Paved Paradise?

by Bill Bonner

The newest mind-bogglingly moronic idea courtesy Thomas Friedman, “Free parking anywhere in America for anyone driving a hybrid car.”

We would not normally waste our time explaining why a columnist’s proposals were lame and preposterous. It seems enough to hold them up to the light; the ridicule comes naturally, like a laugh after a pratfall. But here we undertake a bit of surgery. We intend to quickly take the project apart, not in an effort to save it, for it never really had a chance of life… but merely to dissect the thing just to see how it is put together.

Let us say that we were to take the proposal seriously and that tomorrow Congressmen were to eat a foul breakfast…and with a kind of grave indigestion disturbing their thoughts and gas pains preventing laughter…we can imagine that they make it the law of the land.

Henceforth, a fellow with a hybrid car can park free – wherever he wants. We will have to pass over the practical innards of the plan – how will the owners of the parking spaces be compensated, the paperwork, enforcement and so forth – and move to its theoretical troubles. Readers will quickly see that in order to improve the world in this manner, millions of private arrangements must be dis-improved. Someone must make up the lost parking revenue. Instead of buying an extra beer or upgrading his flight to Jamaica, the taxpayer must divert some of his spending power – one way or another – to pay for someone else’s parking space.

And those who get the free spaces then find that they have a little extra cash in their pockets to buy things they could not previously afford. And so the whole world is titled, and everyone stands a little at an angle…which is an annoyance and an added to most of them. Central planning would have created a world a little more to Mr. Friedman’s liking, but everyone else’s world would have to be disturbed.

But maybe it is worthwhile? Who knows? Certainly not Thomas L. Friedman. The goal of this exercise in mass inconvenience is supposed to be to reduce America’s use of oil, thus reducing oil revenues to Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would require these oil producers to “reform.” “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip,” as Shakespeare put it.

But here, the cup and lip might as well be on different planets. Any Americans who agreed with Friedman are free to buy hybrid cars already. Or, they could merely drive their existing gas-guzzlers less often. His proposal is designed to discomfort those who don’t agree with him; it is merely a way bossing other people around, under cover of a “good purpose.”

Do hybrid cars really reduce energy consumption? We do not know, but we doubt it. Batteries must be charged up. Where does that energy come from? It must come from somewhere. And offering free parking might actually encourage people to drive more. Besides, in order for the free parking bribe to have any impact, it would have to be widely taken up. In other worlds, the world’s auto factories would have to switch over to producing millions of hybrid cars.

Whether this would actually reduce energy consumption or not, we don’t know, but the changeover would require massive new capital investment and retooling – which, itself, would mean the consumption of much more energy. Then, of course, the cities would be stuffed with cars parking for free – with a whole new energy guzzling bureaucracy to enforce and regulate the new system.

Meanwhile, whether or not an even a smear of oil is actually saved, the price of petroleum might still rise to $100 a barrel in a few years. The easy oil has already been pumped out. And Asia has three trillion people who are getting richer every day…and beginning to lick at the world’s oil supplies like lost kittens at a bowl of milk. Americans may feel vaguely superior by driving around in hybrid cars and parking in spaces provided at someone else’s expense, but they are not likely to have much effect on the oil price.

But so what? Why does Friedman think that a high oil price stifles “reform,” or that the reforms that might be coming are the ones that the world improvers want? What if Iran and Saudi Arabia have world improvers of their own…with proposals even more absurd, and perhaps more lethal, than Friedman’s?