That’s the big question left by the release of a new poll from the Web site www.40MPG.com and the Civil Society Institute, which enlisted the Opinion Research Corp. to conduct a poll on American attitudes toward price gouging and the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Of note: the Web site and the Institute profess to being nonpartisan. However, a quick read of the Institute’s Web site, reveals a host of pet causes including global warming and universal healthcare that would hardly be keynote speeches at a Republican or Libertarian political gathering.
Regardless of orientation, some of the survey’s findings have a ring of credence. They do seem to have been worded to wring out emotional responses from those polled, however. Nine out of ten respondents said they believed oil companies were gouging customers, while four out of five said the government wasn’t doing enough about high prices and American energy dependence on the Middle East.
Taking on the question of price gouging alone is a difficult one in times like this, because charges of price gouging are inevitably an emotional reaction to the pocketbook squeeze. To some, price gouging is a symptom of a market economy run amok. But this survey doesn’t ask these critical questions in the right way. What is price gouging? Prominent libertarian critics like talk radio star and Fair Tax author Neal Boortz would say there is no such thing. And when people complain about high gas prices, they forget decades of cheap gas just past. The facts are that America has the most extensive energy platform in the world and has had energy cheaper than some countries awash in oil. In this deadly hurricane season, no one has had the chance to ask who will pay to rebuild the damaged drilling platforms in the Gulf, or to stitch together the net of pipelines ruptured during last year’s Hurricane Ivan and worked over more by Katrina. Or, who pays for the exploration that busts without a single barrel being pumped from the ground.
Other questions in the 40MPG survey appear more reasonable—until you deconstruct them. The survey says three of four Americans say the price hikes make it more important that the government boost fuel efficiency standards. And four out of five say that American companies should follow Toyota’s lead and convert their fleets to hybrid power. It’s difficult to argue with these contentions, unless you believe in free markets. In thirty years of fuel-economy mandates, buying habits haven’t changed in the U.S. In fact, buyers have shown their predilection for vehicles that get about the same gas mileage, on average, as they did when CAFE came into being.
As TCC’s Mike Davis reminds me, nobody wants to drive the vehicles that get 40 mpg today, with the possible exception of the Toyota Prius. “One of the few legitimate 40-mpg cars was the Toyota Echo which they pulled from the market a few months ago because they couldn't give them away. I want to see ANY 40 mpg vehicle hauling a trailer, not to mention a family with three children and luggage,” Davis says.
Lastly, it’s hard to imagine the logical contortions surveyors had to engage in to get the right answer to the question of oil company profits. According to the survey, 76 percent of people who identify themselves as Republicans would support "a tax on the windfall profits of oil companies" if the money was spent on alternative energy research. Is there a disconnect here in the their interpretation of Republicanism? Or is there some secret cache of voters who really believe in less government and less friction for business AND believe that a “windfall” of profits is something to be taxed?
Numbers like these should make us all think about how snap polls can inaccurately portray a situation and the true sentiments of the public. Or the motivations of the people who ask the questions.