The only good economic news lately has been the collapse of oil prices. At the beginning of July, just five months ago, the price of a barrel of was more than $140. By the beginning of December, it was down to about $45. That's a drop of more than two-thirds. In the U.S., we consume about 15 million bbl. of crude a day. The saving of $95 per bbl. adds up to more than $500 billion a year. That's big enough to bail out the auto industry 15 times.
Of course, we've been through this before. The price of oil shoots up; we start using less; reduced demand sends the price down; we start using more; pretty soon it's shooting up again. This time, though, it does feel different. It seems as if Americans have made a real and fundamental commitment to consuming less energy. That is not so much out of idealism as it is the good side, for a change, of our short attention span. When the price of gasoline shot past $4 per gal., it was both shocking and reassuring. Economists had long wondered what price it would take to get our attention. This, at last, was it. Yet $4 gas turned out not to be the end of the world. Although it was devastating for some people and it surely accelerated our plunge into recession, which is affecting all of us we adjusted more easily than one would have thought possible. And we kept on adjusting, even as the price of oil plummeted. (See pictures of the recession of 1958.)
Will this change in behavior last? Or will we return to our wastrel ways as we climb out of recession and the reality again sinks in that gas is cheap? The one sure way to prevent this second scenario from happening is not to let gas get cheap again. Yes, this is yet another plea for that hoary notion: a big energy tax. Just five months ago, we were essentially paying a tax of $95 per bbl. That's the difference between what oil cost then and what it costs now. This was a "tax" whereby the revenue went into the pockets of oil producers about two-thirds of them foreign countries and one-third fellow Americans. Isn't there something better to do with the money?
This idea always comes up and never goes anywhere. That's partly because of our general loathing of taxes and suspicion of Washington and partly because the idea tends to come up when energy prices are rising and people find it hard to believe that it would be good if they rose even more. But a couple of things are different now. First, we have experienced the high energy prices that people in most of the rest of the world already live with, and we know we can live with them too. Four-dollar gasoline is no longer unthinkable.
Second, this is the perfect moment for the other part of many proposals for an energy tax, which is to give the money back to people by lowering the payroll tax. The payroll tax, or FICA, collects about 15% of your wages or salary half from you and half from your employer. It is expected to bring in close to a trillion dollars in 2009. Using our windfall from plummeting crude-oil prices alone, we could cut the FICA tax by more than half. Including other forms of energy would bring in even more. (See pictures of oil.)
FICA is, in effect, a tax on job creation. It applies to the very first dollar earned by a minimum-wage worker, but most of it tops out at an annual income of about $100,000 and doesn't apply at all to income from investments. For most Americans holding jobs, FICA now takes a bigger chunk of their income than the income tax itself. And yet it rarely enjoys the tender concern of tax-cutting Republicans, who prefer to concentrate on tax breaks for capital gains. Cutting the FICA tax in half, for workers and for employers, would make it more affordable for employers to hire or avoid layoffs while giving everyone who makes less than $100,000 a 7.5% raise to spend and stimulate the economy even further. People making more than $100,000 would get a tax cut too as big as anyone else's, though a smaller percentage of their incomes.
One argument against all this is that FICA finances Social Security payments, and the connection between money in and money out helps keep Social Security secure. There's a simple answer: among the many problems we now face, the danger that a majority in Congress will gang up against Social Security benefits must surely rank low.
It comes down to this: in the terrible storm of economic misery, we suddenly have a half-trillion-dollar windfall. As unemployment heads toward double digits, we can use this found money to encourage people to create jobs, or we can use it to encourage people to use more gasoline. It's a pretty easy choice, don't you think?