GADFLY: Oil Money -- a Modest Proposal 

Wall Street and conservative pundits have started their nail biting and talking points campaign in advance of the impending appearance of oil company executives who are being called before congress this week to account for profits that rival the GNP's of many smaller industrialized nations. Dire consequences are predicted if a much-touted windfall profits tax is enacted (one analyst went so far as to predict a return to Communism), but there is a much easier way to assure that the oil companies share the lagniappe they've been enjoying at the consuming public's expense: a gasoline price rollback.

There's no question that a windfall profits tax would make wonderful window dressing for a congress suffering from all-time low public opinion, at the expense of the Bush-Cheney oil cabal (yes, there's more than one cabal in Washington). But it won't do much for consumers who have lined oil companies' pockets with billions in profits made by manipulating both the supply and the pricing of refined petroleum profits . As the windfall profits tax of the '80's showed, very little of the tax actually trickled down to the folks who needed it most. The tax didn't raise nearly as much money as was projected, it did nothing to lower the cost of gas, it was a bureaucratic nightmare for the agency charged with administering it (the IRS---'nuff said), and it gave the oil companies an excuse to cut production and raise prices to compensate for the effects of the tax. As a result, the tax was repealed in 1988.

Hence my modest proposal: Beginning on a date to be decided by mutual agreement between congress and the oil companies, every gasoline pump in the U.S. will be rolled back to the number it displayed on July 25th, 2005 (just before Congress passed the energy bill, the starting gun for the first heat in the gas price run-up, the other being August 29th, the date Katrina hit the Gulf Coast). It won't be difficult for gas station operators to roll back the numbers to those dates, since they keep records of what they were charging -- if for no other purpose for the collection of various state and federal taxes on gasoline. The oil companies will reduce the cost of refined product to their retail suppliers (be they company owned or otherwise) to compensate for the reduction in the pump price.

The rolled back prices will remain in effect for as long as it takes to compensate Americans for the artificially inflated prices the oil companies charged us.

Using the government's own statistics on fuel prices, the big run-up in prices took place between July 25th and September 5th, during which time the price of all grades of gasoline went up 78.2 cents per gallon (that's right---a 34% increase in barely more than a month). That makes it easy: the price rollback would be 78.2 cents.

The hard part is, how long to maintain the rollback. July 25th to September 5th was the height of the driving season (something you can be certain didn't elude the oil companies when they reached into our pockets), and we're now in a period of driving hibernation, relative to the peak-driving season. So, to make up for the slackened demand, the price rollback will have to be for longer than the price rip-off took place---January 5th ought to do nicely. That way, all the trips to grandmothers' house for the holidays are covered, and the extra money left in folks' pockets helps the economy during the crucial holiday buying orgy.

This price rollback will accomplish the desired result: it will punish the oil companies for their avarice, and it will give Americans back (albeit on a pay-as-you-go basis) the money that was stolen from them when they were mercilessly rolled by the oil industry; it involves no elaborate bureaucratic apparatus (every person who buys gas becomes an instant gas price inspector---possibly with a bounty for turning in violators); and it will give every person who drives a car immense, and immediate, gratification every time they squeeze that gas pump handle to know that during the rollback they'll be returning the favor to the oil companies for having squeezed them.

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