Posts tagged ‘gas tax’

Denying the Climate Catastrophe: 9. A Low-Cost Insurance Policy

This is Chapter 9 (the final chapter) of an ongoing series.  Other parts of the series are here:

  1. Introduction
  2. Greenhouse Gas Theory
  3. Feedbacks
  4.  A)  Actual Temperature Data;  B) Problems with the Surface Temperature Record
  5. Attribution of Past Warming:  A) Arguments for it being Man-Made; B) Natural Attribution
  6. Climate Models vs. Actual Temperatures
  7. Are We Already Seeing Climate Change
  8. The Lukewarmer Middle Ground
  9. A Low-Cost Insurance Policy  (this article)

While I have shown over the previous chapters that there is good reason to be skeptical of a future man-made climate catastrophe (at least from CO2), I am appalled at all the absolutely stupid, counter-productive things the government has implemented in the name of climate change, all of which have costly distorting effects on the economy while doing extremely little to affect man-made greenhouse gas production.  For example:

Even when government programs do likely have an impact of CO2, they are seldom managed intelligently.  For example, the government subsidizes solar panel installations, presumably to reduce their cost to consumers, but then imposes duties on imported panels to raise their price (indicating that the program has become more of a crony subsidy for US solar panel makers, which is typical of the life-cycle of these types of government interventions).  Obama's coal power plan, also known as his war on coal, will certainly reduce some CO2 from electricity generation but at a very high cost to consumers and industries.  Steps like this are taken without any idea of whether this is the lowest cost approach to reducing CO2 production -- likely it is not given the arbitrary aspects of the program.

For years I have opposed steps like a Federal carbon tax or cap and trade system because I believe (and still believe) them to be unnecessary given the modest amount of man-made warming I expect over the next century.  I would expect to see about one degree C of man-made warming between now and 2100, and believe most of the cries that "we are already seeing catastrophic climate changes" are in fact panics driven by normal natural variation (most supposed trends, say in hurricanes or tornadoes or heat waves, can't actually be found when one looks at the official data).

But I am exhausted with all the stupid, costly, crony legislation that passes in the name of climate change action.   I am convinced there is a better approach that will have more impact on man-made CO2 and simultaneously will benefit the economy vs. our current starting point.  So here goes:

The Plan

Point 1:  Impose a Federal carbon tax on fuel.

I am open to a range of actual tax amounts, as long as point 2 below is also part of the plan.  Something that prices CO2 between $25 and $45 a ton seems to match the mainstream estimates out there of the social costs of CO2.  I think methane is a rounding error, but one could make an adjustment to the natural gas tax numbers to take into account methane leakage in the production chain.   I am even open to make the tax=0 on biofuels given these fuels are recycling carbon from the atmosphere.

A Pigovian tax on carbon in fuels is going to be the most efficient possible way to reduce CO2 production.   What is the best way to reduce CO2 -- by substituting gas for coal?   by more conservation?  by solar, or wind?  with biofuels?  With a carbon tax, we don't have to figure it out.  Different approaches will be tested in the marketplace.  Cap and trade could theoretically do the same thing, but while this worked well in some niche markets (like SO2 emissions), it has not worked at all in European markets for CO2.   There has just been too many opportunities for cronyism, too much weird accounting for things like offsets that is hard to do well, and too much temptation to pick winners and losers.

Point 2:  Offset 100% of carbon tax proceeds against the payroll tax

Yes, there are likely many politicians, given their incentives, that would love a big new pool of money they could use to send largess, from more health care spending to more aircraft carriers, to their favored constituent groups.  But we simply are not going to get Conservatives (and libertarians) on board for a net tax increase, particularly one to address an issue they may not agree is an issue at all.   So our plan will use carbon tax revenues to reduce other Federal taxes.

I think the best choice would be to reduce the payroll tax.  Why?  First, the carbon tax will necessarily be regressive (as are most consumption taxes) and the most regressive other major Federal tax we have are payroll taxes.  Offsetting income taxes would likely be a non-starter on the Left, as no matter how one structures the tax reduction the rich would get most of it since they pay most of the income taxes.

