SYNOPSIS: Bush hasn't been thinking critically about Energy Use and Economics When asked whether Americans should make any changes in their lifestyle to address energy problems, Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, waxed eloquent: "The American way of life is a blessed one. We have a bounty of resources in this country. What we need to do is make certain that we're able to get those resources . . . into the hands of consumers so they can make the choices that they want to make as they live their lives day to day."

So now we know how they're going to play it. Over the next few months Dick Cheney and friends will insist that their conservation-is-for-wimps energy policy isn't about defending business interests; it's about freedom and anyone who disagrees is an elitist who doesn't trust Americans to make their own choices.

But you don't have to be an elitist to think that the nation has lately been making some bad choices about energy use, and about lifestyles more generally. Why? Because the choices we make don't reflect the true costs of our actions.

Consider, for example, the problem of traffic congestion.

Last week's Urban Mobility Report by the Texas Transportation Institute got a lot of well-deserved press attention. The report showed that it's not our imagination: traffic really has gotten much worse over the last few years. What it didn't say, but clearly implied, was that there is a growing disconnect between private incentives and public consequences.

When you or I decide to drive during "congested time" what we used to call "rush hour," but which now lasts about six hours every day we make that congestion a bit worse, and thereby impose a cost on all the other people who are trying to get somewhere. (And they do the same to us we are all both perpetrators and victims.) That's a very real cost, in time and money; but it's a cost we as individuals don't take into account.

How big is this hidden cost? I've made some rough calculations for greater Atlanta, which has come to epitomize urban sprawl. In 1999, the average Atlanta resident lost 53 hours to traffic delays, compared with only 25 hours as recently as 1992. Over all, traffic congestion cost Atlanta $2.6 billion in 1999; had delays been no worse than in 1992, that cost would have been $1.4 billion less.

Why did Atlanta's traffic get so much worse? The main answer is that despite billions spent on highway construction, the roads have been clogged with ever more cars: between 1992 and 1999 vehicle registrations rose by 550,000. Not all of those vehicles were used during congested periods; I would guess that an extra 400,000 cars were actually driven during peak times. Those 400,000 cars were responsible for the extra congestion cost.

Do the arithmetic and you find that each individual's decision to commute by car in Atlanta imposes congestion costs of $3,500 per year, or $14 per workday, on other people. These are costs over and above the costs actually paid by the driver himself that is, they are costs that drivers don't take into account. And this number does not take into account environmental impacts (air quality in Atlanta is steadily deteriorating).

Suppose for a moment that anyone who chose to commute by car in Atlanta actually had to pay $14 per day for the privilege. No doubt some people would still choose to live in distant suburbs and drive long distances and that would be their right. But as it stands, driving in Atlanta and to a lesser degree in every other American metropolitan area is in effect heavily subsidized, because people don't have to pay for the costs they impose on others.

Which brings us back to the administration's energy policy.

George W. Bush, according to Mr. Fleischer, "believes that the American people are very wise and that, given the right incentives, they will . . . make their own right determinations about how much they can conserve. . . ." Unctuousness aside, he has a point. Right now, however, our system doesn't give people the right incentives. So you might imagine that an administration seriously concerned about the nation's future would give a high priority to getting those incentives right to making Americans take into account the costs their actions impose on other Americans.

Oh, never mind. Cost economic and environmental is no object when you're defending a blessed lifestyle, especially if it means burning more fossil fuels.

Originally published in The New York Times, 5.12.01