One of the many problems with policy discussions these days is that they tend to be narrow and literal-minded. Take the "problem" of high gas prices. Response? Tax oil companies! Cap prices! Investigate price gouging! Ease environmental restrictions on clean-burning gas!
Stupid. We should take a step back. Here are two relevant facts:
- It’s good that gas prices are rising. We want people to buy more fuel-efficient cars and drive less. In the long-term, oil prices are headed up whether we like it or not.
- The hardest hit by high gas prices are the poor, who have the least disposable income and in many cases are stuck in living and work situations that simply don’t allow them to drive less in the short-term.
Given that, here are a few policy responses, some local, some federal, just off the top of my head, that make a hell of a lot more sense than whinging about oil companies. In no particular order:
- Cut payroll taxes — put more money in low-income pockets. Compensate by raising taxes on the rich to the levels they were at during the Clinton years, which seemed to allow for plenty of economic growth, thanks.
- Fund and expand urban public transit systems.
- Raise CAFE standards.
- Provide government-funded, high-speed internet pipes, everywhere — an infrastructure project along the lines of the national highway system — and provide incentives to employers who allow employees to telecommute.
- Provide universal health coverage, so that people are less terrified to change jobs.
- Tax the crap out of fuel-inefficient vehicle purchases and funnel the money into incentives for fuel-efficient vehicle purchases.
- Tax the crap out of public services and utilities to far-flung suburbs and exurbs and funnel the money into incentives for mixed-income, mixed-use urban development.
- Provide seed money for sophisticated, computerized flexcar and carpooling programs.
- Cease and desist all tax giveaways to big-box retailers.
- Write a Farm Bill that encourages local food systems (that one’s for you, Tom).
One could go on. It’s late, and I’m obviously pulling stuff out of my arse, but the point is that you don’t have to search very hard for public-policy responses to high gas prices that aren’t a bunch of pandering, nonsensical crapsicles.
The point is to help the country prepare and adapt to high gas prices, not to force prices back down.