Thursday, April 27, 2006

stupid posturing

matthew yglesias defends democrats who are calling for a 60 day moratorium on federal gas tax:
High gas prices are very unpopular with the public. This presents an opportunity for the opposition party to score gains against a genuinely pernicious incumbent party by presenting itself as prepared to "do something" about the situation. But, simultaneously, the correct liberal point of view is that high gasoline prices are actually a good thing for environmental and foreign policy reasons. Ergo, Democrats propose "legislation that would put a moratorium on the Federal gasoline tax for at least 60-days to provide consumers immediate relief at the pump,” but would also "chop oil company tax benefits and burden refineries with unwarranted reporting requirements, making it unable to win enough support in Congress to have even a remote chance of passing." This accomplishes the political goal of making the Republicans unpopular -- siding with their corporate masters to defeat a plan to lower the price of gasoline -- while also accomplishing the policy goal of not making gasoline prices lower. That, to me, deserves the label "smart."

Instead, John Whitehead, at the Environmental Economics blog, calls it "silly plus stupid (i.e., "inefficient" to an economist)" and Brad DeLong chimes in labeling the initiative an example of "stupidity." But it's not silly, it's not stupid, and it's a very efficient way of combining the Democratic Party's two primary goals under circumstances where they seem to be deeply in tension. If you want to call it "dishonest political theater" or "posturing," then that's your right. But it's very smart posturing. The substantive drawbacks of the proposal are no downside at all because it clearly can't pass and, what's more, it's clearly been deliberately designed to be unable to pass. This is the savvy leadership Amy Sullivan's been talking about.
atrios then came down on yglesias' side and echoed that the democrat's position was "smart posturing."

i think it's stupid posturing. yes, a proposal that proposes a tax moratorium but also eliminates oil companies' tax benefits and adds to refinery reporting requirements will not pass. but why does yglesias assume that the republicans will respond by sinking the entire proposal? isn't it more likely that the republicans will just rip off the popular gas tax breaks aimed at consumers and leave out the anti-corporate stuff? a republican-proposed moratorium may not even be limited to 60 days; it could be longer. or maybe they'll propose a permanent repeal of federal gas taxes. given that the republican party's response to virtually everything includes a tax cut, i think the scenario i'm describing is rather likely.

and that would put the democrats in a tight spot. sure, they can try to capitalize on the public's anger with oil companies, and insist that any gas tax breaks be coupled with some swipe at big oil. but the republicans could pretty safely ignore them. the moratorium on gas tax is the part of the democrats' proposal that is grabbing the most headlines, not the end to oil company tax benefits. because the focus of the democrat's proposal is on the tax moratorium, if the dems later object to a republican version of the same proposal the republicans will call them flip-floppers, angry partisans and anti-consumer

the republicans control congress. they control all of the committees. they effectively write the legislation. as long as the democrats promote a bad policy like gas tax cuts or moratoriums, even moratoriums which are tempered by other provisions, they run the risk that the ruling party will adopt the bad bits and ignore the good bits. i think the posturing that yglesias praises is likely to send us backwards, not forwards. that's why it's stupid.