Friday, March 2, 2012

High Gas

Some recent news from the States has made me think of a time back at the end of 2007 when my sister came over from Georgia for a visit. 

We were returning from showing her something of Helsinki when I stopped to fill up our smallish family-sized car (seats six), which was down to about a quarter of a tank.  My sister offered to pay for the gas, though we’d only been doing normal driving, nothing really extra on her account.  I appreciated her offer, but refused. 

The reason was that, as an American unfamiliar with Finnish gas prices, she didn’t realize what she was offering.  It didn’t make sense for her to pay so much, just because we had driven her around a bit.  That perfectly routine fill-up, as I recall, cost 80 dollars.  For 10 gallons of gas.  Eight-dollar gas is pretty normal for Finns, but not so much for Americans. 

The average price of gas here has gone up even more in the four years since my sister’s visit and is now almost $9 a gallon.  Even that price is deceptively low, in dollar terms.  If the euro weren’t currently weaker than it was in December 2007, the price would be more like $10.50. 

Prices like that make it easy for us in Finland to find reports of folks in the States becoming almost apoplectic over the prospect of five-dollar gas almost amusing.  To paraphrase Dustin Hoffman in “Wag the Dog”:  “Five dollar gas?  That’s nothing!  That is nothing!” 

That European gas is expensive is well known in the States, and may be one more reason some Americans are chilled to the bone when politicians like Mitt Romney evoke the specter of the US turning into – God forbid – “Europe”. 

And it’s probably also well known that this price gap is largely due to taxes.  Take for example, my home state of Georgia.  The current tax on a gallon of gas in Georgia seems to be 29 cents.  Compare that to an equivalent of $3.30 in tax that Finnish motorists pay per gallon, over 10 times more.  Strip away the tax, and the price of gasoline here is only one and a half times the current US price. 

Like most Europeans, Finns are used to high gas and are, in fact, luckier than many others, such as the Italians or the oil-rich Norwegians, who are now reportedly paying a dollar more per gallon than the Finns.  I was recently in Portugal, where we noticed gas prices were about the same as in Helsinki, despite Portugal’s generally poorer economy and lower incomes. 

It seems to me that Finns are quite tolerant of gas prices that in America would almost spark a revolution because, unlike Americans, most Finns see car ownership or cheap fuel as nice to have, but not essential for life itself. 

It’s no secret that government tax policy here is designed to “shape” the behavior of drivers, and it seems to have some effect.  Most middle-class Finnish families have one or two cars, but not more, unlike in the US where on average every family member with a driver’s license has their own vehicle to go with it. 

Those with cars here are also not as quite as impulsive about using them as Americans are.  They’re not in the habit of hopping in the family SUV to drive three or four blocks to buy a gallon of milk.  In our family, we tend to use our two cars more prudently than I would have back in the States. 

Not that we completely deprive ourselves of gas-powered conveyance.  Between daily commuting, shopping trips, and hobby transportation, we certainly get enough use out of our cars, though we do try to avoid really useless trips and combine errands as much as possible.   If we need to run to the store just to pick up an item or two, we usually go on foot (a five-minute walk to the neighborhood grocery) or by bike, or do without until the next day.  Many people here would do the same as a matter of routine, though eight-dollar gas probably does reinforce this eco-friendly mindset. 

I don’t want to sound too smug about it (or Pollyannaish), but I tend to think the higher gas tax is fine.  Any incentive to use less fossil fuel can’t be all bad.  It might not even be necessary, in the case of Finland, where many people’s driving habits might have more to do with their inclination towards a more natural lifestyle than the gas price itself. 

Also, it helps that in Finland, like elsewhere in Europe, there are alternatives to the car.  I wouldn’t say the public transport here is perfect.  For example, when I worked at Nokia a bus commute required two transfers, and took twice as long as driving.  And Finland, like America, has some pretty remote countryside, where bus service is much more limited. 

Still, in Helsinki the bus is often very convenient, especially for trips into town.  A day or two ago, I offered to drive my daughter to my son’s place downtown for a visit, but she refused, choosing to take the bus instead.  There’s no stigma attached to riding the bus, even for teenagers.  Everybody does it sometimes. 

But in the States, the car is king, public transport poor (and mainly for the poor), and a tax, just tax mind you, of $3.00 a gallon would be seen as draconian, cruel even, and practically socialistic.  It’s no great insight that the economic life and lifestyle of Americans have been based on cheap gas. 

If you ask me, they’ve been spoiled – not that this makes higher gas any less devastating for families trying to recover from the Great Recession.  (GOP candidate Rick Santorum has even been claiming lately that high gas was the real cause of the Great Recession.)

I’ve heard that in Iran super cheap gas helps make up for the shortcomings in the political life of Iranians, and it’s tempting to think something similar of the US.  Like “bread and circuses” in ancient Rome, could cheap gas in America be helping to placate a disaffected citizenry? 

Okay, maybe that’s going too far.  But it sometimes seems that way when you consider the distress over the recent spike in gas prices, which has been cited as a new threat to President Obama’s re-election, despite the gradually improving economy.  Gas is that important to US politics.  When the US energy secretary dared to suggest that, in the face of rising prices, greater fuel efficiency should be the country’s goal, not cheaper gas, Newt Gingrich demanded his resignation. 

I doubt Obama’s critics really think he can personally “control” the price of oil (as Stephen Colbert hilariously implied he could do with a single phone call to “the oil companies”).  Still, that doesn’t stop them for blaming him for not opening up every square mile of American landscape to further oil drilling or doing whatever else they think necessary to preserve the God-given right of Americans to cheap gas.


  1. This a great post, Kent. It summarises very well the differences not only in prices, but also in attitudes between Europe and the US. I always thought it was very funny that some of my US friends fume about being stuck in traffic jams as they make their way by car to... the gym to excercise on a treadmill!

  2. Thanks, Olli! That's an excellent point about driving to the gym -- sounds oh so typical.

  3. I wish we had real public transportation in the USA. But of course the energy corporations destroyed what we did have and have prevented it from ever reappearing. This is one reason that all energy company executives should be prosecuted and jailed for life.

    Another reason for cheaper gas prices here is that the USA does, in fact, produce a lot of oil. If we conserved energy at all here we'd easily become an oil exporting nation as we once were.

    Give me good public transportation and I'll be happy to see gas taxes of $3.00 a gallon. Nothing would please me more than not needing to use an automobile to get around so much.