Volume 22, Number 3 July 1993
Global Warming and Gasoline Tax, continuationMay I reply to Philip Ryan's attack (April 1993) on my letter (January 1993)? He describes my letter as "criticism of higher gas taxes," but my main intent was to encourage quantitative discussions of this (see also John McGervey's letter, October 1992).
Dr. Ryan begins by misspelling my name, and this lack of attention to detail appears elsewhere in his screed. His suggestion that Americans should pay a higher gas tax because other countries do is fit for the Washington Post but not for a scientific newsletter. He goes on to say that the gas tax "should pay for much more than road construction: --pollution and road accidents, to name just a few." As economist Thomas Sowell points out wryly, liberals expect such propositions to be accepted without proof or debate. Ryan's example of road accidents is a bad one. Through their auto insurance, drivers already pay the real costs of these, and in addition they have to support a welfare program for well-heeled lawyers and predatory "victims" taking advantage of our absurd tort system. Ryan might answer that at least the gas tax should pay for police investigations of road accidents. Well, okay, Dr. Ryan, but how many cents of gas tax would that justify? Even this might be a bad precedent. Should Koreans be taxed to pay for investigations of hate crimes against their grocery stores? Maybe it's better if such costs are paid by society at large, or by the wrongdoers where feasible.
As for making drivers pay for pollution: Well and good, but once again, how many cents would that justify? And can Ryan assure us that a gas tax to abate auto pollution wouldn't be raided to abate other pollution? Why should drivers pay for that? I don't know whether our present gas tax is too high or too low. But I do know that in Maryland it's being raided to support at least two mass-transit systems (Washington suburbs and Baltimore). Why should poor drivers subsidize rich subway riders? That makes no sense to me.
Ryan says a higher price for gas "is the only real way to spur conservation and -- new energy systems." This tired argument is not regarded highly by free-market economists. If we were urged to tax Catholics in order to build more Protestant churches, to provide them alternative religion sources, we would ridicule that idea. If that's the only way to build churches, we would say, maybe we have enough of them already.
Finally, Ryan says a gas tax would "reduce national debt." Drivers may not feel that they alone should pay the national debt. I hope that readers of this exchange between me and Drs. Ryan and McGervey will infer three points: (1) there is no revealed truth about these matters; (2) a quantitative, rather than a hortatory and moralistic, approach may be useful when we are persuading people to pay their fair share; (3) objections by the "common people" to a high gas tax may not be entirely stupid.
James E. Felten
Quantum Theory and Relevant EducationI was interested in your comment "Quantum Theory and Relevant Education" (April 1993). I particularly noticed the sentence, "The universe is quite non-Newtonian, but few students coming out of two semesters of introductory physics would suspect any such thing." There is a reason for that, I believe. I won't argue your statement that the universe is non-Newtonian. But the universe that the students are familiar with when they start studying physics is quite Newtonian. Thus the students' whole array of reflexes, prejudices, and even instincts are Newtonian based. But they are not really aware of this. Moreover, they don't have the background, and not even the vocabulary, to be made aware of it and to begin to grasp the limitations that it implies. And they won't get even "a rough idea of how the universe actually works" until they have acquired some of the background and vocabulary.
I'm not expressing myself too well, and I don't mean to claim that our introductory courses are ideal. I do maintain, though, that we need to start with our students where they are, which is in a milieu that for practical purposes--their purposes--is Newtonian. We then need to enable them to understand how that part of the universe works so that they are in a position to know what we are talking about when we tell them about the non-Newtonian part. Unfortunately, that takes a good deal of time. I'll agree that we can probably get along without the Bohr atom. Even torque and geometric optics may be expendable as subjects. But how do you deal with spinning electrons if you don't have some understanding of angular motion? How do you relate magnetism to atomic structure if you don't know about electric circuits?
I agree that we should start with a goal and decide what we need to teach to reach it. But I am afraid that we need to teach a lot more than you seem to think we do.
George L. Trigg