The year I was born, Charles Erwin Wilson, chairman of General Motors, was named Secretary of Defense by President Eisenhower, an appointment which seemed sensible enough, Wilson having supervised GM's prodigious war-effort production; however, there were questions raised during his conformation hearings in the Senate, having a little to do with Wilson's GM stock holdings — he agreed to sell off the lot — and more to do with whether a Captain of Industry, which Wilson surely was, could truly operate in the public sector. Would there be conflicts of interest? Wilson testified that he didn't see any problems: "For years," he said, "I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."

And that was that. Over the years, Charlie Wilson's statement was gradually twisted, to the point where it seemed to mean the opposite of what he'd said: people were quoting it as "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." Even if Wilson actually believed that, he never said it.

Then this year, Dan Akerson, chairman of General Motors, pretty much did say it: "We ought to just slap a 50-cent or a dollar tax on a gallon of gas," he said. "People will start buying more Cruzes and less Suburbans."

Now anybody who pays even the slightest attention to Detroit knows that the Suburban puts a lot more change in the General's pocket than does the Cruze. But this is a classic act of misdirection. Akerson isn't sweating the Cruze, which is selling better than any previous GM entry in its segment. What's giving him fits is GM's billion-dollar baby, the Volt, which is scheduled to be rolled out nationally this year, and which, he'd just as soon I didn't point out, is basically a Cruze with $8000 worth of batteries and a sticker price fifteen to twenty thousand dollars higher — which the customers aren't supposed to notice because they'll be so happy to get $7500 from the Feds. Five-buck gas, reasons Akerson, would go a long way to nailing down those profits, even though, he said, "this will make my Republican friends puke."

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck shot back: "A 50-cent gas tax would make everyone puke. A dollar might make me puke my heart and lungs."

Polevault vomiting (presumably performed in a parabola) aside, there's a reasonable case to be made for bumping up the gas tax by a smaller amount — say, a quarter. The Highway Trust Fund, like most such governmental operations, is essentially broke, and receipts are shrinking as the economy falters and older cars are replaced by newer, more efficient models; the Feds, however, are collecting the same 18.4 cents per gallon today that they were getting in 1993. Just adjusting for inflation would justify an additional dime all by itself. More to the point, American highways have been deteriorating, from Not So Wonderful to "Christ, how does a pair of struts wear out that fast?" To prop up the HTF, Washington has been diverting funding from elsewhere, which of course it doesn't have. Adding a few cents to the gas tax is a much more sensible approach than monitoring everyone's mileage via GPS and charging them accordingly or slapping tolls on previously untolled roads — but voters presumably would puke like Glenn Beck if anyone proposed such a thing.

Which suggests a plan: increase domestic production enough to cause a noticeable decrease in the price at the pump, increase the tax enough to take up the slack, lather, rinse, repeat as necessary. It would never fly, of course. But the plan has two advantages: it would pour some more money into the depleted Highway Trust Fund, and it won't happen fast enough to reward Dan Akerson for his blithering.

The Vent

#729
  13 June 2011

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