Moralizing About Suvs

Lynne Kiesling

On the gas price note, Jonathan Pearce at Samizdata has a post about how high gas prices are more effective than scolding at inducing people to drive more fuel efficient vehicles.

Glenn Reynolds also has a lengthy and informative post on the SUV, including a link to Jonathan’s. Glenn correctly points out that some people actually need the volume and towing capabilities of SUVs, and that government regulations mandating child car seats is a contributing factor.

Neither of those discussions, though, is explicit about a very important factor in the current run-up of gasoline prices: between economic growth and increased fuel efficiency, the amount we spend to pay for fuel is a decreasing share of our household budgets, and is a much lower share than in the 1970s. It’s expensive and annoying, yes, but it’s not the big budget item in most budgets that it used to be.


27 thoughts on “Moralizing About Suvs

  1. AMEN on the carseat comment! I defy anyone over 30 to put a 40 pound toddler into a carseat in the center position of ANY mid sized automobile. It can’t be done without blowing out a couple of disks in your back!

    SUV’s sit up high, which makes it easier to access the kid in the center position. And minivans have enourmous doors that make getting the kid in and out much easier. Sliding doors get out of your way, again making access easier.

    I don’t think that it is a coincidence that liberals are generally childless.

    Of course, so is Lynne, and she drives a frickin minivan. Don’t you know that blonde chicks in Chicago are supposed to drive Jettas?

  2. Would you let one of your students justify a policy that did not recognize the scarcity of resources or the existence of additional constraints by adding emphasis to the word “need?”

  3. Would you let one of your students justify a policy that did not recognize the scarcity of resources or the existence of additional constraints by adding emphasis to the word “need?”

  4. I clearly lived in a different 70s household that that cited and I dang sure live in a different household today if fuel is a decreasing share of budget. I drive an 1998 Ford F350 powerstroke diesel, loaded to the walls with construction equipment. It averages 14mpg. On average I’m running through $160 per week in fuel. My household income is apx. $40k annually from two incomes. That, friends, is apx. 20% of disposable income draining out the tail pipe and I ain’t gonna haul all this construction gear in a Prius.

    In 1971, I was making about $11 an hour union wages. Single, that was around $23k annually and gasoline was 17 cents. To fill the tank on my F150 cost me just under five bucks and a tank would last me a week, easy. Call it $300 a year for fuel or, less than 2% of my disposable income.

    So, I don’t know what kind of rope we’re smoking, but fuel pricing today could very likely bankrupt me, whereas as a young single schmuck I could run all the 17 cent gasoline through the tank I cared to.

    $3.00 a gallon fuel cannot be made touchy feely happy face.

  5. Um, Bob, I started driving in 1968. I recall 30 cent gasoline a couple of times during gas wars, but I never saw 17 cents, even before that as a passenger. Where did you live, anyway?

    And $40k a year from two incomes? You could cashier at Wal-Mart and do better than that. I feel bad for you that you have worked for 40 years or so without either you or your SO ever having gotten training for a decent job. But your experience is extremely rare unless there is some other work record issue.

  6. I am sorry Bob that you have had a singularly unsuccessful carreer. You apparently make less now, not even discounting for inflation than you did in 1970. Tha is quite an accomplishment. The last time gas prices were 17 cents a gallon was more like the 40s than 1970 when gas was about 50 cents a gallon. I think you just made this stuff up.

  7. I am sorry Bob that you have had a singularly unsuccessful carreer. You apparently make less now, not even discounting for inflation than you did in 1970. Tha is quite an accomplishment. The last time gas prices were 17 cents a gallon was more like the 40s than 1970 when gas was about 50 cents a gallon. I think you just made this stuff up.

  8. Yes, Bob, but you have a wildly different transportation requirement now than you did in 1971. (And you’re making less money now, in real terms, too.)

    For equivalent households in 1971 and now, the numbers should hold. That you both use more fuel now and make less money in real terms means only that your fuel-expenditure situation is worse, not that of the average household.

    Stephen: The fuel market itself recognises the scarcity of oil. That’s how markets work. And more relevantly, the “need” here is opposed to the moralising factor in anti-SUV screeds that decry them as a “needless” luxury or status symbol, rather than fulfilling a real, rational need (in the economic sense, not the moral). (And what are these additional constraints of which you speak?)

