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Can Americans handle the truth about gas prices?

By Matt Miller
Thursday, March 10, 2011;

Hello again, everyone! I'm Matt Miller. And welcome to "You Can't Handle the Truth," our weekly quest to see if Americans can face the facts needed to solve our most pressing problems - or whether we'll succumb to the curse that trapped the Romanempire before it fell, when, as the pundit Livy put it, "the people could bear neither their ills nor their cures."

[Turns to the studio audience]

Matt: What do you say, America? Can we bear our ills?

Audience [roaring in unison]: No!

Matt: But can we bear their cures?

Audience: No!

Matt [winking]: You see the dilemma. Today's rendezvous with truth? Gas prices. With Libya in chaos and Mideast jitters sending gas past $3.50 a gallon, we'll take on the most sacred cow in the entire bovine pantheon: the entitlement to cheap gas. In our pre-show poll, we asked our studio audience if they would support higher gas taxes (and thus even higher prices) to achieve a rare public policy trifecta. First, we'd reduce our dependence on oil. Second, we'd create market incentives to invest in clean energy. And third, we'd raise much-needed revenue to shrink our budget deficit. As a bonus, we might eventually stop sending young Americans to die for oil in the Persian Gulf, too!

Alas, 80 percent of you said "no," you would not support higher gas taxes, while only 20 percent said "yes" - and that's where it usually ends in real life. But not on "You Can't Handle the Truth" - where public resistance to sensible reform is just the start of the education campaign our politicians lack the guts or incentive to pursue!

Before we turn to this week's quiz, let's check in with the lovely Angela Barrow, our damsel of debt. Angie, what's the latest number on the red ink we're running?

[Cut to curvy blonde in skimpy dress and high heels standing next to oversized national debt clock.]

Angela: It's so big tonight, Matt.

Matt: How big is it, Angie?

Angela: Mmmm . . . $14.2 trillion and rising.

Matt: Thanks, Angie - you always make the bad news a little easier to bear. But now - time for another round of Mind-Altering Facts. You know how it works. Our studio audience - a representative sample of American voters - has instant-response devices to measure what they know, or don't.

First question: If you adjust for inflation, are gas prices today, with their recent spike, higher, lower or about the same as they've been over the last 40 years? Answer on your handheld, folks [camera pans audience as theme song from "Beverly Hillbillies" plays for six seconds] . . . Okay, let's see what we've got. . . . As the Truth Scoreboard shows, 60 percent of you think gas prices are now higher, 38 percent think gas prices are about the same and just 2 percent think they're lower than they've been in the past. . . .

Well, ladies and gentlemen, see if you can handle the truth, because adjusted for inflation, gas prices today are actually lower than they were decades ago!

[Gasps from the audience]

Next question: What does a gallon of gas cost today in England, Italy and Germany? Just pick from the choices now appearing on your dial. . . . Okay, here's what our audience says: Forty-two percent of you think it's between $3 and $4 a gallon; 22 percent say between $4 and $5 a gallon; and 36 percent say you have absolutely no idea!

Well, thanks for your candor! But here's the truth - in all three countries, a gallon of gas today costs more than $8!

[Gasps again]

In a moment we'll go to primary battleground Iowa to see if these facts matter to voters, but first let's check in at "The Safe House" with a Republican senator who says we need to raise taxes - so of course this person must remain nameless!

[Camera cuts to remote location where a figure sits in shadows]

Senator, what brings you to the Safe House today? What truth can't the American people handle?

Senator [voice is scrambled electronically]: Matt, someone just has to say it. All of us in Washington know that higher gas taxes are part of the fix we need - but we're under enormous pressure not to admit this. Also, there's a way to do it called "tax and dividend" that means most Americans wouldn't feel a thing. What we'd do is rebate most of the proceeds from higher gas taxes via lower payroll taxes, so middle- and lower-income Americans wouldn't be affected at all; it'd be a wash. But folks hate the idea of higher gas prices so much that none of us are willing to talk about it publicly.

Matt: Senator, we know the courage it had to take to speak to us even under cloak of total anonymity, so thanks - and viewers should rest assured that the firm of Pricewaterhouse Coopers has verified the identity of this week's Safe House confessor as a bona fide United States senator from the state of . . . Just kidding, senator, not to worry!

We go now to Homer's Diner in Des Moines, where special Truth correspondent and Time magazine columnist Joe Klein has been talking for hours with farmers, small-business owners, union members, college students and policy experts about this idea of a gas-payroll tax swap. Joe, any takers?

Joe: Matt, the amazing thing is the goodwill that's generated when people actually work through these issues together.

[Video of Iowans talking around table]

As you'd expect, folks who drive long distances as part of their job start out violently opposed to higher gas taxes. But when you show them how most people's bottom line wouldn't be affected, and lay out the broader benefits this kind of tax reform could bring the country, they're ready to be part of the solution.

Matt: Joe, hold that thought. After a brief break we'll go back to Des Moines to see if real people can cut the deals Washington can't . . . and then come back for a final vote with our studio audience to see how many minds we've changed on the gas tax. Plus - this week's finalists imitating Jack Nicholson's famous line in "A Few Good Men," in full Colonel Jessup regalia. You're watching "You Can't Handle The Truth" . . . only on HBO.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattmillernow.

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