It may look as though the White House buckled, but anyone with a strategic eye can see that Condi Rice will finally tell the 9/11 commission the truth: Richard Clarke wanted higher gas taxes, President Bush rebuffed him, and now Clarke is bitter.
Welcome to the gas attacks. Prices are high and the blame game is on. Bush has a new ad saying that Kerry voted for a 50-cent gas tax. Kerry has punched back by producing a 1999 article by Bush's top economist calling for – you guessed it – the same nefarious 50-cent gas tax!
Bush tops that with a "Kerry Gas Tax Calculator" on his Web site, through which I reckoned that my wife and I would be looking at an extra $260 a year. But that's far less than our family must owe thanks to Bush's Soaring National Debt Tax, for which I hope the Kerry site will soon offer a handy calculator, too.
I know it's all about punch and counterpunch nowadays, and no one dares say anything that might cost anyone something. But here's a countercultural thought: Why not higher gas taxes?
There's no question higher gas taxes are unpopular. This is why the last time energy taxes were discussed, as part of Bill Clinton's 1993 deficit reduction plan, we ended up with only a 4.3-cent-a-gallon hike, and Bob Dole even made repealing that little levy an issue in his 1996 presidential campaign.
But pandering isn't inevitable. In the early 1990s, Ross Perot and Paul Tsongas were calling for a new 50-cent-per-gallon tax phased in over five years. The "big three" automakers and oil giants Chevron and Conoco were on board. Why? They'd come round to the view held by every other advanced nation: The environmental, economic and national security costs of cheap oil make higher taxes to reduce consumption a smart way to fund government.
To the rest of the world, our price complaint must look a little silly. After all, even with recent spikes, gas prices are lower today in inflation-adjusted terms than they were decades ago. Thanks to these bargains, Americans slurp as much oil as ever. And despite perennial warnings about fickle foreign supplies, we imported 61 percent of the oil we consumed last year, up from 33 percent in 1975.
In France and Germany, a gallon of gas costs around $4; in Japan, about $3.50. Thanks in part to their policy of high-priced gas, our industrial competitors have made stunning strides in energy efficiency and independence. France now gets more than 70 percent of its electrical energy from nuclear power. In Japan, oil imports in 1980 were 5.5 percent of GDP; by decade's end, they'd fallen to 1 percent. The industrial restructuring that enabled this drop left Japan producing two and a half times its 1975 output with, in effect, the same tank of gas.
It's not that the United States has made no progress. Economy-wide energy efficiency is up by more than 40 percent since 1975. Average auto fuel efficiency has risen from 16 to 20.4 miles per gallon over the same period. Still, the average fuel economy of the new car fleet has fallen every year since 1986, from a high of 25.9 miles per gallon to about 23.8 today. And American drivers still consume about two times more gasoline per capita than people in other advanced countries.
At roughly a billion dollars per penny in annual revenue, a 50-cent gas tax would help fund needed programs or needed deficit reduction. It would also substitute a market-based approach to auto efficiency for today's mixed signals, through which low prices urge consumers to buy SUVs, while mileage-minded regulators tell the big three to build compacts.
The chief (and valid) objection to higher gas taxes is that they fall most heavily on those with less income. But new wage subsidies for low-income workers, which also ought to be on the national agenda, can far more than offset this hit.
In 1991, the Germans enacted with little fanfare a 50-cent gas tax to help rebuild the former East Germany. In 1993, Americans found four cents on top of $1.20 gas almost too much to bear, even while we bequeath our children dirtier air and the continued risk of war over oil. A decade later, it's time to have a grown-up conversation about using sensible energy taxes to achieve America's social, economic, environmental, energy and national security goals.
Matthew Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of "The Two Percent Solution: Fixing America’s Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love." Reach him at www.mattmilleronline.com.