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Americans Vote for Fuel Efficiency. Why Do They Buy Guzzlers?

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With new fuel economy standards under consideration in Congress, James Surowiecki ponders why Americans continue to buy gas guzzlers when polls show that the majority would like to see the government mandate big increases in fuel efficiency. What does all of this have to do with professional hockey players wearing helmets? This was in last week's New Yorker:

Americans may want to buy the biggest and most environmentally damaging vehicles available, but polls show that, given an option, some three-quarters of them vote for dramatic increases in fuel-economy standards-increases that may well force automakers to sell fewer (or at least smaller) S.U.V.s. We buy gas guzzlers but vote for gas sipping. This isn't because people are ignorant about how higher fuel-economy standards would affect them personally; polls that explicitly lay out the potential trade-offs involved still find support for tougher standards. And it isn't as if voters and car buyers belong to two different groups; one recent survey of pickup owners found that seventy per cent strongly favored tougher requirements. The curious fact is that many people buying three-ton Suburbans for that arduous two-mile trip to the supermarket also want Congress to pass laws making it harder to buy Suburbans at all.

What's happening here?

Back in the nineteen-seventies, an economist named Thomas Schelling, who later won the Nobel Prize, noticed something peculiar about the N.H.L. At the time, players were allowed, but not required, to wear helmets, and most players chose to go helmet-less, despite the risk of severe head trauma. But when they were asked in secret ballots most players also said that the league should require them to wear helmets. The reason for this conflict, Schelling explained, was that not wearing a helmet conferred a slight advantage on the ice; crucially, it gave the player better peripheral vision, and it also made him look fearless. The players wanted to have their heads protected, but as individuals they couldn't afford to jeopardize their effectiveness on the ice. Making helmets compulsory eliminated the dilemma: the players could protect their heads without suffering a competitive disadvantage. Without the rule, the players' individually rational decisions added up to a collectively irrational result. With the rule, the outcome was closer to what players really wanted.

The same phenomenon is, to some extent, at work in the fuel-economy debate. People believe that bigger and heavier cars are safer in a crash (forgetting that, often, bigger cars are also more likely to crash). And people like the fact that driving a higher-horsepower car makes you look better at the stoplight. So our desires as individuals to protect ourselves and to outclass our neighbors encourage us to buy bigger and bigger vehicles with more and more horsepower. And the market doesn't create counter-incentives that would push us in a responsible direction, since someone who drives a Hummer doesn't suffer the effects of pollution and global warming any more than someone driving a Prius does, and isn't charged more for the extra environmental damage.


Photo: mj*laflaca/Flickr

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