Monday, June 05, 2006

Feldstein on Gasoline

My Harvard colleague Martin Feldstein is clever. In today's Wall Street Journal, he is too clever by half.

Marty proposes that the government set up a system of "tradeable gasoline rights" to reduce gasoline consumption. Here is how he describes it:

In a system of tradeable gasoline rights, the government would give each adult a TGR debit card. The gasoline pumps at service stations that now read credit cards and debit cards would be modified to read these new TGR debit cards as well. Buying a gallon of gasoline would require using up one tradeable gasoline right as well as paying money.

The government would decide how many gallons of gasoline should be consumed per year and would give out that total number of TGRs....

A key feature of these gasoline rights is that they are tradeable. Individuals with more TGRs than they need could sell the excess, while those who want to use more gallons than their allocation would have to buy extra TGRs. The gasoline companies could act as clearing houses for these trades, using their gasoline pumps to sell TGRs in the same way that they sell gasoline or to buy TGRs in exchange for the cash needed to purchase gasoline. Other institutions like banks could also trade TGRs for cash.

As I am sure Marty would agree, this system is functionally equivalent to an increase in the gasoline tax, with the tax revenue rebated lump-sum to the public. I have said many times that I like the idea of higher gasoline taxes, but Marty's scheme leaves me cold. Do we need to create a new administrative bureaucracy because politicians are afraid to use the word tax? I hope not.