Two dates two numbers. Read them and weep for what could have, and should have, been. On Sept. 11, 2001, the OPEC basket oil price was $25.50 a barrel. On Nov. 13, 2007, the OPEC basket price was around $90 a barrel.
In the wake of 9/11, some of us pleaded for a "patriot tax" on gasoline of $1 or more a gallon to diminish the transfers of wealth we were making to the very countries who were indirectly financing the ideologies of intolerance that were killing Americans and in order to spur innovation in energy efficiency by U.S. manufacturers.
But no, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had a better idea. And the Democrats went along for the ride. They were all going to let the market work and not let our government shape that market like OPEC does.
You'd think that one person, just one, running for Congress or the Senate would take a flier and say: "Oh, what the heck. I'm going to lose anyway. Why not tell the truth? I'll support a gasoline tax."
Not one. Everyone just runs away from the "T-word" and watches our wealth run away to Russia, Venezuela and Iran.
I can't believe that someone could not win the following debate:
REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE: "My Democratic opponent, true to form, wants to raise your taxes. Yes, now he wants to raise your taxes at the gasoline pump by $1 a gallon. Another tax-and-spend liberal who wants to get into your pocket."
DEMOCRATIC CANDI- DATE: "Yes, my opponent is right. I do favor a gasoline tax phased in over 12 months. But let's get one thing straight: My opponent and I are both for a tax. I just prefer that my taxes go to the U.S. Treasury, and he's ready to see his go to the Russian, Venezuelan, Saudi and Iranian treasuries. His tax finances people who hate us. Mine would offset some of our payroll taxes, pay down our deficit, strengthen our dollar, stimulate energy efficiency and shore up Social Security. It's called win-win-win-win-win for America. My opponent's strategy is sit back, let the market work and watch America lose-lose-lose-lose-lose." If you can't win that debate, you don't belong in politics.
"Think about it," says Phil Verleger, an energy economist. "We could have replaced the current payroll tax with a gasoline tax. Middle-class consumers would have seen increased take-home pay of between 6 and 9 percent, even though they would have had to pay more at the pump. A stronger foundation for future economic growth would have been laid by keeping more oil revenue home, and we might not now be facing a recession."
As a higher gas tax discouraged oil consumption, the Harvard University economist and former Bush adviser N. Gregory Mankiw has argued: "the price of oil would fall in world markets. As a result, the price of gas to (U.S.) consumers would rise by less than the increase in the tax. Some of the tax would, in effect, be paid by Saudi Arabia and Venezuela."
But U.S. consumers would have known that, with a higher gasoline tax locked in for good, pump prices would never be going back to the old days, adds Verleger, so they would have a much stronger incentive to switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and Detroit would have had to make more hybrids to survive. This would have put Detroit five years ahead of where it is now. "It's called the America wins program," said Verleger, "instead of the petro-states win program."
We simply cannot go on being as dumb as we wanna be. If you hate the war in Iraq, then you want a gasoline tax so you can argue that we can pull out of there without remaining dependent on an even more unstable region. If you want to see us negotiate with Iran, not bomb it, you want a gasoline tax that will give us some real leverage by helping to reduce the income of the ayatollahs.
If you're a conservative and you believed that the Iraq war was necessary to drive reform in the Middle East, but the war has failed to do that and we need "Plan B" for the same objective, you want a gasoline tax that will reduce the flow of wealth to petrolist leaders who will never change if all they have to do is drill well holes rather than educate and empower their people.
If you want to see America thrive by becoming the most energy productive economy in the world a title that now belongs to Japan, which doesn't have a drop of oil in its soil you want a gasoline tax, which will only spur U.S. innovation in energy efficiency.President Bush squandered a historic opportunity to put America on a radically different energy course after 9/11. But considering how few Democrats or Republicans are ready to tell the people the truth on this issue, maybe we have the president we deserve. I refuse to believe that, but I'm starting to doubt myself.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.