There is another benefit of reducing the payroll tax -- it would mean that we are replacing a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  It is always dangerous to make gut-feel assessments of complex systems like the economy, but my sense is that this swap might even have net benefits for the economy -- ie we might want to do it even if there was no such thing as greenhouse gas warming.   In theory, labor and fuel are economically equivalent in that they are both production raw materials.  But in practice, they are treated entirely differently by the public.   Few people care about the full productive employment of our underground fuel reserves, but nearly everybody cares about the full productive employment of our labor force.   After all, for most people, the primary single metric of economic health is the unemployment rate.  So replacing a disincentive to hire with a disincentive to use fuel could well be popular.

Point 3:  Eliminate all the stupid stuff

Oddly enough, this might be the hardest part politically because every subsidy, no matter how idiotic, has a hard core of beneficiaries who will defend it to the death -- this the the concentrated benefits, dispersed cost phenomena that makes it hard to change many government programs.  But never-the-less I propose that we eliminate all the current Federal subsidies, mandates, and prohibitions that have been justified by climate change.  Ethanol rules and mandates, solar subsidies, wind subsidies, EV subsidies, targeted technology investments, coal plant bans, pipeline bans, drilling bans -- it all should go.  The carbon tax does the work.

States can continue to do whatever they want -- we don't need the Feds to step on states any more than they do already, and I continue to like the 50 state laboratory concept.  If California wants to continue to subsidize wind generators, let them do it.  That is between the state and its taxpayers (and for those who think the California legislature is crazy, that is what U-Haul is for).

Point 4:  Revamp our nuclear regulatory regime

As much as alternative energy enthusiasts would like to deny it, the world needs reliable, 24-hour baseload power -- and wind and solar are not going to do it (without a change in storage technology of at least 2 orders of magnitude in cost).  The only carbon-free baseload power technology that is currently viable is nuclear.

I will observe that nuclear power suffers under some of the same problems as commercial space flight -- the government helped force the technology faster than it might have grown organically on its own, which paradoxically has slowed its long-term development.  Early nuclear power probably was not ready for prime time, and the hangover from problems and perceptions of this era have made it hard to proceed even when better technologies have existed.   But we are at least 2 generations of technology past what is in most US nuclear plants.  Small air-cooled thorium reactors and other technologies exist that could provide reliable safe power for over 100 years.  I am not an expert on nuclear regulation, but it strikes me that a regime similar to aircraft safety, where a few designs are approved and used over and over makes sense.  France, which has the strongest nuclear base in the world, followed this strategy.  Using thorium could also have the advantage of making the technology more exportable, since its utility in weapons production would be limited.

Point 5: Help clean up Chinese, and Asian, coal production

One of the hard parts about fighting CO2 emissions, vs. all the other emissions we have tackled in the past (NOx, SOx, soot/particulates, unburned hydrocarbons, etc), is that we simply don't know how to combust fossil fuels without creating CO2 -- CO2 is inherent to the base chemical reaction of the combustion.  But we do know how to burn coal without tons of particulates and smog and acid rain -- and we know how to do it economically enough to support a growing, prosperous modern economy.

In my mind it is utterly pointless to ask China to limit their CO2 growth.  China has seen the miracle over the last 30 years of having almost a billion people exit poverty.  This is an event unprecedented in human history, and they have achieved it in part by burning every molecule of fossil fuels they can get their hands on, and they are unlikely to accept limitations on fossil fuel consumption that will derail this economic progress.  But I think it is reasonable to help China stop making their air unbreathable, a goal that is entirely compatible with continued economic growth.  In 20 years, when we have figured out and started to build some modern nuclear designs, I am sure the Chinese will be happy to copy these and start working on their CO2 output, but for now their Maslov hierarchy of needs should point more towards breathable air.

As a bonus, this would pay one immediate climate change benefit that likely would dwarf the near-term effect of CO2 reduction.  Right now, much of this soot from Asian coal plants lands on the ice in the Arctic and Greenland.  This black carbon changes the albedo of the ice, causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat.  The net effect is more melting ice and higher Arctic temperatures.  A lot of folks, including myself, think that the recent melting of Arctic sea ice and rising Arctic temperatures is more attributable to Asian black carbon pollution than to CO2 and greenhouse gas warming (particularly since similar warming and sea ice melting is not seen in the Antarctic, where there is not a problem with soot pollution).

