Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Gas Taxes
In my April 9 posting I referred to remarks by the Chairman of Ford Motor Co. concerning higher gasoline taxes. This Sunday's New York Times business section carried a longer analysis of the issue, placing it in a useful historical and international context.

It was particularly interesting to see the comments by spokesmen for the Sierra Club and Union of Concerned Scientists, both of whom dismissed the auto industry's apparent endorsement of higher taxes as frivolous. This strikes me as ungracious. When your opponent concedes one of your major arguments, for whatever real or imagined reason, shouldn't you give him a little credit for it? In addition, the rebuttal by Mr. Friedman of the UCS is a little like the old one about trees falling in the forest; if we "save consumers money by raising fuel economy standards" on cars they don't actually buy, who benefits?

The article also cited Mr. Friedman's concern about the impact of higher gas taxes on the poor without mentioning the numerous solutions to this proposed in the past, such as income tax credits for fuel taxes paid, up to some income threshold. But this is a minor cavil.

At the heart of the question of higher fuel taxes is a serious objective, reducing our consumption of petroleum and its products. But behind that objective is a lot of fuzzy thinking and no consensus at all. Why do we want to reduce petroleum consumption? To protect the environment? To avert climate change? To increase national security? To reduce our trade deficit? Is oil just another input to the economy, or is it somehow different and special?

The current presidential campaign is as nasty as any I can recall, and at an earlier stage. It is probably not the ideal setting for trying to resolve some of the questions I've raised in the paragraph above, but at a minimum we should be comparing the substance of the two candidates energy plans, rather than debating the merits of a proposal that everyone agrees neither man is likely to implement.

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