Friday, June 27, 2008

Political Gas

Recent talk about suspending taxes on gasoline can be pumped for instruction on modes of poor reasoning. Suitable material has come from advocates of a summer-long suspension of taxes on motor fuel, as well as from at least one critic of the proposed vacation from tax. GreeneLand’s State Senator, James L. Seward, advocated “rolling back the tax on gas to relieve some of the pressure on motorists’ wallets.” He joined his Republican colleagues and some Democrats in May in passing a bill that would have suspended the State’s gasoline tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day. With passage of that measure, Mr Seward declared on his web site and in a news release, buyers “would save approximately 33 cents per gallon.” And if Federal and local taxes also were eliminated, buyers “would save 65 cents per gallon at the pump.” This price cut, moreover, would pave the way for reductions in the prices of other things, to the extent that transportation costs experienced by manufacturers and distributors would decrease.

That is about all that Mr Seward said in support of the gas tax ‘holiday.’ It is about all that his senatorial colleagues presented in the way of argumentation as they passed, by a margin of 46 to 15, Senate bill 7594, which was opposed by Governor David Paterson and buried in the State Assembly. It is about all that U.S. Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton, along with U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, said on behalf of rolling back the Federal tax on gasoline.

Conspicuous in the argumentation of the advocates were two modes of flimsy reasoning: HASTY CONCLUSION. Mr Seward evidently assumed that every cent of State gasoline tax reduction would yield an equal reduction in cost per gallon to consumers. That version of the outcome, however, is by no means self-evident. The retail price of gasoline is shaped by the wholesale price, which is shaped by supply, by demand, and by competition as well as by taxation. Mr Seward could scarely be unaware that the steep rise in the retail price of gasoline in the past two years has been triggered chiefly by the steep rise in wholesale prices, which have risen because the volume of consumption (especially from China’s and India’s burgeoning economies) has jumped by a big margin. Mr Seward made no attempt, in what he said in public, to substantiate his ‘promise’ that a drop in tax on gasoline would trigger a proportional drop in the pump price. TUNNEL VISION. Moreover, Mr Seward grounded his case for a gasoline tax holiday solely on the expectation (ill-supported) that consumers would save money. Implicit in that act of selection--of rhetorical framing—are two value judgments: that short-term fuel cost reduction is desirable and that no other consequences need be pondered. We are deterred, accordingly, from noticing that tax holiday would produce a drop in previously anticipated State revenue, a reduction which must have debt-generating and program-implementing consequences. We are deterred from speculating that IF the tax holiday generates a reduction in pump prices, then consumption of gasoline would likely increase, or at least would not decrease, so that the scarcity that has driven prices up would persist. We are deterred from wondering whether the tax break would dampen incentives to economize on gasoline consumption. We are deterred, in short, from thinking about collateral damage.

In response specifically to Senator Seward’s call for a gas tax holiday, a constituent, Andrew Mason of Jefferson, distributed to district newspapers a six-paragraph denunciation. Mr Mason’s stinging attack on the tax rollback proposal, and on Senator Seward as sponsor, offers instruction aplenty on modes of sophistry. Here is the full text:

Why does Sen. James Seward want to take even more money out of our pockets and give it to the big oil companies? This would be the effect of his ill-advised scheme for a state gas tax “holiday” this summer. There is no doubt that the oil giants would just raise the price of gas to take away any savings for motorists. After all, they have done it before: When the state capped the sales tax on gasoline in 2005, prices dropped only briefly before returning to then-record highs and continuing to go up. The only beneficiaries were Exxon, Mobil, Shell, etc. Even conservatives pan this idea. Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute calls lowering gas taxes “…a holiday from reality. What would happen more likely than not is gas taxes would be cut, but pump prices wouldn’t go down, service stations would just continue charging what they are charging.” There are a number of proposals in the state legislature that would provide true energy savings to New Yorkers. Among these is expansion of net electricity monitoring; allowing siting of new, clean power plants; and increasing lighting efficiency. Unfortunately, Seward and his Republican colleagues have killed them at the request of utilities and energy companies .It’s no surprise that Seward favors Big Oil over his constituents. During his tenure as Senate Energy Committee chairman, he oversaw huge cost increases for electricity and other energy in the state. He has one of the worst records in the legislature on environmental and energy issues at a time when they are critical to the future of New York. Seward's "plan" is pure political posturing. We need leadership, not silly games that will damage upstate's already weak economy, and cost us even more when we fill up.

