By ANDREW SULLIVAN
Gas prices are too low. There. I said it. I've outed myself. And I'm glad, damn it! Glad!
Even when they peak this summer, as most analysts predict, they will be too low. How too-much low they will be is still a mystery, but one thing is certain: they're too low because gas is woefully undertaxed in this country. This state of affairs is bad for the economy, bad for our foreign policy, bad for drivers, bad for passengers, and especially bad for tires, rings, seals and bearings. These defenseless parts are the silent victims of our national fetish for cheap gas.
However, we do not have to sit idly by and watch our automobiles suffer through another day of abusive overuse. One of the simplest and best things any Administration could do right now would be to add a buck per gallon to the federal gas tax. Wait, make that two bucks. I would also suggest a 15% tip to the full-serve attendent (20% if he's cute!).
The worst knock against a gas tax is that it is, well, a tax. Who likes that? Boogity boogity! Oh no, it's the mean old scary tax monster! Grow up, you people. With soaring deficits and a war to pay for, taxes are not an option — they're a necessity. We need an economic trip to the dentist, if you will, to correct the gum disease caused by poor revenue hygiene and a sugary diet of Refunda-Cola and Deficitos.
The case for a gas tax is a straightforward one. First, gas prices are strikingly lower in America than anywhere else in the world. This often results in awkward dinner party conversations when one is entertaining Europeans. How many times must we be embarrassed into canape-staring silence while a Danish fashion editor or Belgian nightclub impressario drop a stinging bon mot skewering America's hideously passe gas prices?
Second, such taxes are relatively easy to collect and an overwhelming majority of Americans drive, so few avoid the tax. They will thus fulfill the Founding Fathers' vision of unavoidable, easy-to-collect taxes.
Third, by adding a cost to our wanton and laviscious consumption of gasoline, you encourage driving abstinance and promote fuel chastity, while combatting the growing menace of pornographic SUVs. Just think: without higher gas prices, consumption will continue to soar, thus causing gas shortages, which could eventually translate into higher gas prices for you and me.
Finally, higher gas taxes will reduce pollution, cut traffic and help wean Americans off the dangerous teat of "Hussein heroin." Just picture the look on the Saudis' faces when American interstates are filled with zero-emission bicycles and rickshaws!
The idea is so obviously a good one that neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry has gone near it. Like my other good idea for a transtectonic bike tunnel linking Tokyo to Martha's Vineyard, it will probably languish until we elect politicians perspicacious, cunning, and ruthless enough to enact it over the confused howls of the misinformed millions who will likely oppose it.
So why is it so unpopular? Some say it's inherently regressive — that it affects the poor more than the rich. Others say that it affect the middle class more than anyone else. Others say it penalizes those in remote and rural areas. But so what? Why would you want to see any of those people cloggling the roads in their unsightly rusty pickups and rickety Hundais with kitschy suction cup Garfields? Most of them already get plenty of goverment subsidies anyway, and if people in Nebraskansaw or Ohidawaho need to get somewhere, there's always the subway.
Some conservatives say it's antithetical to the American Dream. Hooey flapdoodle baloneyhockey. I thought that conservatism emphasizes personal responsibility alongside freedom. And, studies show that the unnatural and perverted "love" of gas guzzling cars is socially conditioned during the teen years, caused by the seductive images of Beach Boys songs and the 'Fast and Fabulous' movies. We should counter the alarming youth recruitment agenda of the automobile lobby with a campaign of responsible hip hop and techno songs, extolling the joys of 'rolling wit' yo bitches' on eco-friendly mass transit.
The real reason so many Americans hate gas taxes is that they see them. Nobody really notices payroll taxes, because they are deducted before you get your paycheck. But the price of gas is broadcast up on big placards across the country, often next to a giant inflatable gorilla and those annoying plastic streamer flags going THWIP THWIP THWIP when the wind is over 5 mph. When the price goes up, eyebrows rise a notch. But that's a good thing! People will say, "at last - an honest, fearless, in-my-face tax that pushes the envelope and challenges my assumptions. Bravo, government! Bravissimo!" Plus, according to the latest issue of Men's Journal, frequent eyebrow-notching is critical for facial elasticity and wrinkle prevention. A perfect win-win conservative-liberal skin care synthesis.
Let me add one further reason, and it's a simple one. We're at war. So far, the Bush Administration has refused to ask for a general sacrifice to pay for this effort. But that leads to a sense that we're not all involved, that we do not all owe the troops our support. What better way to persuade the Administration's war critics than a huge increase in gas prices? Note to Karl Rove: when gas hits $4 per gallon, those "Bush=Hitler" posters will go out of fashion faster than trucker hats.
More important, the war is about the Middle East. A long-term strategy to protect us from constant involvement in that region would include greater energy independence. A gas tax helps pay for our current struggle and helps us avoid future ones. Once we stop buying crude oil from the terrorist-supporting states, they will probably forget that America was ever on their "shit list."
Why not therefore a wartime gas tax of a dollar, or three, a gallon? If we don't owe it to our fellow citizens, to the environment, to greater fuel efficiency, to adorable kittens, can we at least owe it to the troops? So when Johnny comes marching home again, welcome him the with gift that keeps on giving - massive gas taxes. He will thank you. Unless he still has that Trans Am.