Wednesday, January 7, 2009

An uneducated argument for a smart(er) gas tax

Image found here.

An anonymous commenter at this post left this comment, which I'll go ahead and post in full:
While I definitely agree with your musings on our consumerism and short attention spans, I do quibble with you on one point.

Are you serious? Put a higher tax on gasoline? I do believe the govt taxes us enough, thank you! And just what exactly would they do with that money? Misappropriation of funds is already at an all-time high. Let the people keep their money! Instead of a 7 whatever billion/trillion dollar bailout, why not give each person who filed a tax return get $500,000? It would have cost much less, and talk about stimulating the economy instead of giving it to banks who mismanaged it in the first place?
Anon., thanks, first of all, for dropping by and commenting.

The usual caveats: I'm by no means an expert on tax policy; although I'm inclined to believe that government on the whole makes our lives better than they would be otherwise, I, like everyone, have my own list of things government spends money on that, shall we say, could be better spent (and monitored)/shouldn't be spent. Recent bailouts included.

Given this blog's focus, though, I'd like to say a few words about the issue of a gas tax and the possible uses a higher--and smartly-applied tax--could be put to. Gas taxes are one of those quid pro quo taxes that, though we'd just as soon not pay them, we can see the purpose of: They usually go toward paying for building and maintaining streets and highways, helping to keep our taxes on income a little lower by taxing, instead, our consumption of something. It's perfectly reasonable to my mind, then, that those of us who drive should contribute a bit, every time we buy gas, toward offsetting the wear and tear our vehicles cause the roads.

But let's face it: owning and driving a car is a relative luxury even in the best of times, which our gasoline prices (dirt-cheap even with the taxes currently levied on it) have, up till this past summer, disguised just how good we have had it here in this country. But more urgently, our collective accommodation of that luxury has enormous costs. Maintaining all those roads is so expensive that much regular maintenance has been deferred (and deferred and . . . ). Providing parking spaces for cars is, frankly, a waste of space that--especially in urban areas--could be put to better use via the providing of more (and more affordable) housing, more (and more diverse) kinds of businesses; meanwhile, broad expanses of pavement increase run-off pollution and the potential for flooding via overtaxed manmade and natural drainage. (Aside: encouraging denser development has the added advantage of increasing tax revenues as well without raising rates of taxation, through increased property and sales tax revenues.) Cheap gas has also historically been a boon for food production (via farm mechanization and transportation); this summer's much-higher gas, though, gave those of us who bought food then a brief glimpse of how illusorily low our food costs are, too. Finally, the burning of carbon fuels is not good for us or for our environment, even if you don't think global warming is a problem. Not only are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide not good to inhale, we've all gotten pretty flabby in large measure because our first thought when we need to go somewhere, no matter the distance, is to hop in the car rather than walk or ride a bike or, for longer distances, take a bus or carpool.

My commenter decries mindless and/or short-sighted consumerism, and s/he is right to do so. So why not levy a higher tax on this particular form of consumption? And, even better: why not direct the revenues generated toward the funding of mass transit, safer, more accommodating streets, the granting of seed money for manufacturers of cars that use alternate energy sources, for researchers looking for those alternate sources, for bicycle-renting programs, etc., etc., etc. The idea is analogous to how some cigarette-tax monies are used: Use that money to fund programs that ostensibly seek to counterbalance the effects of your consumption choice . . . and if, at some point, you decide that the cost of that consumption becomes higher than you're willing/able to pay, then good for you--and for all of us.

It's a strange thing: some become so fixated in their opposition to taxes that, quite apart from the issue of how is government going to do what we expect/need it to do without revenues, they can miss the point that in some instances, increased taxation--that is, the uses to which that increased revenue are put--can end up benefiting us far more than they cost us. Fewer people are smoking now than when I was growing up (I'm old enough to remember seeing cigarette ads on television); and we all benefit as a result, even if only indirectly: cleaner air, a reduced burden on our public health care system via the better health of those not smoking, etc. In a similar way, if higher gas taxes encouraged more people either not to drive or to drive less often, all of us--even those who keep driving--would benefit: less-congested streets and parking lots, cleaner air (again), better overall public health (again), etc. And, there'd be that much more gas available, and at lower prices, for those services which really will require gas for the foreseeable future: transportation and food and energy production.

As a consumer-oriented people who no longer have the means we once did to generate real wealth through manufacturing, our literal and figurative bills for living the way we have are coming due, or they soon will, and it will be harder to pay them as a result of that reduced means. A higher gas tax whose revenues are smartly spent with an eye toward reducing our consumption of gas would be an excellent step in the direction of making those literal and figurative bills a little easier to deal with.


Early Man said...

If anon believes we are already taxed too much, then opposing a higher gas tax on ideological grounds of no new taxes really misses the point. If you want tax reform that works--that is, reduces disincentives for doing good things like working and investing and increasing disincentives for bad things that degrade health and the environment--then a higher gas tax makes perfect sense. The best way for people to keep more of the money they earn is to reduce payroll taxes and offset the revenue hit with an increase in gas taxes. The most compelling argument for my friends on the right as to why this is a good idea: welfare queens driving Cadillacs are the ones who will suffer.

John B. said...

Early Man, thanks for visiting and commenting.

You say "welfare queens driving Cadillacs"; I would have said, "Just about anyone who has bought a V-8 truck or an SUV in the past month," but your larger point is exactly right: If one thinks all taxes are inherently punitive, then tax those activities that need "punishing," or at least curbing at a rate sufficiently high enough to discourage people from doing them and so make the tax, from a revenue-stream perspective, pointless.

Another thought that occurred to me--of course--after I posted this yesterday had to do with the idea of the gas-tax holiday from this past summer. The substance of Obama's critique of that idea was that it would make no substantive difference in the immediate lives of people--the amount individuals would save would be negligible--yet it would cost the states and federal government an enormous amount of revenue at a time when maintenance was/is already underfunded. Given the truth of that, and depending of course on the amount of the increase, an increased gas tax would likewise cost individual consumers relatively little yet generate more and much-needed revenue for the sorts of projects I mentioned in my post: all things that over time will benefit all of us.