Pushing a gas tax, declaring Detroit “dead,” and assigning blame to John Dingell

I don’t typically quote a lot of Thomas Friedman here, but he’s got a column it today’s New York Times on one of my favorite subjects – the gas tax… I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but we desperately need a coordinated campaign for a gas tax in this country… At any rate, it looks as though Friedman agrees with me. And I really like the way he draws comparisons between our apparent willingness to sacrifice the lives of young Americans in the Middle East, and our refusal as a country to even consider the thought of paying another fifty-cents per gallon at the pump. Here’s a clip from his article:

…How about Denmark? Little Denmark, sweet, never-hurt-a-fly Denmark, was hit hard by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. In 1973, Denmark got all its oil from the Middle East. Today? Zero. Why? Because Denmark got tough. It imposed on itself a carbon tax, a roughly $5-a-gallon gasoline tax, made massive investments in energy efficiency and in systems to generate energy from waste, along with a discovery of North Sea oil (about 40 percent of its needs).

And us? When it comes to raising gasoline taxes or carbon taxes — at a perfect time like this when prices are already low — our politicians tell us it is simply “off the table.” So I repeat, who is the real tough guy here?

“The first rule of warfare is: ‘Take the high ground.’ Even the simplest Taliban fighter knows that,” said David Rothkopf, energy consultant and author of “Superclass.” “The strategic high ground in the world — whether it is in the Middle East or vis-à-vis difficult countries like Russia and Venezuela — is to be less dependent on oil. And yet, we simply refuse to seize it.”

According to the energy economist Phil Verleger, a $1 tax on gasoline and diesel fuel would raise about $140 billion a year. If I had that money, I’d devote 45 cents of each dollar to pay down the deficit and satisfy the debt hawks, 45 cents to pay for new health care and 10 cents to cushion the burden of such a tax on the poor and on those who need to drive long distances…

I am not sure what the right troop number is for Afghanistan; I need to hear more. But I sure know this: There is something wrong when our country is willing to consider spending more lives and treasure in Afghanistan, where winning is highly uncertain, but can’t even talk about a gasoline tax, which is win, win, win, win, win — with no uncertainty at all.

Given that we can’t seem to move forward with a public option in healthcare, in spite of the fact that approximately 75% of Americans polled consistently say that they want one available, I can’t see how we could possibly move forward with anything as unpopular as a gas tax… Of course, we could have done it after 9/11, when there was widespread consensus that we needed to do something bold and ambitious, but, being the short-sighted assholes that we are, we chose war for oil instead… And you know how well that went… So, absent another terrorist attack, or the sudden ascension of politicians that aren’t craven cowards, what can we do?

How do we get a gas tax passed?

Oh, speaking of politicians who won’t do what they need to, in the new issue of Time, reporter Daniel Okrent, writing about the tragedy of Detroit, places a lot of the blame at the feet of our Congressman, John Dingell. Here’s a clip:

bilde …In 1956, when I was 8 years old, my Congressman was John D. Dingell. There are people in southeastern Michigan who are still represented by Dingell, the longest-serving member in the history of the House of Representatives. “The working men and women of Michigan and their families have always been Congressman Dingell’s top priority,” his website declares, and I suppose he thinks he has served them well — by resisting, in succession, tougher safety regulations, more-stringent mileage standards, relaxed trade restrictions and virtually any other measure that might have forced the American automobile industry to make cars that could stand up to foreign competition.

By so ably satisfying the wishes of the auto industry — by encouraging southeastern Michigan’s reliance on this single, lumbering mastodon — Dingell has in fact played a signal role in destroying Detroit. He was hardly alone; if you wanted to get elected in southeastern Michigan, you had to support the party line dictated by the Big Four — GM, Ford, Chrysler and their co-conspirator the United Auto Workers. Anything that might limit the industry’s income was bad for the auto industry, and anything bad for the auto industry was deemed dangerous to Detroit…

Even though I haven’t talked about it here in a while, I’m still bitter over the fact that Dingell, when he was Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, didn’t do more to create the kind of change that this country needed. Instead of using his then considerable strength in the House to champion causes that would have decreased global warming pollution and increased fuel efficiency, he expended his effort fighting reform on behalf of the Big 3 and their unions. (SUVs, after all, were where the profit was.) And that’s what bothers me. He could have been a truly great figure in American history. With his understanding of the auto industry, and his power, he could have led a revolution in green transportation that would have put Michigan back on the map. But, instead, he chose to fight against fuel efficiency and energy independence, and that’s what he’ll forever be known for – driving the last nail into the coffin of Detroit.

