Gas Pains

Higher fuel costs are vexing most of us, but John McCain’s proposal to suspend the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon and diesel tax of 24.4 cents per gallon this summer is irresponsible and probably ineffectual. The “tax holiday” would cost the federal government $9 billion—and McCain hasn’t said how he would replace that revenue. It also wouldn’t give drivers much relief unless oil companies also were banned from raising pump prices to swallow the difference. Oil companies have shown time and again that they have neither conscience nor national loyalty. Since the market has established that people will pay upwards of $3.50 a gallon—the average price for gasoline in mid-April—there is nothing to stop Exxon from treating McCain’s “tax holiday” as just another windfall for petroleum retailers.

Among other major points in McCain’s scanty energy policy: He would stop ethanol subsidies, undercutting farmers when they are finally making a profit from growing corn, and he would stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserves, which actually does make sense, but doesn’t solve our energy needs. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama present more comprehensive energy plans that propose to invest in clean-energy research and development and increase fuel economy standards.

We don’t like to pay higher gas prices but at least it causes us to consider the cost of driving. Gasoline prices are at an all-time high in the US, but, adjusted for inflation, they’re not that much higher than they were in 1981. According to InflationData.com, the average price of gas in 1981 was $1.35, which would be $3.17 in today’s buying power. Premium gas prices in the US averaged $3.61 in mid-April but it’s still less than half the pump prices in Europe, which run from $8.07 per gallon in Britain to $9.32 in the Netherlands, according to the US Department of Energy. The difference is largely due to fuel taxes—the gas tax in Britain is $4.90 per gallon, but US taxes haven’t increased since 1993, when Bill Clinton and a Democratic Congress raised it by 4 cents to help reduce the federal budget deficit.

Congress should raise fuel taxes $1 or more per gallon to expand mass transit options for those of us who would like to cut back on our automobile use but don’t have any other practical way to get to places like Storm Lake, Iowa. Congress won’t do any such thing, of course, because ever since the Reagan administration Americans have been told they should not be expected to sacrifice for the public good.

Recall that Vice President Dick Cheney met secretly with oil company executives in 2001 to draw up the Bush/Cheney energy plan, which promoted oil production. Cheney mocked those who promoted conservation efforts and higher fuel efficiency standards.

Instead, Cheney and the Republican leadership made it a priority to open national parks for oil exploration. But even if oil were found in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, those reserves won’t necessarily result in lower gasoline or diesel prices as long as oil companies continue to set the prices for refined fuels and newly affluent consumers in places like China and India increase the worldwide demand for petroleum products.

In the meantime, US consumers must demand more fuel-efficient cars. Toyota and Honda already have sedans in production that get more than 50 mpg. US carmakers, with $1.5 billion in subsidies from the Clinton administration, developed models that would get more than 70 mpg but shelved plans to put them in production when Bush/Cheney took office in 2001. With the US car mileage lagging around 25 mpg, Congress in 2007, for the first time in 30 years, raised the fuel efficiency standards to require an increase to 35 mpg by 2020. But you don’t have to wait that long. Vote with your next car purchase to bring US troops home from the Mideast.

Congress also should assist independent truckers who are struggling to make a living in the face of diesel costs that have topped $4. Truckers complain that shippers pay fuel surcharges to brokers but those surcharges are not passed through to the drivers that pay for the fuel. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (ooida.com), which represents 162,000 independent truckers, wants Congress to mandate that freight brokers pass through 100% of fuel surcharges to truckers and requiring more transparency of those charges. Congress at least should hold hearings on the misuse of fuel surcharges.

Seventy percent of our nation’s goods travel by truck and independent operators deserve a fair shot at making a profit from hauling those goods. Most jobs pay truckers $1 or less per mile and some independent operators say they already were pushing $1 a mile in operating costs, including fuel, truck lease and insurance, before the latest round of fuel increases. Truckers have no control over fuel prices but at least fuel surcharges that shippers are paying should get to them.

Too Much Truth

Hillary Clinton will continue her campaign after her win in Pennsylvania, despite the fact that she still has little hope of catching Barack Obama in the delegate count. Perhaps Hillary’s supporters have a sense of how Ralph Nader felt in 2000 when he was told by Democrats that he must quit the race.

When Barack Obama was asked during the shoddy ABC debate in Philadelphia about his failure to wear a flag lapel pin, his relationship with the controversial former pastor and his acquaintance with a college professor who was a member of the radical Weather Underground when Obama was in grade school, Obama said he trusted the American people to sort things out. We wish we shared that trust, but the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 strained our faith. We are reminded of former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson during his 1956 presidential campaign. When a woman called out, “You have the vote of every thinking person!’ Stevenson replied, “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”

Some Hillary partisans have accused us of being anti-feminist because we endorsed Obama and have been critical of Clinton. To make it clear, we do not have reservations about Hillary because she is a woman. We doubt her commitment to progressive principles. We remember the Clinton administration’s embrace of neocon deregulation ideology, including repeal of banking regulations in 1999 that permitted the excesses of the subprime mortgage debacle; the policy of “triangulation,” which all too often left congressional Democrats hanging when Bill Clinton thought he could cut a deal with the GOP to advance his own interests; and passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement over the objections of organized labor and a majority of congressional Democrats. Also, Hillary is an officer of the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, whose policy seems to be “throw working people under the bus.”

On the other hand, while some may question Obama’s populist credentials, he was pursuing a populist critique of why people have lost faith in their government when he made those controversial remarks in San Francisco: “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama said. “... And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

“Bitter” might be a strong word, and Obama has backed off from it, but many people in small towns and big cities are bitter at politicians’ neglect; that makes them vulnerable to demagogic appeals based on religion, gun rights and bigotry. This is a classic case of a candidate committing a “gaffe” by telling the truth. If there is one thing the corporate media will not tolerate, it is a politician who suggests that working people do have a grievance against the monied classes in the United States. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2008

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