We Americans sure love our cars. And why shouldn't we? Sure, the price of gas may be near its record nationwide, $2.76 per gallon on average this week, but it's startlingly cheap compared to most countries in Western Europe. The most recent prices per gallon of gasoline are $6.48 in Holland and $5.97 in Italy. Gasoline prices are probably on the upswing, considering that the price of crude oil — the main component in gasoline — hit $87.61 per barrel yesterday. But we're used to gasoline being pretty cheap over the long-term. I can easily remember a time when $1.50 per gallon sounded pricy. Thus, American society is structured around the assumption of gasoline's ongoing cheapness. It's not unusual for many suburbanites to commute an hour or more to work and back with much of it stuck in traffic. Carpooling is exceedingly rare, and the percentage of those driving alone to work has been increasing since 2000. Soccer moms frequently drive large SUVs or Hummers that get gas mileage in the low teens, even though I doubt they get the chance to do much off-roading in their free time. It is not a stretch to assert that the price of gasoline in the United States does not take into account the negative externalities caused by our excessive oil consumption. The government obviously has a compelling interest in the regulation of a heavily polluting nonrenewable resource that we import largely from the most unstable region on Earth, the Middle East. The best way the government can reduce our gasoline usage is through some tough love: by raising the federal gasoline tax from its current 18.4 cents to a dollar or more per gallon. Setting aside the political difficulty of raising taxes on something as sacred to Americans as their ability to drive, an increased gasoline tax has the potential to kill a large number of birds with one stone. In addition to conserving fuel, it is likely to reduce traffic, incentivize smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, reduce suburban sprawl and decrease our reliance on foreign energy sources. As any economist will tell you, incentives are important. Whenever something gets more expensive, you buy less of it. Gasoline consumption has been shown to be relatively inelastic in the United States, or in other words, price increases cause relatively small decreases in demand. This is due to very rational behavior. If you bought a gas-guzzler when gas was a $1 per gallon, it's very expensive to just junk your old car and go out and buy a Toyota Prius Hybrid as soon as prices get up to $3. And even for those who can afford it, many expect the prices to go back down at some point because it's happened before. The Middle East calms down, summer driving season ends, and a vehicle exchange may turn out not to have been worth it. A larger federal gasoline tax would eliminate this problem. As soon as Americans realize that gas prices are never going to go below $3 per gallon again, paying that extra money for the fuel-efficient car is assured to be worthwhile. Global warming is a huge and growing problem that the United States will have to face now or down the road. Of course, the longer the government waits to enact policies to reduce carbon and other emissions, the more drastic the policy choices will have to be. Transportation accounts for about a quarter of energy use in the United States and is mostly reliant on polluting fossil fuels like petroleum. A gasoline tax is a much more effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the development of clean-burning fuels like ethanol. This is because of the vast energy inputs associated with the production of ethanol, especially the corn-based ethanol predominant in the Midwest. Critics of higher gasoline taxes will note that it disproportionately impacts the poor. My solution would be to use part of the gasoline tax revenues to replace the income of the poor with low-income tax credits. It's also important that the tax increase be phased in over time, perhaps by just a few cents every month, so people have time to prepare for it, and it doesn't have adverse economic consequences. The rest of the tax revenue should ideally be used to subsidize practical renewable energies and energy-efficient technologies to further reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The United States has always been a fiercely independent, pioneering nation. But the American Dream, consisting of a large house in the suburbs sitting on nearly an acre of land and a garage full of gas-guzzling SUVs is no longer sustainable. Those who impose clear costs on society should have to pay for the privilege because after all, we all pay indirectly. Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and economics.