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  1. Posted September 24, 2009 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    As someone just mentioned in another thread, this Time article is apparently part of a year-long commitment on the part of the magazine to report on Detroit.

    Which is cool.

  2. KitMizzy
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Pussy a gas tax. Yes now! Hey now doodle doodle dingell!

    Berry merry gas tax!!! Low emission feel!

    Big Fur autoh! No oh oh oh oh!

  3. HauntedChickenCoop
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    at least Dingell gets props for continuing to champion health reform & for continuing to do so …….I read that article earlier with mixed feelings for blaming him. kind of hard to tell industry what to do when workers’ earnings are increasing, etc. But, I do tend to think gov’t should have been the first to step in & call foul.

  4. Posted September 24, 2009 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    I like Dingell. And I wanted him to be the guy to fix Michigan and the auto industry. When push came to shove, though, he couldn’t embrace even the most modest reforms. If you’ll recall, he was still denying global warming two years ago. He, I’m sure, thought that by doing so he was helping his constituents. He wasn’t, though. He was just helping dig the hole deeper.

  5. Posted September 24, 2009 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    I thought I liked Dingell but this is why I’m trying to read your blog more often, because I feel woofully uninformed about the world and want to understand it all. I don’t have hours and hours to sit watching CNN, MSNBC and all the rest of the stuff out there…or read the paper every day. Growing up my parents got several papers delivered daily and would read them all constantly (which is probably why I’m so bad at small talk, they ignored me during meals to read)…but I kind of depended on them to help me with my point of view instead of developing my own. Now that they are gone I’m starting to realize I should have paid more attention instead of just depending on them to be there always and forever as personal advisors.

    Anyway, I don’t think Term limits are coming anytime soon so it does make me want to vote for the republican in some cases just to get rid of these old hats who have been sitting comfortably in their seats for so long doing nothing. Often when I’ve voted it’s been for the lesser of two evils instead of the guy I truly want in office. Even with Obama I felt he was less than he should have been politically. It’s all such a business of compromise instead of actually standing up for what you believe most of the time. Decisions by committee are how we get so many crappy movies out of hollywood, but there are no easy answers.

    I just don’t see another way around getting rid of guys like Dingell. Maybe we shouldn’t but maybe we should…I know there is clout to a guy like him but at what cost?

  6. Bill LaLonde
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Yikes! Good thing I only read Life & Style. By the way, did you see the Kate Gosselin interview in US weekly this week? O…M…G…

  7. egpenet
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Term limits can work against us, too. Many are elected on the basis of “throw the bums out” only to discover we’ve put a do-nothing nincompoop into a $70,00 a year leather chair for the next two to six years.

    While Dingell has been in office, many other Michigan legislators have served us very well, like the Levins. But they had little power in Congress because they never got the right committee jobs or chair positions.

    The best politicians, in my opinion, are not the brightest, nor the best orators, nor saints. In fact, the more chaisms a politician has, the less effective they will be in dealing with “the politics.”

    The best politicians are those few who understand the times, the public needs, the particulars of the Constitution (Charter, whatever), and the legislative process.

    Turns out … those people are few, indeed.

    Dingell … for better (mostly) or worse (with regard to C.A.F.E.) … served us well and, someday, will be missed. Waxman, who has taken over, is one tough legislative cookie, but he’s no John Dingell.

    Thankyou John, Sandy and Carl.

  8. Posted September 25, 2009 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    The comparison to Denmark is typical Friedman. Anyone who has ever been there knows what I’m talking about–it is the most freaking expensive place I’ve ever been. It is lovely, but it is nothing like the United States. It’s probably cheaper to live on the Space Station than it is to live in Denmark. Everything, and I mean ev-er-REE-thing costs several times what it does in the US and in other EU countries. They probably don’t even notice the gas tax. Even the trains are absurdly expensive. The only economical way to travel in Denmark is by bike–something that they do a lot of, but only because the government invested oodles of kroner in bike paths. Oh, and check the weather over there some time–even though it’s almost at the North Pole, it never gets close to the lows we see all the time in Michigan. The Danes I know actually love the idea that the government makes decisions for them. They could tax sex in Denmark if they wanted to.

    They may have poor people in Denmark, but they are hard to find. They have some of the most all-inclusive social programs anywhere, with the taxes to go with them–according to wikipedia, Denmark has the highest income tax in the world.

