Thursday, June 19, 2014

Instead of a WPA, a 65% increase in the gasoline tax

 (A WPA road project near Cumberland, Maryland, 1939. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

Once again, some of our congressional "leaders" are asking us to subsidize the tax evasion & avoidance practiced by the super-wealthy. Two U.S. senators are proposing a "bipartisan," 65% increase in the federal gasoline tax because Congress is struggling "to pay for highway and transit programs." 

If this tax increase is passed it will further burden middle- and low-income Americans because it is a regressive tax.

Some researchers and policy wonks claim that the gasoline tax is not regressive because, for example, "hey, a lot of poor people don't have cars and thus won't have to pay it." But this is yet another example of how those of greater means do not understand the lives of those of limited means. It reminds me of Hurricane Katrina, where those of greater means essentially said, "Hey, just hop in your Cadillac Escalade and evacuate, what's the problem?" 

If one has worked in lower-income areas, and worked alongside lower-income groups, then one would know that many lower-income people wish they had a car or, if they have one, desperately need it. Why? Because a vehicle expands a person's employment and educational opportunities. It also makes life a whole lot easier when, for example, you need to pick up your child at school and take them to a medical appointment.

Public transportation is great, and I'm all for it, but it doesn't go everywhere and it doesn't operate at all times. And, in certain instances, in can be dangerous and unreliable (yes, I've used public transportation quite a bit--buses, the DC metro, the Baltimore Light Rail--and I've seen its upsides and downsides, e.g., a man vomiting on the passenger in front of him).

To say, "poor people don't have cars, so go ahead and raise the gasoline tax" is to move in a direction of car-ownership-only-for-the-well-to-do. I think that's the wrong approach. The fact of the matter is, if you're struggling financially, and you need your car, an increase in the gasoline tax is going to hurt. That's what a regressive tax does, it hurts people of limited means more than it hurts people of greater means--policy wonk pontification & data set analysis notwithstanding.

Some people might say, "Well, we can offset the tax burden with tax changes elsewhere." Please. Does anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention to the foolishness in Congress these past 6 years believe that our "rudderless bunch of idiots" is going to do anything to help struggling Americans?  (See "Congress gets record low approval rating in midterm year"). The fact of the matter is that Congress has become a legislative body of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.     

I would argue that there is a better solution to road funding--a two-pronged solution: (1) A public jobs program where the unemployed are trained and hired to maintain roads, and (2) a greater crackdown on wealthy Americans who are hiding their fortunes in foreign bank accounts (the United States loses about $300 billion in revenue, annually, to tax evasion). 

Let me ask: Does it strike you as fair that, on the one hand, the Department of Justice recently struck a deal with a bank where the names of thousands of wealthy income tax evaders can remain secret but, on the other hand, middle- and lower-income Americans need to start paying more for gasoline because, as a nation, we are supposedly broke? Do you think it is morally right to say to low wage workers who drive to work (as many in suburban and rural areas do), "Hey, you need to start paying more for gasoline," while letting multi-billion dollar corporations hoard profits overseas to avoid paying taxes? (See "Stiglitz: Tax-Dodging, Corporate Welfare Destroying US Economy")

During the New Deal era, the federal government paid WPA laborers to work on America's roads and highways. These workers created or improved 650,000 miles of roadway. That's enough roadwork to go around the Earth 26 times. The fact that we have collectively decided that a new WPA is not possible or desirable, but that an array of regressive taxes, tolls, fees, and fines are possible and desirable (in the face of wide-scale tax evasion & avoidance by the super-wealthy) is yet another sign of a country embracing plutocracy. 

We should not pay higher gasoline taxes to subsidize tax evasion & avoidance by the super-wealthy. And, if we want to discourage the use of fossil fuels, we should do it not through regressive taxation, but through greater investment in the research & development of alternative energy vehicles and alternative energy infrastructure, and also, yes, improvements to public transportation (which are, coincidentally, more projects that a new WPA could work on.)

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