Hm, looks like this post on CAFE standards stepped into quite a vigorous ongoing conversation.
I want to address Matt’s response, but first let me recommend some other background reading:
- Brad Plumer makes basically Matt’s argument: gas taxes are better and more direct than CAFE.
- Brad DeLong agrees.
- Ezra Klein thinks Brad and Brad are wrong (read the comment thread, it’s good): CAFE is preferable.
- Kevin Drum also writes in defense of CAFE.
- Andrew Samwick says neither CAFE nor gas taxes actually reduce gas consumption much.
- A report from the National Academy of Sciences argues that CAFE standards have, in fact, worked.
- Our own Clark Williams-Derry discusses a report concluding that CAFE standards are counterproductive.
Anyhoo, Matt responds to my accusation of the dread policy literalism by trying to frame his gas tax proposal in terms of "broad values and coalitions." It’s the right spirit, but I don’t think it works. Here’s what he says:
Raising the gas tax would, of course, be less popular than tightening CAFE as a way of curbing oil consumption. But if you look outside the narrow bunker of environmentalism, Democrats are currently looking at tightening CAFE rules (which provokes interest-group opposition) and implicitly pushing for unpopular tax increases [i.e., defending gov’t programs in a time of deficit]. Yoking the need for revenue together with the green interest in reducing fuel consumption would actually reduce the overall level of political opposition to the progressive agenda writ large. And it would be better substantive policy than CAFE.
The idea, I guess, is that Dems need some — any! — interest group on board in public support of raising taxes. Since greens have an interest in curtailing a specific behavior, they should support taxing it, thus advancing their goals and those of the larger progressive agenda at once.
But. You can’t swing a dead cat in D.C. without hitting a Dem who wants to curtail a specific behavior and would use taxes to do it. Thing is, you don’t hear them talking publicly about it any more, because tax hikes are rather out of favor. Why greens specifically should be the sacrificial lamb on the progressive altar escapes me — and why Matt thinks the support of greens could in itself generate popular support for tax hikes is even farther beyond me. Do greens really seem that effective?
I happen to think curtailing oil use is the imperative of our times, in terms of foreign policy, economic competitiveness, healthy air and water, global warming, and even quality of life. I’m not willing to wait for the American people to come around to the idea that they have to pay taxes to get the gov’t services they love. That could take a while, and I suspect it will require some large shocks.
In the meantime, I want any progress I can get on oil, any way I can get it.
There are two distinct questions before us. One is, what’s the optimum policy mix to reduce gas (and thus oil) use? The other is, given the lay of the political land, what gains can greens realistically expect to achieve and what policy vehicles can get them there? On the first question, gas taxes and CAFE standards hardly exhaust the possibilities. There are feebates, toll roads, congestion charges, properly funded public transit, and policy mechanisms as yet a gleam in some Congressional staffer’s eye. I would support a gas tax but would like to experiment with a mix of the others as well.
But on the second question, the options are highly limited — mainly CAFE. And if that’s all there is, I say push like hell for tightened CAFE standards (in addition to the CAFE improvements suggested by the NAS) and regroup once you’ve got them.