The Net-Zero Gas Tax
A once-in-a-generation chance.
by Charles Krauthammer
01/05/2009, Volume 014, Issue 16
Today we are experiencing a unique moment. Oil prices are in a historic free fall from a peak of $147 a barrel to $39 today. In July, U.S. gasoline was selling for $4.11 a gallon. It now sells for $1.65. With $4 gas still fresh in our memories, the psychological impact of a tax that boosts the pump price to near $3 would be far less than at any point in decades. Indeed, an immediate $1 tax would still leave the price more than one-third below its July peak.
The rub, of course, is that this price drop is happening at a time of severe recession. Not only would the cash-strapped consumer rebel against a gas tax. The economic pitfalls would be enormous. At a time when overall consumer demand is shrinking, any tax would further drain the economy of disposable income, decreasing purchasing power just when consumer spending needs to be supported.
What to do? Something radically new. A net-zero gas tax. Not a freestanding gas tax but a swap that couples the tax with an equal payroll tax reduction. A two-part solution that yields the government no net increase in revenue and, more importantly--that is why this proposal is different from others--immediately renders the average gasoline consumer financially whole.
Here is how it works. The simultaneous enactment of two measures: A $1 increase in the federal gasoline tax--together with an immediate $14 a week reduction of the FICA tax. Indeed, that reduction in payroll tax should go into effect the preceding week, so that the upside of the swap (the cash from the payroll tax rebate) is in hand even before the downside (the tax) kicks in.
The math is simple. The average American buys roughly 14 gallons of gasoline a week. The $1 gas tax takes $14 out of his pocket. The reduction in payroll tax puts it right back. The average driver comes out even, and the government makes nothing on the transaction. (There are, of course, more drivers than workers--203 million vs. 163 million. The 10 million unemployed would receive the extra $14 in their unemployment insurance checks. And the elderly who drive--there are 30 million licensed drivers over 65--would receive it with their Social Security payments.)
Yes, a high gas tax constitutes a very serious government intervention. But it has the virtue of simplicity. It is clean, adaptable, and easy to administer. Admittedly, it takes a massive external force to alter behavior and tastes. But given the national security and the economic need for more fuel efficiency, and given the leverage that environmental considerations will have on the incoming Democratic administration and Democratic Congress, that change in behavior and taste will occur one way or the other. Better a gas tax that activates free market mechanisms rather than regulation that causes cascading market distortions.
The net-zero gas tax not only obviates the need for government regulation. It obviates the need for government spending as well. Expensive gas creates the market for the fuel-efficient car without Washington having to pick winners and losers with massive government "investment" and arbitrary grants. No regulations, no mandates, no spending programs to prop up the production of green cars that consumer demand would not otherwise support. And if we find this transition going too quickly or too slowly, we can alter it with the simple expedient of altering the gas tax, rather than undertaking the enormously complicated review and rewriting of fuel-efficiency regulations.
In our current economic crisis, there is but a single silver lining--the collapse of world oil prices. This in turn is already stimulating a struggling economy, helping our balance of payments, humbling OPEC, and weakening our adversaries. When economic conditions improve, and oil consumption and prices rise again, these benefits will evaporate precisely as they have time and again since the first oil shock of 1973. A time of $1.65 gasoline is our chance to enact a net-zero gas tax. It is a once in a generation opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.
Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.