May 01 2008

More on Obama, Clinton, and the “gas tax holiday”

Clinton thinks suspending the gas tax for the summer is good for Americans. She says that any revenue lost can be made up for by taxing the profits of oil companies.

Obama thinks it will cause more harm than good to the economy. He says the $9 billion of government revenue foregone could have done more good for the economy through job creation and road maintenance than the $25 each American driver will save with a suspension of the gas tax.

They’re both using their positions on the gas tax to garner more support among Democratic voters in Indiana and North Carolina, where next week’s key primaries will be held.

Greg Mankiw
, Harvard economist, has this to say about Hillary’s plan:

I don’t know any prominent economist who favors this McCain-Clinton proposal. More common is the reaction of a friend of mine (a veteran of the Clinton administration) who calls the idea “ludicrous.”

Sometimes a candidate’s position on one particular issue, even a relatively minor one like a federal gas tax that most Americans probably didn’t even know they were paying when they filled up their tanks, draws clear lines around a candidate’s values.

Clinton’s ‘Trouble’ ad

Obama Takes On Clinton and McCain on Gas Tax Holiday

It should be noted that while Obama is probably right that a gas tax suspension will only save drivers a pittance, his economics is slightly flawed. Here’s Tim Haab of Environmental Economics blog responding to Obama’s claim that a gas tax holiday could actually increase demand for gas thus raise gas prices:

Wrong, wrong, wrong: A lower gas price causes quantity demanded to increase as consumers move down the demand curve. The only things that cause gas demand to change are changes in income, prices of substitutes and complements, tastes and preferences and expectations… I demand a retraction.

Who are these “some economists” that Obama is talking about? Did they get their degrees from an SEC school or something? Name names so that we can have an econoblogosphere beatdown! Out these blasphemers!

Note: I think Obama got the $25 to $30 number correct.

Mr. Haab is technically correct when it comes to basic economic theory. Repealing the gas tax should shift supply out, not demand, as taxes are a determinant of supply. Rather than demand changing, quantity demanded by drivers will increase, in response to the increased supply and lower prices.

What I do think could happen, however, is that expectations of future price increases might incentivize drivers to increase their demand for gas over the summer. This Mr. Haab seems to oversee. When August roles around and drivers know that come Labor day the gas tax will kick in again, they may chose to take a family road trip that they otherwise would have postponed, shifting overall demand for gas out, driving prices up.

In the case of a temporary suspension of an excise tax on any good, there is always the expectation that the price will increase again in the future. This could lead to hoarding or stockpiling of the good, increasing overall demand and driving the price up before the tax has even returned.


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

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