Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Founded by Mark Kleiman (1951-2019)
Don’t oversell that gas tax
I yield to no-one in my enthusiasm for a nice fat carbon charge (with a tariff), and I am far from a Pigovian tax grinch.Â But I’m afraid Harold is implicitly too enthusiastic about its climate potential in the vehicle fuel context.Â Gasoline consumption is quite inelastic to price changes (of course, if it’s revenue you want, go for it).Â One reason for this is habit, and another is the national identity myth deeply fixed in Americans’ lizard brains: “what makes us who we are, when it comes right down to it, is our God-given right to drive alone anywhere we want, without traffic lights, and park free when we get there.”
Equally important is the robust fact that in order to drive less but still get anywhere, you need another way to do it. Almost all of these ways are public goods of one kind or another: no matter how motivated I may be to not drive, I cannot buy myself a walking street or a bicycle route that’s pleasant and interesting and safe to use, much less a tram route.Â I can choose to live in a pedestrian-friendly, dense, neighborhood in some cities.Â But not in most, and even if that neighborhood has jobs and housing both, it’s a long shot that I will have one of the jobs in it, so the large-scale land use patterns and infrastructure around me, another thing I can’t change by private market behavior, will matter a lot.
Sure, let’s try to push gasoline prices up a couple of bucks, especially because climate is not the only externality they aren’t representing.Â The car habit is toxic to all kinds of social capital; if you wear a two-ton iron suit whenever you go out, another part of your lizard brain, the one that makes you afraid of anyone not like you, kicks into gear without the constant braking provided by being out and about on your feet among those people.Â But let’s not oversell it, nor forget the importance of the complements of “driving less” that can only be provided by government.
Author: Michael O'Hare
Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training.
He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.
Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at UniversitÃ Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs.
At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4Ã—5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.
View all posts by Michael O'Hare
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