Bryan Caplan famously defended the economically-illiterate McCain-Clinton plan to suspend federal gas taxes on the grounds that it was the least bad way for Congress "to show the voters that it feels their pain". At a cost of just $9 billion, he said, the implementation of the plan might help avert much more expensive and counterproductive policies.
But gesture politics doesn’t need to cost anything at all! Look at the decision to stop sending oil into the US strategic reserve: it costs nothing, and in fact saves the government the money it would otherwise be spending on oil.
What’s more, according to Geoffrey Styles, there’s even a case to be made that "the results might be more dramatic than anyone expects, because of the limited size and nearly unlimited leverage of the domestic market for light, sweet crude oil." He reckons this move could actually result in a reduction of oil prices of a few dollars per barrel.
Of course, no one – not even Caplan – really took Caplan’s argument all that seriously. But still, it’s somehow comforting to know that even if you ignore Jeff Frankel’s complaints about it, Caplan’s piece doesn’t even stand up on its own merits. If you want to make a high-profile gesture in order to head off something worse, there’s bound to be something you can do which has some kind of upside.