In quick succession over this past weekend, the New York Times brought out its heavy guns to militate for a national gasoline tax. First an editorial in Saturday's paper "The Gas Tax," and Friedman's Op-ed the next day, "Win, Win, Win, Win, Win." In putting forth an economically regressive program, the nabobs of the New York Times, who in most cases care little about paying three or four dollars more for a gallon of gasoline for their cars, vest themselves firmly in their well earned mantle of elitist shakers and movers. Of course all the good reasons are listed, calling for the urgent diminution of gasoline consumption for economic, environmental, and geopolitical concerns, even to the extent of Friedman cautioning President-elect Obama, "Without a higher gas tax or carbon tax, Obama will lack the leverage to drive critical pieces of his foreign and domestic agenda."
Not a drop of ink now, or as far as I can tell in recent memory, on another solution, one that would be fairer to all Americans, and would engage Americans in a shared sacrifice creating a universal call to arms while mounting a communal and viable offensive overcoming once and for all our debilitating addiction to fossil fuels. A solution we might well call a "Fuel Voucher Program" (FVP).
It would in fact be a "free market" variation of the gas rationing program that served the nation so well in World War II, bringing a shared sense of mission and dignity to the home front when every one pulled together. At that time there was a clear realization that a gas tax would penalize that part of the population that could least afford it and would thereby exacerbate differences among the nation's citizens, where unanimity of purpose was needed to further the war effort. Most importantly it worked. In perspective one could say today that war was fought and won, and in honor of those valiant times it would be antithetical to our heritage to now become vassals of the oil barons.
A post on August 14, 2006, "Breaking Oil's Price, Curtailing Gas Consumption, Regaining Our Self Respect," outlined the workings of the "Fuel Voucher Program." It would work as follows, and I am embellishing somewhat:
The Department of Energy or Interior would set a maximum quantity of gasoline that could be consumed in any quarter throughout the United States. The quantity would progressively be reduced nationally every quarter, initially in minimal amounts permitting a systematic but consistent change over of automobile ownership from gas guzzlers to hybrids, flex fuel capability and electric cars, so that say in seven or ten years we will have reduced our daily consumption of oil from the current usage of approximately 20 million barrels a day to 10 million bbls/day or by 50%.
Every car owner would receive a quarterly gas allocation based on that ceiling level, distributed equally among the nations car owners. Let's call them Gas Purchase Permits (GPPs). They would come in the form of magnetic debit cards giving each private car owner the same allocation of gas. GPPs could then be used by their owner or freely traded. Drivers whose allotted amount of gas didn't meet their needs or wanted more for whatever reason, could buy all or part of someone else's allocation through online bulletin boards, gas station markets, even eBay or personal transaction. The key is that the GPP plan uses market incentives to permit heavier gasoline consumers to get what they need without increasing overall consumption of gasoline. Allowances could be embedded in the program for businesses, and possibly for those required to drive long distances because of geographic location or employment where no mass transit is available. Altogether not very different operationally, though on a different scale, than a cap and trade program.
The FVP program would address the consumption of fossil fuel based gasoline only! All alternative fuels, be it ethanol, biomass, electric, hydrogen, cooking oil, or whatever the American imagination or inventiveness can substitute for gasoline, would be open-ended, and without restriction as to quantity nor usage by each car driver.
Not incidentally, this month the state of Hawaii together with the Hawaii Electric Power Company endorsed a program to build an alternative transportation system based on electric vehicles with swappable batteries and an intelligent battery recharging network.
Aside from the enormous benefits that would ensue in a significant reduction of our gasoline consumption in areas already referred to above, the FVP program would provide a massive boost to our economy.
There are currently some 230 million vehicles plying the roads in America. Of these less than ten million are flex fuel, hybrid or otherwise gas efficient. A FVP program would provide the needed incentives to convert that massive fleet to fuel efficient cars in a fair way and over a reasonable number of years, with the government helping those with marginal incomes to trade in their cars for more fuel efficient vehicles with tax credits directly or indirectly to the automobile manufacturers.
Brazil took but three years to transition its significant automobile industry to building 75% fuel flexible cars and trucks, from a base of only 5%. In 1941 it took the partnership of government and Detroit but eight months to convert the automobile industry from building passenger cars, to tanks and military equipment. It's time once more for Detroit to become the arsenal of America's future (please see "Detroit's Rebirth as the "Arsenal for America's Future," 11.17.08).
Let flex fuel, hybrid, and electric cars become our generation's tanks!!