeast Corridor, where Mr Jackson lives, is about as crowded as much of Europe. There is something called states rights: perhaps those states could tax gasoline heavily and use the revenues to underwrite the operating deficits of their commuter railroads -- perhaps even to buy the Acela service from Amtrak. Some of us enjoy more open space and more separated cities. Third, Senator Kerry is not off base introducing safety as a reason for people buying sport-utes. (They could buy larger cars if we didn't have those automotive fuel economy standards that effectively ban larger cars.) Mickey Kaus (scroll down -- 3.17 am) has done some groundwork.
Here's a study that--if I read it right-- tries to correct for variables like negligence, age of driver, speeding, etc. It concludes that pickup trucks, not SUVs, are the problem. SUVs do kill more third parties (e.g. other drivers, pedestrians) but they save the lives of those in the SUVs, and the second factor outweighs the first by over a thousand lives a year.
Perhaps the essential element in highway safety is -- reduced transgressiveness! Kaus, again:
For example, are "vans" the safest category, in terms of occupant deaths-per-mile, because the vehicles are safe or because vans (especially minivans) are mainly driven by cautious, milquetoasty moms? Is the Toyota 4-Runner relatively unsafe because it tends to roll over--or do 4-Runner drivers roll over so often because they tend to be aggressive young jerks?
The "jerks" hypothesis probably works for the pickup truck operators, too, especially those driving pickups that look like small Kenworths.

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