Apr 29 2008
Times are tough for American consumers. Rising food and fuel prices have increased the proportion of household incomes that must be allocated towards these two necessities, both for which demand is highly inelastic, meaning that as their prices rise, the quantity demanded by consumers remains relatively high.
In response to the pinching of Americans’ pocketbooks, two presidential candidates are advocating action at the federal level.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton lined up with Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, in endorsing a plan to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for the summer travel season.
Sounds like a good idea, right? If Americans are finding it burdensome to pay more at the pump, and the government can do something to relieve that burden, why shouldn’t they do it?
Let’s do a little calculation here: At 18.4 cents per gallon, how much per fill-up will Americans save?
I drive a ’94 Toyota pick-up, has a 15 gallon tank and gets notoriously poor mileage. I’ll save $2.76 per tank of gas I buy. I usually fill up my truck about once a week during the summer, meaning I’ll save that much each week. McCain wants to suspend the gas tax from Memorial Day until Labor Day, or for a total of about 12 weeks. If Clinton and McCain get their way, I could very well save as much as $33.12 this year! ASTOUNDING!! What a deal for Americans!
Clearly, repealing the gas tax will have only a minor impact on disposable incomes in America. Obama seems to understand this better than the other candidates:
Senator Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic rival, spoke out firmly against the proposal, saying it would save consumers little and do nothing to curtail oil consumption and imports…
Mr. Obama derided the McCain-Clinton idea of a federal tax holiday as a “short-term, quick-fix” proposal that would do more harm than good, and said the money, which is earmarked for the federal highway trust fund, is badly needed to maintain the nation’s roads and bridges.
The decision to suspend or not suspend federal gas taxes is essentially a cost-benefit decision. The benefit? Well, apparently around $30 per driver, or about half a tank of gas, compliments of the US government. The cost? Read on…
The highway trust fund that the gas tax finances provides money to states and local governments to pay for road and bridge construction, repair and maintenance. Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton propose to suspend the tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the peak driving season, which would lower tax receipts by roughly $9 billion and potentially cost 300,000 highway construction jobs, according to state highway officials.
There you have it; $9 billion dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs that won’t be created in order to put half a tank of gas in each American’s car, which if you think about it, will only lead to Americans driving more this summer. Repealing the gas tax may actually induce Americans who weren’t planning road trips to go ahead and take one, increasing the overall demand for gas and driving the price up to the level it would have been with the tax.
And what about the much needed government revenue the tax creates? Hillary has another plan for recouping that loss:
Mrs. Clinton would replace that money with the new tax on oil company profits, an idea that has been kicking around Congress for several years but has not been enacted into law. Mr. McCain would divert tax revenue from other sources to make the highway trust fund whole.
Clearly, Mrs. Clinton needs a refresher course in basic microeconomics. If she had paid attention in AP Economics (did she even take AP Econ?), Clinton would know that a tax on producers of a highly inelastic good such as oil can be passed almost entirely onto the consumers. In this case, the oil companies, when faced with additional federal taxes on profits, will respond by restricting output, which reduces overall supply in oil market, raising the price of the main input for gasoline. Higher input costs for gasoline refineries will reduce overall supply of gasoline, increasing the price paid by consumers at the pump, negating any price-reduction induced by the suspension of the gas tax.
Ultimately, all taxes are borne by the consumers of an inelastic product: gasoline in this case. Whether the tax is levied on drivers directly, or the oil companies “upstream” in the production process, the outcome is the same: supply is restricted and price is higher.
The suspension of a gas tax that only costs Americans $30 over 3 months appears to impose a much greater cost to society than benefit. At least Obama seems to understand the basic economic reasoning behind this fact.
Obama on State Gas Tax Suspension
About the author: Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author