Saturday, November 04, 2006

Posner in the Pigou Club

A reader alerts me to the fact that law-and-economics guru Richard Posner should be inducted into the Pigou Club. From Posner's blog:

the best way to keep gasoline prices high may be through heavy taxes, which might actually reduce the cost of oil and hence the incomes of the oil-exporting nations (which is in the U.S. national interest to the extent that those nations are indeed hostile, as Iran notably is). If, by increasing the price of gasoline, taxes reduce consumption, the price of oil will decline because the average cost of oil increases with the quantity produced. Just as an increase in demand will cause higher-cost oil to be produced--oil that would not have been economical to produce when the market price was lower--so a reduction in demand will cause that higher-cost oil to be withdrawn from the market and so the average price of oil will fall. In effect, income of the producing nations will be transferred to the consuming nations in the form of gasoline taxes imposed by those nations.

As Becker points out in this comment, higher taxes will dampen the incentive of oil companies to invest in exploring for and developing new sources of oil, since their net revenue from selling oil produced from such sources will be reduced. However, I am unenthusiastic about creating incentives for producing more oil, because of my concern about global warming. (See my book Catastrophe: Risk and Response [Oxford University Press, 2004].) Stiff taxes will put pressure on the energy industry to achieve technological breakthroughs (such as sequestration of carbon dioxide) that will greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, a population ignorant of economics and suspicious of the Administration's motives probably cannot be brought to understand the social benefits of high gasoline prices and heavy gasoline taxes.

I agree with Posner that the key is economics education.