A growing chorus -- including a top congressional Democrat -- labeled Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's proposal for suspending the federal gasoline tax ineffective and shortsighted yesterday, even as she continued to paint Sen. Barack Obama as insensitive to drivers' woes for not endorsing the plan.
Harvard professor N. Gregory Mankiw, who has written a best-selling textbook on economics, said what he teaches is different from what Clinton and McCain are saying about gas taxes. "What you learn in Economics 101 is that if producers can't produce much more, when you cut the tax on that good the tax is kept . . . by the suppliers and is not passed on to consumers," he said.
Clinton has an ad running in North Carolina and Indiana that attacks Obama for his opposition to lifting the tax. Yesterday, she added visuals to her pitch by joining a sheet-metal worker on his ride to work, stopping with him at a gas station to fill up the pickup truck he was driving as her motorcade's SUVs idled nearby.
People believe her?
Leonard Burman, director of the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, said the laws of the market argue against a tax suspension. "Every summer, the refiners are running full out. If the price fell, people would want to drive more and there would be shortages," he said. "It's a basic economic principle that if the supply is fixed, the price is going to be determined by demand."
Joining in the criticism was House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who said that the Democratic leadership of Congress has no intention of pursuing the summer tax suspension that Clinton touted. The move "would not be positive," he said. "The oil companies would just raise their prices."
Clinton stresses that she, unlike McCain, would push for a windfall-profits tax on oil companies to offset any benefit to them and replace the revenue loss to the highway trust fund. Burman called this "utterly incoherent," saying that a windfall-profits tax would over the long term only exacerbate the supply problems caused by lifting the gas tax, because it would discourage the exploration for and development of new sources of petroleum. "So a policy intended to lower prices, but which won't do that, will be offset with a policy that's likely to raise prices over the long term," he said.