Why I need an SUV in the city: The importance of the 'sympathetic principle'

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
30 May, 2022

Tune in to enough climate change events in Wellington, and you’re bound to hear someone claim that nobody living in a city needs an SUV.

Leave aside for now that fuel companies must hand in carbon credits through the Emissions Trading Scheme to cover every bit of carbon dioxide coming from tailpipes. The government only issues so-many credits. When a fuel company buys a carbon credit for your tailpipe and passes the cost along to you, one fewer net tonne is emitted elsewhere.

Leave aside as well that rising carbon prices make less fuel-efficient vehicles more expensive to drive – and we all should be expecting those prices to keep rising.

A more basic point presses.

How could anyone so confidently claim to know what other people need?

In The Conversation last week, Otago University Senior Research Fellow Jen Purdie said, “There is no need for massive SUVs in an urban setting and they are too often used as a status symbol rather than a workhorse.”

It is a very common claim.

Some believe it so fervently that they are prepared to vandalise SUVs.

Economists’ basic training warns us that none of us can peer into others’ souls to know what choices are best for them. We know not their preferences, the constraints that they face, the goals they wish to achieve, or their vision of the good life.

We can only really make inferences about what people value based on how their choices change as relative costs change.

And a good economist will at least try to adopt what Adam Smith called the “sympathetic principle”.

In short, putting yourself into another person’s shoes is not enough. A more sympathetic perspective is needed, taking seriously that others’ preferences, values, and constraints may not be yours.

Failing to do so leads to hubris and error.

If you cannot imagine why a city-dweller might want an SUV, other than as a status symbol, you may not be trying to understand things from the other person’s perspective.

To aid in that understanding, here is why we bought a Mazda CX-8 diesel in November. It is an SUV. And it was the best solution we could find to the problem we faced.

We are a city-dwelling family with two kids – one rapidly approaching adult-size. When my parents visit, they stay for two to three months, living and travelling around with us.

Our 2008 Honda Odyssey had 180,000 kilometres on it and had become unreliable.

Any replacement should handle six people comfortably when put to that service. It should be reliable, as we are a one-car family and time in the shop is a hassle.

I wanted a decent safety rating, and I wanted it to be relatively fuel-efficient. Fuel is expensive. Rising carbon prices will make it more expensive.

And the car had to be available to purchase, rather than being on a wait list. We were set to drive down to Christchurch for the summer and wanted it before then.

If your circumstances require a vehicle able to handle 6 people, then you’re either looking at an SUV or a people-mover. And a passably comfortable third row with larger kids means it won’t be a tiny SUV.

The 2008 Odyssey had been the perfect solution for us in 2014. The older second-hand Japan-import Odysseys were low-slung, did not want for power, were relatively fuel-efficient, and handled like a hatchback. The newer ones are ungainly.

We tried a Mazda CX-9, but it seemed too big to avoid scrapes in Wellington parking garages. Toyota’s hybrid Highlander had a long wait for delivery and was about as big as the CX-9.

The CX-8 seemed perfect for us in 2021. And, funnily enough, it rates well on the government’s Gen Less climate action website. The CX-8 diesel SUV costs less per kilometre, all up, than the Odyssey people-mover.

Carbon costs are already worked into fuel prices, so running cost comparisons include emissions. And the diesel’s costs were comparable to Mitsubishi’s hybrid SUV, which gets a worse rating from critics, and less than Toyota’s hybrid Highlander.

When Minister Shaw was questioned on Q&A about vandals letting down people’s tyres, he said that while the Green Party supports direct non-violent action, this action is probably counterproductive.

It’s worse than counterproductive. It is ignorant of how the Emissions Trading Scheme works. It is fundamentally unsympathetic toward others. And it is wrong.

And the ETS gave the Minister the potential for a far better answer: “Our government set a cap on net emissions, putting a real price on carbon. Every family will be faced with choices as carbon prices rise. That’s the beauty of a carbon price: everyone finds the solutions that work best for them. If that solution is an SUV, have a little sympathy. Its owner’s circumstances may not be yours.”

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