It’s hard to decide whether to love or hate the New York Times these days. It’s reaping a much-deserved whirlwind over its bungling of WMD coverage, Judy Miller, and matters Plame. But then, their lead editorial today — arguing in favor of a federal gas tax — is right square on the money. You won’t find a more compact, solid summary of the problem than this, the first paragraph:

There’s no serious disagreement that two major crises of our time are terrorism and global warming. And there’s no disputing that America’s oil consumption fosters both. Oil profits that flow to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries finance both terrorist acts and the spread of dangerously fanatical forms of Islam. The burning of fossil fuels creates greenhouse emissions that provoke climate change. All the while, oil dependency increases the likelihood of further military entanglements, and threatens the economy with inflation, high interest rates and risky foreign indebtedness. Until now, the government has failed to connect our crises and our consumption in a coherent way. That dereliction of duty has led to policies that are counterproductive, such as tax incentives to buy gas guzzlers and an overemphasis on increasing domestic oil supply, although even all-out drilling would not be enough to slake our oil thirst and would require a reversal of longstanding environmental protections.

Of course, any gas-tax proposal faces two difficulties:

  • It’s politically impossible, and
  • it’s woefully regressive.

Neither of these issues is addressed very convincingly — but then, it may just be that there’s no convincing way to address them.

On the first, the editors say: "Now, however, the energy risks so apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have created both the urgency and the political opportunity for the nation’s leaders to respond appropriately." Really? I don’t sense much "urgency" about terrorism anywhere any more, and the urgency behind energy independence seems to exist almost entirely among the political elites. Pundits and politicians love to talk about it, but where, pray tell, is the grassroots upswell so strong that it would overcome the American people’s natural aversion to taxes and — more to the point — their natural aversion to things that raise their already-high bills? I don’t see it.

On the second, they make more of an effort, saying the revenues gathered from a gas tax could fund tax breaks for the poor (who would be hardest hit) and a "buy back" program to take older SUVs off the streets.

But again: a straightforwardly redistributive program that would tax politically powerful constituencies and funnel money to politically powerless constituencies? Even if the tax survived, how long would the revenues survive the clutching hands of pork-hungry politicians? You may have noticed that tax breaks for the poor are not doing well in the current political climate.

Anyway, the gas tax should rightly be thought of as only one element in an array of policy shifts. Without the others — changes in zoning laws, agricultural subsidies, oil and gas subsidies, clean-energy programs, etc. — it would simply be a regressive tax, the revenues of which would sink into the huge tar pit of tax cuts for the rich that are denuding our federal budget.

Oh, but let’s not be depressing. Kudos for the NYT for giving the gas tax a prominent national forum. Hopefully "the urgency and the political opportunity" will in fact materialize.