Most economists oppose the Clinton-McCain gas tax holiday because they can’t see how consumers will benefit. In fact, “most” is an understatement; when challenged to name one economist willing to back her plan, Mrs. Clinton’s response was to disparage the whole profession.
Why are economists so opposed? In the short run, the supply of gasoline is basically fixed; it takes a while to build a new refinery. The demand for gasoline, in contrast, is more responsive to price; we’re already seeing greater use of public transportation and brisk sales of fuel-efficient cars. When you combine fixed supply with flexible demand, it’s suppliers, not demanders, who pocket the tax cut. That’s Econ 101.
So far, I pretty much agree with the consensus. Economists might overstate the rigidity of supply — it’s possible that eliminating the tax could spur producers to find a way to squeeze out a little more gas — but they’re probably right that the Clinton-McCain proposal will not shrink the price at the pump. Nevertheless, I think it’s an idea worth supporting. In fact, I’ve got two arguments in favor of it, though I doubt that either candidate will want to repeat them in public.
The first is that the tax holiday is a relatively cheap symbolic gesture that makes truly bad policies less likely. The main causes of high gas prices are probably factors beyond our control, like rapid growth in China and India and low real interest rates. But voters don’t want to hear this; they want politicians to “do something!”...Second, even a “giveaway” to the oil industry sets a positive course for the future. During the last crisis, the industry was a scapegoat for scarcity. Politicians scrambled to stop oil companies from profiting from the crisis, even though temporarily high profits end shortages by giving businesses an incentive to figure out how to increase output...
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