Final Thoughts

At its core, this is a very low cost, even negative cost, climate insurance policy.  The carbon tax combined with a market economy does the work of identifying the most efficient ways to reduce CO2 production.   The economy benefits from the removal of a myriad of distortions and crony give-aways, while also potentially benefiting from the replacement of a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  The near-term effect on CO2 is small (since the US is only a small part of the global emissions picture), but actually larger than the near-term effect of all the haphazard current programs, and almost certainly cheaper to obtain.  As an added benefit, if you can help China with its soot problem, we could see immediate improvements in probably the most visible front of man-made climate change:  in the Arctic.

For those who have hung with me this entire series, many thanks for your interest.  If you have questions, concerns, or outraged refutations, you are welcome to email me at the link above.

Coyote's Bi-Partisan Climate Plan -- A Climate Skeptic Calls For a Carbon Tax

While I am not deeply worried about man-made climate change, I am appalled at all the absolutely stupid, counter-productive things the government has implemented in the name of climate change, all of which have costly distorting effects on the economy while doing extremely little to affect man-made greenhouse gas production.  For example:

Even when government programs do likely have an impact of CO2, they are seldom managed intelligently.  For example, the government subsidizes solar panel installations, presumably to reduce their cost to consumers, but then imposes duties on imported panels to raise their price (indicating that the program has become more of a crony subsidy for US solar panel makers, which is typical of these types of government interventions).  Obama's coal power plan, also known as his war on coal, will certainly reduce some CO2 from electricity generation but at a very high cost to consumers and industries.  Steps like this are taken without any idea of whether this is the lowest cost approach to reducing CO2 production -- likely it is not given the arbitrary aspects of the program.

For years I have opposed steps like a Federal carbon tax or cap and trade system because I believe (and still believe) them to be unnecessary given the modest amount of man-made warming I expect over the next century.  I would expect to see about one degree C of man-made warming between now and 2100, and believe most of the cries that "we are already seeing catastrophic climate changes" are in fact panics driven by normal natural variation (most supposed trends, say in hurricanes or tornadoes or heat waves, can't actually be found when one looks at the official data).

But I am exhausted with all the stupid, costly, crony legislation that passes in the name of climate change action.   I am convinced there is a better approach that will have more impact on man-made CO2 and simultaneously will benefit the economy vs. our current starting point.  So here goes:

The Plan

Point 1:  Impose a Federal carbon tax on fuel.

I am open to a range of actual tax amounts, as long as point 2 below is also part of the plan.  Something that prices CO2 between $25 and $45 a ton seems to match the mainstream estimates out there of the social costs of CO2.  I think methane is a rounding error, but one could make an adjustment to the natural gas tax numbers to take into account methane leakage in the production chain.   I am even open to make the tax=0 on biofuels given these fuels are recycling carbon from the atmosphere.

A Pigovian tax on carbon in fuels is going to be the most efficient possible way to reduce CO2 production.   What is the best way to reduce CO2 -- by substituting gas for coal?   by more conservation?  by solar, or wind?  with biofuels?  With a carbon tax, we don't have to figure it out.  Different approaches will be tested in the marketplace.  Cap and trade could theoretically do the same thing, but while this worked well in some niche markets (like SO2 emissions), it has not worked at all in European markets for CO2.   There has just been too many opportunities for cronyism, too much weird accounting for things like offsets that is hard to do well, and too much temptation to pick winners and losers.

Point 2:  Offset 100% of carbon tax proceeds against the payroll tax

Yes, there are likely many politicians, given their incentives, that would love a big new pool of money they could use to send largess, from more health care spending to more aircraft carriers, to their favored constituent groups.  But we simply are not going to get Conservatives (and libertarians) on board for a net tax increase, particularly one to address an issue they may not agree is an issue at all.   So our plan will use carbon tax revenues to reduce other Federal taxes.

