WASHINGTON — Americans are grumbling about gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon, but that price would be welcome in many other countries.
AP-Ipsos polling found wide disparities in what people in the U.S. and eight other countries think is a fair price.
Americans grit their teeth as they pump $3-per-gallon gas. They think $2 is about right. In Britain, $3 sounds sweet — people there pay about $6.40 a gallon and think $5 would be fair.
Spaniards would like to see gasoline for just over $3 a gallon. People in France, Italy, Germany and South Korea put the fair market price at $4 or a little more. Australians and Canadians would like to see it just under $3 a gallon. The cost of gas in these countries is higher than in the U.S. — from just over $4 a gallon in Australia to about $6.70 a gallon in Germany.
Americans’ desire for cheap gasoline comes in a country that uses more than its share of the world’s fuel.
The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 20 million barrels of oil a day, about one-fourth of the global total, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
Paying fuel prices that have been substantially higher than U.S. prices for years, Europeans have found alternatives to dependence on cars. In much of the United States, however, people are addicted to the car and view it as essential to social and economic well-being. When gas prices shoot to record levels, it rattles the U.S. economy and depresses consumer confidence.
“This whole country runs on cheap gas,” said Clinton Ahrens, a businessman from Dows, Iowa. Most Americans, he said, have come to expect it over the years.
In much of Europe and elsewhere, gas taxes account for two-thirds or more of the price of gasoline. People in those countries look for high-mileage cars. Public transportation is well-developed.
“The Europeans decided to use tax policy to reduce demand and did so with phenomenal success and they used regulatory policy to promote alternatives like the use of diesel,” said David Goldwyn, an Energy Department official in the Clinton administration. “For the United States it’s difficult to use either tax or regulatory policy for political reasons.”
In the U.S., taxes vary by state but amount to about 20 percent of gas prices. Fuel is cheaper in this country than in most parts of the world, investment in mass transit is minimal, gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks zoom along highways, and politicians talk about increasing gas taxes — or any taxes — at their own risk.
“We do have a sense of entitlement here in the United States,” said Steve Yetiv, a political scientist at Old Dominion University in Virginia who has studied the impact of energy prices. “This stems partly from the individualism that is part of the American fabric — an individualism that prizes freedom of action and prizes the freedom to buy as big a car as you want to buy.”
While Billy Fillers of Sycamore, Ill., drives a Chevy Tahoe on his rounds to do X-ray repairs, his weekly gasoline bill has gone from $60 to $120. But he likes his SUV: “The bigger your vehicle, the faster your vehicle — it’s a status symbol.”
People in most of the countries polled agree that the rising price of gasoline is causing financial hardships.
From two-thirds to three-fourths of those polled in Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, South Korea and the United States say they expect increases in the price of gasoline to cause them hardships. About half in Britain said they worried about financial hardships, and one-third of respondents in Germany felt that way.
“Women — particularly those with children at home — are much more worried than men about the financial impact of rising gas prices on the family budget,” said Thomas Miller, managing director of Ipsos Public Affairs in New York.
A majority of people in most of the nations polled said they think their government can act to limit increases in the price of gasoline. In many of those countries, unhappy consumers have been pushing for more government action.
As Americans struggle to cope with the rapid rise of gas prices, Europeans have learned to live with expensive gasoline.
Jacinto Romero, 53, a businessman in Spain who drives a late-model Audi, said gas is very expensive, but he has no idea how much it costs to fill up.
“I didn’t bother to check,” Romero said. “I just paid with a credit card.”
The polls of about 1,000 adults in each of the nine countries were conducted between Sept. 17 and Oct. 2, and each has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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