The Leadership I Want President Obama To Show on Gas Prices
He we go again. Thanks to the unwillingness of most Americans to arrange their lives, and/or pay extra for alternative technologies, to reduce our dependence on imported oil during the 39 years since the Arab Oil boycott of 1973, the U.S. once again faces a potential economic and foreign policy crisis. Iran is threatening to close the Straight of Hormuz, gas prices are rising, and the U.S. is facing the possibility of yet another recession caused by oil prices and yet another war to keep its economic drug coming. It is a political crisis too, because many Americans seem to believe it is the federal government’s job to keep gasoline cheap, and blame the President when the price goes up. A recent poll referenced in this article said that Americans considered gas prices the third most important issue. So what do I want President Obama to do about it? Show leadership, as I define it, for perhaps the first time in his administration.
As I noted in my review of Mayor Bloomberg’s first two terms, the job of a public executive is in reality three jobs. Management, as CEO of a large multi-function enterprise. Policy, because in combination with the legislative branch the executive helps to determine the direction of the government. And Leadership, because the President is a leader (one of many leaders in both the public and private sectors) of Americans, with an ability to influence how they live and what they believe, above and beyond the role of government and its ability to compel people to do or not do things. What I want the President to do about gas prices is help Americans, not all of them just those willing, to organize themselves to use less gasoline. Right now, independently of government policy or programs. Those unwilling, the whiners, would benefit from lower prices as well.
What I want President Obama to do over the next few months is to help organize Americans, just those willing and probably mostly those younger, into a dynamic carpooling organization or organizations. The organizations would feature drivers and riders, with the drivers agreeing to carry riders on every motor vehicle trip they took and riders agreeing either not to own their own motor vehicle, or to own just one per family rather than one per adult. Perhaps 15 to 20 minutes before they wanted to leave, both drivers and riders would use cell phones to connect to a computer that would match their trips, based on their origins and destinations. The match would be based on a series of linked trips, as up to three riders were picked up and dropped off. The driver would be guided along this route by a GPS system. There would, in other words, be a separate carpool formed for each trip.
Each rider would pay a fixed fare, collected by the club, set slightly higher than the cost of a comparable mass transit ride for the near equivalent of a taxi or limousine ride. The service would be available for trips and in places where mass transit was not available, feasible or cost effective, which is to say most of the U.S. The riders would avoid not only the cost of gasoline, as in a traditional carpool where their own cars were left at home, but also the cost of buying, insuring and maintaining their own motor vehicle. Or, in the case of a family, avoid the cost of having one motor vehicle for each adult rather than just one per family. The annual savings per rider could come to $3,000 to $5,000, particularly now that cheap credit to buy cars is less available and the price of used cars is much higher.
Most of the fare paid by the riders would go to the driver. That income, which could also be $3,000 to $5,000 per year, could offset much of the cost of their motor vehicle. For those whose old cars were nearing the end of their lives, it might even be the income that allowed them to buy new cars.
Some of the rider’s fare would be kept by the dynamic carpooling organization, to pay for those operating the computers and producing and updating the software, those manning phones to provide customer service assistance, and profit – because the organization or organizations would be new businesses, not government agencies.
And some of the riders’ fare would go for commissions to members of the sales organization, which would operate through home-based parties like Tupperware. The sales force would recruit people into dynamic carpooling, show them how to use the system, and receive perhaps a quarter for every ride taken by a rider they had recruited. More importantly, the sales force would agree to step in to transport riders who might otherwise be stranded, allowing the rides to be guaranteed. This could be an immediate source of extra income to the forcibly retired, and a job for those having difficulty breaking into the labor force. Not necessarily a high paid job. Not necessarily a full time job. But a “right now” job with a mission that people could be proud of.
What I am proposing is not just a way for people who work the same schedule every day to go to work, as in a traditional carpool. What I am proposing is a way for people to get everywhere at all different times. One possible market, in fact, would be the soon-to-be soaring number of baby boomers who are too old to drive safely but living in places where there is no other way to get anywhere. It would be a way for younger seniors to earn a few extra bucks moving older seniors around.
This idea is not new, and obviously if it were easy it would have been done already. It hasn’t happened because a few generations of Americans couldn’t be bothered. But it also hasn’t happened because of logistical challenges. The programming for the computer matching is not easy. Rather than figuring out the best route for one fixed trip, as Mapquest, Google Maps and GPS systems do now, the program would have to select the best set of linked trips among perhaps hundreds of thousands of possible combinations, minimizing travel time and taking into account driver and rider preferences as told to the organization (conversation vs. quiet, music, etc).
