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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Puzzled"

Menzie Chinn is puzzled by a certain politician's proposal to stimulate the economy:

Puzzled, by Menzie Chinn: I have been puzzled by the proposal for a tax holiday for gasoline purchases running from Memorial to Labor day (see [0], [1], [2]), with the objective of spurring the economy. First, the Federal tax is quite low, either in real or in relative terms. Second, the benefits that would accrue to consumers are probably pretty small, under reasonable assumptions.

Going to the first point... As one can readily verify, in inflation adjusted terms, the tax has been eroded over time to levels not seen since the early 1990's. This is true regardless whether one deflates by the CPI-all or the CPI-ex. energy and food.

In relative terms, the total Federal tax has been shrinking as a share of gasoline prices, as gasoline prices have headed north (March = $3.293, all grades, inclusive of taxes). As of March 2008, the Federal tax accounted for 0.056% of that price. ...

So this is the measure to jump start the economy? I think this measure would give relief to somebody. But I also think it's a pretty blunt instrument by which to provide assistance...

Now, I'm not a microeconomist by training. Nor do I play one on TV. But it seems to me that if the supply of gasoline is price inelastic, and the demand is similarly price inelastic, then the incidence of the current Federal gas tax must be about evenly balanced. A tax holiday is then a holiday to both consumers and producers. ...

The proposed gas tax holiday was for a short duration of months. In this case, the short run price elasticity of supply is near zero, and the demand elasticity is plausibly near zero as well.

Assume both supply and demand are equally price inelastic, and this means the incidence of the Federal tax is about 50-50. Eliminating the gasoline tax for a short duration gives a windfall to both consumers and producers, of about equal proportion. (By the way, this conclusion is not true of state gasoline taxes; see Chouinard and Perloff (2004)). Now, giving a windfall to refiners and providers of feedstock for gasoline production might be a worthy goal, but I don't believe that was the stated goal. If those corporations get a windfall then either it gets stored away to be spent on investment in a new refinery or addition to an old refinery sometime in the future, or it leaks out to overseas oil producers.

Oh, and by the way, to the extent the lower price spurs gasoline consumption, this should increase the petroleum and petroleum products component of U.S. imports, and thence putting further upward pressure on the price of oil...

    Posted by on Tuesday, April 22, 2008 at 12:36 AM in Economics, Oil, Politics, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (4)

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