Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Wastefulness

The Republican presidential campaign recently produced a couple of characteristic bits of what Americans, for lack of a better word, call “news”: Newt Gingrich declaring that New Yorkers “live in high rises and ride the subway” and thus don’t care about gasoline prices; and Tea Party “activists” in Virginia, Florida and Maine convinced that smart-growth initiatives are — wait for it — a UN plot!

Unfortunately, nuttiness like this is no new thing, and its reach is longer than you might think. It has its roots in an antiquated and peculiarly American belief system that is standing in the way of improved urban livability.

Let’s start with gas prices. In recent weeks, Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and House Speaker John Boehner have all played to the notion that gas prices have doubled since President Obama took office. The price of gas is notoriously volatile; the national average price has actually fallen in 45 of the past 100 months (Excel spreadsheet). So a fair accounting would employ the U.S. average over an entire presidency, as in this chart, for the three most recent:

The chart makes clear that it was former oilman George W. Bush, not Obama, who came closest to presiding over a doubling of gas prices.

At one level, Gingrich and company are merely shilling for the Keystone XL pipeline. But of course excavating Canadian tar sands oil and piping it to Houston is so costly and energy-intensive that without high gas prices, the venture would collapse.

That aside, consider what Gingrich is really saying when he derides New Yorkers as elitists because each uptick in the price of gas doesn’t make us itchy to start a new war. In one way, he has a point. Unlike our countrymen trapped in punishing commutes and paying off two-car garages, we big city dwellers are fairly well insulated from fluctuating gas prices. And unlike big-box suburbs and the Sunbelt, which were built on the inefficiency of cars, highways, supersized houses and office parks, New York is built on the efficiency of dense neighborhoods and public transportation.

To anyone with common sense, that difference makes the ‘burbs brittle and cities resilient. To Newt, it makes city dwellers suspect.

Similarly suspect, in the eyes of Tea Party activists, are “all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy,” as the Times reported on Saturday. “Government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space [is seen] as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.” Ditto, bike lanes. And, you better believe, congestion pricing or any form of traffic pricing.

What’s at work here, according to the writer (and New Yorker) Dan Lazare, is the “Jeffersonian ideology that assumed that individual actions were autonomous unless proven otherwise. Whether a motorist chose to drive or not to drive,” Lazare wrote in his 2000 classic, America’s Undeclared War: What’s Killing Our Cities and How You Can Stop It, “was nobody’s business but his own; any suggestion to the contrary was positively un-American.”

The standard counterweight to the agrarian Jeffersonian model is the Hamiltonian sovereign nation-state drawing strength from cities built on manufacturing and trade. Lazare plumbed this duality in America’s Undeclared War, but he also broke new ground by contrasting Jeffersonianism to the “theory of externalities” that emerged in the early 20th Century, which emphasized “the public dimension of individual acts” that consumed resources or otherwise damaged the commons:

Rather than regarding individual acts as private unless proven otherwise, the growing volume of external costs suggested that they had to be regarded as public acts — unless, that is, affirmative action was taken to mitigate the social consequences. To drive or not to drive, in other words, was no longer an individual decision but a social question because so many people were affected besides the motorist himself.

A great many people are affected by an individual’s decision to drive in NYC. I have shown elsewhere that a single car round-trip into the Manhattan Central Business District generates external costs on the order of a hundred dollars, just in terms of other road users’ lost time. Although the Bloomberg administration didn’t use this meme in its 2007-2008 push for congestion pricing, it is the essential motivating idea behind tolling vehicles entering the CBD. As I wrote on Reuters last month, any New York-area driver “is cognizant of the time he will expend being slowed by other cars, but not of the far greater delays he will impose on them.” A congestion toll helps close that feedback loop.

Tea Partiers are having none of that, of course, and Dan Lazare helps us make sense of their antipathy to treating driving — not to mention land use, transit provision, and climate change — as a social question rather than the sole province of individuals. To paraphrase America’s Undeclared War, “Where the externalities analysis highlights the tyranny that a mass of atomized individuals imposes on society, adherents of Jefferson worry about the tyranny imposed by society on the individual.”

