A Civics Lesson in One Sentance

A month or two back, I was participating in the California Regional Council of Rural Counties annual meeting.  At this conference, I was there to have a sort of informal debate on climate change with Joe Nation, a former California State legislator and currently a private consultant on climate issues.

To some extent my role was frustrating for the audience, because they were already stuck with complying with California's AB32 (a sort of state CO2 cap and trade system) and arguing that such legislation was pointless only served to upset them  (my presentation, both in powerpoint and video is here).  By the way, we often lump "government" together, but I can tell you that while the governor and the legislature of California may be 100% behind CO2 alarmism, the county commissioners were very sympathetic to the skeptic position.

Anyway, towards the end of my presentation I made a plea for a carbon tax over cap-and-trade, and said in fact that California's AB32 was living proof of my argument.  The California Air Resources Board (CARB), which is tasked with implementing the plan, has already added hundreds of people to its staff and worked for over two years, is still no where near finished with rule-making.  The complexity, and the battling political constituencies, is simply mind-boggling.  It is already clear that the result is going to be a Byzantine, Rube Goldberg structure of detailed industry-specific reporting and permitting rules.  Nearly 100% of CARB's time is taken up today with various groups running to them begging for some sort of special treatment (think "carbon bailout" and you will get the idea).  No one thinks the process is fair or rational.

Under cap-and-trade, every single industry will report greenhouse gasses, have industry and firm-specific limits, myriads of permits, etc.  For example, we had detailed discussions that day of how cattle flatulence will be treated and measured.  The alternative is a carbon tax, which is dead simple.  There is one single rate to set - the tax per weight of carbon in fuel.  Fuels with more carbon per BTU, like coal, thereby get higher taxes.  The system works like a sales tax, and could be administered by the BOE (who runs the California sales tax system) in its sleep.

The cap-and-trade system is far more expensive than a carbon tax.  By the basic laws of supply and demand, both systems have to raise the cost of burning certain fuels by about the same amount to get about the same reduction in use.  But the cap-and-trade system brings a huge overhead burden, both in government bureaucracy as well as compliance costs, that make it far, far more expensive for the same amount of benefit.  Until he started sitting on the boards of companies who depend on these inefficiencies in the cap and trade system to make money, Al Gore advocated a straight carbon tax over cap-and-trade.

But we had an opportunity that day.  Because the man who claims to be the author of AB32 is none other than Joe Nation, who was right there in the room.  So we asked him why he took this approach.  Here is what he said, really a civics lesson in one sentence:

I tried pass a carbon tax first, but there was absolutely no support for it among legislators [the same ones who overwhelmingly supported AB32]

If you can understand why this is, you can understand a lot about government.   Because all these concerns that you and I might have about crafting rational public policy are not important to legislators.  Here is how they think about it:

  • Private implementation and compliance costs are meaningless to legislators.  There is no public measurement or accountability for these costs, and most of these costs fall on businesses, who can be ignored as unsympathetic in political discourse.  I operate in Mono County, California, and they put out a new set of reporting requirements driven, they said, by the needs to save a few hours a year of their auditors' time.  But compliance with these new rules costs our company 10-20 hours, at least, a year.  And we are just one of many, many companies reporting.  I complained that it was crazy for them to ask taxpayers to spend hundreds of hours of labor to save them just a few, but they could not have cared less.
  • For legislators, particularly in California, creating large new bureaucracies is good.  It creates a patronage relationship between the legislators and these new government employees that is almost quasi-feudal.  Public employees are an enormous source of support for incumbent politicians, and these bureaucracies also offer future employment opportunities for legislators once they leave office (nice article here).
  • First, last, and always, the vast majority of politicians are gutless.  That means if they can pass the same tax in a way that is more hidden (ie cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax) they will prefer this approach, even if it means the tax is substantially less efficient.  In the case of cap-and-trade, since costs are hidden and spread around like peanut butter rather than easily identifiable, they can pretend the costs don't exist and, if someone starts worrying about rising electricity costs that result, simply blame the rising costs on the evil power/oil/coal/etc companies.  Obama has brilliantly taken this one step further, by outrageously claiming, in the broken windows fallacy of all time, that cap-and-trade will actually boost the economy through green job creation.
  • A carbon tax gives politicians very little room to extract personal value from the electorate.  Really, there is only one number for everyone to argue over.  But cap-and-trade is a Disneyland for lobbyists.  There can be special exemptions, industry specific caps, firm-specific caps, geography-specific caps.  Once everyone sees the first few guys giving campaign donations and parading into CARB for special treatment, everyone feels like they have to in order to avoid being the one guy left out.  My guess is that cap-and-trade will spawn more lobbying than any other legislation in US history.  And politicians, no matter what their public stance, love lobbying, because everyone who comes to ask them for something knows there has to be a quid pro quo.

Update:  A number of related thoughts and posts here, at Reason.

  • http://vox-nova.com Blackadder

    Joe Nation, a former California State legislator

    Is that a stage name or something? It sounds like something out of a comic book.

  • RJP

    Might want to spell check the post title.

  • http://www.buffalog.blogspot.com Craig

    The fact remains that, if you don't believe that humans are creating global warming through CO2 emissions, a carbon tax is unneeded.

  • http://www.humanadvancement.net/blog Kyle Bennett

    You missed an important point, re Nation. It's the point that jumped out at me first. Since he couldn't get a "good" bill passed, he instead proposed a *bad* one. Getting a bill with his name on it passed was the important thing, to him. Whether it was a good bill or not was secondary.

  • rxc

    Your analysis of legislative phenomena is spot-on. You only missed the followup "oversight" function, where they use committee hearings to beat up the bureaucrats for not accomplising the intended impossible goal. "Why haven't you succeeded in changing the behavior of the people as we expected?" They then use the hearings to pass new laws that are pasted on top of the existing ones, and the process accumulates.