Road Hazard: How the ‘Embarrassing’ Gas Tax Impasse Explains Washington

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

Road Hazard: How the ‘Embarrassing’ Gas Tax Impasse Explains Washington
The main federal fund for roads and bridges runs at a deep deficit. If even red states can raise the gas tax, why can’t Congress?
By Alec MacGillis
Jul 22 2015
<https://www.propublica.org/article/road-hazard-how-the-embarrassing-gas-tax-impasse-explains-washington>

This story was co-published with Politico.

In 1993, the Dow Jones industrial average was still well under 4,000, the best-selling car in the country was the Ford Taurus, and the average cost of a Major League Baseball ticket was under $10. 

That was also the year that Congress last raised the federal tax on gasoline.

The gas tax pays most of the tab for America’s federal highway program; it’s what we rely on for new highways and for the bridge repairs that keep us safe. Those costs go up every year, but the tax remains stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon. In fact, it’s effectively going down: since it was last raised, those 18.4 cents have lost more than a third of their value to inflation, and at the same time drivers with fuel-efficient vehicles have been buying less gasoline, further reducing the federal take. 

As a result, the main U.S. spending account for infrastructure has fallen deep in the red, and the gap gets worse every year. The government, through a series of funding tricks, keeps the Highway Trust Fund on life support with short-term emergency patches. The latest infusion expires at the end of the month, and the argument about how to fix it is coming to a head this week.

The uncertainty has frozen major projects around the country, from the widening of Route 1 in Delaware to the Kalispell bypass in Montana, while maintenance and repairs are long overdue on thousands of roads and bridges dangerously near the end of their expected life spans.

That Congress can’t fulfill such a basic purpose of government stands out as a signal example of Washington dysfunction. Unlike some other stalemates, though, this one can’t be blamed on special interests at loggerheads. Nearly all the lobbies that take an interest are in favor of simply increasing the tax — big business, the road builders, the unions, even the truckers. Lobbies that might oppose an increase, notably the oil industry, have invested relatively little in the debate.

Instead, it’s an example of those big decisions that get trapped in a kind of ideological crevasse. Because it’s a tax, raising it has been decreed out of bounds by a combination of anti-tax orthodoxy among conservative Republicans and a fear of political backlash that spans both parties.

Still, there may be a way out of the trap. A slew of states around the country — including some led by conservative Republicans — have managed to raise their state gas taxes to address the transportation burden without triggering the fury of taxpayers. The contrast is an unflattering one, says former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat and a leading proselytizer for infrastructure spending. 

“If the gas tax could be voted up or down on a secret ballot, it would get 285 yes votes in the House and 85 or 90 in the Senate,” says Rendell. “Everyone knows we need new revenue, everyone knows we can’t let the trust fund go broke … Everyone knows this is one of the most embarrassing chapters in the history of the U.S. Congress.”

What’s gone so wrong?

It sounds strange now, but the gas tax was born and built up under Republican presidents. The U.S. government has been picking up a part of the highway tab for nearly a century — since 1916, when, in an era of Model T’s bumping over rutted country lanes, the bluntly named Good Roads Movement gave rise to a law providing federal money for any rural routes used for U.S. mail. Fuel taxes started around the same time, but only at the state level. 

When the federal government adopted its own penny-per-gallon one in 1932, under President Hoover, it was intended for deficit reduction, not roads. It was only when the tax was raised to 3 cents under President Eisenhower in 1956 — with an additional cent added on in 1959 — that it was targeted for the new interstate highway system and the Highway Trust Fund that would finance it. 

In a country that loves big cars and views cheap energy as a national birthright, the gas tax was never going to be beloved. After several failed attempts to raise the tax in the 1970s as a means to spur fuel conservation and fight inflation, it was left to Ronald Reagan, of all people, to push through the next increase, in late 1982.

[snip]

Re: Why Can’t We Be Like South Korea?

[Note:  This comment comes from friend Chuck Jackson.  DLH]

From: Charles Jackson <clj@jacksons.net>
Subject: Re: [Dewayne-Net] Re: Why Can’t We Be Like South Korea?
Date: July 30, 2015 at 11:06:10 EDT
To: dewayne@warpspeed.com

It seems to me that Professor Crawford fails to emphasize two important differences between the U.S. and Korea—population density and the nature of the housing stock.  The more than an order of magnitude difference in population density between South Korea and New Hampshire may result is somewhat higher costs for outside plant in New Hampshire. Wiring an apartment building with 1,000 units is probably much cheaper than building a cable system in a town of 3,000 people.  