In short, congestion pricing’s benefits be damned, you’ll still have to pry the car keys out of my cold dead hand.

  • carma

    a couple of points
    taking stats like 45 out of 100 months is skewed when most of 2008-2009 was a recession making demand for gasoline drop tremendously.  plus with gas prices being so volatile, prices in 2008 went up so fast then droped so fast in 2009 only to creep up so fast again to near 2008 levels.with january gas prices not factored in, we are already back up to around June 2011 levels even though your spreadsheet shows a decline for the last 7 months.this spreadsheet needs to be adjusted to be indexed to 2012 prices, not 1982-84 prices.

    also, i dont believe the graph posted is adjusted to inflation.  plus, although bush was an oilman, it was not him that caused a surge in the value of oil, but rather demand from China that propped this up.

  • carma

    Taking in the points of inflation from your data..

    The real increase in prices are:
    41.7% from Clinton to Bush
    and 18.9% from Bush to Obama.

    Again, this graph is totally misleading since it is not indexed to inflation.

  • ZLwaldron

    Thanks the insightful analysis on the ideological underpinnings undermining progressive energy policy. I really appreciate the gas price by presidency chart, too.

  • Anonymous

    There’s a significant problem with the chart: Clinton and Bush both served two terms while Obama has not yet finished serving one. There is still plenty of time for that 33% to rise over the next four years (and, of course, whether or not Obama is re-elected). 

  • carma


    plus given the demand from China will continue to grow, it is unfair to pit any of this information on a presidency.  im glad that im not the only one who sees this.

    The attack from the tea party is almost as bad as this chart trying to skew political favors for either side when the price of gasoline is dictated more from global economics.

  • Anonymous

    @d8d46f16f380afef59ca318522397233:disqus Go ahead and index my gas prices to inflation. You’ll find that the price went up more under Bush than it has under Obama. In fact, from your 2nd comment, it looks like you  did that and found the same thing. BTW, the base year matters not, since it washes out in the ratios.
    @speakeasies:disqus & @carma:twitter Check my links. You’ll see that Gingrich et al. said, falsely, that the price of gas has doubled under Obama — not that it has gone up faster in his presidency, which it has. I didn’t speculate as to why, though Bush missed a golden opportunity to curb and cut U.S. oil demand after 9/11, which would have eased “market” and other pressures on the world price.

  • Anonymous

    Charles, I have no argument with the greater point you are making in the article, but if the chart doesn’t compare consistent time frames, it’s not really an accurate chart. Because we all like to link to these sorts quick visualizations to make assertions all over the interwebs, I think a greater measure of care is called for. 

  • Anonymous

    Attributing oil price changes to the executive branch of the U.S federal government is just dumb. These are global commodity prices, influenced by many, many of factors – speculative investment, political stability in the middle-east, consumer demand, supply and costs of extraction, and on and on – almost none of which the U.S president has any control over at all.

    And do these Republican candidates realize that more oil extraction in the U.S has occurred per year under Obama than under Bush? … not as if this has much of any effect on the oil price anyway. This is pure political B.S.

  • Anonymous

    To clarify, while I see how your chart is an accurate response to Gingrinch’s lie, I would have liked to have seen a more accurate visual that still countered his BS.

  • carma


    Yes, you are right that gas prices went up more during Bush’s administration than obama. But the price increase is hardly linked to the administration . (okay somewhat it is linked).  The global economy was more of a factor for increasing prices.

    You are also correct that Gingrich put yet another foot in his mouth by saying prices doubled under Obama’s tenure.  Prices doubled DURING 2009 till today (only because of the recession did it dip in the first place).  However, if you take the start of obama’s presidency, prices did NOT double.

    Regardless of who is president in 2013, gas prices will continue to rise.  For a republican to blame the democrats would be naive.  and for a democrat to blame the republican would be equally naive.

