Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pennies From Heaven

Let joy be unconfined, for Republicans are proposing to send taxpayers a $100 rebate check to help with gas expenses.

Bill Frist says the plan will give "some relief," and that's fairly accurate. At current prices, we're talking about two or three tanks of gas (about a week's supply, for many people).

Where will this money come from? Frist doesn't say, but I note that Congress is talking - very tentatively - about rescinding roughly $2 billion in tax breaks for Big Oil. That'd be enough to pay 200 million Americans ten bucks each, which suggests that someone else will be making up the shortfall. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but my guess is that this "rebate" will entail taking billions and billions of dollars in public money - money intended to pay for everything from port security to public health - and handing it over to the oil companies.

Maybe that's OK, though, because rather than transferring these billions directly from the public coffers to the oil companies, we'd be letting consumers carry the money from their mailboxes to the gas station, and giving 'em a couple of free fill-ups for their trouble (regardless of their income bracket, apparently). It's a great way to keep the public engaged in the democratic process, you must admit.

There's more. (There's always more.) The rebate is linked to - what else? - drilling in ANWR. Frist's vague factsheet on this "relief act" displays two popular forms of Republican pathology: Using incomplete or misleading statistics to argue for short-sighted policies, and blaming Clinton for the sorry state of the country midway through Bush's second term. Frist says that if Clinton hadn't blocked drilling in ANWR a decade ago, "it would now be producing 1 million barrels of oil a day, which would lower gas prices."

There's a certain truthiness to this, though the government's own estimate puts the per-day figure a bit lower. If Frist's number were correct, it'd still cover only 1/20th of current daily U.S. consumption. That isn't likely to lower prices much. Another missing datum is that ANWR would probably be tapped out after about six months (or earlier, if we decide to attack Iran).

Then again, to the sort of people for whom a week or two of "free" gas outweighs such public goods as repairing infrastructure, monitoring avian flu, or protecting a federal wildlife refuge, six months is pretty much an eternity.

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