Obama's Driving Americans out of Cars

Terence P. Jeffrey | March 7, 2012 | 5:27am EST
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Barack Obama is now achieving a vision that environmentalist ideologues could only dream about in the 1970s: He is driving Americans out of their cars.

In the three decades since American voters threw Jimmy Carter out of office, there have been only two years when Americans did not drive their cars and trucks more miles than the year before.

The first, according to the Federal Highway Administration, was 2008, when George W. Bush was president and the nation was in a deep recession. The second was 2011, the third year of President Obama's term in office.

But Obama may be accomplishing something more significant than presiding over a single year when Americans decreased the miles they drove. Since 1970, the FHA has tracked the "vehicle miles traveled" by Americans each year. It peaked in 2007.

That year, Americans drove a record 3.031 billion miles. In 2008, as might be expected in a severe recession, American curtailed their driving, going only 2.976 billion miles.

But the American urge to drive has clearly decelerated since Obama took office. In 2009, Americans drove only 2.977 billion miles, virtually no change from the 2.976 billion in 2008. In 2010, they drove 2.998 billion, still less than the 2007 peak. And, in 2011, they drove only 2.962 billion.

That is the fewest miles Americans have driven since 2003.

One reason Americans are driving less is obvious. On Jan.19, 2009, the day before Obama's inauguration, the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline was $1.83 per gallon. Since then, it has more than doubled. On Monday, it was $3.71.

Do rising gas prices distress the leading intellects in the Obama administration? There is good reason to believe the opposite.

John Holdren is Obama's White House science and technology adviser. In 1973, he joined with population control advocates Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich in writing an environmentalist manifesto titled "Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions."

It called for government action to find "alternative activities" for the auto industry.

"In the transition from a cowboy economy to a spaceman economy, manufacturing industries will have to undergo vast changes," Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote. "The largest manufacturing industry in the United States is the automobile industry, and its product is a dominant factor in the depletion of resources and the destruction of the environment. The industry therefore makes a particularly suitable case study for economic change."

"We believe a federal task force should be established immediately to do the planning and to lay the groundwork for dealing with the automobile problem without great disruption to the national economy," Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote.

"Such a task force might be part of a larger institution with the responsibility to devise policies for making the transition to a stable, ecologically sound economy. The task is enormous, but it is both possible and necessary. In the short term, alternative activities must be found for various industries, including those related to the automobile."

In the same book, Holdren and the Ehrlich's promoted economist Herman Daly's idea of imposing "depletion quotas" on natural resources — which would drive up their prices.

"That is, upper limits would be placed on the total amount of each resource that could be extracted or imported by the United States each year," Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote. "This would not only directly reduce the pressure Americans place on the resources of the planet, but would also automatically generate a trend toward recycling and pollution abatement."

"And depletion quotes on fossil fuels and fissionable materials would encourage the frugal use of energy," they wrote.

"Limiting the amount of energy available would, of course, also tend to limit the size and number of automobiles, encourage the use of mass transit and promote the substitution of efficient high-speed trains for energetically wasteful short- and medium-haul jet airplanes."

Obama's future science adviser was so taken with this idea that he suggested along with the Ehrlichs that prohibiting certain types of advertising would be justified.

"Both before and after depletion quotas are established," they wrote, "ways must be found to control advertising."

"Its most dangerous abuses might be halted by legislative action," they wrote. "For instance, it could be made illegal for any utility to advertise in such a way as to promote greater demand for power. Also, references to size, power or sexual potency (direct or implied) could be banned from automobile advertising."

Not long after Obama took office, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood described a policy initiative that would encourage denser urban neighborhoods and mass transit systems as "a way to coerce people out of their cars."

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said last week his department's goal was not to reduce gas prices, but "decrease our dependency on oil."

As president, Obama has subsidized electric cars and mass transit and even bought General Motors — while refusing to approve a pipeline to bring oil from Canada into the United States. His new energy plans calls for ending what he terms $4 billion in annual tax "subsidies" to oil companies. What he means is he wants to raise taxes on the source of gasoline.

At least he hasn't called for banning references to size, power or sexual potency in auto advertising.

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