I think the best choice would be to reduce the payroll tax.  Why?  First, the carbon tax will necessarily be regressive (as are most consumption taxes) and the most regressive other major Federal tax we have are payroll taxes.  Offsetting income taxes would likely be a non-starter on the Left, as no matter how one structures the tax reduction the rich would get most of it since they pay most of the income taxes.

There is another benefit of reducing the payroll tax -- it would mean that we are replacing a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  It is always dangerous to make gut-feel assessments of complex systems like the economy, but my sense is that this swap might even have net benefits for the economy -- ie we might want to do it even if there was no such thing as greenhouse gas warming.   In theory, labor and fuel are economically equivalent in that they are both production raw materials.  But in practice, they are treated entirely differently by the public.   Few people care about the full productive employment of our underground fuel reserves, but nearly everybody cares about the full productive employment of our labor force.   After all, for most people, the primary single metric of economic health is the unemployment rate.  So replacing a disincentive to hire with a disincentive to use fuel could well be popular.

Point 3:  Eliminate all the stupid stuff

Oddly enough, this might be the hardest part politically because every subsidy, no matter how idiotic, has a hard core of beneficiaries who will defend it to the death -- this the the concentrated benefits, dispersed cost phenomena that makes it hard to change many government programs.  But never-the-less I propose that we eliminate all the current Federal subsidies, mandates, and prohibitions that have been justified by climate change.  Ethanol rules and mandates, solar subsidies, wind subsidies, EV subsidies, targeted technology investments, coal plant bans, pipeline bans, drilling bans -- it all should go.  The carbon tax does the work.

States can continue to do whatever they want -- we don't need the Feds to step on states any more than they do already, and I continue to like the 50 state laboratory concept.  If California wants to continue to subsidize wind generators, let them do it.  That is between the state and its taxpayers (and for those who think the California legislature is crazy, that is what U-Haul is for).

Point 4:  Revamp our nuclear regulatory regime

As much as alternative energy enthusiasts would like to deny it, the world needs reliable, 24-hour baseload power -- and wind and solar are not going to do it (without a change in storage technology of at least 2 orders of magnitude in cost).  The only carbon-free baseload power technology that is currently viable is nuclear.

I will observe that nuclear power suffers under some of the same problems as commercial space flight -- the government helped force the technology faster than it might have grown organically on its own, which paradoxically has slowed its long-term development.  Early nuclear power probably was not ready for prime time, and the hangover from problems and perceptions of this era have made it hard to proceed even when better technologies have existed.   But we are at least 2 generations of technology past what is in most US nuclear plants.  Small air-cooled thorium reactors and other technologies exist that could provide reliable safe power for over 100 years.  I am not an expert on nuclear regulation, but it strikes me that a regime similar to aircraft safety, where a few designs are approved and used over and over makes sense.  France, which has the strongest nuclear base in the world, followed this strategy.  Using thorium could also have the advantage of making the technology more exportable, since its utility in weapons production would be limited.

Point 5: Help clean up Chinese, and Asian, coal production

One of the hard parts about fighting CO2 emissions, vs. all the other emissions we have tackled in the past (NOx, SOx, soot/particulates, unburned hydrocarbons, etc), is that we simply don't know how to combust fossil fuels without creating CO2 -- CO2 is inherent to the base chemical reaction of the combustion.  But we do know how to burn coal without tons of particulates and smog and acid rain -- and we know how to do it economically enough to support a growing, prosperous modern economy.

In my mind it is utterly pointless to ask China to limit their CO2 growth.  China has seen the miracle over the last 30 years of having almost a billion people exit poverty.  This is an event unprecedented in human history, and they have achieved it in part by burning every molecule of fossil fuels they can get their hands on, and they are unlikely to accept limitations on fossil fuel consumption that will derail this economic progress.  But I think it is reasonable to help China stop making their air unbreathable, a goal that is entirely compatible with continued economic growth.  In 20 years, when we have figured out and started to build some modern nuclear designs, I am sure the Chinese will be happy to copy these and start working on their CO2 output, but for now their Maslov hierarchy of needs should point more towards breathable air.