A few quick facts from Wikipedia:

Population South Korea 51.3 million
Land Area                       38,691 square miles
Population Density         1,325 pops/mi^2   (my calculation)

Population density in selected parts of U.S 
New Jersey  (most densely populated state)     1,210 Pop/mi^2
New Hampshire                                                     147 Pop/mi^2
Midwest                                                                   90 Pop/mi^2
Mountain West                                                         26 Pop/mi^2

One source I found states that in 2010 more than 80% of South Koreans lived in apartment houses.

The US Census bureau states that 64.2% of US housing units are detached, single-unit dwellings.
<http://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/ahs/2013/factsheets/ahs13-1_UnitedStates.pdf>

This source (http://nmhc.org/Content.aspx?id=4708) says that in:
Washington DC, 35% live in apartments, 
New York State 25%, 
California 16%, 
. . . , 
Idaho 4.9%, 
West Virginia 4.8%.  


Sources:
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_population_density>
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Korea>

see also
<http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0934666.html
<https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/after-decades-of-economic-growth-south-korea-is-the-land-of-apartments/2013/09/15/9bd841f8-1c55-11e3-8685-5021e0c41964_story.html>


Why Can’t We Be Like South Korea?

 

When Internet access is slow or just nonexistent in the US, we shrug our shoulders. But in that small Asian nation, lousy connections are not tolerated.

 

By Susan Crawford

 

Jul 23 2015

 

<

https://medium.com/backchannel/why-can-t-we-be-like-south-korea-58d8d702030d

>

Re: Why Can’t We Be Like South Korea?

[Note:  This comment comes from friend Bob Frankston.  DLH]

From: “Bob Frankston” <bob19-0501@bobf.frankston.com>
Subject: RE: [Dewayne-Net] Why Can’t We Be Like South Korea?
Date: July 30, 2015 at 11:18:51 EDT
To: dewayne@warpspeed.com

Is this the “Minitel” argument?

In the early 1980’s France led the entire world in giving everyone in the country a computer terminal that could access online services. This was far ahead of the backwaters like the US. But in the 1990’s the future caught up with France because the Minitel was provided by providers and not by a larger dynamic of the Internet that give everyone a chance to create services without having to assure that the provider profited from them.

Today broadband is very much like Minitel in being provided but only if the provider can make a profit. It’s has the same problems as Minitel.

What we need is shared connectivity as infrastructure rather than a service delivered through a provider’s pipes. It’s about ownership and the ability to pool our resources rather than being beholden to a provider. Or, in the case of Korea, chaebols who can spend on redundancy without resilience.

Why Can’t We Be Like South Korea?

 

When Internet access is slow or just nonexistent in the US, we shrug our shoulders. But in that small Asian nation, lousy connections are not tolerated.

 

By Susan Crawford

 

Jul 23 2015

 

<

https://medium.com/backchannel/why-can-t-we-be-like-south-korea-58d8d702030d

>

Bobby Jindal Calls for States to Follow Louisiana’s Example in Toughening Gun Laws

[Note:  This item comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

Bobby Jindal Calls for States to Follow Louisiana’s Example in Toughening Gun Laws
By ASHLEY SOUTHALL
Jul 26 2015
<http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/27/us/politics/bobby-jindal-calls-for-states-to-follow-louisianas-example-in-toughening-gun-laws.html>

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called for tougher gun laws in other states on Sunday, breaking his silence on the issue three days after a gunman with a history of mental illness and violence opened fire in a movie theater in the state’s fourth-largest city.

Gun control has become a prominent subject on the presidential campaign trail after the shooting on Thursday in Lafayette became the third mass shooting in six weeks in the United States. Mr. Jindal, who received an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, is one of 16 candidates seeking the Republican nomination for 2016.

Law enforcement authorities are investigating how the gunman in last week’s attack, identified as John R. Houser, 59, was able to walk into an Alabama pawnshop and legally buy the Hi-Point .40-caliber handgun he used to kill two women and injure nine other people before killing himself at the Grand 16 Theater. A motive for the shooting has not been determined.

Until Sunday, Mr. Jindal and most of his Republican rivals had deflected questions in recent days over whether the killings reflected a need for tighter gun control laws. On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Mr. Jindal called for states to adopt laws similar to Louisiana’s that feed information about mental illness into a federal background check system for potential gun buyers.

“I think every state should strengthen their laws,” he said. “Every state should make sure this information is being reported in the background system. We need to make sure that background system is working. Absolutely, in this instance, this man never should have been able to buy a gun.”

