Back when blog posts were composed with reed styluses on clay tablets, I put up a couple of posts (here and here) on fuel subsidies in the developing world. These are generally 1) fiscally ruinous; 2) terrible for the environment and traffic congestion; 3) highly regressive with regard to wealth distribution; and 4) market-distorting by artificially promoting fuel-guzzling industries. So I made the case that this is a pretty foolish public policy, in fact one of the worst I can think of. It’s up there with tobacco subsidies, the Concorde, pretty much everything the North Korean government has ever done, and our government’s failure in spending a paltry $615,000 taxpayer dollars for UC Santa Cruz students to digitize priceless Grateful Dead photographs, t-shirts and concert tickets.
Given the problems with fuel subsidies, I promised a third post on what to do to eliminate them. But since I have a day job, and being a professor is much more difficult than it looked when I was undergrad, I’ve procrastinated on putting this last post up. However, engineering student Kishore from India wrote asking where part three is, and customer satisfaction is a goal here at Freakonomics. Besides, no doubt governments around the world have been waiting impatiently for my post before they start dismantling their fuel subsidies, so here it is.
Given the damning case against fuel subsidies, and a rising swell of opinion that they are counterproductive on many levels, why don’t these policies go away? The IMF (see this) and I offer several reasons: Read More »
A major story on the NBC Today Show was about the sharp rise in the price of gasoline. One “expert” claimed that, unless you have a very fuel-efficient vehicle, over a car’s lifetime gasoline will cost you more than the purchase price. Really? Say a new car costs $20,000, and is driven for 10 years, 12,000 miles/year. If gasoline is $4/gallon, and the car gets a paltry 24 miles/gallon, today’s average for new cars, gasoline costs $20,000. So, even without discounting. the “expert” is wrong.
Even if gas were $5/gallon, unless one discounts the future at a rate below 1 percent, the present value of the gasoline purchased is less than the price of the car. I doubt that there are many new vehicles for which the expert statement is true, even if gas prices rise permanently far above the current price. I do wish so-called “experts” knew the basics of Econ 1.
Foreign Policy interviews Steve Coll about his new book Private Empire, which is about ExxonMobil’s ongoing dominance. Coll explains the company’s competitive strategy, which it relies on when competing against other companies for African contracts as well as with state-owned oil companies in the Middle East:
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I also think that the way they win these deals in a place like Chad or Papua New Guinea or Angola is, in effect, they go to the host country and say: “Look, we recognize that you can deal with the Chinese, and you’ll get soft loans and guns and things that you think are more valuable than what we can offer you, but what you’ll also get is really lousy project management. You’ll get less oil pumped, you’ll get less royalties, you’ll get less taxes, so you’ll end up net poorer. Why not come work with us under our rule of law, under a really straightforward contract? And what our record shows is that you’ll end up with more cash faster — and then you can use that cash to buy whatever guns you want? But you’ll have the money to carry out what ever plans you have; and we’re reliable, we’ll come in on time.”
Fascinating article in today’s Wall Street Journal, by Susan Carey and Angel Gonzelez: “Delta to Buy Refinery in Effort to Lower Jet-Fuel Costs.” Coupled with the news of Microsoft bankrolling B&N’s Nook business, the Delta deal shows how far and fast existing business models are shifting, and how vertical integration continues to not be dead. Read More »
Blog reader Becky Roser sent an interesting email recently:
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My father pointed out something interesting the other day – almost no one runs out of gas anymore. When gas was $0.60 a gallon, he maintains it happened all the time. Now that it’s $4.00, you almost never see it. I have vague memories of my father running out of gas when I was very young, but I’ve never done it. What changed?
Driving through New Jersey we stop for gas and sit for a few minutes until the attendant comes to fill our tank. My son tells me that is because New Jersey has one of the most wasteful restrictions in the Union: There is no self-service gasoline; all gas must be pumped by an attendant. This wastes drivers’ time—it’s almost always quicker to pump gas oneself. The labor of the attendants is thus devoted to generating economic waste and could be spent productively elsewhere rather than in promoting economic inefficiency. Perhaps at one time the restriction was based, as they usually are, on health/safety, or perhaps on preventing pilferage. But today, with credit-card pumps and few (no?) cases of people burning themselves pumping their own gas, the restriction has no rationale—other than protecting the attendants’ jobs.
Quick, how many of you can tell me:
1. Your cars’ fuel economy in miles per gallon or, even better, gallons per mile.
2. How much you drove in the last year.
3. The cost to fill your tank.
4. Your monthly and annual fuel expenditures.
5. How your cars’ fuel economy sits in relation to other cars in their classes.
6. What your fuel savings in gallons and dollars would be if you switched to a hybrid or other highly economical vehicle. Read More »
It’s notoriously hard to predict gas prices. Who would have thought in 2006 that we’d be paying $4 a gallon in 2008? Or, as prices peaked last year, that we’d be filling up for $2.50 a gallon this summer?
That said, civil engineer and Forbes reporter Chris Steiner argues that prices will rise precipitously over the next few decades. (It would probably make as much sense to argue that electric cars will take over and gas prices will fall, but that’s another argument for another day.) Read More »