Kirk Landers: How much is too much?

My long time friend and colleague Larry Green took up residence in a bucolic village in Germany last year, moving there from a log cabin in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. He ushered in the New Year by forking out about $75 to fill the gas tank of his Toyota Corolla, which is what happens when gasoline hits $7.63 per gallon.

Here in suburban Chicago, we were still paying less than $3 a gallon, though not by much.

Fuel in Larry’s village was at a pre-blizzard peak; it normally sells for almost a dollar per gallon less. And yes, locals were angry about the bump. So angry that gas station owners, tired of being branded as profiteers, have taken to affixing stickers on the pumps explaining that more than 60 percent of the Euros that citizens spend on fuel go to taxes. Translated to U.S. dollars and Imperial gallons, that’s close to $5 per gallon of taxation.

Yeah, five bucks a gallon!

Imagine that in the United States. We revolted against British rule for taxes measured in pennies on a beverage we don’t even like. We have a history of voting elected officials out of office for increasing taxes by miniscule amounts. We actually had a public demonstration of some size in the Capitol last year over just the rumor of a tax increase.

For the record, our federal fuel tax is currently a paltry 18.4 cents per gallon (24.4 cents per gallon on diesel). When a bi-partisan commission on the future of U.S. roads recommended a 10- to 25-cents per gallon increase in the federal fuel tax we had a national heart attack.

If we were to increase the fuel tax to, say, $4 per gallon, you’d expect to see dead burnt bodies draping the landscape. There would not be enough states left in the union to link California and New York. Life as we know it would end.

The world’s sacred beacon of democracy and goodness would die, impaled on the lance of cruel taxation. Surely religions would crumble, too, as hyper taxation destroyed people’s faith in, uh, faith. Power boating would perish. Then reality television shows, because how attractive could reality be with gasoline at six bucks a gallon, give or take?

You’d like to think that the few surviving motorists would at least enjoy smooth roads and light traffic, but the European experience suggests that might not be the case.

True, Germany’s roads are better than ours in the main, but not in proportion to the fuel taxes they pay. And you can certainly find other countries in Europe that pay huge fuel taxes and have roads that are even lousier than ours.

And that’s the rub. Those astronomical fuel taxes go to general revenues in European countries, not just budgets for roads and bridges and transit. The same would happen here.

To imagine what our body politic would do with such a burst of funds, one need only recall how quickly a supposedly conservative Congress and presidential administration turned America’s brief budget surpluses into trillions of dollars of deficits.

Looked at that way, a 25-cents-per gallon kick to the U.S. federal fuel tax starts to look attractive, whether you’re a small government conservative or a tax-and-spend liberal or just someone who wants to get to work without loss of body parts, human or automotive.v