We’ve written about the gas tax before (or the lack thereof). But with a new focus on the perils of offshore drilling (and oil spills in general), it seems that it might be a good opportunity to impose, and properly frame, the gas tax.
As Jonathan Chait (and surely others) adroitly points out, we are not paying for all of the externalities. We’re definitely not paying for the rather obtuse problem of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. There are ideas on how to put a price on it (a carbon tax), but none are particularly sellable. Despite the rather dramatic evidence, global warming is a hard sell. Yes, it’s one degree warmer than it was, but there are still cold snaps and snowstorms. Try to convince the public that it’s a problem, and you’re bound to run in to contrary “evidence”, even if the evidence is weather while the problem is climate.
In any case, to impose a tax, you often need a good reason. And the oil spill—as bad as it is in the affected area—might be a good enough reason. Yes, we all want BP to pay for the damage. But, likely, the government will kick in, or at last have to pay first and go after BP later. Here’s where the framing comes in. Instead of a carbon tax (which we don’t understand) we need a “save the birds and marshes fee.” Show a bunch of oil-slicked birds, and put a 5¢ fee on each gallon of gas. Because when it happens again (and, oh yeah, it’ll happen again), we’ll either have more money, or fewer oil tankers and rigs. Neither of which is a bad thing.