Sunday, August 21, 2011


I know I'm supposed to be a good liberal wonk and support a big fat increase in the gas tax, but I've always felt that the people who advocate this really have no clue as to how a huge percentage of America lives, and at times this obliviousness seems almost as bad as the heartlessness of the right.

I was reminded of this when I was reading a New York Times exchange of letters on the subject. In the first one, we get this:

The federal gasoline tax should be increased from the current 18.4 cents a gallon to $1 or more a gallon, but the increase should be phased in over several years. A transition period will allow consumers to plan for higher fuel prices by purchasing more efficient vehicles and by choosing homes near public transportation.

Oh, is that all people will have to do? Buy new cars and change their residences en masse?

This comes, by the way, from a good liberal who wants the gas tax increased not just for better roads and bridges but for more public transit and research into alternative fuels. That's admirable. But in the interim, every poor and lower-middle-class person has to pick up stakes and move? Is it impossible for the letter-writer to see how disruptive this might be in many people's lives? (Or, in today's horrible housing market, next to impossible in many cases?)

The letter, we're told, comes from

Whidbey Island, Wash., Aug. 16, 2011

The writer is a debt finance specialist for a financial services company.

Yeah, I'm not surprised that someone fairly close to the top of the economic ladder would think this is no big whoop for most people.

Another letter writer goes further:

I agree that there should be a higher gas tax, but it shouldn’t be phased in gradually. The shock value of a large one-shot price increase in the cost of gas would lead to more significant behavioral change.

Car buyers and drivers are more likely to react to a gradual approach by grumbling and making small behavioral changes instead of making big changes such as switching to mass transit, buying a hybrid car or relocating to lessen the need to drive.

Mr. Winzenried's goal of allowing consumers time to adjust can be achieved by notice well in advance of the tax increase.

Yeah, screw 'em -- give 'em fair warning, then hit 'em with both barrels all at once. If they haven't moved and bought a Prius, the hell with 'em.

One writer gets it:

As someone who teaches in rural North Carolina, I have become acutely aware of how an admirably purposed gas tax (like the one proposed by Mr. Winzenried) is even more regressive than most consumption levies.

A large percentage of my students' income is spent on gas. Even worse, many of my students cannot afford a new car, and their clunkers get terrible gas mileage. They already pay more at the pump than I do; a surtax would increase this inequity. Nor do they have the option of moving closer to public transportation. It barely exists in this part of the country.

We need to do for driving what was done for cigarettes -- take away the glamour and make fuel inefficiency socially unacceptable. Warnings on low-mileage vehicles and a vigorous advertising campaign would be a start.

A restoration of public transportation in rural areas (we have the tracks here in western North Carolina; we just don't have the trains) would certainly be welcome, as would a revival of the "cash for clunkers" program.

But rather than a regressive gas tax, these -- and any other solutions -- should be paid for by a surcharge on our progressive income tax.

Good points. Where is there any decent public transportation in most of America? Nice if we could get some -- but, of course, we know that can't happen as long as Republicans always either dominate our politics or have veto power over Democrats when they're in power. So why do people with the least social mobility have to pay the most to deal with this problem?

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