Officials have said Mr. Houser, of Phenix City, Ala., legally bought the weapon there in 2014, although he had been denied a state-issued concealed weapons permit in 2006 because he was accused of domestic violence and soliciting arson. His family repeatedly described him as violent and mentally ill, and questions about his mental health had been raised for decades. In 2008, his family had him involuntarily committed to a hospital in Georgia to receive psychiatric care.

Mr. Jindal insisted that Louisiana laws would have prevented Mr. Houser from buying a gun.

“In Louisiana, we toughened our laws a couple of years ago,” Mr. Jindal said. “If he had been involuntarily committed here, if he had tried to buy that gun here, he wouldn’t have been allowed to do that.”

He added: “Look, every time this happens, it seems like the person has a history of mental illness. We need to make sure the systems we have in place actually work.”

Mr. Jindal said investigators had interviewed Mr. Houser’s family and were examining journals found in his hotel room in which he described his intention to carry out a shooting in the theater. The authorities believe Mr. Houser went to multiple theaters in southern Louisiana before picking the one in Lafayette, the governor said.

The investigators also believe that Mr. Houser intended to escape. He parked his car near the theater’s exit, and had a wig and disguises in his car and hotel room, Mr. Jindal said.

[snip]

The Real Test of the Iran Deal

The Real Test of the Iran Deal
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
By James Fallows
Jul 28 2015
<http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/the-iran-debate-moves-on/399713/>

A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.

On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.

“What’s your better idea?” is a challenge any honest opponent must accept. If this deal fails—which means, if the U.S. Congress rejects an agreement that the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran have accepted—then something else will happen, and all known “somethings” involve faster Iranian progress toward a bomb.

On historical judgment, I said that for two reasons the supporters of the deal should get the benefit of the doubt. The short-term reason is that nearly everyone who in 2015 is alarmist about Iran was in 2002 alarmist about Iraq. You can find exceptions, but only a few. That doesn’t prove that today’s alarmists are wrong, but in any other realm it would count. The longer-term reason is that the history of controversial diplomatic agreements through the past century shows that those recommending “risks for peace” have more often proven right than their opponents. (Don’t believe me? Go back and consider the past examples.)

Three topics for today’s updates, with a connecting historical theme.

* * *

Correlation of Forces

In the two weeks since the deal was announced, the forces pro and con have lined up. The clear opponents include:

—The congressional GOP, which invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak against the deal long before it was struck, and virtually all of whose members oppose it.

—Candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, including Scott Walker with his promise to revoke the deal on day one in office (which would be difficult, unless he could convince Russia, China, etc. to reinstate sanctions), Mike Huckabee with his odious “oven” line, and the rest who oppose the deal as uniformly as they opposed Obamacare.

[snip]

In the Age of Trump, Will Democrats Sell Out More, Or Less?

In the Age of Trump, Will Democrats Sell Out More, Or Less?
The collapse of the GOP gives the Democrats an opportunity to abandon “lesser evilism” — but they probably won’t
By Matt Taibbi
Jul 28 2015
<http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/in-age-of-trump-will-democrats-sell-out-more-or-less-20150728>

Over the weekend, polls showed that that the Trump-fueled collapse of the Republican Party is reaching historic depths. According to CNN, the GOP’s approval rating is now down to 32 percent, the lowest level in over two decades. It probably won’t be trending up anytime soon, either, now that the Trump campaign is turning “you can’t rape your spouse” into this week’s political catchphrase.

News of the Republican approval-rating slide came not long after the release of a Gallup survey showing that 32 percent of Americans now believe animals should have the same rights as people. That number is likely to keep climbing – though one can’t say the same for the GOP’s numbers, given the nation’s demographic situation. Animals are now a better political futures bet than Republicans.

This is leading to a lot of “the witch is dead”-style celebrating among Democrats. Many believe Trump has triggered a long-overdue Credibility Event Horizon that will sink the loony right forever as a mainstream force.

“Donald Trump is Democrats’ greatest gift,” applauded The Globalist, via Salon. “As Donald Trump surges in polls, Democrats cheer,” countered The Washington Post. Even before Trump surged in the polls, Democrats were smacking their lips, a la DNC spokeswoman Holly Schulman, who cheekily applauded Trump for bringing “seriousness” to the Republican debate. 

