Sometimes my faith in ordinary Americans is serendipitously restored. Yesterday was one of those times. The New York Times reported on a new Times/CNN News Poll on gasoline taxes in a story by Louis Uchitelle and Megan Thee, here.
First, some background. Given the general anti-tax fervor in Congress these days, you'd think it must be true that ordinary Americans across the country are clamoring for more and more tax reductions. That was not the case, however, before the passage of the five major tax bills that have been passed by the Bush Administration. See, e.g., this 2003 poll data. Americans simply did not place reducing their federal income tax burdens high on their wish lists (though they'd be generally reluctant to support increases in their taxes). In 2003, they cared considerably more about providing health insurance for all Americans. Id. (showing 81% favored health insurance to 14% who favored tax cuts). And they also cared more about getting the economy in order for the long term. Id. (showing that 58% of Americans preferred lowering the deficit over tax cuts as a way to trigger economic growth).
So what if Congress were to propose a higher federal gasoline tax (coupled with some kind of rebate or credit for lower income Americans, to counter the regressive nature of the sales tax), with a clear statement that the intent is to reduce energy consumption and help cut down on global warming? The Times summarizes the poll results as follows:
Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to a higher federal gasoline tax, but a significant number would go along with an increase if it reduced global warming or made the United States less dependent on foreign oil. ...The results of the nationwide telephone poll, conducted Wednesday through Sunday, suggest that a gasoline tax increase that brought measureable results would be acceptable to a majority of Americans. Times/CNN News Poll, supra.
In other words, a majority of Americans would support an increase in the current 18.4 cents per gallon tax if it would help America wean itself off foreign oil or wean itself off oil altogether. And energy researchers think there is a real correlation between gas taxes and gas consumption: Severin Borenswtien at the University of California, Berkeley's energy institute suggests a 10% increase in cost could reduce consumption by 6-8% over the long term. Id. So Americans are willing, after all, to think long term and to pay taxes to protect the things they value.
Robert Frank, an economist at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell, suggests that a $2-a-gallon gas tax, rebated against payroll taxes, could "produce hundreds of billions of dollars in savings for American consumers, significant reductions in traffic congestion, major improvements in urban air quality, large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and substantially reduced dependence on Middle East oil." Feb. 16, 2006 New York Times, at C3. He notes that gas prices are acknowledged by almost everyone to be too low today, because they do not reflect the environmental and foreign policy costs associated with gasoline consumption. Id. A major barrier to adoption of such a program remains, however, with people like Vice President Cheney and others who believe that all taxes are bad and that all prices should be set by market forces. As Frank notes, "perspiring historians" of the future will have a hard time explaining the failure of our generation to adopt more reasonable gas pricing models.