A Helpful Primer on the Politics of a Carbon Tax

Kevin Drum and Joe Romm offer a helpful primer on the politics of a carbon tax.  Unfortunately, they are a little shy in coming out with exactly what they mean, so I will add in a few helpful explanations.

1. A carbon tax, particularly one capable of deep emissions reductions quickly, is a political dead end....

What they are referring to is that though both are approximately equally costly, the government imposed costs of a cap and trade are better hidden from the consumer than those of a carbon tax, thus making it a more palatable plan for politicians.  By raising costs to producers, and then having the producers inevitably raise prices to the consumer, wily politicians can blame the producers,  not themselves, for the price increases.

2. A carbon tax that could pass Congress would not be simple. Advocates of a tax argue that simplicity is one of its biggest benefits.  Again, those advocates seem bizarrely unfamiliar with the tax code in spite of the fact that they pay taxes every year....

Basically, they are arguing that Congress is incapable of producing a simple, clean law.  Politicians used to be able to do this (the US Constitution will fit on the back of a cereal box -- the new EU proposed constitution barely fits in a large 3-ring binder) but have obviously lost the knack.  Or, more likely, as public choice theory tells us, as the dollar stakes have been raised, politicians are incapable of resisting the pressure of huge sums of money at stake for targeted tweaks and overrides for politically favored groups.

By the way, the comparison he is making to the US income tax code is a false one.  The carbon tax is much more like a sales tax, and many state governments in the US (though not all) maintain very simple and easy to administer sales tax systems with single rates and little complexity.  Our sales tax return in New Mexico, for example, consists of three numbers and a signature on a form about the size of a 3x5 card.

3. A carbon tax is woefully inadequate and incomplete as a climate strategy. Why?  Well, for one, it doesn't have mandatory targets and timetables.  Thus it doesn't guarantee specific emissions results and thus doesn't guarantee specific climate benefits.  Perhaps more important, it doesn't allow us to join the other nations of the world in setting science-based targets and timetables.  Also, a tax lacks all of the key complementary measures "” many of which are in Waxman-Markey "” that are essential to any rational climate policy, but which inherently complicate any comprehensive energy and climate bill.

Basically, their argument here is that they don't like the fact that the success of a carbon tax relies on the unmanaged, bottom up responses to higher prices by 300 million Americans acting in their own best interests and finding their own individual solutions to carbon reduction.  The authors instead prefer a few people in Washington, heavily influenced by a number of special interest lobbyists, setting policy and picking winners.  "Complementary measures" is shorthand for government picking of winners and subsidizing of ... whatever the hell Congress chooses to subsidize.  It is a great way to wrap pork in a nifty new green wrapper.

I think most folks who are not naive understand that what the authors are advocating for here is doomed to be hopelessly politicized -- this is, after all, how we got massive ethanol subsidies that do zero for carbon emissions.  But even if one believes the politicians in charge are monks of public service making purely science-based decisions, these guys still are advocating for at most a few hundred people making the major carbon reduction priority decisions from the top rather than 300 million making them from the bottom up.

Besides, isn't this argument deeply contradictory.  In points 1 and 2, they basically argued that the legislative process is deeply politicized and it is naive to think otherwise.   But then, in point 3, they make an argument for top down planning over bottom up response to planning that can only be even marginally valid if the process is not politicized and science, and not political pull, rule decisions.

Postscript: A couple of related stories, first from the Washington Times:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, both of California, were among the Democrats -- then in the minority -- who slammed Vice President Dick Cheney for holding closed-door meetings to draft energy policy early in the Bush administration.

Republicans "invited energy lobbyists to write the energy bill that gouges consumers with big payoffs to Big Gas and Big Oil," Mrs. Pelosi said in 2005. "They have turned Washington, D.C., into an oil and gas town when it is supposed to be the city of innovation, of new, of fresh ideas about our energy policy."

But the sweeping climate bill Mr. Waxman and Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the panel's key environmental subcommittee, introduced at the end of March includes a provision that benefits Duke Energy Corp., a founding member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), whose climate plan released in January the lawmakers have frequently called a "blueprint" for their climate legislation.

The exemption would save Duke Energy -- along with other firms now building new coal power plants -- from having to spend millions of dollars outfitting its Cliffside, N.C., power plant currently under construction with "clean coal" technology.

"The USCAP companies must be delirious over the freebies that they've received after writing the blueprint for [the House draft bill]," said Larry Neal, deputy Republican staff director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The second is from the Washington Examiner via Watts Up With That

In exchange for votes to pass a controversial global warming package, Democratic leaders are offering some lawmakers generous emission "allowances" to protect their districts from the economic pain of pollution restrictions.

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, represents a district with several oil refineries, a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. He also serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which must approve the global warming plan backed by President Barack Obama.

Green says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who heads the panel, is trying to entice him into voting for the bill by giving some refineries favorable treatment in the administration's "cap and trade" system, which is expected to generate hundreds of billions of dollars over the coming years. Under the plan, companies would pay for the right to emit carbon dioxide, but Green and other lawmakers are angling to get a free pass for refineries in their districts.

"We've been talking," Green said, referring to a meeting he had with Waxman on Tuesday night. "To put together a bill that passes, they have to get our votes, and I'm not going to vote for a bill without refinery allowances."

  • ArtD0dger

    Point 3 can also be addressed by structuring the tax as a Dutch auction rather than a flat rate, thereby fixing the carbon emissions rather than the actual tax rate. For instance, each month all interested parties bid on the amount of tax they're willing to pay to produce specified lots of fossil fuels. Then the highest N lots win, all paying the lowest winning bid. But this takes the politics of picking winners out of the process, which is exactly what Drum, et. al., are seeking to preserve.