Greed, yes; public good, no

Date: 1 Jun 2007 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Greed, yes; public good, no

Republicans don’t always mind paying more at the pump. It depends.

By David Morris, originally published in the Mineapolis Star Tribune, June 1, 2007

For Republicans, an increase in gas prices driven by oil companies may be unwelcome, but it is very much in the natural economic order of things. Any government interference, they insist, would disturb that natural order.

A gas price increase driven by government through a gas tax, on the other hand, Republicans consider an inherent interference with that natural order, to be aggressively opposed.

For Republicans, price hikes, no matter how steep, driven by private greed, are permissible. Price hikes driven by public need, no matter how modest, are unacceptable.

Confronted with a gas price hike of almost $1.50 a gallon from the beginning of the 2007 congressional session, Washington Democrats introduced a bill to make gasoline price-gouging a federal crime. The vote in the House of Representatives broke down almost entirely on party lines. Democrats voted 99.5 percent in favor. Republicans voted 70 percent against.

“I don’t know what ‘unconscionably excessive’ means,” Joe Barton, R-Texas, complained to Time magazine, referring to a phrase in the bill that would trigger a price-gouging prosecution.

On the other hand, Republicans are absolutely clear that any increase in the gasoline tax, no matter how modest, is unconscionably excessive. Which is why, when Minnesota Democrats introduced a bill to increase the gas tax by 7.5 cents a gallon, the final vote in the House broke down this way: Democrats, 98 percent in favor; Republicans, 85 percent opposed.

The Republican position on gas prices and gas taxes may be ideologically consistent, but it violates common sense and ultimately undermines our well-being.

Common-sensically, when the price of crude oil rises by 20 percent, yet the price of gasoline almost doubles, we know drivers are being taken advantage of.

Common-sensically, when the cost of building roads increases by about 75 percent — as it has since 1988, the last time the state gas tax was increased — it may well be time for another modest gas tax hike. At least if we believe road users should pay for roads, as all political parties say they do.

Common-sensically, we know that a gas tax provides us a return on our investment, while a privately engineered gas price hike does not. Roughly 75 percent of the dollar Minnesotans spend on gasoline, excluding state taxes, leaves the state. The result? Since January, gas price increases have resulted in a collective loss to the Minnesota economy and our pocketbooks of over $800 million.

A 7.5 cent per gallon gas tax increase would also come out of our pockets, to the tune of about $200 million a year from Minnesota households and businesses. However, virtually all additional money would be spent in Minnesota. Moreover, it would be spent on a public good all political parties agree is essential and, at present, inadequately financed.

One final note. A gas tax increase often saves us money in the long term by reducing car repairs (fewer potholes) and gas consumption (less congestion). But that is a collective benefit, and Republicans run for the hills when they hear the word “collective.” It sounds to them, well, a bit communistic.

Which also may be the way the word “public” sounds to the Republican Party. Or at least that’s the way it looks from here, as I reflect on Republicans’ votes on gas price gouging and gas tax hikes.

The exercise of public power is to be opposed at every level. The exercise of private power is to be enabled at every level. It is a coherent political ideology. But one that ultimately undermines our well-being and violates common sense.


David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

About ILSR: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 to advance sustainable, equitable, and community-centered economic development through research and educational activities and technical assistance. More at http://www.ilsr.org

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.