THE AVENUE MAY 6, 2011
Stories and analyses about rising gasoline prices continue to dominate the airwaves. What we pay at the pump threatens to impact everything from President Obama’s reelection, to the budding economic recovery, to families’ summer vacation plans. So it is no wonder that policymakers are flailing about trying to address the problem.
Schemes like “gas tax holidays” and suspending the tax for the summer have already mushroomed, crowding out meaningful discussions about real solutions and good ideas. Add to the mix Sen. Mark Begich’s (D-Alaska) idea to set up household pretax gasoline accounts, similar to medical savings accounts.
Begich’s Family Account to Save on Transportation Act (FAST) is, in the words of the Environmental Law Institute’s Jim McElfish, an extraordinarily bad idea.
An expensive federal subsidy that encourages Americans to continue to consume gasoline makes no sense and is counterproductive to larger efforts to promote energy independence, lower carbon emission, and, yes, recover our economy. It would actually reward high-income households and those that buy the most gas and do nothing for the 9.2 percent of the labor force that is unemployed or those who are retired and living on Social Security. And even though Begich recognizes that any long term drain on the federal budget is untenable, the inclusion of a sunset provision does not mean the subsidy would disappear after two years. Is the expectation that our energy challenges will be solved by then?
Better to put the FAST Act in the same going nowhere category as the gas tax holiday shenanigans.
In the meantime, we need to focus on structural solutions to our energy challenges. Ideas abound. We need to migrate from an almost exclusive focus on carbon-based fuels to a more sustainable mix. We need to shift our infrastructure investments from outmoded transport and energy to systems that are smarter, faster, and technologically enabled. We need to make sure Americans aren’t tethered to their vehicles to meet their most basic needs, like getting to work. Doing so would create markets, grow jobs, and stimulate investment for the long haul.
It may not provide relief for drivers this summer, but it is exactly the kind of bold and responsible thinking we need right now. More gimmicks are what we don’t need.