Conservative economics vs. the oil crisis

I am a fiscal conservative. That should surprise no one. I’m extremely careful with how I spend my money, and I get frustrated when I see corporations and governments do otherwise.

So it’s hard for me to stand back and keep my mouth shut while Washington talks about oil companies.First and foremost, I am all for ending the tax breaks for oil companies. Maybe Rush Limbaugh would say that means I’m not a true Republican. That’s fine with me. When a group of corporations sets economic records for profits one year, then breaks those records a few months later, that tells me the industry no longer needs government subsidies. Giving tax breaks to big oil companies is interference with the marketplace. So who’s the economic conservative now?

True economic conservatives don’t want to give government aid to anybody. The problem is, anymore, the difference between a Republican and a Democrat is who they want to give welfare to–large corporations or people who don’t make much money.

I don’t think that giving a $100 check to every taxpayer who made more than $14,000 last year will accomplish all that much. It’s a symbolic gesture. I spend more than that every month on gas. When I bought my Civic, I drove a bit less, but with similar driving patterns, I would have spent about $40. That $100 will soften the blow at the pump for less than two months.

But then again, I also know that I’ll spend that $100 more responsibly than the government or the oil companies, and even those who choose to spend that $100 on beer aren’t spending it any less wisely than the government (who’d use it to build a bridge to nowhere) or the oil companies (who’d use it to give a bigger bonus to executives who happened to be in the right place at the right time).

Since it won’t make a difference, I’m neutral. But if that $100 check lands in my mailbox, you better believe I’ll be endorsing and depositing that puppy.

I suppose my conservative leanings waver when it comes to gas mileage. But if it’s OK for Rush Limbaugh to be a flaming liberal when it comes to giving handouts to oil companies, I suppose I can be a flaming liberal when it comes to mandating gas mileage. The problem is this: The average gas mileage of a typical American car today is at the same level as it was in 1986. 1986! Would you be willing to trade in your Pentium 4 for a nice PC/XT clone from 1986? The TV in my living room was made in 1986. It’s a nice, swanky fake-woodgrain console. Would you trade any TV being made today for that? Didn’t think so.

But because Americans are fundamentally unwilling to be responsible, by and large we continue to buy cars that are no better than what we were driving in 1986.

The only way we’re going to get better is through regulation. Because people keep buying their Suburbans, which they drive to work–alone, of course. I have no idea how they afford it. I guess they’re skipping lunch a few days a week to keep gas in them. So the pressure needs to come from the other end. Since the marketplace doesn’t care that the Suburban only gets 13 miles to the gallon, the government has to.

But the hybrid tax credit bothers me. It bothers me a lot. Somebody who buys a Ford Escape hybrid, which gets around 30 miles to the gallon, can get a tax credit. But my Honda Civic, which uses an old-fashioned drivetrain but gets better gas mileage and thus causes less polution, isn’t eligible for that tax credit.

I’m all for lower taxes, of course. I’m a fiscal conservative. But those taxes should be fair. If you’re going to give a tax break based on gas mileage, base it on gas mileage, not on what’s under the hood.

Regulation on one end and tax credits that mean something on the other might actually give us good results–make the automakers make cars that get decent gas mileage, and help make the public happy about buying them.

Not that I expect that kind of change. There aren’t a lot of hybrids being made, so there aren’t a lot of tax breaks being given out. Which is good, from the government’s perspective. The government needs taxes to build the Bridge to Nowhere. I guess Rambo-wannabe nouveau riche can drive their Hummers back and forth on it.

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