But more importantly, for such a system to work a miracle of community organizing would have to occur. If there were tens of thousands of people participating in a dynamic carpooling organization in a metro area, there would nearly always be a match to allow riders to get where they were going. They would have little risk of getting stranded, and perhaps missing work, church, a doctor’s appointment, or picking up their children at school. But without tens of thousands of people already participating, the availability of trips would be spotty, and people couldn’t really get by without their own car, or with one car per family rather than one car per adult. Simply put it’s a huge chicken and egg problem that would require a huge social movement perhaps driven by social media to overcome.
Here is where President Obama could step in. What was his most impressive achievement? The 2008 campaign, before he ever became President. To get elected he had to mobilize, organize and inspire hundreds of thousands of people, without the resources of a government. To get re-elected he will have to do so again, in a country where many people are dispirited by four years of recession, and feeling powerless about their own economic future. Young people unable to get jobs, or underemployed in low wage jobs, and facing a diminished standard of living. Laid off workers in late middle age who either remain unemployed, or been forced to take jobs that pay far less (40 percent on average). Everyone facing higher gas prices. Hope comes with action, and is lost when people feel helpless and think there is nothing they can do. Is there?
Some people living in some places could shift to mass transit, and have done so, but mass transit is not available everywhere. In fact, funding for mass transit has been slashed during the recession, and the President’s political opponents keep trying to slash it more. Some people living in some places can make some trips by bicycle, and more are doing so. I do so myself. This should be encouraged. But for Obama to do so as President is to allow those opposed to him to claim he doesn’t care about those who can’t, or don’t want to, choose those options, that he is trying to force them on people. That’s what our Generation Greed politicians are like, and I don’t just mean the Republicans. Their constituencies are the most selfish aspects of the most selfish people on their most selfish days. “What about my needs?”
If President Obama was capable of organizing the campaign of 2008, then he is capable of organizing a dynamic carpooling system (or different systems in a few different metro areas) in 2012. He would need to publicly challenge those in IT to create the required matching/GPS systems that such organizations would need. And challenge Americans, not all but just those willing, to join together in a new form of community to benefit not only themselves, not only each other, but also the country as a whole. To do something about gas prices and dependence of foreign oil and not just complain, and to create jobs and a source of income or savings for those who need it.
Separate from the government, the President could ask people to sign up if they were willing to live without a car if rides were available, or to offer those rides in their motor vehicle every single time they were taking a trip, or to serve as the sales force for the metro area. In those metro areas where a critical mass shown to be present, those who signed up would be matched with those who had developed the requisite computer programs. Those metro areas that took the lead would end up with the headquarters and call center assistance jobs for the organizations. One or more dynamic carpooling organizations could be created in one or more metro areas, and if it worked, they could then spread around the country in competition with each other.
The President could make a particular appear to those who share his political values, to those who share his religious values, and/or to those seeking community but unable to afford the limited number of economically and socially viable central cities with older walkable neighborhoods and mass transit, and stranded in places where they feel isolated. Such cities have become relatively expensive, because the supply of them is far less than the demand for them, particularly among the young. There needs to be a different way of life for a new generation, with less money perhaps, but not necessarily with a lesser life. They need to believe that they can have a good life without spending far more than they earn, as older generations have.
Separate from but sharing something in common with the campaign, this movement could be a way to make it once again more than just a campaign. It would not require Congressional approval. It would not involve a public policy that allowed the President’s opponents to claim that someone who doesn’t share their values was trying to force a lifestyle down their throats. It would be a way for the President to say those seeking to move forward could avoid being stranded by the choices made by others. And a way to have them getting together socially, if only briefly, all the time.
Well, there you have it. I have all the details available, if the Obama Administration (or more relevantly the campaign) is interested, and I’m not hard to find. In a country where the future has been hobbled by the shortsighted choices of the past, where the government’s ability to create positive change is hobbled by debt and division, there is nothing to prevent the President from showing leadership. The young, in particular, elected President Obama last time, and they are looking at a future with less money, fewer prospects – and increasingly without their own cars. If they don’t show up in November, it’s bye bye Obama.
If the President is unable or unwilling to show leadership, he believes it is too risky, he might as well join with his fellow politicians and appeal to the most selfish instincts of the most selfish Americans. By promising $2.50 a gallon gasoline and proposing to cut the gas tax -- without taking responsibility for the associated ongoing decline of our infrastructure – for example. There is a reason why I am not a Republican, or a Democrat. As far as I’m concerned, the period in 2008 when candidate McCain and candidate Hillary Clinton pandered by promising to cut the federal gas tax, and President Obama distinguished himself by saying the only real was to spend less on oil was to use less oil, was the moment that made his last campaign.
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