So why does Andrew Sullivan wants to wreck my family business, and you say: so what? Hooey! Okay, I’m convinced.

More on that later. Right now I’m just glad we survived the first great storm of the Spring of 04. I wrote this earlier tonight:

The storm was mostly spent by the time it hit the great heat bloom of the cities – lots of rain, which we needed, and nothing else. A perfect conclusion to an extraordinary weekend – but not, alas, for anything I accomplished. I’m so behind that I woke this morning considering the things I would not be able to do because of the things I had to do.

It was 88 degrees today. Let’s say that’s slightly unusual for the day. Lovely; a parade of ghastly bare white legs everywhere, but it can’t be helped. The only downside: DESTRUCTION. The the inevitable result of a mass of torpid wet soggy hot air is a hellacious storm. It’s about 20 miles from my house and moving closer, three counties wide loaded with lightning and tornados. Spring storms: the real thing. All the local stations have dropped programming for weather news, with phoned-in reports from ordinary folk accompanying the radar images. They’re ugly, too – a ragged red welt, throbbing as it draws nigh. The weatherman is reading the list of counties whose residents ought to head to the basement, NOW.

Oh, great: huge hail, too. And a tornado watch until midnight.

Channel Four just went off the air. Faded out to static. That’s not good. WCCO is the station all Minnesotans turn to when there’s bad weather? It’s in our genes. Turn to channel 5: one of the freeways to the north has been closed because there’s a house roof on the highway.

I expect to lose power tonight, possibly when the storm hits, so I’m going to post this now in case I can’t get in later.

Update: rain, no hail, no tornados. Zip. Whew.

My weekend starts Friday, which is a stem-to-stern all-Gnat day. She had a playdate at a distant locale, so we drove there a few hours in advance to beat the traffic, and hit the local Target. (Which, grr, is much better than my Target.) She fell asleep as we pulled into the parking lot, so I drove around for 40 minutes. Halfway through I felt dozy, so I hit the drive-through at Starbucks. What a blessed nation.

I haven’t spent much time in this part of Sprawlville, but the opportunity to study it over and over again (I drove in a great long loop that was sort of a Van Kuiper belt to the gigantic regional mall) made me pay attention. Lots of new housing construction – huge vast complexes of apartments and townhouses, all very modern but distinctly traditional as well. The public works are numerous and lovely, from a new library to a huge parking ramp that feeds the bus lines into the city. The level of artistry in the restaurant signage is high; the restaurants themselves make your mouth water just by looking at them. The roads are bewildering at first, since you’re off the grid and everything flows into everything else at no predicable angle, but that’s because these spaces are meant to be explored by car, not by foot. And hence they have an entirely different logic. Look, there’s something to be said for human-scaled streets with four-story brownstones stretching as far as the eye can see; there’s something to be said for three decades of architectural styles arranged along sinuous roads that ride the hills and valleys of an ordinary third-tier suburb, too.

Friday night I decided to dip into the Classic Movie Collection. I usually buy the DVDs of classic movies restored to original luster, just because you want to support that sort of thing. I took down “Dr. Zhivago.” I lasted 35 minutes. It’s lovely but it’s dull and disjointed. It has that sodden pace of an Important Movie. The real deal-killer, though, was the inexplicable fact that everyone spoke with an English accent.

Why not a Russian accent? Did they think that a movie about Russia would be somehow unauthentic if the characters sounded like, you know, Russians? I would have accepted French accents among the upper classes. But British? It certainly doesn’t help suspend your disbelief. Especially when the first character you meet is Alec Guinness.

Okay. As you may know, Andrew Sullivan has famously proposed hiking gas prices by a dollar to reduce the deficit and pay for the Iraq campaign. Don't get me wrong - I have a great deal of respect for Andrew.


Here I disagree. Low gas prices are bad for the economy and bad for drivers, he says - the sort of statement that makes you read everything that follows with wry detached amusement, the same way you'd regard an article on canine training that began "dogs respond remarkably well to feng shui." You read on because it can only get better.

He refers to gas as “woefully undertaxed.” If one uses the phrase “woefully undertaxed” one may be correct, but one should not be surprised when one’s conservative bona fides are called into question. You could make the argument that cable TV is woefully undertaxed. Peanut butter is woefully undertaxed. Once you’ve identified a good that can be cured by additional taxation, well, everything is woefully undertaxed. There aren’t any pro-war movies being made! We could fund them with a movie tax! Popcornn is woefully undertaxed! He says:

The truly needy tend to consume less gas than their middle-class compatriots. Others say it penalizes those in remote and rural areas. So what?

Some conservatives say it's antithetical to the American Dream. Hooey.

I’m not sure how I can argue with that. Okay, I’m not being fair. The whole piece is here. Highlights:

The worst knock against a gas tax is that it is, well, a tax.

No; the worst knock is that it’s inflationary. Everything I have in this room was brought here by truck. A gas tax would have increased the price of everything I see. Everything.

But with soaring deficits and a war to pay for, taxes are not an option — they're a necessity.

I should note: we already pay taxes. And they’re not optional.

