You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Does Gas-tax Pandering Matter?

Paul Krugman grudgingly acknowledges that Barack Obama is absolutely correct to oppose the sham gas-tax holiday (an ABC news segment made a similar point), but he then goes on to blast Obama anyway:

I’ve been on the road (actually doing a public dialog with Barney Frank on financial reform), so I’m just catching up. Anyway, John McCain has a really bad idea on gasoline, Hillary Clinton is emulating him (but with a twist that makes her plan pointless rather than evil), and Barack Obama, to his credit, says no. ...

Just to be clear: I don’t regard this as a major issue. It’s a one-time thing, not a matter of principle, especially because everyone knows the gas-tax holiday isn’t actually going to happen. Health care reform, on the other hand, could happen, and is very much a long-term issue—so poisoning the well by in effect running against universality, as Obama has, is a much more serious breach.

I'm certainly not convinced that we live in a world where a badly designed tax cut "isn't actually going to happen" but universal health care sits just around the bend. Why, just yesterday Bush said he'd "take a look" at a gas-tax holiday. But I don't think Krugman's larger point is right, either. There is a principle here. Most of the policies designed to curb fossil-fuel consumption are going to raise prices—be it a gas tax, carbon tax, cap-and-trade... There are ways to cushion the blow—as with Peter Barnes's cap-and-dividend plan to rebate the proceeds from auctioning off pollution permits back to taxpayers—but price signals are the surest route to getting people to use less carbon-based energy. 

I'm still not convinced that Obama's an expert at navigating these shoals—see Noam for more. But if we want a realistic shot at averting drastic climate change and weaning the country off oil so that Americans don't keep getting slammed as prices rise inexorably to $200 a barrel, well, then it's not enough for presidential candidates to just lay out nice policy white papers; we'll actually need politicians who don't shriek and start pandering furiously at the first sign of higher prices. Right now, Obama's edged closest to doing that.

--Bradford Plumer