The inverse-floater gasoline tax

By Felix Salmon
June 15, 2009

How to structure a gas tax? You could make it a flat X cents per gallon; alternatively (and this is essentially what a cap-and-trade system does, too) you could make it Y%, with the tax increasing with the price of gasoline.

Today, Jim Surowiecki comes up with a third option, where the tax decreases when the price of gasoline goes up:

Rather than leave so much of our fate to chance, we’d be better off doing what politicians always say they want to do: lessen the U.S. economy’s dependence on oil. One step toward that would be to phase in a gas tax designed to smooth out oil’s spikes and plunges by keeping the price of gasoline fixed (the tax would rise when the price of gas fell, and vice versa).

Surowiecki makes a strong case that consumer behavior, when it comes to reducing gasoline consumption, only really changes when there’s a spike in gas prices. As a result, his proposal would seem designed to have the least possible effect on gasoline consumption, and on our dependence on oil. Sure, it’s a sensible way of raising government revenues and reducing the fiscal deficit.

Either you want to effect consumer behavior and reduce gasoline consumption — in which case you actually welcome price spikes. Or else you want to smooth out price spikes, in which case you slowly boil the frog (to use one of the stupidest metaphors ever) and keep consumption high. But you can’t have it both ways. Which is it to be, Jim?

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