Increased gasoline tax makes political sense

MIKE ROYKO

October 19, 1992|By MIKE ROYKO

Try to imagine Bill Clinton or George Bush saying: "And if I'm elected, you'll pay 10 cents more for a gallon of gas. That's an extra $2 for a fill-up. And I'll add 10 cents every year for the next four years."

Sure, that's about as likely as either of them telling dirty traveling-salesman jokes during the next debate.

No mainstream politician would even consider telling Americans that in five years they will be paying an extra $10 for a full tank. It would be political suicide.

And that's one of the advantages Ross Perot has. Since he's such a long shot anyway, he can be fearless and toss out a sensible idea.

It was fun watching the reaction of Clinton and Bush after Perot said, yes, he would push for a 50-cents-a-gallon tax over five years. The billions it would bring in would pay for so much of the rebuilding that this country needs.

Both acted as if someone had put a dead snake on their dinner plates. They couldn't get away from it fast enough.

And my guess is that millions of Americans who weren't already familiar with Perot's proposal said: "Is that guy nuts? He wants to jack up the price of gas?"

But why not? Why should fuel for our cars be so much cheaper than other things we buy?

Yes, it is cheaper. In fact, very few consumer objects or services have fought off inflation as well as gas.

For those who like numbers: In 1932, you could buy a new Ford for less than $500. The lowest-priced model, a roadster, was about $410.

That year, a gallon of gas was 18 cents.

Today, the cheapest stripped-down Ford, that company says, is the Festiva L hatchback at $6,941.

And today the average cost of a gallon of gas is about $1.12.

After 60 years, you are paying about 17 times as much for the cheapest Ford. But you're paying only about six times as much for a gallon of gas.

In 1932, the average price of a three-bedroom house was a little more than $3,000. Today, almost $100,000. So the house is 33 times more expensive.

The average income in 1932 was about $1,300. Today, it's more than $30,000.

So why do Americans believe that they are already being clipped when they pay more than $1 for a gallon of gas and that it would be an outrage to tack on an extra dime for the next five years?

We believe that because for so many years gas was cheap. As recently as 1972, you could buy a gallon for only 32 cents. It hadn't even doubled in price in 40 years.

That $3,000 home was up to $40,000. The cheapest car was about $2,000. We took cheap gas as our birthright.

Then the Arabs wised up, hoisted the price, created a crisis, and gasstarted to catch up with everything else.

But it is still cheaper than most other things we buy. During the '50s and '60s, when we were paying about 30 cents a gallon, we were driving gas hogs. Those big V-8 engines drank it almost as fast as you put it in. Even the so-called economy models didn't get more than 15 miles to the gallon on the highway.

Now, thanks to the Arabs and their oil crisis, even Detroit's biggest models provide better mileage than the old economy jobs.

Nobody expects a stein of beer to cost a dime. But we still believe that we should be paying 30 cents a gallon for gas.

Europeans don't think that way. Nor do Canadians or hardly anyone else in the world. As Perot says, they're accustomed to $3- and $4-a-gallon fuel. That's why they've always been ahead of us in developing efficient cars, and why they don't believe that God ordained that man should use a car for any trip over one block.

Clinton knows that the idea makes sense. So does Bush. And so do most economists. If not a dime, then a nickel. If not spread over five years, then over 10.

The only flaw in the idea isn't economic, it's political. It's a tax that everybody would have to pay rich, poor, young or old. "Shared sacrifice," as Perot says.

That's the political flaw. Everybody in this country believes in sacrifice. It's the sharing that's troublesome.

Which is why Clinton is smart enough to talk about raising the income taxes only on those making more than $200,000. Since about 99 percent of Americans don't make over $200,000, they think it's a great idea to sock it to those who do.

And if he said that he wants to spread the tax increase to those making $150,000 and up, he would still be safe because the vast majority of Americans make less than that, and they'd cheer.

So if Perot is really serious about getting elected, he'll change his gas-tax proposal before the next debate.

If he says that it would apply only to owners of cars costing $75,000 or more, especially those who snub the self-serve pumps, he might get Clinton's support.

I'm not sure about Bush, though. He might say it would be a hardship on rich old widows.

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