  9. HEY! I may be a blonde chick in Chicago, but I do *not*, repeat *not*, drive a minivan. Them’s fightin’ words … I drive the other Chicago car for the blonde chick than the VW, a Honda Civic (with lovely gas mileage, thank you very much).

    Stephen: yep, that “need” thing would be dead in the water for me too.

    Bob: my statement is based on observations across all households and reflects a central tendency. Your observation indicates where you are relative to that central tendency. It does not change the analysis.

  10. For every cost that you name that has gone up in 25 years, I can name one that has gone down (the cost of clothing, for example), and new capabilities: telecommuting, Internet, cell phones, walkie talkies.

    Mix those in with a healthy dose of 25 years worth of economic growth (fueled by the combination of technological change and generally widespread economic deregulation), and you get the shift in household spending such that gasoline plays less of a role.

  11. For every cost that you name that has gone up in 25 years, I can name one that has gone down (the cost of clothing, for example), and new capabilities: telecommuting, Internet, cell phones, walkie talkies.

    Mix those in with a healthy dose of 25 years worth of economic growth (fueled by the combination of technological change and generally widespread economic deregulation), and you get the shift in household spending such that gasoline plays less of a role.

  12. Hmmm. How interesting. Aspersions.

    Regardless, gasoline was 17 cents a gallon in Doraville GA, at the corner of Peachtree Industrial BLVD (where it stoppd) and I-285 (just being completed), at the newly renamed Exxon.

    As to general trends in the economy, my personal experience (I don’t dabble in Statistics, despite an older brother with a Ph.D. in Bio-Statistics from Harvard) is that the data is skewed severely by wildly disproportionate “incomes”. Take Aspen, CO as an example. The difference between the homeowners in Starwood and renters down valley is beyond statistical averaging. You simply cannot compare a billionaire’s disregard for the cost of 500,000 lbs of Jet A to a yard man’s hope he can eke out enough cash to get to his job. Lynne, I don’t know anyone who isn’t scratching hard for a living, boggle eyed at what we consider Emperor-like spending capacities of people we see (mountain resort area) but locals who just want to be left alone and live quietly are forced onto the hideous mill race of trying to keep up with rising costs aand absurd continual assessments of new costs. We’re over run by The Thing, and wherever we go to get away from It, it catches up. We don’t want to strive hard so we have statiscally meaningful incomes. Got other ideas about what Life is supposed to be for.

    I’m sure the fgures you claim are statistically valid, but from out here, they are the fartherest thing from the facts I can imagine. So, what do we do – we who just want to live quietly and unassumingly – when Policy is driven by such numbers irrespective of the Other Side of The Coin?

    Got any idea how much a percentage of spendable income $3 a gallon is to a Navaho family herding sheep? Don’t snicker. It is as serious as a heart attack to them. You want me to tell’em to go to Albuquerque and get “real jobs”?

    The answer is not Work Harder. Hard work never slowed down inflation.

    The answer is not Scale Down. Scaling down never slowed down inflating costs on required expenses like property taxes.

    The answer is not adjust spending patterns. You can only do this so far until it saps the very joy out of living, becoming a focus rather than a sidebar.

    A very wide swath of America has already done that, and does do these things. But it’s not enough. It’s never enough. The beast of inflating costs is never satisfied, and not all Americans are cut out to be of the merchant-mind and run this race until we die. In fact, our Founding Fathers insured that this very thing would not come to pass, by how they establshed our laws. No taxes, no property taxes, real money that adjusted itself for inflation and deflation. Always a steady course.

    That used to be a Conservative point of view.

