Tom Friedman’s latest column calls for an $1.00/gallon federal gasoline tax (unclear if he means total or on top of current rate), phased in at $.05/month starting in 2012. He argues, “With one little gasoline tax, we can make ourselves more economically and strategically secure” and he’s absolutely correct. If we define “grand bargain” as a “compromise blessed by everyone who matters without worrying the beautiful minds of voters,” this is the one that elites of all stripes should be pushing. Right now.
The policy is an absolute no-brainer, but most objections on the progressive side stem from the fact that gasoline taxes are typically regressive. First, while that’s generally true, many of the poorest Americans (especially in urban areas) do not own cars. Second, progressives need to break out of the knee-jerk analysis that a non-progressive tax cannot have progressive impacts or is by definition a bad thing. Environmental damage disproportionally affects vulnerable communities, and furthermore almost all government spending has a disproportionally progressive impact. Governments are facing a revenue crisis right now, and refusing to budge on this point will simply enable deeper spending cuts, which will most hurt the people progressives claim to represent.
The situation in New Jersey is approaching parody. New Jersey’s gas tax of 10.5 cents/gallon has not be raised in since 1988, and is the third-lowest in the nation behind Wyoming and Alaska (see something wrong here?). Meanwhile, our Transportation Trust Fund, primarily funded by the gas tax, is on life-support due to a series of one-time budget gimmicks, and we apparently cannot afford things like infrastructure projects that are essential for future economic growth in the state. If I were Gov. Christie’s Budget Advisor, this is the one area where I would beg him to break from Republican orthodoxy. The revenue potential is enormous. Raising the gas tax by 20 cents/gallon would raise an additional $1 billion per year, and New Jersey’s gas tax would still be below that of neighboring New York.
Now it’s true, as Yglesias notes, that now’s not exactly the best time to be imposing additional tax burdens, and Atrios is correct that — especially with oil prices topping $100/barrel — there’s a potential for an “American Riot.” All the more reason to hope for elite overlords in both parties to hold hands and do what’s right, even if politically perilous. Honestly, with the musings about Social Security “reform” and our open-ended bipartisan commitment to Afghanistan, I think there’s evidence that they don’t listen to public opinion anyway… but that’s a separate post.