Thursday, April 28, 2011

Essential Yglesias

Matt Yglesias on taxing oil and gas:

One is that while low elasticity implies that a tax is unlikely to be very effective at reducing demand, by the exact same token a low elasticity implies that taxing whatever it is you’re proposing to tax will be a very efficient way of raising revenue. So if you’re the kind of person who believes the government should raise revenue, then there’s really no possible result in the elasticity literature that should make you hesitate to tax gasoline and/or oil.

The other thing is that these elasticity estimates generally imply that the relationship between price and demand is going to be linear, which is almost certainly false. Which is to say that the estimate is only reliable when you’re considering a relatively small policy shift. Nothing wrong with that, there’s just no way to get an empirical estimate about some crazy shift outside the realm of ordinary experience. But it is a real limitation to what this kind of work can tell us.

The second point, that relationships like these are unlikely to be linear is a theme that Mark has been trying to communicate for years and it is nice to see the idea beginning to get traction.

But the first point is a really good one. I like government (not unlimited government, but unlimited ice cream is bad for me too) and I recognize that we need to raise revenue somehow. If the tax on fuel consumption is a way to raise revenue that is a major benefit.

Now it is true that this could adversely impact the transportation options of the less well off. But there are a number of options including means tested fuel tax credits and improved public transportation infrastructure that could be tried. But I think the bottom line is that this tax is like alcohol and cigarette taxes -- we want to discourage an activity and raise revenue for basic services at the same time; while it isn't optimal tax policy (which might address issues like the capital gains tax) it is a major improvement.

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