Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Taxing Opportunity

While watching the scenery from Amtrak's Acela on my way back from a meeting in New York yesterday, I made my first sighting of $1.99 per gallon gasoline, posted on the polesign of a station in Delaware. With wholesale gasoline trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange for $1.138 per gallon at yesterday's close--nearly $7 per barrel below the closing price for light sweet crude oil--most of the country could shortly be paying less than $2/gal. for unleaded regular, for the first time in more than three years. An op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post started me thinking about gasoline taxes, again, and I agree that the current gas price collapse provides a uniquely opportune time for a symbolic increase in the federal gasoline tax, which has not been raised since 1993.

Raising taxes in a recession isn't terribly sound economics in general, but gasoline in 2008 presents an unusual case. As I noted in Monday's posting, the decline in prices from their summer peak to last week's $2.22/gal. average puts roughly $260 billion per year back in the pockets of US consumers, at a time when that ought to be quite helpful. However, it's equally clear that low gasoline prices will complicate the task of selling more efficient cars to an American public that is already buying fewer cars than at any time since the recession of the early 1990s. Moreover, with gasoline demand running at least 3% below last year's at this time, and with prices now a dollar per gallon lower than they were a year ago, and below their annual averages for 2005, 2006 and 2007, state and municipal tax revenues from sales taxes on gasoline will also fall well below expectations. That puts further pressure on state and local budgets already stressed by falling home values and rising unemployment, and it could force cuts in infrastructure projects that many economists suggest we need more of, just now, not less.

This needn't conflict with the necessity to put a price on our emissions of greenhouse gases, effectively taxing fuels on their inherent carbon content. My preference has been for cap & trade, but a simple carbon tax would do much the same thing. Every $10 per ton imposed on CO2 emissions would raise gasoline prices by roughly 10 cents per gallon, anyway, so I'd resist calls for the "big honking tax on gasoline" that Mr. Sloan's op-ed suggests. But with gas prices dropping by more than a dime per week since September, a 10 cent gas tax hike would scarcely be noticed, leaving that $260 billion effective stimulus I mentioned earlier untouched. It could also be shared with the states, with half of the roughly $14 billion per year it would raise going to fund federal infrastructure projects, and the other half allocated to backstop state-financed road and bridge work.

Ten cents a gallon might not sound like much, though the 4.3 cent increase in 1993 cost another first-year President a good deal of political capital. By itself, it wouldn't change the way Americans drive or buy cars. Nor would it be sufficient to nudge consumers towards diesel cars, when diesel fuel has carried an average premium of $0.50/gal. over unleaded regular this year, and currently sells for $0.73/gal. more. However, it would indicate the willingness of the government to intervene in gasoline pricing, when appropriate, in a manner that doesn't impede the market's ability to balance supply and demand, as price controls or a floor price mechanism would. And unlike raising income taxes when salaries and consumer spending are falling, a period of falling gasoline prices is precisely the right moment to raise the federal motor fuel tax, even if just by a little.

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