May 1 1991

Press Ignores the Obvious in U.S. Energy Policy

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Wall Street Journal (9/10/90) reported on why Japan has been so much more successful in conserving oil than the U.S. The report focused on the role of Japan’s government in coordinating energy programs and compelling corporations to install energy-saving machinery. Yet it managed to overlook what Ronald Morse, an energy specialist quoted in the article, subsequently described to EXTRA! as the most important reason of all: a tax policy that keeps Japanese energy prices high and demand low.

The omission was indicative of the daily press’ persistent myopia concerning energy issues. While showing passing interest in auto fuel-efficiency standards, alternative fuels, and other oil conservation programs, the mainstream press has exhibited near-zero interest in what distinguishes U.S. energy consumption from that of virtually all other industrial economies: the comprehensive system of tax breaks and subsidies in the U.S. that supports domestic oil production and encourages energy consumption

No nation provides motorists with a more elaborate highway system than the U.S., supplies more government-mandated low-cost parking, or is more tolerant of auto-related environmental damage. No country has committed itself to tens of billion of dollars in annual military expenditures to ensure an uninterrupted flow of oil from the Mideast.

Yet no country demands so little from motorists by way of taxes. Average state and federal gas taxes in the U.S. stand at a little over 30 cents a gallon, with prices at the pump slightly more than a buck. In Japan, by contrast, gas taxes total $1.60 a gallon, boosting prices overall to about $3.40. In France motorists have paid upwards of $5 a gallon, while Helmut Kohl recently proposed boosting gas prices by 67 cents to more than $4 a gallon to help cover the growing cost of German unification.

The debate over fuel efficiency regulations notwithstanding, the relatively free ride provided to U.S. motorists is the chief reason that Americans consume roughly three times as much gas per capita as (West) Germans, four times as much as the French, and five times as much as the Japanese. It’s also why Americans have the least adequate mass transit. This is fairly obvious, yet it somehow manages to escape the mainstream press.

In a page-one report on American energy consumption on Jan. 30, the Wall Street Journal zeroed in on big cars, high speeds, and other individualistic concerns, while side-stepping the politically charged issue of taxation. New York Times energy reporter Matthew L. Wald observed (2/9/91) that because the Bush administration’s long-awaited National Energy Strategy short-changed conservation, it “is aimed mainly at supplying the American appetite, rather than curbing it” — as if the nation’s energy appetite has not been developed and nurtured over the years by a non-stop stream of federal investments.

The difference is more than semantic; it obscures the fact that what America suffers from is not so much a lack of conservation as a broad array of government programs aimed at fostering hyper-consumption. The same day that Matthew Wald was holding forth on the national appetite, Washington Post energy reporter Thomas W. Lippman wrote that Bush administration officials had nixed various conservation measures because they “deviate[d] from the administration’s free-market, anti-tax philosophy”–begging the question how a system dependent on vast, unreimbursed government outlays for highways and other services could possibly be described as “free market.”

The Washington Post was guilty of a particularly telling juxtaposition on Feb. 21. On page A5, it ran an update on the Bush energy plan, followed by an article on page A6 about the administration’s new $105.4-billion highway construction program–with no hint in either story that there might be a connection between the two.

There are a number of reasons for such institutional short-sightedness. Given that taxes remain a dirty word inside Washington, reporters tend to view Japanese or West European-style gas taxes as simply beyond the pale and therefore not even worth considering.

In addition, the reigning political conformism and cultural insularity in most newsrooms promotes the assumption that anything America does is natural, right, and proper, no matter how out of step with the rest of the world, and that any problems that might arise are merely incidental. Cheap gas, cars, and highways are–unquestionably–the American way.

Thus, a front-page Los Angeles Times (2/13/91) on chaotic suburban sprawl was fairly frank concerning such problems as traffic congestion, three-hour commutes, etc. Yet it was remarkably cursory as to the reasons why. The paper cited white flight, fear of crime, desire to own one’s own home, and so on as reasons that middle-class Southern Californians are settling in ever more far-flung subdivisions.

Yet it made no mention of the seamless web of public subsidies that make rampant suburbanization all but inevitable–everything from free highways and parking to suburban infrastructure grants and federal homeowner tax subsidies. It’s rather like discussing the U.S. weapons industry without mentioning the role of Pentagon expenditures.