Does buying SUVs promote terrorism?

By Policy Director Jim DiPeso

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: The following op-ed was published on January 12, 2003 in the Detroit News.


If you own a small business, you can get a big tax deduction by purchasing a sport utility vehicle for company use. Not just any old SUV, but a hulking model that weighs 6,000 pounds or more.

The tax break is nice for the small business person. For a nation battling terrorists, however, the tax break is outrageous. Just take a minute to connect the dots.

Large SUVs, which consume more gasoline than any other personal vehicles on the market, incease national demand for oil. Rising oil consumption increases America’s dependence on foreign oil. Greater dependence on foreign oil entangles America in codependent relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern regimes with huge oil reserves.

The Saudi rulers rely on the oil revenues we pay them to hold onto power. Oil is the piggy bank used to buy off religious extremists and resist modernization, which would improve the lives of ordinary citizens but also empower the Arab street to demand democracy.

In short, oil money is a drug that results in our Middle Eastern friends supporting terrorism — directly through cash bribes, indirecty by breeding popular resentments that terrorists feed on

Our unwillingness to confront Saudi Arabia’s rulers over their behavior is a consequence of our unwillingness to curb our oil appetite. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written: “Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.”

Consequently, a critical component of our campaign to root out terror must be undercutting the political and financial support base for terror that is fed in part by oil. Our nation’s long-term security depends on adopting a sensible energy polic that improves fuel efficiency and diversifies our portfolio of energy resources.

Such a serious national effort would give the United States greater leverage to foster a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.

Which brings us back to tax breaks for SUVs with a gross vehicle weight rating exceeding 6,000 pounds. Improving fuel efficiency will be a long-term undertaking requiring careful policy choices. But the first thing we have to do is stop giving tax breaks that reward profligate oil consumption.

No one can blame small business owners who are taking advantage of the loophole. Buyers of large SUVs that lumber along at 12 miles per gallon can take an immediaet deduction of $24,000 when they do their 2002 taxes. Buyers of luxury cars that get 20 mpg will have to settle for an immediate deduction of $7,660.

The tax break originally was designed for farmers and contractors who need heavy-duty pickup trucks for hauling bulky or messy loads. With the advent of large, truck-based SUVs that are passenger cars in all but name, the tax break undercuts our nation’s need to get off the oil gluttong treadmill that supports terror. Congress may as well send checks directly to Osama bin Laden.

If small businesses need help reducing their tax bills, fine. Surely, however, Congress can come up with alternative tax breaks that don’t subsidize wasteful fuel consumption.

The business tax break for large SUVs ought to be abolished. The next step for Congress and President George W. Bush is to get serious about energy efficiency. Updating of fuel efficiency standards is long overdue. A 2001 report sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences point out cost-effective ways vehicles can be made substantially more fuel-thrifty without compromising safety.

Finally, a national campaign on the scale of the Manhattan Project is needed to commercialize fuel cells and other energy technologies that will dramatically cut oil dependence over the long haul. The benefits will be lasting — cleaner air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, new job-producing industries, and less trouble coming our way from the Middle East.