Saturday 23 February 2013

The whining, wheedling voice of the motor lobby

Since soon after the automobile was invented, a constant, influential refrain in public policy debate has been that whining, wheedling voice of special pleading emanating from the motor lobby, insinuating that motoring is somehow uniquely linked to economic prosperity and national wellbeing – be it a case of lobbying for employment subsidies, or more motor infrastructure, or less taxation, or no more increases in taxation, or other subsidies for motoring. In modern times this voice has been run a close second by the equally whining voice of the air transport industry, but air transport is still a small part of the economy compared to King Car.

So it is that:
The Automobile Association (AA) is warning that rising petrol prices are forcing drivers off the road. 
The group is calling on the chancellor to cancel a planned rise on duty in September.
Paul Watters of the AA is the genuine whining, wheedling voice of the motor lobby. He tells us in this video, broadcast across all BBC's news outlets yesterday, as if it were a bad thing that:
Up to 70% of our members are cutting back on driving, or cutting back on spending, or doing both.
We know fuel prices are high, and this is linked to recession. If people are driving less, this is either linked to them having to drive less, for one reason or another (e.g. less work around), or them making smarter, more environmentally-friendly travel choices (including travelling less, or finding ways to do the same work with less travelling). The latter is a good effect that is being achieved by higher fuel prices.

But what is this "cutting back on spending" Mr Watters talks about? This is unclear. Does he mean cutting back on spending on fuel? That doesn't make sense, as he's also telling us that fuel is more expensive. He seems to be insinuating that high fuel prices cause less spending in the rest of the economy, and therefore lowering prices, or lessening the burden of tax, will benefit the economy: the classic plea to politicians from the cohort of the petrol-addicted.

Of course there is less spending in general, but this is because of the recession. A shift of taxation away from fuel would effectively be a subsidy towards imports, as most fuel is imported, requiring heavier taxation elsewhere in the domestic economy to balance it up, which would be more damaging to economic recovery. Lowering the tax burden on motorists will also imply raising it on non-motorists, people who are trying to do "the right thing" by environment (or just doing it accidentally or through force of circumstance), and be a perverse incentive.

Since in the UK however, the "motorist" is perceived to be the average person, this whining, wheedling plea is one that politicians traditionally find it almost impossible to resist.