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The Political Economy of Gasoline Taxes: Lessons from the Oil Embargo

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  • Christopher R. Knittel

Abstract

From 1864 to 1972, the real price of oil fell by, on average, over 1% per year. This trend dramatically broke when prices for crude increased by over 650% from 1972 to 1980. Policymakers adopted several policies designed to keep oil prices in check and reduce consumption. Missing from these policies were taxes on either oil or gasoline, prompting a long economics literature documenting the inefficiencies of these alternative policies. In this chapter, I review the policy discussion related to the transportation sector that occurred during the time through the lens of the printed press. In doing so, I pay particular attention to whether gasoline taxes were "on the table," as well as how consumers viewed the inefficient set of policies that were ultimately adopted. The discussions at the time suggest that meaningful changes in gasoline taxes were on the table; the public discussion seemed to be much greater than it is today. Some in Congress and many presidential advisors in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations supported and proposed gasoline taxes. The main roadblocks for taxes were Congress and the American people. Polling evidence at the time suggests that consumers preferred price controls and rationing and vehicle taxes over higher gasoline taxes or letting gasoline prices clear the market. Given the saliency of rationing and vehicle taxes, it seems difficult to argue that these alternative policies were adopted because they hide their true costs.

Suggested Citation

  • Christopher R. Knittel, 2014. "The Political Economy of Gasoline Taxes: Lessons from the Oil Embargo," Tax Policy and the Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 28(1), pages 97-131.
  • Handle: RePEc:ucp:tpolec:doi:10.1086/675589
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. James M. Sallee, 2011. "The Taxation of Fuel Economy," Tax Policy and the Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 25(1), pages 1-38.
    2. Christopher R. Knittel, 2012. "Reducing Petroleum Consumption from Transportation," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 26(1), pages 93-118, Winter.
    3. Stephen P. Holland & Jonathan E. Hughes & Christopher R. Knittel, 2009. "Greenhouse Gas Reductions under Low Carbon Fuel Standards?," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 1(1), pages 106-146, February.
    4. Smith, Rodney T, 1982. "An Economic Analysis of Income Growth by U.S. Oil Firms: The Roles of U.S. Oil Regulation and OPEC," The Journal of Business, University of Chicago Press, vol. 55(4), pages 427-478, October.
    5. Deacon, Robert T & Sonstelie, Jon, 1985. "Rationing by Waiting and the Value of Time: Results from a Natural Experiment," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 93(4), pages 627-647, August.
    6. Christopher R. Knittel, 2011. "Automobiles on Steroids: Product Attribute Trade-Offs and Technological Progress in the Automobile Sector," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 101(7), pages 3368-3399, December.
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