Sunday, July 29, 2007

Back to the SUV

A polite but earnest gentleman from left a comment on my post concerning the proposed higher CAFE standards for automotive fuel efficiency -- a comment very similar, it turns out, to those that have been left on a couple of other of blogs that have mentioned higher standards positively. (See the evidence by googling the organization's name.) is an astroturf website set up by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Their current talking point is this: People want big cars and trucks, and the government shouldn't prevent manufacturers from giving them what they want. (And in a related subpoint, some people need big cars, and if they're regulated out of existence, those people will suffer.)

James Surowiecki, the always-trenchant economic reporter for the New Yorker (and author of the wonderful Wisdom of Crowds), looked at precisely this claim in his column a couple of weeks back. Yes, people buy the SUVs and monster pickups with which Detroit stocks their local dealerships. So yes, they do want these cars. But a solid majority of these same people, in poll after poll, support higher fuel efficiency standards. And it's not simply cognitive dissonance; they continue to support the rise in standards even when the poll explicitly points out that higher fuel standards will mean a reduction in the number of large vehicles that can be produced and sold. "One recent survey of pickup owners," Surowiecki writes, "found that seventy per cent strongly favored tougher requirements."

So the common-sense connection implied by my drive-by commenter -- that because people want to buy and own large inefficient cars, they don't want the higher standards that will make those cars unavailable -- is wrong. The question, of course, is why people's buying habits and desire for regulation that will change those habits are so out of step.

Surowiecki finds the answer in the work of Thomas Schelling, who in the 1970s studied the attitudes and behavior of hockey players vis-a-vis proposals to require helmets. He found that the players said (in secret ballots) that the NHL should require helmets of all players, at the same time as most of them chose to go without helmets in games.

What people want, in other words, is for everyone to be subject to the same rules -- rules they believe in, but will not unilaterally impose on themselves if others are allowed to continue doing otherwise. It's an arms race, car buyers feel, and even though they strongly believe that everyone will be better off in more fuel-efficient cars, they're unwilling to cede to others perceived advantages in safety and prestige. If those advantages were removed by regulation and the playing field leveled at what the majority believes is reasonable, then they'd feel freer to buy according to their values.

Sounds a little like this Onion t-shirt, I admit. Yet the free market makes hypocrites of all of us who find it impossible to give up available conveniences and "improvements" in an environment where others can keep them without repercussions -- even with incentives. "In calling for a law requiring better gas mileage in our cars, then, voters are really saying they're unhappy with the collective results of the choices they've made as buyers," Surowiecki concludes. "Sometimes, they know, we need to save ourselves from ourselves." Recently I've seen cracks appearing in the mantra of personal responsibility we've had drummed into as an absolute moral and political law for the past twenty years. Is it possible that this is another of them -- counter-commonsensical as it may be?


the secret knitter said...

I've gone around and around on things like this with people who argue that the market is always right. (In other words, if people are buying or consuming it, they must want it, so who are we to change things?) But in a lot of cases I think it's a chicken-egg issue. Are people making these choices because that's all they have available?

Your examples suggest that people will do what they realize is not in their self-interest because they need some person or entity to hold them accountable first. Sounds about right.

Adam Villani said...

This makes sense to me. It's a prisoner's dilemma kind of thing, like a lot of choices people make that have negative externalities.

The market is a good default way to handle economic questions, but there are a lot of situations where the market solution leads to problems. I don't see any reason why we should impose various controls on the market to come up with better results.

I dunno, maybe a carbon tax would be a better solution than the CAFE standards, but I don't have a problem with CAFE standards on principle.