Most Important Headline: Behavior Change

Each
of the major papers has to choose one story to have the most prominent
headline.  Today, USA Today chose this one:

href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-05-17-gas-prices_N.htm">

href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-05-17-gas-prices_N.htm">Drivers
cut back — a 1st in 26 years


By Paul Overberg and Larry Copeland, USA TODAY




The
average American motorist is driving substantially fewer miles for the
first time in 26 years because of high gas prices and demographic
shifts, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal highway data...



The
growth in miles driven has leveled off dramatically in the past 18
months after 25 years of steady climbs despite the addition of more
than 1 million drivers to the nation's streets and highways since 2005.
Miles driven in February declined 1.9% from February 2006 before
rebounding slightly for a 0.3% year-over-year gain in March, data from
the Federal Highway Administration show. That's in sharp contrast to
the average annual growth rate of 2.7% recorded from 1980 through
2005...



Why is this the most important headline?  Because it
illustrates an actual change in the behavior of a large group of
people.  Most of the other headlines are more of the same:
Palestinian/Israeli conflict, scandals, politics, business, you know
the drill.  This one shows a real change.  



NYT: href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/19/business/media/19soft-web.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin">Microsoft
to Buy Online Ad Company

WaPo: href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/18/AR2007051800198.html?hpid=topnews">Progress
on Iraq War Funding Bill Stymied

LAT: href="http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-lausd19may19,0,5068123.story?coll=la-home-center">Villaraigosa
ends bid to take control of LAUSD



Perhaps you have wondered why a psychiatrist would blog about economics
and politics and environmentalism so much.  The reason is
simple.  They all are, at the core, very narrow slices of the
study of human behavior.  



It is a nice gesture to turn out the lights when you leave the living
room to go into the kitchen.  Saves us from having to push a
few electrons around.  But you know perfectly well that the
gesture is not going to make any difference.  



What will make a difference is to get millions of people to start using
compact fluorescent bulbs.  Likewise, you could go out a buy a
Prius, and make a little difference.  But it doesn't really
matter.  What matters is getting millions of people to drive
less.  If millions of people drive less, And if that trend
continues year after year, it will make a huge difference.  



Getting people to change their behavior on a large scale is a
challenging task.  Especially when you are asking them to give
up some kind of short-term reward.  



The fact that American drivers are driving less is huge news.
 Good, in a way, because it means that people are really
starting to change their behavior, on a large scale, in an
environmentally friendly way.  



I worry a bit that it might be bad news for the economy, since the
cornerstone of the world economy is American consumer spending, and
consumers might not be spending so much if they are not driving so
much.  Or maybe they are not working so much.  



On the other hand, it may be that the only thing that will save the
planet at this point would be an economic meltdown.




UPDATE: this headline was pointed out to me: AP Centerpiece: More people leaving power lines and going "off the grid". So behavior is changing in at least two ways.



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I read the article in USA Today, and I was a bit confused. My reading was that drivers are *not driving less* than they were, they are just driving less than they might have if they had driven as much as might have been expected. I.e., they specifically say that the *rate of growth* of driving slowed to its lowest level, but was still *positive*.

This, to me, reads like that nonsense "green house gas intensity" stuff, where it is cast as a great accomplishment simply to slow the growth rate, rather than actually get to zero (stable) or negative (reversing the growth).

It is confusing, the way they present the data, and they seem to say two different things. It would help if they had shown a couple of graphs, one showing the trend in number of miles driven per month, and one showing the miles driven per person on a month-to-month basis.

The sentence I keyed on was this one:

During the past 18 months, the nation's population and workforce have grown by just over 1% a year, so an annual gain of 0.3% indicates a decrease in miles per person.

I worry a bit that it might be bad news for the economy, since the cornerstone of the world economy is American consumer spending, and consumers might not be spending so much if they are not driving so much.
I think the bad news for the economy has been that people have been spending far beyond their means and a slowdown in rise of personal debt has to be seen as good news. How many people pay at the pump with credit cards? A slowdown in the rate of fuel consumption, and consequently, spending in general, may just be the road to stabilization we have to travel.
Adjustments in behavior are gradual and any indication that consumption is slowing is good. We have to apply the brakes before we can stop.