In a cringe-inducing response to my corrections to his memo on the state’s hazardous substance tax, Washington Policy Center’s Brendon Houskeeper defends his mistaken math.

It’s a little embarrassing. For Washington Policy Center, that is.

Look, we’re a think tank. You’re a think tank. Occasionally, fact checking falls down. It’s OK to make a mistake once in a while; just admit it and move on. Whatever you do, though, don’t double down. It just makes everyone uncomfortable, like one of those horrible scenes in “The Office” where Michael makes a bold, unsupportable announcement then spends the rest of the episode trying to save face.

Let’s review. WPC made two factual errors (that I corrected). WPC is still wrong about each.

Gas prices

In its original memo, WPC said that the proposed increase to the Hazardous Substances tax would raise prices at the pump “by 4 to 6 cents.”

As I pointed out, arithmetic disagrees. The wholesale price of gasoline (roughly $2.30) multiplied by the tax increase (1.3%) yields a price increase of 3 cents. (And that’s what both the oil industry and the state’s Department of Revenue say, too.)

WPC “rebuts” by cherry picking: it cites wholesale gas price figures for 2008, when prices were at an all-time high. Which might be convincing, except that:

  1. It’s 2010.
  2. Wholesale gas prices are hovering just a little above $2/gallon. And, besides, even during the highest prices of 2008, the tax increase would have raised prices only by 4.7 cents.
  3. In order to get to 6 cents, the upper end of the range WPC claimed originally, wholesale gasoline prices would have to hit $4.60 gallon—that’s wholesale, mind you—or about 27 percent higher than they were even at the height of 2008 summer price spiking. (And if wholesale gas prices hit that level a 6 cent gas tax would be the least of motorists’ worries.)

Repeat: $2.30 x 1.3% = 3 cents.

Unfortunately, that’s the high point of the “rebuttal.”  The rest makes even less sense.

  • Take this: for some reason, WPC claims that I believe the Revenue Department to be the “definitive authority” on how the Hazardous Substances Tax would affect gas prices. (Not so; math is the ultimate authority here.) The rebuttal then cites an email in which a DOR employee apparently says, “We estimate that every one percentage point increase of the hazardous substance tax rate will likely result in about a 2.5 to 3.5 cent increase in the retail price/gal.”

    Bad move: DOR has already revised the figures mentioned in that email. Yet even assuming that the DOR’s estimates in the email were right—which they’re not—when multiplied by the 1.3% tax increase this would yield an increase of between 3.3 and 4.6 cents.

    So WPC is bolstering its case by referring to an email with inaccurate, preliminary figures that have since been revised — and that still puts the gas price increase at a maximum of 4.6 cents, nowhere near the upper-end estimate of 6 cents per gallon they originally claimed.

    Yet in another instance of cherry picking, WPC cites only that top end figure, writing “…the tax proposal would raise prices at the pump by as much as 4.6 cents/gal” and complains that “politics took over DOR’s gas price projections.”

    Really? Politics? In order for a one percentage point increase to result in a 2.5 to 3.5 cent increase, the wholesale price of gasoline would have to be between $2.50 and $3.50, wildly higher than they actually are (or are projectedto be). After this was pointed out to them, DOR revised their estimate down to 3 cents, the correct number. (We know this, because we corrected them.)

    In the end, WPC provides no defense whatsoever for the original “4 to 6 cents” claim. Even by making outlandish assumptions—the peak of 2008 gas prices or erroneous early DOR assumptions—WPC can only get to around 4.7 cents. Nor can WPC provide any refutation for the basic arithmetic: the wholesale price of gasoline (roughly $2.30) multiplied by the tax increase (1.3%) yields a price increase of 3 cents.

    Quantities of pollution

    It’s hard to even know where to begin untangling this one.

    WPC claimed that, “the corrected [Department of Ecology] numbers show that only about 14 million pounds, or 6,500 tons, of pollutants per year enter the Sound via stormwater” and that “the claim that stormwater delivered 52 million pounds of pollutants to the Puget Sound was in error.”

    I pointed out that the corrected numbers actually show that between 14 million and 94 million pounds of toxic pollutants per year enter the Sound, and that 52 million would be a pretty comfortable mid-point estimate based on the most recent numbers. In other words, WPC had cherry picked the very low end of an estimated range.

    WPC “rebuts” my claim by citing some irrelevant quotes from the Puget Sound Partnership circa 2008 and 2009, before the corrected numbers that we’re arguing about were even available. WPC also tries to take cover by citing Washington Conservation Voters and the House Democratic Caucus, both of which have conservatively used the 14 million number.

    Yet  this isn’t really an area that requires a lot of interpretive nuance and expertise. There is an objective and independent fact about what the corrected numbers show. WPC says it’s 14 million. I say that the corrected numbers show between 14 and 94 million pounds of pollution. Only one of us can be right.

    Hint, here’s what Ecology’s summary says:

    Ecology currently estimates that Puget Sound receives between 14 and 94 million pounds of toxic pollutants annually…

    I invite readers to check out the official corrected numbers for themselves. (Warning: at that link you’ll have to convert from metric tons to pounds; there’s an easier explanation here.)

    I’ve spent some time trying to parse WPC’s arguments about pollution volume, and I’ve finally concluded that their researcher is simply confused. (In fact, the author acknowledges using a Department of Ecology table erroneously in the original memo, an error which still hasn’t been corrected as of this writing.) For instance the “rebuttal” says:

    Oil and grease represent more th
    an 90 percent of pollutants, so the revision of those numbers is a dramatic and wholesale change of the data. Sightline’s critique is tantamount to saying, “yeah, but what about the other nine percent?”

    This is wrong. We are plainly arguing about the total volume of pollution, a very large share of which is oil and grease. As a matter of fact, the total volume of toxic pollution is currently estimated to run between 14 million and 94 million per year. There’s no sense whatsoever in which I am focusing on “the other nine percent.” I simply want WPC to acknowledge that the original memo cherry picked the low end of an estimated range.

    Update 3/5/10: In a follow-up post, WPC tacitly admits that I’m right on both counts. (Then there’s a bunch of hot air about how their original numbers might true in an imaginary world with different oil prices than in the actual world.) They also call for good science, rather than bad science. And I agree!

    Whatever. It’s probably time to put this little blog war to rest. And I may even say something nice about Washington Policy Center the next time we’re in agreement—like when they propose carbon taxes or investments in vanpools.