  13. You may be able name 2 costs that may have gone down for every 1 that I name that has gone up. But all costs are not equal. The medical and dental insurance premiums for my family on an annual basis is $8400, roughly 12% of my income. (me, my wife and 2 kids) Without having the statistics at my finger tips this seems to me to be the norm. Far fewer employers pay health care for their employees and dependents these days than in the 1970’s. The same costs for my Father for a family of six in 1975 was a big donut, zero. It seems to me that it was far more typical in the 1970’s that the employer bore these costs. I think you would be hard pressed to find enough items that have gone down since the 1970’s make up that 12%. I agree with you on the technological change and new capabilities, but I believe that makes my point. Further I agree that Gasoline in adjusted terms is cheaper today. My point is that you are comparing apples and oranges. It is irrelevant that this is the case. To take an admittedly exaggerated analogy, the price of gas in 1910 played virtually no role in household spending, but I doubt few people would argue we were better off in 1910. To take another exagerrated example, the computer that was developed in the 1960’s for the space program that cost a billion dollars or more, was far less powerful than an inexpensive desktop you can buy at Costco for $599! Can I maintain that I am living the life of a billionaire? My point was, and is, the comparitive cost of gasoline in the 1970’s is irrelevant. Perhaps I am reading too much into your analysis, but its seems your implication is that the pain caused by skyrocketing fuel prices is imaginary or that we have become spoiled. I would strongly disagree. If that was not your intent, then I don’t think we have a significant disagreement.

  14. I’m Drivin’ A Truck, Drivin’ a Big Ol’ Truck…

    Some serious blogging going today in regards to the demonization/utility of SUV’s in today’s $2.50 a gallon scociety, and the role government intervention as played in the whole thing.

    Most of of the attention, is centering around Glen Reynold’s ra…

  15. Lynne: Dead in the water, in stays, with the top-hamper carried away.

    Sigivald: Many people are buying SUVs because station wagons are illegal (in anywhere near the proportion of the private car fleet they once had) to the extent they depress the corporate average fuel efficiency as well as less suitable to transporting kids (my brother, sister and I used to squabble over who got the right to stretch out in the cargo space, Ralph Nader would have freaked out to see it.) Those are two constraints that influence peoples’ decisions to buy the sport-utes.

    It’s amusing to listen to the traditional network newsies speculating about a new “love affair” with hybrid vehicles. Relative prices rule.

  16. Just remember what happens to the average income of the guys in the bar when Bill Gates walks in.

  17. Bob: If you are spending $160 per week in gas and your truck gets 14mpg then assuming $3/gallon gas that means you are driving 750 miles per week to work. If you are working 5 days a week that is 150 mile per day! No one is entitled to live that far from work and complain about the price of gas. Move closer to your work, you will save money and have more free time.

  18. While gas prices are relatively lower than they were, gas prices behave like a regressive tax in that high gas prices hit poor people harder than richer people. It would seem that the working poor in rural areas, in particular, would be hit hard since they have to drive longer distances and have few other transportation options other than driving.

    OTOH, richer people may drive marginally more powerful, gas-guzzling vehicles (or possibly gas-saving hybrids, which are expensive compared with other cars in their type), but they aren’t likely to do much more driving than poorer people, so their overall gas expenses won’t be much different than poorer people.

    For us, gas prices are about 50% higher than they were a year ago, but even our gas bill comes to less than $100 per month overall. Also, much of that is tax-deductible since much of the driving is related to my wife’s business.

  19. Though the car seat issue certainly is valid, I rarely see SUVs in my community with young children along for the ride, and I live in suburbia. I’d estimate based on my non-scientific survey, nearly 80% of the time there’s just the driver on board, usually a woman talking on her cell phone. I certainly appreciate the need for these truck-like vehicles when you’re living in rural areas, or actually driving over rock outcrops and edges of canyons and through flooded creeks on your way to your rustic 2nd home/estate, but when you live in a congested urban/suburban neighborhood it’s hard to understand why people drive these bloated vehicles. And I just don’t buy it that they are safer since they rollover so easily, though perhaps a selling point is that they do kill drivers of smaller cars more effectively We’ve had to share the road with Semi-trucks for decades, doesn’t mean we should all drive one to compete size for size. I guess I’m just old-fashioned about my transportation choices, and prefer the performance and handling of a car. SUVs just seem to be a fancy tool shed on wheels.

  20. Hello! I have an SUV because I have a husband and 4 kids (3 teenagers) who also have friends. It is the law (and a necessity to me) that every passenger must be buckled up. There is no way that all of us could fit safely into a car.

  21. Hello! I have an SUV because I have a husband and 4 kids (3 teenagers) who also have friends. It is the law (and a necessity to me) that every passenger must be buckled up. There is no way that all of us could fit safely into a car.

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