DO YOU SHARE the view that the U.S. government has not yet done nearly enough to enrich the domestic oil industry? It's true that the government has done a great deal--most recently through the spectacularly generous benefits in last summer's tax bill. It's also true that oil is already the most profitable industry in this country. But how about a little more? How about, for example, a tax on imported oil, to raise the profits of the domestic industry a little higher?
It is widely thought that the oil import fee, or tariff, is out at least until after the fall elections. Perhaps that will be correct. But many things thought widely turn out to be reversible. Widely is not what the news stories call a reliable source. He is susceptible to sudden changes of mind, and has a notoriously short memory regarding previous assurances. You may suddenly find widely thinking differently on an oil import tariff. It is one of the few possibilities for raising a serious amount of new revenue fast, and the politics of the budget squeeze is going to get excruciating before the spring is over.
The case for the oil import fee, already audible, is very red-white-and-blue. A whacking big tax on imported oil, it suggests, will really hit OPEC where it hurts. It will encourage the American oil industry to look harder for oil in this country, and reduce dependence on imports. Right?
No, only about one-third right. If the United States put a big tax on imported oil, that would depress world prices a little. To that extent, it would hurt the OPEC producers--a little. But most of the tax would be paid by American consumers. Meanwhile, the price of all American oil would go up to the after-tax price of the imports. The principal beneficiaries of the the tax would be the U.S. oil producers and refiners. Did you ever really doubt it?
As for the claims about raising production, you would be wise to accept them with caution. The price of oil rose from $3.20 a barrel at the beginning of the 1970s to perhaps 10 times that today, and production is lower now than it was then. The best that you can say for the incentive of that gigantic price rise is that it has caused production to stop falling.
But higher prices are very effective in persuading people to cut consumption, and in finding more efficient ways of using oil. Since that serves the national interest strongly, it follows that the right tax is not a tax on the imports alone but on all oil. It would not only cut imports. It would not only avoid the further endowment of the hugely profitable American oil industry. In regard to national security, it would also raise some badly needed money to pay for President Reagan's defense budget--money that at present he can't seem to find anywhere else. Why not a flat 10 cents a gallon on all oil, foreign and domestic alike?