Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gas Tax May Be a Simple and Good Enough Road Usage Charge

Gas Tax May Be a Simple and Good Enough Road Usage Charge

US road maintenance is underfunded. Unfortunately, current politics does not offer any sustainable funding ideas either. Instead, we hear about various one time patches like playing with custom tariffs or selling strategic oil reserves.

A good funding mechanism is based on the following principles:

  1. It creates a steady income.
  2. The Income grows and falls according to the road maintenance needs. This means it is related to the total driving mileage.
  3. The funding burden is closely associated with individual road usage, in particular the damage one causes to the road structures when driving.
  4. The mechanism is largely inflation-proof and does not require frequent political interference.

I-110 in Los Angeles
Freeways permit fast uninterrupted travel through dense urban environments. But they are not cheap. I-110 in LA.
By Adrian104 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In recent years we have seen an increased interest for "road usage charge", a user fee that depends on the actual driving mileage. Indeed, modern technology (currently tested in Oregon) allows to determine the exact mileage on different types of roads, and to send the driver the bill afterwards. Here I argue that we do not have to wait for the a technology to mature, as old-fashioned gas tax may serve as a good substitute for a smarter driving distance fee. I solely focus on road maintenance funding, and ignore congestion, pollution, and climate issues. Note that from this perspective there is no difference between fossil fuel, biofuel, and electric cars.


Two arguments strongly favor gas tax over alternative funding mechanisms: it's simplicity and it's focus on road users. The main objections are related to it's impact on economy, and the fact that it is less than perfect measure of actual road usage.

  • Gas tax is simple to introduce, collect and pay. First, the direct payments are done by big oil market operators who can easily handle a rather minor additional administrative burden. Second, most governments already collect it, hence the additional administrative burden would be even smaller. Third, such "pay-at-pump" scheme is the simplest imaginable tax for motorists. You pay for your gas and that's it.

    This contrasts to the proposed distance charge which is to be payed individually by millions of drivers. Hence the aggregated administrative burden for both private actors and public administrators is most likely higher. The distance tax must also be payed monthly or yearly, based on the actual driving, in a similar fashion as we currently do with the electricity bills. This also means the drivers have to keep some funds available for the tax payments later.

  • Gas tax is payed according to road usage—the more you drive, the more you pay. Unfortunately, this correspondence is less than perfect. Cars come in different fuel economy and size and stress the roads differently. This is potentially the main objection against funding roads solely by gas tax.

    Heavy truck
    Heavy transport stresses the roads substantially more than small cars. Although trucks burn more fuel than cars, the gas tax may not compensate for the additional stress on roads. Here weight-dependent usage charge may have an advantage.
    By bilbobagweed (formby) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    But save the road usage charge, gas consumption is still far closer indicator of individual "road consumption" than any other alternative, such as income or sales tax. If gas tax is too crude a measure, how on earth can sales tax be a better one? But sales tax is widely used for funding transportation projects.

  • Gas tax is often claimed to be a burden to the economy. But the picture is more complex. Sure, taxes hurt, but I don't see why should gas tax hurt more than the other taxes, in particular business and payroll taxes. If we introduce it in revenue neutral way, i.e. we lower the other taxes by exactly the same amount as we rise the gas tax, it amounts to redistributing the tax burden from the rest of the economy to large gas users. It is not immediately clear what are the economic implications. Transport intensive sectors will probably lose (but it also depends on what happens with road quality and congestion) while "human-intensive" sectors win from lower income tax. This includes technology companies that rely on a large well-payed workforce. I do not see the effect being much different from that of a better targeted road usage fee.

  • Inflation diminishes the value of both gas tax and road usage charge in a similar way. Unless inflation-indexed, regular political decisions are needed to rise these accordingly. The usage charge possesses a clear advantage here as it does not depend on the vehicles' fuel economy. Gas tax must be adjusted both for inflation and fuel economy, usage charge only for inflation.

  • Finally, many people may dislike the idea of government knowing exactly where and how much we drive. And the corresponding technology itself is not safe either—the ways to screw such meters will probably advance as well.


We do not have to wait until a better technology solves the road funding problems. It may never arrive. Meanwhile, gas tax is a simple and good enough road usage fee. The problem is in politics, not in technology.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Common Arguments Against Hosting Refugees Do Not Justify Strict Immigration Policy: Help some if you cannot help them all

Common Arguments Against Hosting Refugees Do Not Justify Strict Immigration Policy

Three everyday arguments against granting asylum for refugees are "we cannot help everyone", "refugees should be hosted in their neighboring countries", and "we don't want economic migrants". All these claims make a point, but none of these can be used to justify a strict asylum policy. Below, I mainly take the European view but the arguments also apply for other developed economis like the Australia and Israel, and for the middle-income countries, such as Brazil or Dubai as well.


A common argument against granting asylum is that there is a too large number of potential immigrants outside the European borders. As we "we cannot help everyone out there", we should keep our borders firmly closed. Otherwise, the rising human flood will flush away both us and our culture. But this argument is fighting a strawman. Accepting some asylum seekers does not imply we have to open borders for all the potential immigrants. We should think about doing our "fair share", not that we have to help everyone. If EU accepts, say, a million refugees, that is a million humans whose lives are improved. And this is a good thing. One can draw a parallel with other calamities here, many survived holocaust exactly because there were people who were willing to help just a few. If you improve the life of someone, this is a life improved, however large is the number of those you cannot help. Another, more pragmatic reason is that by moving some people out of crowded refugee camps in poor regions we lower the pressure both on the camps and on the regions. Indirectly we help the others.

Water Tank in Al Zaatari Refugee Camp
Water tank in al Zaatari refugee camp. Providing water and sanitation for thousands over extended period is a major logistical challenge and may need a substantial infrastructure put in place.
By Mustafa Bader (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I agree that the preferred location for displaced people is close to their region of origin. From there it is easier to go back once the fighting is over, and cultural similarity helps too. But geographic and cultural proximity is just one piece in the enormous logistic challenge. There are many more variables that matter, in particular the availability of jobs and infrastructure to host a large number of people. Conflicts often occur in poor areas were neighbors can offer little besides a similar language. And countless examples show that cultural similarity is no obstacle for killing. Neighbors often do their fair share. Lebanon (4.5M inhabitants) hosts 1.2 million Syrian refugees. 500 million strong EU is far better able to provide the living necessities for a million newcomers. Poor neighbors' help is necessary. But without proper housing, sanitation, jobs and schools, and the conflict lasting for decades, the tent camps are not a solution.

Irish children during the potato famine
The last major famine in Europe, the Irish Potato Famine, led to a substantial increase of emigration to the U.S.
By James Mahony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, I don't see a clear difference between refugees and economic migrants. Sure, we have to spend our limited ressources on those who deserve it most. But often poverty is accompanied with fighting, and famine may be even more deadly than war. I would suggest to introduce an immigration lottery, similar to the US green card lottery where everyone may try their luck. Give those who are fleeing war and desperation a substantially better chance to be granted access, but give the others an opportunity too. In this way we avoid drawing too strict lines between humans, and too much desperation among those who were left out.


We can do things the poor regions cannot. We should help some even if we cannot help everyone.