Presidential Panderers: McCain on Gas Tax, Clinton and Obama on Trade

I don’t know why it still surprises me, but the political pandering of presidential politics continues to reach new and even lower levels. With bridges falling down, potholes unfilled and mass transit never mentioned, John McCain wants to suspend the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax from Memorial Day until Labor Day this summer.

McCain’s idea of an economic stimulus is that we all get in our cars and take a ride. Why worry about global warming and collapsing infrastructure? Let’s all hit the road!

It may be painful to hear, but America’s gasoline tax is too low. It should pay for all the costs of road construction and maintenance and it doesn’t even come close to covering our needs. The gas tax is not actually a tax, but a fee for using the nation’s roads. Most of the money from federal and state gas taxes is used for road construction and upkeep. According to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission that Congress established in 2005:

Total highway expenditure needs are estimated at $4.9 trillion through 2020; $10.0 trillion through 2035; and $18.3 trillion through 2055, stated in constant 2005 dollars.

Total transit needs on a cumulative basis in constant 2005 dollars are estimated to be $1.1 trillion through 2020, $2.4 trillion through 2035 and $4.4 trillion through 2055. These estimates are the sum of the constant dollar estimates for each year.

In 2007 the trust fund generated about $40 billion. About 45 percent of the funds for highway and mass transit construction and equipment comes from the federal government and 55 percent comes from our state and local governments. If we generate $100 billion a year for 12 years we will generate a lot less than the $5 trillion that is needed.

Which brings me back to the tax-cutting plans recently announced by Senator McCain: What in the world can he possibly be thinking of? Military spending for the war in Iraq, coupled with the Bush tax cuts (that McCain originally opposed) have generated the highest federal deficit in history. We are starving our basic research scientists who can barely keep their labs functioning, disinvesting in schools and transportation infrastructure and reducing the value of our currency as we live beyond our means.

McCain is not alone in his pandering of course. Senators Obama and Clinton are both treating us to a series of half-baked critiques of global trade from one end of Pennsylvania to the other. We are really due for a reality check around here. We need to invest in science and infrastructure if we are to avoid becoming a second rate power. We need to acknowledge the reality of the global economy and ensure that workers have a stake in its success. Trade barriers and budget deficits will increase the price of goods and services, reduce the value of our currency and reduce our ability to invest in the future. We need a President who is not afraid to tell people the truth about the future. We can’t continue to live off our children’s wealth.

We need to save more and invest more and maybe even defer a little bit of gratification. Some of our investment must be for infrastructure and scientific research that the federal government will need to fund. The main legitimate argument against allowing government to play this role is the declining competence in federal administration we’ve seen during the Bush Administration. (Remember FEMA?) But the talk of tax cuts and of avoiding the competition of the global marketplace is a dangerous delusion. It is true that we need to ensure that trade is fair and that our competition doesn’t abuse their workers or their environment. We can and must insist that our trading partners follow reasonable rules. But closing off our borders to trade and immigration is the surest way to ensure that America gets left behind in the global economy.

Instead of talking about ministers and sniper fire, it would be nice if the Presidential candidates could tell us what they might do to improve government management. Instead of cutting the gas tax and reducing the money we spend on roads, we should be increasing the tax and encouraging more efficient transportation. This Presidential campaign is not just long and tedious, it’s also starting to get in the way of facing up to our real problems.

Presidential Panderers: McCain on Gas Tax, Clinton and Obama on Trade