Claim: Obama wants higher gas prices. Is this necessarily bad?

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (a rumored Republican presidential candidate) suggested today that Obama wants higher gas prices:

Barbour…accused the Obama administration Wednesday of favoring a run-up in gas prices to prod consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars…

Barbour cited 2008 comments from Steven Chu, now President Barack Obama’s energy secretary, that a gradual increase in gasoline taxes could coax consumers into dumping their gas-guzzlers and finding homes closer to where they work. Chu, then a Nobel Prize-winning professor, argued that higher costs per gallon could force investments in alternative fuels and spur cleaner energy sources.

Barbour said Obama’s energy team wouldn’t be happy until gas prices reached $9 a gallon.

Barbour goes on to say that there are two primary negative consequences of higher gas prices: it hurts workers and it hurts the larger economy. In a troubled economic period, Barbour is suggesting that Obama is willing to risk a prolonged economic crisis in order to promote things like electric cars and clean energy.

But this is really a larger issue and affects multiple dimensions of American life. Let’s assume that raising gas prices cuts down on driving and gas consumption overall – and there is evidence to back this up. There could be some benefits to this:

1. This would limit our dependence on foreign nations forĀ  oil. What has happened in the Middle East in recent weeks can have an impact on our economy because we import so much oil. Some have gone so far as to say that this is a “national security issue.”

2. Using less gasoline would lead to lower levels of pollution.

3. Having more expensive gasoline may reign in sprawl, or at least make living in denser areas (cities or denser suburbs) more attractive. (See an example of this argument here.) In the long run, higher gas prices could be viewed by some as a threat (or by some as a welcome deterrent) to the sprawling suburban lifestyle that many Americans have adoptedĀ  since the end of World War II. Higher fuel prices would likely impact driving trips, fast-food restaurants, and trucking costs, all key pieces to the typical suburban lifestyle. One could argue that the American lifestyle of the last 65 years has been made possible by relatively cheap gasoline – and life would change if it was consistently at European price levels.

There could be other impacts as well including more walking and bicycling (cheaper, less pollution, better for health) and less time wasted due to traffic and congestion.

It bears watching how this rhetoric over gas prices continues. Is it simply a matter of a short-term (lower prices to help the economy) vs. a long-term perspective (higher prices help limit some negative consequences of driving) or could this turn into a debate about how driving (and cheap gasoline) is closely linked to the essence of American life?