Who Needs A Hummer?

At a recent dinner party, discussion turned to the environment. My friend, who was hosting, claimed that nobody needs a Hummer. Which is partly true - outside of a few military and off-road applications, most Hummer owners could probably get by just as well with smaller vehicles with better gas mileage.

As it happens, my friend spent last summer on a road trip driving across the continental U.S., camping at various national parks, taking nature photographs, and doing other crunchy sorts of things. He owns a mid-size sedan, which I'm sure gets respectable gas mileage.

So I asked him if he really needed to take this trip. Wasn't this just another form of recreation? What is the difference between burning gasoline to drive thousands of miles touring the country and burning that same amount of gasoline to drive far fewer miles but in a Hummer? If what we care about is the impact fuel usage has on the environment, then we should care about fuel usage - full stop. Choosing to drive tens of thousands of additional miles in a relatively fuel efficient vehicle may be no better for the environment than choosing to drive far fewer miles in a Hummer.

My friend responded that many people drive Hummers for ostentatious reasons, which is surely true. They like to show off their money, and attract attention. But then the same is true for many hybrid car owners, as South Park famously lampooned:

Nobody needs a hummer, just like nobody needs to go on a cross-country road trip, just like nobody needs to attend a friend's dinner party across town. But people enjoy and want to do these things, sometimes for intrinsic reasons, but sometimes for superficial or ostentatious reasons too. As economists like to say, De gustibus non est disputandum - there’s no disputing about taste.

Stephen Colbert, of course, would disagree:

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I think you are missing an important point

Presumably, the Hummer driver enjoys doing so mostly because it gives him pleasure to flaunt his bulging wallet. The difference between him and the road tripper is that the former has many alternative ways to show off his wealth that do not show blatant disdain toward the environment, a resource shared by all of us. The latter has no more efficient way to accomplish the goal of visiting a large number of sites around the country, a goal that probably has much higher intrinsic value anyway.

Full disclosure: I'm the guy who took the road trip.

Moshe, You suggest that the


You suggest that the Hummer driver has many alternative ways to show off his wealth that do not show blatant disdain toward the environment.

Let's assume this is true. Let's assume that the Hummer driver enjoys driving a Hummer mostly for ostentatious reasons (and not for the intrinsic comfort and power of driving a large SUV), and second, that the driver's ostentatious goals could be achieved more efficiently some other way. Let's also assume that the reason the Hummer driver chooses to drive a Hummer and not a more fuel efficient but equally expensive-to-own-and-drive luxury vehicle is not because the Hummer driver is stupid and doesn't know about more environmentally friendly ways to show off, but precisely because the Hummer driver wishes to display blatant disdain toward the environment.

Suppose the Hummer driver derives great intrinsic pleasure from displaying blatant disdain toward the environment. The Hummer driver has no more efficient way to accomplish the goal of displaying blatant disdain toward the environment than by driving a Hummer.

The problem with using efficiency as a critique is that no matter what it is you are trying to do, you should always do so more efficiently rather than less. This is even true if what you are trying to do is waste resources. If we attribute the worst possible motives to Hummer drivers - the motive of wastefulness for the sake of wastefulness - then they are achieving their inefficient ends as efficiently as possible.

What we need is a way of critiquing ends. Efficiency doesn't work because it is a relationship between means and ends, and we can always redefine means to be an end in themselves (as we just did, by assuming the very worst motives).

A method that might work for critiquing ends is a judgment based on resource usage. But then it might turn out that any particular Hummer driver uses less resources (to achieve a higher level of satisfaction) than any particular road tripper.

I do

My wife, who is intelligent and educated, underwent a hormonal change while pregnant. It first manifested when driving past a Mac truck hauling a lowboy full of armored personal carriers. She said, "I want one." Up to this point, we had faithfully driven fuel efficient imports. "Which one, the Mac or the APC?" I asked. "Yes" was her response.

We couldn't afford a Hummer, so we got an Expedition. If we could have bought one, we would have. We were aware that it wasn't a rational desire, but who cares? Once you start demonizing victimless consumption, sooner or later you'll end up in a world without Ice Cream--and who wants that?

I agree no one needs a

I agree no one needs a Hummer. When need isn't tied to an objective (I need a hammer to drive a nail is valid) it means the objective is implicit and belongs to the realm of morality. Need has no place there.

On the other hand, one could certainly make the case that some wants are higher than other, that they better fulfill our human nature, that we ought to prefer them, etc. In that case, I would definitely rank the will to tour the country and the wild higher than the will to impress other people with a large vehicle.

I don't need most of my stuff

Thinking about it, I really don't "need" most of my stuff. Don't need the cell phone, the tv, the computers, the garden, the swimming pool, the house, the neighbors, the dog, the kids, and the wife. I could have been a hermit and lived in a hollow tree somewhere. Much more environmentally friendly too.

Um, have you tried telling

Um, have you tried telling your wife this?

He should tell his wife

He should tell his wife that he may not need a hummer, but he wants a hummer. She might comply. Depends on the woman. And on the timing.

Nobody needs a hummer

Why were you guys talking about some other kind of hummer.

I think this becomes a

I think this becomes a sensitive question because of some of the reasons the post alludes to through the video links. The car you drive is wrapped up in cultural identity. All this stuff is about who you are advertising yourself as being.

If it weren't for this, there is a pretty ready solution that people across the spectrum should for the most part agree with. If someone said this to me I would say: "I agree. At least I can't think of consumer application for which a Hummer is uniquely suited. We should probably charge the owners of these cars for the externalities they create."

It's hard for many people to really get that mad at you with that response. They may not like it, but it's tough to counter.

But the externalities

But the externalities created by Hummers are (mostly) the same as the externalities created by Priuses. The Pigovian tax, to the extent one is justified, should be placed on gallons of gasoline, not on Hummers.

Yes, but I never said that

Yes, but I never said that Prius owners should not pay for their own externalities.

I think your response here highlights the sensitivity of the argument. Saying "Hummer owners should pay for their externalities" isn't actually a liberal or conservative statement. However, it can *feel* like a liberal kind of statement--something a self-important Prius owner might say. That's why your comment feels as if it is a pointing the other direction against the Prius owner. In reality, it's not.

De Gustibus

"As economists like to say, De gustibus non est disputandum - there’s no disputing about taste."

This is so obviously false that it's amazing it continues to live on in common parlance.