"A Special Kind of Cowardice"

That's what NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg termed the decision of New York State legislative leaders (i.e., Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) to kill the plan for "congestion pricing" in mid-to-lower Manhattan without even a floor vote. Bloomberg's full statement (available here via the Village Voice) describes the environmental and economic benefits that congestion pricing would have achieved, and vows both to pursue other options and one day to fight again. It's a good argument but one that doesn't seem to confront the root psychological cause of the defeat of the plan.

Congestion pricing was designed as a Pigovian tax: The marginal cost of each additional vehicle in mid-to-lower Manhattan is felt in part by each additional driver and her passengers, but in even larger part by others: more traffic means it takes longer to get to one's destination and more pollution. This is what economists call a negative externality. By making drivers pay extra to drive in the high-traffic-density zone, the congestion pricing plan would have made drivers internalize that cost. The revenue would then have gone to fund public transportation. That's win-win. The Pigovian tax discourages socially harmful activity while using the revenue for socially beneficial activity. (Investment in public transportation makes it a more attractive option, thus further reducing the number of motor vehicles on the roads.)

So why did it fail? One answer is that the benefits and burdens were not perceived as evenly distributed. The money would come principally from people living outside Manhattan (in the outer boroughs and the suburbs), but it would then go to make improvements in transportation largely within Manhattan. It's not clear that this was an accurate perception. Outer borough and suburban commuters use public transportation, and would do so even more with improvements to the public transportation system. Plus, those commuters who chose to drive and pay the congestion fee would benefit from less congestion due to some of their fellow commuters choosing to switch to public transportation. But whatever the reality, the plan was perceived by many non-Manhattanites as Manhattan taxing non-Manhattanites for the benefit of Manhattanites.

There is another possible (and possibly complementary) explanation as well. Despite the fact that Pigovian taxes make excellent policy sense, Americans resist them when they apply to activity they regard as essential. Exhibit A for this proposition is the pitifully low gasoline taxes we pay relative to other oil-importing countries. According to Gaspricewatch.com, the total of federal and state gas taxes in the state with the highest per gallon gas tax (Wisconsin) is 50.5 cents per gallon. According to the Wikipedia entry, in the UK it's effectively $4.84 per gallon, and in Germany it's effectively $7.61 per gallon. The environmental and national-security benefits of increasing the federal gasoline tax by $2 per gallon would be enormous, and would still leave Americans paying less at the pump than Brits and Germans. Yet proposing this would be suicide for any politician (except perhaps one with a 212 area code).

We might explain some of the resistance to a gas tax as rooted in the fact that it would be regressive---although the resistance persists even when proposals to increase the gas tax include plans to offset the effects for low-wage earners through an expansion of the earned income tax credit or in some other way. Accordingly, I would suggest that a substantial portion of the opposition to a gas tax---and more generally to all taxes---comes from Americans' tendency to see the burden but not the benefits of taxation. A proposal to add $2 to the price of a gallon of gasoline looks to consumers like a proposal to charge them more money for gasoline (which of course it is). That proposal naturally triggers resistance: Why would anyone want to pay more than they have to for gasoline (or anything else)? The answer can only be because they're getting something of equal or greater value: less traffic, better transportation, less global warming, cleaner air, less dependence on oil from volatile/hostile regimes.

Yet the fact that a substantial increase in the gas tax would be met with overwhelming opposition means that Americans have not been shown how the benefits of such a tax increase would outweigh the costs. Why not? Could it be because the politicians who are in a position to lead on this question have engaged in a special kind of cowardice?

Posted by Mike Dorf