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$4 gas – it's our fault

The 1970s energy crisis shocked us into action. Then we resumed bad habits.

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One of my favorite newspaper comic strips as a child was the Katzenjammer Kids, about two mischievous boys who were always getting caught red-handed and spanked.

The final frame of the cartoon often showed a wily kid named Rollo, who would point to the wailing Katzenjammers and explain to their tutor, "They brought it on themselves, Miss Twiddle!"

Today, with gasoline prices climbing past $4 a gallon, and diesel near $5, I am reminded of the Katzenjammers. As Rollo might say, "We brought it on ourselves, Uncle Sam!"

More than 30 years have passed since the first "energy crisis" pummeled the American economy. It hurt. People lost jobs. Prices for gasoline went way up, people waited in long lines to refuel, and some service stations even ran dry.

What have Americans done since? Not nearly enough. And that explains some of our current distress.

When the first crisis struck in the 1970s, Congress, the White House, and the Big Three automakers all initially responded. Cars were downsized. Engines were made smaller and more efficient. Highway speed limits were cut to 55 miles per hour. Tough, new gas mileage requirements were imposed.

All this got results. Average fuel economy for new cars and light trucks rose from 13.1 miles per gallon in 1975 to 22 mpg in 1987. Automakers cut the average weight of vehicles from 4,060 pounds to 3,221 pounds. Engine horsepower declined from 137 to a more thrifty 118.

The effect was so dramatic that it scared the living daylights out of the oil giants such as Saudi Arabia and Iran by showing them that Americans could get along without so much of their expensive oil. Supplies soon rose and prices dropped. Then America went back to sleep.


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