Monday, October 09, 2006

SUVs, Ethanol, and Distributive Justice

Since Dan has got us on the traffic beat, I'll chip in with a few reflections on mobility externalities. If we were to look hard at the origins of the externalities described in Dan's post, we might call SUVs a TERROR: a Technology Engaged in the Regressive Redistribution of Roadway Safety. I get this idea from Keith Bradsher's book High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV.

Bradsher describes how an obscure loophole in fuel economy standards led to the rise of the SUV, and how automakers and unions squelched efforts to hold them to the same standards as cars. Regulators estimate SUVs cause 3000 extra deaths a year--they contribute little or nothing to the safety of their occupants, but greatly increase the danger of driving for non-SUV drivers. Greg Easterbrook describes some other problems:
Traffic studies show that the typical SUV occupies as much road and parking space as 1.4 regular cars. These vehicles have converted driving . . . into a nerve-wracking Darwinian battle. . . . [They] are designed to bring out the worst in their owners while simultaneously making them feel that they are invincible. And they simply take up space, shrinking the road and parking acreage and increasing all forms of congestion.
This is an interesting attribution of negative externalities to SUVs, fleshed out a bit more by Bradsher. He says that they will increasingly become dominant because of "network externalities," described as follows (on ixi and 170 of the book):
It is becoming harder and harder to see down the road while sitting in a car, because of the impossibility of seeing through the tall SUVs . . . . Backing a car out of a parking place between two taller vehicles has become an exercise in hope that no one is about to come barreling by. . . . The extra weight of SUVs rearranges where deaths occur in crashes, transferring deaths from the SUVs to the cars. . . The result has been a highway arms race.
I think Bradsher meant to say "positional externalities;" those occur when people invest in resources in order to best others in some zero-sum competition (such as a car crash, where the crash momentum gets distributed between the cars, and the heavier car usually suffers less). In any event, the sad story of the SUV suggests that authorities like NHTSA need to pay attention to all the externalities of technology, not just market demand for it.

And if you want even more distressing reflections on the relation between mobility and distributive justice, consider Lester Brown's piece "Starving the People to Feed the Cars." Here's a taste:
Plans for new ethanol distilleries and biodiesel refineries are announced almost daily, setting the stage for an epic competition. In a narrow sense, it is one between the world's supermarkets and its service stations. More broadly, it is a battle between the world's 800 million automobile owners, who want to maintain their mobility, and the world's 2 billion poorest people, who simply want to survive. . . . Brazil, the world's largest exporter of sugar, converts half of its crop into ethanol for cars, contributing to a doubling of the world sugar price over the past two years.
In general I have thought rising gas prices necessary to motivate investment in cleaner energy sources. But Brown points to a different dynamic: a gradual bidding away of food supply in order to promote mobility.

Please note that I'm not accusing anyone here of intending these bad effects--and even the "virtuous greens" are far from guiltless. These stories are just intended to show how policies can trap us into zero-sum competitive struggles.

PS: This is a hybrid cross-post from Madisonian. Photo credit to Brian Teutsch/Flickr.


Blogger Kevin Wells said...

Great post. It is always great to see a well-reasoned critique of the SUV-craze. On the other hand, it's nice to get the lowest common denominator, as well.

I Humped Your Hummer

With the often-stated inverse correlation between masculine endowment and size of automobiles, this is a particularly apt gesture of revenge toward such vehicles.

(And it's just funny!)

10/09/2006 5:03 PM  
Blogger la Rana said...

I am not sure your dichotomy plays out in the United States. Nearly all sugar produced in the U.S. is consumed in the U.S. and vice versa. In short, we are isolated from the world market of that commodity - due to our exceptional quota/tariff system.

Corn doesn't work for you either. It costs less to buy a bushel than it does to grow it and at years end we either see it wasted or flooding the world market. In other words, we're screwing those 2 billion people already.

What I want to know, before we trip over ourselves chasing the ethanol dream, is whether its efficient. The only serious analysis I've read, from a guy named Pimental at Cornell, says that more energy goes in than comes out. If it turns out he's wrong, the demand for ethanol may eventually lessen the damage our agricultural policies have on the rest of the world.

10/09/2006 6:42 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

thanks for the comments. La RAna, your point on autarky in sugar may well be the best response to Brown. and I agree with you, given all the (hydrocarbon based) fertilizer going into modern agriculture, it's hard to see a net gain of energy here.

10/10/2006 8:31 AM  

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