For sheer entertainment value, the Trump-as-political-anvil phenomenon is pretty hilarious. But history shows that if the Republican Party pushes further in the direction of brainless nativism and economic reaction, the Democrats will probably follow right behind them.

Theoretically, the collapse of the GOP should mean we can ease up on the whole “we must accept the lesser evil” argument. After all, the Greater Evil is now shooting itself in the face on TV every day.

But it turns out that mainstream Democrats believe just the opposite – that with the GOP spiraling, the party should now brook even less dissent within their ranks. They’d like a primary season with no debate at all, apparently.

We saw a preview of how this rotten dynamic will work last week, when former Democratic congressman and current Signature Bank board member Barney Frank wrote a piece for Politico entitled “Why Progressives Shouldn’t Support Bernie.”

Frank’s core point is that progressive voters should terminate all discussion even before the beginning of the primary season, and jump on board with the frontrunner Hillary Clinton, so she can save her money to fight the evil Trumps of the world:

“Of course it is not only possible to accept the legitimacy of Clinton’s liberal-progressive credentials and still prefer that [Vermont Senator Bernie] Sanders be president….But wishful thinking is no way to win the presidency. There is not only no chance — perhaps regrettably — for Sanders to win a national election. A long primary campaign will only erode the benefit Democrats are now poised to reap from the Republicans’ free-for-all.”

This isn’t about Hillary. The lesser evil argument has been a consistent feature of Democratic Party thought dating all the way back to the late Reagan years, long before Hillary Clinton was herself a candidate. The argument always hits the same notes:

[snip]

Bernie Sanders Livestreams the Future of Grassroots Politics

Bernie Sanders Livestreams the Future of Grassroots Politics
By Issie Lapowsky
Jul 30 2015
<http://www.wired.com/2015/07/bernie-sanders-livestream/>

It’s about 7:30 pm on a sweaty Wednesday night in Brooklyn, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a consummate son of Brooklyn, has just accomplished the seemingly insurmountable task of quieting an 8,000-square-foot beer hall full of New Yorkers. Save for the whir of an industrial-sized fan overhead and intermittent rounds of applause and whoops of “That’s right!” ringing out from the crowd, Sanders’ is the only voice you hear. 

Tonight, the Democratic presidential candidate is talking, as he always does, about building a revolution to fight wealth inequality. He’s talking about how the “millionaires and billionaires” are getting richer, while the United States continues to have the highest rate of children living in poverty of any industrialized nation. “Enough is enough,” the rumpled elder statesman repeats. 

Sanders is on his soapbox, and to use his campaign vernacular, his nearly 200 followers in the bar are most definitely “feeling the Bern.” Then, all at once, a spinning wheel pops up, obscuring Sanders’ face. 

Bernie is buffering. 

A few seconds—and at least one joke from the woman sitting behind me about Hillary Clinton hacking the live-stream—Sanders is back on the massive projector screen at the back of the bar, and he hasn’t missed a beat. Sanders is actually hundreds of miles away in D.C., but his speech is being broadcast to more than 3,000 watch parties across the country. In three more hours, he’ll do it all over again for the West Coast.

Welcome to the age of live-streamed politics. YouTube has factored prominently in politics for years, and candidates have been dabbling with mobile broadcasting products like Periscope. But on Wednesday night, the Sanders campaign amplified the impact of the live-stream by organizing thousands of so-called “online house parties,” to create what Sanders staffers are calling the largest campaign event of 2016 so far. These house parties, run by volunteers, not staffers, took place in coffee shops, bars, and living rooms in every state across the country and received more than 100,000 RSVPs online, though it’s hard to say how many people actually showed up.

“Live-streams are not a new phenomenon, but I think what we’ve done is very unique,” says Kenneth Pennington, Sanders’ digital director. “We’re really excited about being able to maximize the size of room. By adding to those rooms we’ll have 100,000 people gathering together to listen.”

Taking Action

It’s an approach that President Obama used toward the end of his 2008 campaign, but the fact that the Sanders campaign is doing it so early, and at such scale, reflects the maturity of the model. The goal is to get people not just tuning in, but taking action. It combines the best of old-school organizing with the best of new school technology, and in doing so, it turns the often solitary activity of watching a live-stream on your laptop into a national, communal, campaign event. 

“Live-stream house parties are a smart way to get a lot of supporters in one place without having campaign staff on the ground in that area,” says Josh Cook, who served as Pennsylvania Digital Director for the 2012 Obama campaign. “The Sanders campaign can use this livestream to turn passive supporters into active volunteers as soon as the livestream ends.”

[snip]