Friday, August 16, 2013

Just take the old logging trail to Safeway...

Perhaps I'd better better add some nuance to the to the comments alluded to here.

For starters, I meant not to defend SUV use in LA but to argue that SUVs are as or more defensible here than they are in the vast majority of urban areas that don't have mountains running through them. Even here, most SUVs and big pick-ups are embarrassing reminders of market inefficiency and conspicuous consumption.

I grew up in a pick-up culture and spent a large part of my youth loading firewood and shoveling manure into the beds of various trucks. I still have great affection and respect for vehicles that can work like hell six days a week then get you out of trouble on a Saturday night. I don't, however, have any use for people who buy these fine machines not to haul loads or cross washed-out stretches of dirt roads, but to drive up and down the 405 during rush hour.

The point I was going for was that Megan McArdle's attempt to undercut the moral authority of environmentalists was muddled and more than a little dishonest. This was probably preordained the moment that McArdle, perhaps the ultimate product off the the NYC/DC bubble, decided to frame her argument as taking the side the ordinary folks in the rest of the country.

The entire piece is pretty much a train wreck (if you'll pardon the expression). First off, its anti-air travel premise has to coexist somehow with her previous position that seemed to call for more airports. Then we get this textbook example of using relative measures when you need absolute.
Those trips are simultaneously less necessary and more carbon intensive; almost eight times as many passenger miles are traveled by car as by plane, but passenger car travel only accounts for 3 to 4 times as much greenhouse gas emission.
If I want to reduce spending by, say, fifty percent and I have two costs, one of which is three to four times as much as the other, guess which one I'll focus on? There is, of course, a partial  exception when the lower cost is associated with an extraordinarily low-hanging piece of low-hanging fruit, but in this case, the low-hanging fruit is actually associated with cars, not airplanes.

I'm not happy about it, but for time-constrained long-distance transportation there is simply no currently available substitute for airplanes in this country. If we fixed the externalities (which we should), people would travel less, but when people travel in excess of five hundred miles, they will still opt to fly until we see major improvements in high-speed rail.

With autos, however, we have lots of low-hanging fruit from zoning changes to improved public transportation to upping fuel efficiency. It's this last one that leads to one of the clumsiest attempts of slight-of-hand I've seen in a long time, McArdle's odd conflation of not having a car and of not having an SUV.

And while most of those car trips are the business of everyday life -- getting to work, procuring food, etc. -- most of those flights are either vacations, or elite workers flitting to conferences and business meetings.
Giving up air travel and overnight delivery is much more personally costly for the public intellectuals who write about this stuff than giving up a big SUV. If you live in one of the five or six major cities that contain virtually everyone who writes about climate change, having a small car (or no car), is a pretty easy adjustment to imagine. 
This is simply amateurish. In the penultimate paragraph, McArdle goes from the necessity of having a car to the necessity of having an SUV, having laid no groundwork despite the fact that if easy improvements in automobile  fuel efficiency are possible, her whole argument falls apart.

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