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Poor face bigger disservice than higher taxes on autos

My liberal friends have asked me to consider the poor. Their request comes in response to my proposals for increased taxes on gasoline, a tax on engine horsepower, and higher fees on other automotive items and services that would make American consumers pay closer attention to the kinds of vehicles they are buying and the amount of energy they are using.

My liberal friends say they are in favor of doing those things. But they have a number of "buts" that they say make the accomplishment of those objectives all but impossible.

There is consumer resistance, of course. In this country, we talk a good game about sacrificing for energy conservation, as long as the contest is taking place on someone else's court.

Along with consumer resistance, there is political opportunism masquerading as leadership. The practitioners of that charade equate leadership to pandering. But the two are very different. Leadership requires taking unpopular stands for a perceived greater good, even at the risk of losing the next election. Pandering is the child of dishonesty and cowardice. It will do anything, even the wrong thing, to curry popular favor and will do nothing to risk that popularity.

At this moment in Congress, on the matter of an effective national energy policy that demands consumer responsibility, we have more panderers than leaders.

But seemingly insurmountable political opposition to the idea of making consumers pay more of the real costs for the vehicles they drive ostensibly is not the primary concern of my liberal friends. They say they are concerned about the effects on the poor.

To paraphrase, they state their worries this way: Yes, we agree that American consumers behave as if cheap gasoline is theirs forever and that they don't pay the real energy, social and environmental costs for the vehicles they drive. We agree that oil won't last forever and that growing competition for the world's remaining oil reserves is leading to dangerous international conflicts. And we agree that we in America should use less oil and that a judicious application of higher consumer taxes and fees could help decrease that usage. But, gee, doing those things would have a horrible effect on the poor. What about the poor?

To that question, I offer this response: Remember Hurricane Katrina.

I was reared in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans in a community that no longer exists, one of those places eradicated by the winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005.

By the standards of black New Orleans, my family was well off. My parents were well educated and well employed. We did OK, even under that city's brutally discriminatory racial policies.

Our family suffered from what my father, the late Daniel T. Brown Sr., called "status discrepancy." We were better educated than most of the white families in New Orleans. We worked as hard as any family, black or white. But we were forced to live in the poor and mostly black Ninth Ward because the city's discriminatory housing policies at the time forbade us from living anywhere else.

I remember numerous talks with my father, a science teacher and onetime researcher for the National Science Foundation, about why our North Roman Street neighborhood flooded almost every time it rained.

"Why is that?" I asked.

"Because we're in the lowest part of the city and the city won't fix the levees," Dad said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because the Ninth Ward is mostly black and poor," my father said.

"What's going to happen if we have a really big storm?" I asked.

"C'mon, son," my father said. "Use your brains. If you are ignored when the sun is shining and the weather is fair, if no one cares about you when you get flooded after a little bit of rain, what do you think is going to happen to you in a big storm? You'll be left to drown."

The storm clouds of a looming national energy crisis are gathering in an America that still thinks a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is good enough for the working poor. Yes, higher gasoline and related taxes will hurt them, certainly in the short term, and most definitely if Congress does nothing to increase the minimum wage.

But if there is no interventionist policy to weaken our overdependence on oil and if there are fuel shortages as a result, what do you think will happen to the poor then?

To paraphrase my late father: Use your brains. The nation that is ignoring the poor now, when there is fuel to be had, will be even less inclined to pay attention to them if there is too little fuel available for everybody's transportation and life-support needs.

Editorial Notes: Warren Brown "has been covering the automobile industry for the Washington Post since 1982," including a long-running column on cars. He is also one of the very few writers for the mainstream media that "get it" about energy: News Flash: We're Running Out of Oil. Get Used to It. For Sound Energy Policy, Don't Look to Congress Lessons From Russia and China Other columns Car Culture On Wheels On Wheels (older) -BA

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