Myths and more about fuel taxes

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CNN stirred up a hornet’s nest of right-wing pettifoggery the other day with an insightful opinion piece headlined “Five myths about your gasoline taxes.”

The article by two Carnegie Endownment scholars makes arguments that will be familiar to visitors to this corner of cyberspace: U.S. gasoline taxes are lower than anywhere else but oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they are continually sapped by inflation, the infrastructure investments they finance are vital to economic growth.

Interestingly, the authors note that the last time the federal gas tax was raised—to 18.4 cents a gallon in 1993, worth just 11 cents today—it was partly to reduce the national debt. No one from Capitol Hill to the White House is suggesting that as a solution to our current deficit woes. In fact, over the past three years, we’ve papered over federal transportation funding shortfalls with $34.5 billion in bipartisan transfers raised not from road users but the full faith and credit of general taxpayers.

As Margaret Thatcher once said, eventually you run out of other people’s money. Conservatives in Congress now want to switch the burden to different other people, namely the operators of new domestic oil wells to be authorized offshore and in wilderness reserves. This sentiment is echoed in several comments to the CNN article insisting that we “drill, baby, drill.”

But even bow-tied conservative analyst Gabriel Roth of the Independent Institute knocks down that tempting idea with rock-ribbed logic. “Should people have the right to use roads, bridges and railways that they are not prepared to pay for?” he asks. “If they have that right, then others have an obligation to provide, an obligation some might not accept.

“In a market economy,” he continues, taxpayers “generally pay for what they get, and get what they are prepared to pay for.” Asked to name a better way to pay for infrastructure than user fees, he adds: “I cannot think of one.”

Regardless, the witless reactionary drumbeat goes on. “Roads and bridges neither require taxes nor government,” says one responder. The CNN article is full of “propaganda,” “claptrap” and “lies,” says another. Neither offers further proof or explanation. And none of the naysayers raises a credible rebuttal to the article’s chief point:

“The U.S., once No. 1 in the world for its infrastructure, has fallen to 15th. China and India are cruising ahead with transportation investments each at 9 percent of GDP compared to 2 percent in the U.S. … The United States cannot be a superpower if it starves public investment in infrastructure … It’s time to face the fact: The gas tax is a good way to invest in America.”