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Tap America's spirit of sacrifice

People are driving less because of high gas prices. What else might they give up?

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Americans can be good at collective sacrifice. During World War II, they were encouraged to buy war bonds and lived with rationed gas, coal, and foods. During the 1970s oil crisis, they had to slow down to 55 m.p.h. But what about now, when the country faces pricey challenges, from global warming to over-heated healthcare costs?

Historically, it has usually taken a crisis, accompanied by a rallying cry from the Oval Office, to encourage people to tighten belts or shoulder a common burden.

Today, it's gas prices as high as a Dubai skyscraper. For the first time in decades, Americans are doing without on a national scale – driving less, taking the bus more, and ditching roomy SUVs for small cars.

It's encouraging that people are responding on their own. Imagine how they might react if they were publicly petitioned to sacrifice for such urgent problems as crumbling transport and overextended entitlements?

For political leaders to tap a burden-sharing mood, the public needs to recognize the acuteness of an issue. With infrastructure, that's obvious. Just ask anyone stuck in America's congested airports or concerned about its weak bridges.

In order to satisfy just surface-transport needs, though, states and the feds must invest at least $225 billion a year for the next five decades. They're paying less than half that. Citizens in more than a dozen states have agreed to higher gas taxes in recent years. But more user fees will be required in tolls, congestion fees, and a higher federal gas tax.

A challenge such as global warming is not as visibly dramatic as a collapsed bridge in Minneapolis. Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," raised awareness, and opinion surveys show many Americans now willing to adjust their thermostats to reduce carbon emissions.

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