Those words deliver a rich variety of rhetorical blather. Thus: LEADING QUESTION. Mr Mason opens his critique interrogatively: “Why does Sen James Seward want to take even more money out of our pockets and give it to the big oil companies?” By that form of words, Mr Mason imbeds an accusatory characterization (of Seward’s intention) within a call for (or a promise to supply) explanatory information. He makes the characterization appear to be common knowledge; the interesting matter then seems to be only the question of motivation.

PRESUMPTUOUSNESS. In posing a question about why Senator Seward wants to bring about a cited result, Mr Mason pretends to be a mind-reader. That conceit is repeated later (paragraph 5) in the statement that Mr Seward regularly “favors Big Oil over his constituents.” That assertion goes beyond the claim that Seward regularly does favors for Big Oil at the expense of constituents. It imputes to Seward the intention of doing just that.

COP-OUT. Mr Mason’s second sentence does not address, much less answer, the question he poses in the first. Neither does it address, much less support, his characterization of Senator Seward. Instead, it voices a causal proposition: “This [redistribution of money from us to Them] would be the effect of [Seward’s] ill-advised scheme for a state gas tax ‘holiday’ this summer.” That claim is extraneous to Mr Mason’s announced quest to account for Mr Seward’s alleged craving to shift money to Big Oil.

LOADED WORDS. In Mr Mason’s usage, Senator Seward’s proposal (and that of many other public figures) is not a proposal or a plan; it is a “’plan’”; it is an insidious “scheme.”

SPURIOUS CERTAINTY. Mr Mason bolsters his characterization of Senator Seward’s “scheme” by saying “There is no doubt that the oil giants would just raise the price of gas to take away any savings for motorists.” That phrasing serves to deepen (without substantiating) Mr Mason’s motivational claim; since the redistributional effect of the “scheme” is obvious, it must be just what the sponsor intends. Meanwhile, Mr Mason’s phrasing deters readers from wondering whether the cited effect would indeed eventuate. We are deterred from entertaining the possibility that instead of leaping collusively on a prospective increase in profit margins, oil companies would reach for greater market share by NOT raising prices. We are deterred, again, from thinking about the connection between retail price and wholesale price. We are urged to believe that there “is no doubt” regarding a matter that surely is open to doubt.

VAGUE PRECEDENT. Mr Mason makes two gestures in the way of substantiating his judgment that “the oil giants would just raise the price of gas to [sic] take away any savings for motorists.” One gesture is to cite experience. When the state capped the taxes back in 2005, Mr Mason recalls, prices dropped momentarily, only to bounce up again and go even higher than before. That experience eminently deserves further discussion. Does it represent similar trials? Are the circumstances that shaped the previous result akin to present circumstances?

TESTIMONIAL DEVICE. Mr Mason’s other gesture in the way of supporting his attack on the Seward (and McCain and Gillibrand…) “scheme” consists of saying that “even conservatives” recognize the folly. On behalf of that generalization Mr Mason quotes one putative conservative. The cited testimonial and the ostensible experience of 2005 do lend some support to Mr Mason’s claim that the tax rollback would not produce a price rollback. They do nothing for his thesis concerning Senator Seward’s motivation.

DIGRESSION. Succinct as it is, Mr Mason’s discourse goes a-wandering. Its fourth paragraph says “There are a number [sic]of proposals…that would provide true energy savings to New Yorkers,” and briefly names some. That excursion does nothing to buttress Mr Mason’s attack on the tax-suspension scheme, his characterization of Senator Seward, or his motivational explanation for Mr Seward’s support for an allegedly bad policy.

SPURIOUS CONCLUSION. Having posed a question that he does not answer, Mr Mason ends his letter not with a conclusion or summing-up but rather with a new line of thought. Instead of saying why Mr Seward wants to filch money from “our pockets” and give it to the big oil companies, he asserts that “Seward’s ‘plan’ is pure political pandering.” He suggests, accordingly, that Mr Seward’s proposal is actuated not by a desire to rob the common people but rather by a desire to seduce them.

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