Driven By Gas Prices, Embracing Greed, Etc.

The traffic is less Democratic these days, judging by the results of an Ipsos-Public Affairs poll about the consequences of high gas prices. Overall, 58 percent of adults said they’ve cut back on the amount of driving they do. But there’s a big gap between the number of Republicans (48 percent) and Democrats (65 percent) who have done so. Elsewhere in the poll, 55 percent of respondents said gas prices have affected them “a lot,” with 33 percent saying they’ve felt “some” effect. Among these respondents, 62 percent said they’ve “cut back on other expenses” as a result. For that matter, so did 20 percent of the people who said high gas prices have affected them not much or not at all. Apparently, the spirit of austerity is contagious. (Retailers beware!) Looking to the next six months, 30 percent expect to suffer “serious hardship” due to high gas prices, with another 20 percent anticipating some (but not serious) hardship. Whom do Americans blame for all this? OPEC gets a remarkably free ride. Asked to identify the culprit who “deserves the most blame for higher energy prices,” just 24 percent cited “foreign countries that dominate oil reserves.” More respondents blamed “oil companies that want to make too much profit” (29 percent); nearly as many pointed to “politicians” (23 percent). Few aimed their exasperation at “environmentalists who want to limit oil exploration” (8 percent) or “people who drive gas-guzzling vehicles” (6 percent).

Spouses have their shortcomings, but they’re a boon to consumer confidence. That fact emerges from a demographic breakdown of data in the ABC News/Washington Post Consumer Comfort Index. On the index’s scale of +100 to -100, the overall figure in the most recent report available to us at presstime was -16. For single adults, it was -23; for those who are separated, divorced or widowed, it was a dismal -45. But for married adults, it was +1. Nor are these disparities a one-week fluke: The 12-month average is -19 for singles, -32 for those separated, widowed or divorced, and +3 for marrieds. No doubt some doctoral candidate in economics can do a dissertation on how fluctuations in marriage and divorce rates affect consumer confidence over time.

In the age of steroids, have kids ceased to worship athletes? For better or worse, no. In a survey of 8-15-year-olds by Sports Illustrated for Kids, 84 percent said they “have a favorite athlete whom they look up to as a role model.” Seventy-two percent think athletes “are doing a good job as role models.” Still, recent news has taken a toll. Nearly one-fourth of kids said they’re less enamored of baseball due to the steroid scandal. And half said baseball fans “should not root for Barry Bonds to break the all-time major league home-run record.”

When the new pope asked people to pray for him as he took up his daunting task, the request might have sounded odd to secular listeners—the sort who invoke the names of deities only when someone jumps ahead of them to get a cab. In the country at large, though, prayer remains a normal activity. And it’s not just occasional prayer, either. In a Rasmussen Reports poll, 47 percent of adults said they pray every day or nearly every day. The rate was higher for women than for men (53 percent vs. 40 percent) and for blacks than for whites (57 percent vs. 45 percent).

Drug companies don’t want us to think they’re greedy. That’s a mistake. If they want to fend off price controls and the importation of cheap drugs from Canada, they need to convince us they’re spectacularly greedy. A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll adds to the cache of evidence that Americans think drug-company revenues could be slashed without impinging on the industry’s willingness to invest in developing new medicines. Seventy percent of adults disagreed with the argument that importing cheaper prescription drugs “will lead U.S. drug companies to do less research and development.” In part, that belief is classic wishful thinking, since life would be nicer for consumers if it were true. But big drug companies have inadvertently encouraged such thinking via feel-good ads that talk about how much they like to help folks and how excited they are by the pursuit of knowledge. If that’s what chiefly motivates them, maybe they would keep funding R&D even as profits erode. Thus, this beleaguered industry needs once and for all to banish the notion that it’s altruistic. Here’s what it should be telling consumers: “We couldn’t care less about your health. We have no disinterested love of knowledge. We just want to make lots of money. If you prevent us from doing so, we’ll ditch this business and go into one with higher profit margins and fewer aggravations.” Given current attitudes toward Big Pharma, who would disbelieve such a message?

Retailers should do something nice for Mom: She could redeem some otherwise iffy second-quarter results. A study conducted by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation forecasts that Mother’s Day spending will total $11.43 billion this year, up 9.5 percent from last year. Those participating in the maternal spendfest plan to shell out a per capita average of $104.63 for the occasion, vs. $98.64 last year. Oddly enough, mothers won’t be the only beneficiaries. “While about two-thirds of consumers (65.2 percent) plan to purchase a Mother’s Day gift for their mother or stepmother, others plan to purchase gifts for daughters (8.4 percent), grandmothers (7.4 percent) and friends (5.7 percent).” And nearly 40 percent of men plan to guy gifts for their wives. Reflecting the trend in recent years toward gift cards as Christmas presents, there’s a rise in the use of gift certificates as Mother’s Day loot: 25.5 percent of the people gifting Mom said they’ll give her one.

High gas prices have cut into spending for other items, but they’ve been a boon for sales of hybrid cars. The chart below, using data from R. L. Polk & Co., shows that the rate of growth in hybrid sales had slowed in 2003. It certainly regained momentum last year, though. California accounted for 30 percent of hybrid sales in 2004, but the gains came all over the U.S. Sales rose 112 percent in the New York metro area, 85 percent in Boston, 76 percent in Denver, 72 percent in Chicago and 52 percent in Washington, D.C.