    I also want the price of gasoline to reflect its true cost, but asinine comparisons to Disneyland coutries do not help our cause. The fact that we need to deal with is that a gas tax is a flat tax that disproportionately impacts lower income people. I would support something more advanced, like a sliding scale, or a refund based on income. In Canada, you get (or used to, I don’t know about now) a percentage refund for the national sales tax (the GST) based on your income.

  9. Kim
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Denmark will be underwater soon. No need to consider them as competition.

  10. Steph's Dad
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Dingell lied and obstructed to protect the profits of the American auto makers. Long after even Republicans had given up the “global warming isn’t real” bullshit, he kept it up. He scoffed at Gore, and said that he refused to even watch the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” He said that pushing the big three to produce more fuel efficient vehicles would kill them. Well, they killed themselves instead. And now the Japanese are taking over the market because they’re decades ahead on fuel efficiency and battery research. Good riddance to Dingell and his ilk.

  11. Posted September 25, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    The price of gasoline should absolutely reflect the full and true costs, but this cannot be done by government picking the most politically expedient tax amount. The absolute must-read on this is “Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution,” by Murray Rothbard. Click on my name to read it. It’s long, but a great read. If you’re done attacking Strawman Beck for a while, Mark, start on this.

  12. galan
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this Mark.

  13. Kim
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    That’s cool that Time is putting people on the street at ground zero (Detroit). Every news service, non-profit, social venture firm, entrepreneurial company, etc should be doing the same. Detroit should be a undulating mass of people trying new things. It should be our nation’s laboratory.

  14. Andy Ypsilanti
    Posted September 25, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Because its a pet issue of mine, I’m just going to make mention. Urban sprawl and “it’s not my city, not my problem” are at least as responsible for downfall of Detroit as the auto companies. Please discuss.

  15. Posted September 26, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    This was a great post… and yes, I feel kinda’ strange inside to be nodding along to Friedman. But it’s true – we have been taking the short-sighted road for a long, long time and it’s going to have consequences.

  16. dp in exile
    Posted September 26, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    I don’t even know where to start, it seems like I’ve said it all on this site before.

    … a sad time for Michigan & a monumental failure of leadership.

    When we drop two seats from the US House after the 2010 census I hope Dingell & Conyers retire rather than continue on inertia.

  17. egpenet
    Posted September 27, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    From where I left off above …

    When will we learn that “leadership” is not the job of a politician … from city hall to the white house … but rather “representation.” They, the elected officials, represent us, and are one step removed from the day-to-day bureaucrats with the “desk” jobs that run departments, manage cities, pick up the trash and keep our water clean. They all “work” for us, “represent” us … and we ask them, “please, do not lead, just get the job done you were elected, appointed, hired to do.”

    That said … the Dingells, Levins, Conyers (perhaps) and many more in our state’s history have done a good job of representing current moods, wishes and needs. Times change. And when the change is dramatic in the short term, we AND our surrogate representatives get trampeled in the rush to escape the burning building.

    Driving to Dearborn yesterday, I noted the moody facade of Willow Run, the empty lots, the quiet UAW Local halls, even the sheer lack of traffic … and I remembered a time growing up in Detroit … where the Packard plant closed, where old factories on St. Jean, Kercheval were closed, the Randolph complex today, Hamtramck …

    Grandholm or other state and local politicians are not going to lead Michigan out of anything. We have to do it ourselves and get those politicians to support us. We have to entrepreneur and slave ourselves outta this mess. Dingell knew how to change laws, get funding, make the impossible possible at the legislative level. The messes in Lansing (Michigan economy) and Washington (ie. Health Care) today is in part becuase of term limits and the lack of legislative experience of those in attendance.

    As I said above, for better and for worse, politicians are sluggers and muggers and we need both skills to get the job done – for us.

  18. Mary OK
    Posted November 15, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    I guess I felt that Time Magazine blaming Dingell for the tragedy of Detroit was that they were somewhat off base. I remember their premise being that if we had stronger environmental legislation, the Detroit automakers would have been forced to compete. Was that the purpose of the environmental legislation, to strenthen domestic businesses? The auto mfgs. had ample market intelligence on their strenghts and weaknesses relative to their competition. Some people feel the big Three had to support the high margin gas guzzlers due to their cost structure – supporting retirees who worked when the business was more labor intensive and when they had nearly 100% market share.

    That doesn’t mean that Dingell did the best job for the American people though. Energy independence has been a national security imperative for 30+ years and Dingell surely needed to push higher CAFE standards for that reason. He likely needs to retire for a lot of other reasons. The suggestion that tougher environment standards would have saved the big three as if that were the purpose of the legislation makes no sense to me.

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