Goodness knows, President-elect Obama has his legislative hands full. Maybe that explains why he has taken the idea of increasing gasoline taxes off the table, saying that Americans had enough economic burdens at the moment. Nominees like Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who will become Energy Secretary, dutifully echoed Obama's view even though in Chu's case he has long supported higher fuel taxes.
But by failing to raise the gasoline tax, the president-elect risks complicating another problem: Fixing the U.S. automobile industry.
Here's the problem. Obama and leading members of Congress keep saying they want ailing automakers to make more fuel-efficient vehicles. But the automakers in the past made more money on the guzzlers; in the future, they will have trouble charging enough to make money on new cars using costly new technologies for plug-in or hybrid cars. So the car company of the future may be a money-losing operation, just like the car company of the present.
Raising the gasoline tax would increase consumer demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles. That could help automakers charge more for them and make more money on sales of plug-ins, hybrids or more efficient conventional engines. Not surprisingly, Ford and General Motors both belong to the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which this week proposed a detailed blueprint for a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions. Such a system would put a price on carbon and would effectively tax gasoline and all other fossil fuels.
After being burned last summer by sky-high gasoline prices, do Americans really need higher gasoline taxes to get them to buy fuel-efficient cars? Yes, actually. Americans have an astonishingly short memory about gasoline prices. Sales of the Toyota Prius have hit the skids now that gasoline prices are back below $2 a gallon. And sales of SUVs are relatively strong compared to many other models.
If Obama did want to raise gasoline taxes without imposing a hardship on Americans at a time of economic duress, there are (at least) two ways of going about it other than throwing it out the car window. First, he could cut other taxes to compensate people for the fuel tax. Second, he could delay the effective date of the tax, or increase it in small steps over time. A phased-in tax increase would still have a big impact on the choices people make when purchasing cars, which tend to stay on the road for 10 years or so.
A gasoline tax has a variety of other benefits. Harvard economics professor and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, Greg Mankiw, listed them in an October 2006 Wall Street Journal article. (Full disclosure: I have known Mankiw since grade school.) The other benefits include: helping the environment by reducing fuel use; reducing road congestion by encouraging mass transit or car pooling; boosting government revenues and shrinking the deficit (unless other taxes are cut by equal amounts); reducing crude oil prices by reducing demand (as a result, the increase in retail pump prices would be less than the increase in the tax); and bolstering national security. If the United States cut consumption, it would also help the trade deficit; oil imports make up a huge share of the imbalance.
The list is more timely than ever. But the gasoline tax, while popular among economists and some columnists, remains one of Washington's most feared issues. Ever since President Clinton was burned for trying to raise it, the gasoline tax has been frozen in time, becoming smaller and smaller in inflation-adjusted terms. For Republicans who claim to rely on market mechanisms rather than regulation, the tax should be attractive because it might be more effective than the complicated CAFÉ regulations for fuel efficiency. For Democrats, it should be attractive for environmental reasons. Members of both parties should be worried about the deficit.
But for the moment, this is one good idea that seems destined to die yet again.