As a bonus, this would pay one immediate climate change benefit that likely would dwarf the near-term effect of CO2 reduction.  Right now, much of this soot from Asian coal plants lands on the ice in the Arctic and Greenland.  This black carbon changes the albedo of the ice, causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat.  The net effect is more melting ice and higher Arctic temperatures.  A lot of folks, including myself, think that the recent melting of Arctic sea ice and rising Arctic temperatures is more attributable to Asian black carbon pollution than to CO2 and greenhouse gas warming (particularly since similar warming and sea ice melting is not seen in the Antarctic, where there is not a problem with soot pollution).

Final Thoughts

At its core, this is a very low cost, even negative cost, climate insurance policy.  The carbon tax combined with a market economy does the work of identifying the most efficient ways to reduce CO2 production.   The economy benefits from the removal of a myriad of distortions and crony give-aways, while also potentially benefiting from the replacement of a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  The near-term effect on CO2 is small (since the US is only a small part of the global emissions picture), but actually larger than the near-term effect of all the haphazard current programs, and almost certainly cheaper to obtain.  As an added benefit, if you can help China with its soot problem, we could see immediate improvements in probably the most visible front of man-made climate change:  in the Arctic.

Postscript

Perhaps the hardest thing to overcome in reaching a compromise here is the tribalism of modern politics.  I believe this is  a perfectly sensible plan that even those folks who believe man-made global warming is  a total myth ( a group to which I do not belong) could sign up for.  The barrier, though, is tribal.  I consider myself to be pretty free of team politics but my first reaction when thinking about this kind of plan was, "What?  We can't let those guys win.  They are totally full of sh*t.  They are threatening to throw me in jail for my opinions."

It was at this point I was reminded of a customer service story at my company.  I had a customer who was upset call me, and I ended up giving them a full-refund and a certificate to come back and visit us in the future.  I actually suspected there was more to the story, but I didn't want a bad review.  The customer was happy, but my local manager was not.  She called me and said, "That was a bad customer!  He was lying to you.  How can you let him win like that?"   Does this sound familiar?  I think we fall into this trap all the time in modern politics, worried more about preventing the other team from winning than about doing the right thing.

Want to Increase Infrastructure Money for Highways Immediately by 31%? Stop Diverting Highway Money to Transit

This DOT table, pointed out to me by Randal O'Toole, shows that money spent on highways could be increased immediately by over 30% if highway money was not diverted to transit and other uses.  About 13% of state gas tax revenues meant for highways are diverted to non-highway transit projects (e.g. light rail boondoggles).  Another 9.4% are diverted to general funds, and may not be applied to transportation projects at all.   The same table shows that if all state MVD receipts were used to support investments for cars rather than transit and general spending, money available for roads would increase 45% from those funds.

Transit projects should be supported by their own riders.  This will never happen, because they are so egregiously expensive per passenger-mile that no one would ride them if their trip were not subsidized by the rest of us**.  And I am exhausted with having folks argue that highways are "subsidized" because they require tax money beyond the gas taxes (which are essentially a user fee) when these extra tax monies for highways would be largely unneeded if the highway funds were used for highways.  The diversion to general funds is particularly troubling, since sleazy government officials are obviously trying to piggy-back off the popularity of highway infrastructure investment to generate a slush fund for activities taxpayers are less likely to support.

And please do not tell me that as a highway driver, investments in transit are doing me a favor by getting cars off the road.  Transit investments are so expensive per passenger mile that the same money spent getting a few cars off the road via transit would substantially increase road and highway capacities.  A dollar of highway investment carries at least an order of magnitude more passenger miles than a dollar of transit spending.

** I am always amazed that supporters of such transit projects call light rail projects "sustainable".  Forget for a minute that they seldom use less energy per passenger mile than driving.   Think about all the resources that go into them.  This at first seems like a hard problem -- how do we account for all the resources that go into transit vs. go into driving.  But then we realize it is actually easy, because we have a simple tool for valuing resource inputs:  price.  Prices are a great miracle.  They provide us with a sort of weighted average of the value and scarcity of the resources (both hard, like titanium, and soft, like labor and innovation) that go into a product.  So if light rail costs 10x or more per passenger mile than driving, as it often does, this means that it uses ten times the value of resource inputs as driving.  This is sustainable?  I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Highway Bait And Switch

Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein both complain that Congress is letting America's highways fall apart by not raising the gasoline tax.  They complain that current gas taxes are no longer high enough to cover costs, as the Federal highway trust fund is empty.  Apparently, Congress and the President were always blithely happy to raise the gas tax to whatever it needed to be to cover costs, and now this current Congress is departing from the historic norm:

We used to have a straightforward way to fund infrastructure in this country: the federal gas tax. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower raised the tax from 1.5 cents a gallon to 3 cents to help pay for the creation of the interstate highway system. In 1959, he increased it from 3 cents to 4 cents. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax to 9 cents. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush raised it to 14 cents, with half of the increase going to reduce the deficit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised it to 18.4 cents.

In other words, from 1956 to 1993, there was a bipartisan consensus on the federal gasoline tax: Both parties agreed that it occasionally needed to be raised in order to help pay for the nation’s infrastructure. But since 2000, there has been a bipartisan consensus against raising the federal gasoline tax.

But here is what happened since 1993:  Roughly a third of highway taxes are diverted to local mass transit and other oddball non-highway projects.  Simply devoting all the highway trust fund to, you know, highways would add an effective 6-7 cents to the gas tax money without actually raising the tax.

Here is what is going on:  The Left loves mass transit projects, particularly urban rail.  Of all government transportation projects, these have by far the highest cost per passenger mile of anything we do, so diverting money to these projects reduces the bang for the buck but the Left loves these projects for social engineering reasons I will discuss in a post soon.

The Left knows that these transit projects will not stand up well in the appropriations process.  Kansas taxpayers are not going to be happy about paying for another couple miles of the LA subway system.  They will ask, rightly, why local urbanites can't pay for their own damn transit projects if these projects are so great.  But taxpayers generally support tax hikes for highways. So what does a politician on a transit mission do?  He sells the gas tax to the public on it being dedicated to highways.  Then he switches the money away from highways to transit.  This leaves highways falling apart.  So he can again go to taxpayers asking for money, ostensibly for highways, but of which a good portion will eventually be siphoned off to transit (and squirrel bridges and whatever).  Repeat.

In effect, calls for raising the gas tax are NOT to repair highways.  This is a bait and switch.  Gas taxes are sufficiently high enough to fully fund highway work if it was all applied to highway work.  Proposed increased in gas taxes are needed to pay for the continuing diversion of highway funds to egregiously expensive transit projects.  Congress is right to stop this shell game.

It's Supposed to be Painful

Megan McArdle points out the real problem that carbon taxes and other CO2-abatement approaches have -- they only really work if it they are painful.  I mean, the whole point is not supposed to be to raise government revenue or just arbitrarily raise prices.  The whole point is to change behaviors, and the most powerful tool for behavior change is price changes.

Global warming activists are talking about 80% CO2 reductions.  This is an enormous number, especially since the relative cut has to be even higher to account for future growth, as reductions are generally pegged to current (or as in Kyoto, past) CO2 emissions levels.

A 40-cent gas tax is not going to do it.  Or, looking at how much behaviors changed when gas prices recently went up to $4, a $2.00 gas tax is not going to do it.  The Europeans have $6+ gas taxes and that is not enough to reach the levels activists want for this country.   It is likely going to take $10+ gas to even start to get the reductions in use and the shifts to much more expensive carbon-less technologies that would be required to hit 80% type goals.

All this means that we are NEVER going to have a carbon tax that really reflects the necessary rates to hit the emissions targets Obama and the alarmists claim to be committed to.  That is why we will get backdoor taxes that try to hide the tax and shift the blame away from Congress.    But none of these schemes, including cap and trade, will have any meaningful impact unless they lead to consumer price increases that change behaviors of the end users**.  But these approaches are preferable to lawmakers, as they somewhat disguise the relationship between legislation and prices, and give them some ability to blame private companies for the price increase, even where these increases are the inevitable result of carbon caps.

