Sunday, May 07, 2006

Gas Prices: A Tale of Two Liberals

Madeline is a 58 year old single woman who lives on Milwaukee’s East Side. She’s a UWM psychology professor who gladly pays extra for a good cup of fair trade coffee. She volunteers at a local homeless shelter, helping people get back on their feet. Her Joan Baez records still speak to her. She didn’t think John Kerry reflected her views very well, but held her nose and voted for him anyway. Divorced for 20 years, she feeds her strong sense of self through her work and by continuing to raise her adult children.

Madeline walks to work, and takes the bus on the days it rains. She’s dismayed at how many people drive to work and school and strongly supports government investment in public transportation. She has contacted Mayor Barrett in support of light rail service. She supports increased gas prices because she knows that the higher gas prices go, the more people will be forced to find alternative modes of transportation. She knows that if gas rises to $4.00 per gallon, people who now drive to work alone will begin to be more creative with how they get around. They will begin to carpool or take the bus.

Also, she recognizes the benefit to the environment that high gas prices offer. The fewer miles people drive, the less gas tax will be collected, which means less road building. The fewer people drive, the cleaner the air will be, and the ozone layer won't be damaged at the rate it is now. She sees protecting the environment as a moral choice, and supports anything that gets us closer to a cleaner earth, since current conservation efforts have been ineffective.

Madeline is concerned about lower income individuals having to pay more for gas, but believes the government can set up a program to direct help to the people that need it. Instead of sending money for a war she disagrees with, she thinks we can at least help out the poor with gas prices or pay for their public transportation.

Doug is a married 35 year old father of three who works at the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. He joined the United Auto Workers union fresh out of tech school when he was 22, and has been working at the plant ever since. He has been an active UAW member because he believes the union gives him the job security he needs, and he desperately needs to keep his job to feed his family. He knows the union has fought for better health benefits, hours, and working conditions. He values all of these accomplishments, as he likes nothing more than spending time with his family, and there's no way he could pay for his son's braces without the benefits.

Doug knows that the plant in Janesville dodged a bullet last year when GM announced it was laying off 30,000 workers, but none in Janesville. He worries that the Janesville plant is so reliant on SUV's, which use more gas than other GM vehicles. Doug knows that when gas prices rise sharply, people will be much more likely to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, or hold off on buying a car altogether. When this is the case, GM's profits will fall off even further, leading to even more substantial layoffs than the ones announced last year. He fears that he could be among those that lose their jobs.

Doug has also talked to union members in other trades that worry about the ripple effect that high gas prices have on their business. When gas prices go up, it costs more money to transport goods, and when the prices of those goods go up, fewer people will buy them. When profits from things like plumbing pipes, electrical wiring, and groceries go down, employers will either look to scale back benefits or move right to layoffs. Doug doesn't want this to happen to him or any other union family that depends on their jobs.

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While these are two hypothetical people, they are two very real points of view. While Republicans at the state and national level try to come up with a solution to high gas prices (they have to, they are in charge), Democrats have been relatively silent on the issue, other than to reflexively criticize whatever Republicans come up with.

Democrats have gone into PR overdrive with the gas price issue, offering "anti-gouging" legislation and criticizing oil companies' "record" profits. A day hasn't gone by over the last two weeks without a new Democrat plan or a politician threatening to send people to a ridiculous website to sign a petition to threaten oil companies into lowering prices (they could exert meaningful pressure by conserving their gas use, but apparently choose not to).

However, when you put politics aside, isn't there a wing of the Democratic Party that actually doesn't mind high gas prices? Don't high gas prices promote conservation and smarter transportation options? On the other hand, don't high gas prices line the pockets of big oil companies and sheiks with which we are at war?

Last week, the State Senate took up a bill (SB215) to repeal the state law that requires the price of gas to be increased by 9%, as it keeps small gas stations in business. There aren't many things that can be done at the state level to keep gas prices down, but this is the biggest one. That 9% markup costs the average consumer between 25 and 30 cents per gallon when gas is at its current levels. Yet when a vote on the bill was taken, every Democrat except one voted to kill the bill. Despite all of their huffing and puffing about "gouging" and the effect of high gas prices on working families, Democrats completely whiffed on offering real relief.

So when you see Democrats decry high gas prices, you should wonder if it really is in their best interest to do so. Every "anti-gouging" press release is really an "anti-conservation" press release. It appears that the Democrats' official position is that using as much gas as you want is a fundamental human right. The more you want gas, the less you should have to pay for it, environment be damned.

Are you Doug, or are you Madeline?