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Drive Now, Pay Later


The writers of the Federalist Papers were right: Our political system pretty much demands our candidates pander to our short-term, self-involved thinking.

"Courageous" and "independent" Sen. John McCain is only the latest in a long line of politicians to see which way the parade is going and get in front. But his pandering today is terrifying. In spite of long-term economic, social, financial and especially rational concepts noting that America needs to raise gasoline taxes to decrease single-occupancy driving, presidential candidate McCain is pandering by offering voters a gas-tax holiday this summer.

To put it simply: Making driving easier and cheaper will eliminate any chance of solving America's gross dependence on foreign oil.

We've already sent our sons and daughters to the Middle East at least partially over crude. We're already the fattest people on the planet because we no longer walk or bicycle anywhere. We're already turning out the most greenhouse gases in the world because 87 percent of our commuter trips are alone in a car. We're already so congested that it's costing more than $63 billion annually. We've already found cancer-causing gasoline additive MTBE in the groundwater of 28 states.

Already, imported oil is the largest single chunk of our foreign trade deficit. Already, air pollution -- excluding global warming — from car exhaust is costing us a minimum of $24 billion annually.

We already don't know our neighbors because we rarely get out of our cars.

Indeed, according to one study, the unrecovered cost of gasoline not included in the price we pay at the pump is more than $10 a gallon. We are shooting ourselves in the foot because we and our politicians — even Al Gore pulled a similar stunt during the 2000 campaign — won't recognize that our drive-first attitude is hugely destructive.

From Nobel economist Gary Becker to energy guru Charles Maxwell to New York Times editorialist Robert Franks — and, yes, even President George Bush — every knowledgeable person who studies oil, environmental, health and foreign policy issues agrees that we must address our addiction to oil.

Unfortunately, history shows that the only thing that slows America's thirst for foreign oil — we drive 2.9 trillion miles a year — is higher gasoline prices.

We Americans love to blame the "thems" of the world, but the fact of the matter is America can't leave the Middle East because we — with less than 5 percent of the world's population and 2.7 percent of the world's oil reserves — use 26 percent of its petroleum annually. Two in three barrels of known oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf.

We love to blame the "thems," but traffic planners have said for a decade that America can't build our way out of congestion. Every single highway project gets more people to drive more places at more times and usually worsens our suburban sprawl.

We love to blame the "thems," but since "Daddy" George Bush's Clean Air Act gave power and manufacturing plants an economic incentive to emit less sulfur dioxide, industry has reduced CO2 emissions by 23 percent relative to gross domestic product. Today, America's largest producer of greenhouse gases — and fastest growing emitter — is our transportation sector. Our planes, trains and automobiles create the most global warming and the most pollution of all the sectors of the economy.

We emit almost half of the world's automotive carbon dioxide.

We love to blame the "thems," but for 20 years HMOs — and CEOs and MDs — have been telling us to make our kids get exercise. Today, only 17 percent of kids arrive at school under muscle power (compared to seven in 10 in 1960 when we were still a healthy nation) and adult onset diabetes no longer waits for puberty.

McCain must know that Americans need to take personal responsibility — or act Republican — to mitigate so many societal issues. Or act Democratic by taxing gasoline and diesel significantly to discourage frivolous usage; by using the new and saved monies to build mass transit as fast as we can; and by halting construction on more automobile infrastructure.

McCain likes to say he has the experience of reaching across the aisle and the courage to show America the truth and stand up for it.

With 75 percent of 38,000 Pew Trust respondents worldwide saying that America fights in Iraq not to spread democracy or even to stop weapons of mass destruction, but to seek oil, McCain must be aware that our thirst for oil is destroying our foreign policy.

Certainly, McCain knows that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez threatens, regularly, to cut us off. Also that Nigeria is on the verge of a civil war. He must know, too, that the other nine Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries are all Islamic.

Perhaps, even with all that experience and courage, McCain doesn't know. But this we do: A gas-tax holiday today will only put a McCain administration, should he win the election, further behind a horrifying eight ball. S

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who now lives in Charlottesville.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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