Dynamist Blog

Overconfidence Overheard

It's likely that Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States, but it's not exactly a sure thing. (Just ask the Clintons.) So I was disturbed to hear a woman with a "Women for Obama" button tell a Santa Monica store cashier that she'd already made her plane and hotel reservations for the inauguration "because I want my children to see history made." And if Obama loses, what will she tell her children then?

Clogging the Roads with Priuses

This piece by LAT consumer columnist David Lazarus makes a perfectly reasonable point: letting more workers telecommute even one day a week would save money and cut traffic congestion. It is indeed crazy for Lazarus to spend $9 a day commuting instead of writing from home like a normal columnist.

On the way to his modest point, however, he repeats some all-too-common confusions about gas prices, traffic, and fuel efficiency. His column is worth addressing not because it's particularly bad (it isn't) or particularly influential (ditto), but because these confusions are so typical.

He starts by saying that "the more painful that things become at the pump, the more our political and business leaders will finally realize that they need to take steps, and soon, to wean us from our self-defeating oil jones." That's not how things actually work. In the real world, the more painful things become at the pump, the more drivers take steps to burn less gasoline, regardless of what political and business leaders do--and the more pressure political and business leaders are under to make those gas prices go down, so we won't have to change our driving behavior.

Like many people, Lazarus conflates his concerns about traffic congestion and gas prices. Both bumper-to-bumper traffic and $4.19-per-gallon make life unpleasant, and both have something to do with cars, but that doesn't mean fixing one problem will fix the other. Lazarus would like more fuel-efficient vehicles, which would address the expensive-gas problem; he just doesn't think we'll get them any time soon, because automakers "have to be dragged screaming and kicking into the future." But when the fuel-efficient future arrives, he'll discover that better gas mileage means more crowded roads. The more miles per gallon (or dollar) you get, the more you're willing to drive. The best thing for L.A. traffic is expensive gasoline, which is why I caught myself doing 75 mph coming back from downtown last Thursday afternoon.

Here's a cheat sheet:

Expensive gas = less driving = less congestion
More fuel efficiency = de facto cheaper gas = more driving = more congestion
More pain at the pump = Less pain on the roads (and vice versa)

Finally, $9 a day on gas???? You might think about moving closer to the office.

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