  • carma

    To have true stability in oil prices, you would need to Drill Baby Drill and then cut off our imported oil from the rest of the world (including Canada).

    Then you will have a stable price.  Oh wait.  That stable price would be $15 / gallon of gasoline, because we dont have enough supply to meet our demand.   Oh well, so much for drill baby drill.

  • fj

    The extreme weather events of 2010 – 2011, resulting from emissions in the late 1980s, clearly indicate that climate change’s impact is accelerating from already dangerous levels and it is imperative that Mike Bloomberg (and Obama) talk about both the political and scientific realities a lot more.

    Public Opinion Driven Largely by Media Coverage and Cues from Politicians and Other Authorities.  Obama’s Silence Matters “Very Much.”


  • carma


    Just to give a more fair analysis.  I took your numbers and broke it down by Term by term.

    Adjusted to Inflation:
    Clinton Term 1 – 2 –  DOWN 2.7%
    Bush Term 1 – UP 14.2%
    Bush Term 2 – UP 51.6%
    Obama Term 1 – DOWN 1.3%

    The bulk of the increase is on Bush’s presidency but not b/c of the executive branch as others also have mentioned.  It was due to many factors that were global plus dont forget Katrina played a large role in driving up the prices.

  • David B

    Charles, great article as usual. In a way, the Tea Party people have a point about the tyranny imposed by society on the individual, but it’s as usual an uninformed point, being made long after the fact that the initial choice of using cars over public transit was a consciously made public policy made by—not the government—but corporations. They have so influenced the American way of life that there is actually very little choice in the country as a whole about whether to drive or take public transit (as well as buying clothes other than sweatshop produced, and eating food other than pesticide treated and genetically engineered). 

    A good example is the “Trolley Car Conspiracy,” the successful effort of certain corporations to eliminate electric powered light rail (as it’s called now) from American cities and towns and replace them with internal combustion engine buses and private cars. A documentary about it, “Taken for a Ride” can be seen here.

  • Station44025

    So, Tea Party People, what about discontinuing evil government subsidies of roads, cars and oil companies, and just let the Invisible Hand figure things out?  That would be the fastest way to make bikes the only viable form of transportation I can think of.

  • Steve Faust

    From the philosophical side of the issue, it is strange that the rugged individualism of the Jeffersonian’s is so strongly wedded to travel by car and only by car.  They are aggressively  opposing all non-motorized travel along the public highways – perhaps with the exception of horseback.  They are opposing not just the funding for cyclists and pedestrians, but to traffic safety and to the right to travel itself, by closing critical path bridges and highways to biking and walking.

    One would think that the most rugged individual way to travel is under your own power, proving how strong you are.  Instead we get Auto Uber Alles.

  • Anonymous

    Back when the externalities of travel by personal auto were either not known or were much lower than they are today, we chose build our infrastructure around this type of transportation because it offered a superior mix of speed, convenience, and cost.

    Now that we are dealing with much larger costs in terms of the negative externalities, we should adjust our infrastructure.  The best way to do this would be to re-internalize these costs through a mix of tolls and road fees, fuel taxes, and additional fees for the license and registration to own and operate a private car.

    However, it’s always much harder to take something away once it has been given.  Most people still operate under a paradigm where the externalities of driving are small relative to the costs borne by the user (e.g. “I bought the car, I pay for the gas, I pay to keep it insured and registered, therefore I am paying my way.”)  In addition, there is so much capital in the current infrastructure that I don’t think just charging people more to drive will be sufficient to create a meaningful mode switch.  In addition, people need incentives to (re)develop denser and more walkable communities, and to have better public transit options.

  • Rich2ndStreet

      I always enjoy the irony when free-market republicans say the cost of driving is too high. Remember that the Cato Institute (free-market libertarian think tank), said that the interstate highway system is the last bastion of communism in the United States and that traffic congestion is just our version of Soviet bread lines.  

  • Cat

    Great last line. another way to state they can’t see the forest for the trees.


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