The only relevant question is, Which taxes? The case for a gas tax is a straightforward one. Gas prices are strikingly lower in America than anywhere else in the world

And if all your friends jumped off a cliff and imposed a landing-on-the-rocks surcharge, would you do it too? Get out a map. Look at, say, Belgium. Look at America. Compare. Consider the costs of trucking lettuce from Mexico to North Dakota. Discuss.

such taxes are relatively easy to collect;

Again: it’s interesting that the ease with which a tax can be collected is somehow an argument in its favor. Sidewalk tolls, anyone?

since an overwhelming majority of Americans drive, few avoid the tax;

Again: this is considered a good thing. Fine; he can believe that, but don’t be offended when people point out that these are not exactly notions that flower in the heart of someone disinclined to hand the state additional powers.

and by adding a cost to the wanton consumption of gasoline,

Wanton. From

1. Immoral or unchaste; lewd.
2. a. Gratuitously cruel; merciless.
b. Marked by unprovoked, gratuitous maliciousness; capricious and unjust: wanton destruction.
3. Unrestrainedly excessive: wanton extravagance; wanton depletion of oil reserves.
4. Luxuriant; overabundant: wanton tresses.
5. Frolicsome; playful.
6. Undisciplined; spoiled.

There you have it: driving your child to school and using fuels sold at market rate is immoral. If not gratuituously cruel and merciless. (You have to love #3, eh? The rot goes deep.)

After the hooey, he wrote:

When your driving habits lead to higher levels of pollution, when your ownership of a gas-inhaling 2-ton SUV puts others on the road at risk, when traffic jams drastically reduce the country's productivity (as well as make radio shock jocks into millionaires), don't you think you might give a little back in return?

Hmm. Well, my driving habits do give something back in return: when I go places there’s usually some sort of economic activity that transpires here and there, be it a job or a shopping trip. Or – gasp – buying gas. I lived in Washington DC for several years, and if there was a class of people who spent the day driving around in fume-belching VW vans for no particular reason, I missed it. As for the traffic jams that reduce productivity, well, what if one lives somewhere without traffic jams? We live in the city; my wife works in a suburb. She doesn’t have a hard commute. I don’t have a hard commute. We pay higher taxes because we live in the city. Do I get a rebate for choosing a lifestyle that does not revolve around lewd, cruel petroleum consumption?

What's more: I’m supposed to “give a little back in return” because Beltway congestion forces exurbanites to sit in their cars listening to Howard Stern against their wishes, thereby transferring money directly to his bank account. (The FCC has it all wrong: if they want to cripple Stern, just increase freeway capacity.) But if the “little” amount I’m to give is a buck a gallon, it’s not that little. It’s $11 per tank – by my habits, $20 a week, $80 a month, or $960 per year.

That’s a thousand dollars out of my pocket, and if you think that would go directly to the war or the deficit, you've never seen the face of a Senator who sees bounteous budget numbers for the coming fiscal year.

The real reason so many Americans hate gas taxes is that they see them. The government can eat away at your life with payroll taxes, but because they are usually deducted before you get to see your paycheck, you don't notice. But the price of gas is broadcast on big placards across the country. When it goes up, eyebrows rise a notch. But that's a good thing! The government has to tax you somehow. Isn't it better to shift taxation to places where people notice it, so they can demand accountability?

End result: the people vote in politicians who run against the gas tax.

But here’s my real point. Sullivan doesn’t seem to know how gas stations operate. This is my family business. Gas stations do not make their money from gas. Outside of the urban core gas stations are often independently owned Convenience Stores - C-stores, in the industry parlance. They have an arrangement with a major gas distributor, which underwrites some of the cost of branding a station (pumps, canopies, signage, etc.) They make their money not so much from gas, which yields pennies of profit, but from all the stuff in the store. Gas, bread, soda, jerky. Smokes. Pre-made sandwiches. Aspirin. They’re miniature grocery stores with merchandise that either flies out the door or sits there unsold for a month before someone comes in at 2 AM in need of toothpaste. The prices are higher than grocery stores, of course; margins are cruel, and you pay for the privilege of getting your milk in 90 seconds. So:

When gas goes up a buck, this means people will spend less in the store. And that means we can either raise prices to cover the lost revenue, or lower prices and hope to make it up on volume. The former strategy is difficult when there’s a Wal-Mart up the street that already has you undercut on these items, and the latter strategy is a crap shoot.

What’s more, the rural drivers Sullivan dismisses often rely on c-stores as their local grocery. They’d face much higher prices for basic commodities, and it would cost them more to get there, too. But who cares? Screw ‘em! To repeat:

Others say it penalizes those in remote and rural areas. So what? Very few taxes are perfect, and our electoral system — with its over-representation of big agricultural states in the Senate — already pampers the rural. (I'd gladly exchange a gas-tax hike for abolition of agricultural subsidies. Any takers in Iowa?)

As if everyone in rural Iowa is a farmer.

As if the insurance agent filing up in a small town en route to meet his a client (a dentist) in another small town looks at the $3.00 per gallon price and shrugs, well, it’s just another imperfect tax, and while it leaves me poorer at least I content myself with the knowledge that I have two Senators, just like California.

I have a better suggestion. Two, in fact. We should impose a 10% surcharge on rent or mortgage payments. After all, everyone has to live somewhere. You could see the tax, and if you can see the tax there will be greater accountability. Unlike that mysterious inscrutable tax you have to pay on April 15th. Or better yet: a 40% surcharge on all taxi rides in big cities. Anyone who’s ridden a DC cab knows they’re not exactly low-polluting vehicles. It would be a voluntary tax; no one has to take a cab, after all. You can walk. You can take the Metro. And you’d be doing your share. People who eschew cars and prefer cabs contribute very little individually to the cost of maintaining the roads that keep goods flowing into the urban areas. Granted, the tax would penalize those in urban areas. So what? Few taxes are perfect. And they’d get a taste for what it’s like to live in a part of the country where cars are necessary. And if they raised an objection to being singled out?

Hooey, says Red America.

I’m paraphrasing.

Amazon Honor SystemClick Here to PayLearn More
c.. 1995-2004 j. lileks