As Gas Prices Soar, the Marketplace Reacts

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A man pumps gas into a Hummer SUV. Amid soaring gas prices throughout the nation, lawmakers are struggling to come up with ways to offer relief to drivers now paying over $3 a gallon.

This was an interesting weekend to go car shopping. We had concluded it was time to replace our trusty Subaru, which after long and faithful service deserved a dignified retirement. So we trolled Consumer Reports and headed off for some test drives, sniffed at the Mazda 3, petted an Impreza, focused on a Focus before falling for the Honda Civic — which thanks to its redesign looks nifty, drives nicely, has more airbags than you can count and, above all, gets 40 mpg on the highway.

But when I went back to one of the Honda dealers this weekend, I found that the Civics had virtually vanished. You may be able to find one, the salesman said, but you'll pay sticker for it, or even a premium above the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

"I don't know what happened," he mused. "All winter long we're selling SUVs, and no one ever asks about the gas mileage. But this week practically everyone who came in here wanted to know, 'What gets the best mileage?' We've never had that happen before. I had nine Civics on the lot last week. I have one left, and I don't know if Honda can make them fast enough."

Even accounting for the blarney of salesmen who will always make their product precious and scarce so you think you'd better act quickly, this still struck me as a harbinger of... something. New York City's northern suburbs, where I live, are home to women who until recently were waiting for the day they could trade their Ford Expedition for an Excursion, maybe some day an Extravaganza that was even more impossible to park. We may shop at Whole Foods and buy hormone-free milk for the kids, but natural sensitivity and ecological awareness stopped at the garage door. As a neighbor once explained to me, when she was behind the wheel of her Expedition, it was the only time she felt completely in control. And as long as gas was cheap, there was no incentive to do anything different, beyond the moral imperative to be good environmental citizens.

But something seemed to change in the conversation over the recent weeks of spring when the warnings about drooping glaciers syncopated with the news of rising energy prices. People aren't about to wait for politicians to take the lead: now it's every buyer, furnace owner and bill payer for himself. One neighbor called me to compare utility bills, to see whether gas or oil was more horrifying. A survey by Standard and Poor's found that family restaurants in the Midwest were hurting because people had decided to eat out less. There's a four-month wait for a Toyota Prius (60 mpg) in south Florida, and a Cadillac dealer was giving away $500 gas cards. A Rhea County school district in Tennessee cancelled classes for two days to save $4000 on fuel for the school buses. People in California talked about switching to motorcycles to get to work.

This time, when politicians reacted as politicians typically do, the public reaction was scathing. Republican senators proposed sending a $100 rebate check to embattled drivers, like an IOU for their collective failure to think seriously about an actual energy policy. Noting the generally derisive response to this plan, the New York Times got to quote Rush Limbaugh on the front page: "What kind of insult is this?" he asked. "Instead of buying us off and treating us like we're a bunch of whores, just solve the problem." But pretty much everyone admitted that none of the proposed solutions would go very far toward doing that. "All too often in the past, the American people have been bought off with short-term political Band-Aids that haven't addressed the real issues." That was Dick Cheney talking to reporters in 2001, a few weeks after he declared in a speech that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

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