If you had to point to one single item out of all the economic data which people from both parties should be happy about it’s the gas prices we’ve been seeing for the past year or more. And generally speaking, rank and file citizens from both parties or no political ideology have been happy about it. Sure, you can find a few environmental wackos who will tell you that cheaper gas leads to more consumption and additional global warming, but that’s a tiny, shrill minority. For the most part, everyone is glad to see two dollar gas rather than four or five.
Add to that list of satisfied customers the editorial board of the Washington Post. But they don’t seem all that concerned with saving a few bucks at the pump. What they really like is the theory that lower gasoline prices provide a perfect excuse to enact a carbon tax.
[I]t would be better to encourage people to buy cleaner cars and cut out unnecessary trips all at once — in fact, it would be better to establish a policy that encouraged individuals and businesses to account for the environmental impacts of driving, turning on the light switch, buying clothes or doing anything else that involves fossil fuels. This policy is a steadily rising carbon tax. A carbon tax would put a lower ceiling on national gasoline use without more aggressive regulatory interventions. It would also encourage every other piece of the economy to green up over time, starting with those for whom doing so is cheapest. This is why it is also the least expensive path to lowering the country’s carbon dioxide emissions.
But a carbon tax would require Congress to act, which it has serially failed to do. In Congress’s policy vacuum, fuel-efficiency standards and other similar regulatory approaches are the best the Obama administration can do.
Ah, isn’t that just the solution for everything? More taxes! But our betters at the Wapo editorial board fail to take into account a number of factors. First of all, higher gas prices disproportionately affect low income people far more than the more affluent. Wealthy citizens aren’t staying up at night worrying about how much gas costs.
And where are the poorer commuters going? For the vast majority of travel they are shuffling back and forth to work. The average working age adult travels 29.2 miles per day or 10,658 miles per year. Even if you take a couple of vacations per year which are a few hundred miles away, that’s still a drop in the bucket. Most of that travel is not optional. Hourly workers of modest means have to make every penny count and if you jack up their cost of commuting they take the biggest hit.
Also, gas prices aren’t going to be low forever. Believe me, I track this data pretty closely and I can assure you that supply and demand always even out in the end. The prices are going to go back up… perhaps not as bad as they were a few years ago (at least not immediately) but they will stabilize out at a point higher than they are now. Do you think Congress would turn around and reduce the carbon tax when that happens? Good luck with that.
Rather than caving in to the immediate liberal instinct to raise taxes as a solution to every problem, perhaps you could focus your attention on real changes which might help. For one thing, you could encourage employers to expand the number of roles where telecommuting can be effectively used. That would wipe out a vast amount of car travel. And for jobs which must be done in person, what say you work on making mass transit less of a nightmare? Unless you live close to your job and right on a major bus line, you’re going to spend, on average, twice as much of your time every day using the bus when compared to commuting by car. It’s also typically a rather unsavory environment, particularly for urban workers. Clean up the buses and find a way to have them service lower income communities more efficiently and you’ll knock out a lot of driving.
But why bother with that? Hey… let’s just make everyone pay more. That’ll show ’em.