Postscript: This is further complicated because the major technologies the government is attempting to subsidize as part of meeting these goals are virtually useless.  Two in the transportation sector - ethanol and electric vehicles - are of questionable merit.  Ethanol has about zero efficacy in reducing Co2, and may actually increase it (but it is essential if one wants to win the Iowa caucuses).  Electric vehicles have some potential, but their impact is dependent on how electricity is generated.  Based on the current mix, shifts to electric vehicles just shift emissions from one place to another without much net reduction.  If someone were to propose a massive nuclear and electric vehicle program, they might convince me they were on to something.

**PS#2: I suppose you could reach these goals without fuel price increases.   Two alternatives:

  • Mandate certain transportation and other technology solutions, as well as certain limits (e.g. maximum house size, maximum number of TV's, etc).  This still has cost, though, in terms of enormous losses in personal liberty as well as likely enforced higher costs of major purchases, like cars.  So this is still likely a price increase, it just shows up in a different place.  Also, this may well not work -- there is very good evidence that without price changes in fuel, consumers react to higher MPG in their cars by driving more, thus sibstantially dilluting the carbon effect.
  • Enforce carbon limits combined with price caps on fuel and electricity.  This would be effective, probably, but of course would result in massive shortages of gas and electricity.  The rationing challenge would be enormous.

Demagoguery

Hillary has jumped on the gas tax holiday along with John McCain.   Kevin Drum calls it pure demagoguery (he probably wouldn't have been so blunt about Hillary, but since he already derided McCain for the idea, he has the good grace to apply the same criticisms to Hillary:

I'd say there's approximately a zero percent chance that Hillary
Clinton or John McCain actually believe this is good policy. It would
increase oil company profits, it would make hardly a dent in the price
of gasoline, it would encourage more summertime driving, and it would
deprive states of money for transit projects. Their staff economists
know this perfectly well, and so do they.

But they don't care. It's a way to engage in some good, healthy
demagoguery, and if there's anything that the past couple of months
have reinforced, it's the notion that demagoguery sells. Boy does it
sell.

I tend to agree with Drum.  The gas tax, at least when applied to its original purpose of funding highways and roads, is one of the better taxes out there, doing a pretty good job of matching the costs of roads to the users of the roads.  However, I did make this point in Drum's comment section:

I am glad you see that an 18.4 cent gas price reduction is small compared to the total price and proposing such a reduction by government fiat is pure demagoguery. 

I would like to point out that most oil companies have a profit on a wholesale gallon of gas that is also about 18-20 cents.  The reason they make so much money is that they sell a lot of gallons of gas (plus many other petroleum products).  So is it similarly pure demagoguery to blame oil company profits for the price of gas, or to suggest government schemes (e.g. windfall profits tax) to reduce these profits?

By the way, Hillary is particularly hypocritical on this, because she has adopted the 80 by 50 CO2 target (80% reduction by 2050).  To meet this target, which I think would be an economic disaster, is not going to require an 18.4 cent gas tax, but something like a $10 a gallon gas tax, or more.  Since she has adopted her 80 by 50 target, her correct answer on gas taxes should not be to propose a holiday, but to say "suck it up, because taxes are going to go a hell of a lot higher."  McCain, who has also adopted a CO2 target, though a less stringent one, is in the same boat.

Update:  OK, the $10 per gallon tax is probably gross under-estimated.  The number is likely to have to be much higher than that, given that Europeans are already paying nearly $10 a gallon and are not even in the ballpark of these CO2 targets.

Cost of gasoline
(U.S. Dollars per Gallon)
Date___     Belgium  France  Germany  Italy  Netherlands  UK  _ US
4/20/98     3.43___  3.44__  3.25___  3.48_  3.56_______ 4.04  1.21
4/21/08     8.62___  8.34__  8.58___  8.32_  9.51_______ 8.17  3.73

HT:  Hall of Record

Dark Days for Free Speech

Nearly every day brings new evidence of what a threat to free speech campaign finance "reform" laws have become.  I found this bit from Brian Anderson very depressing, but not surprising:

Consider what's going on in Washington State as an early warning.
Early in 2005, the Democrat-controlled legislature passed"”and
Democratic governor Christine Gregoire signed"”a bill boosting the
state's gasoline tax a whopping 9.5 cents per gallon over the next four
years, supposedly to fund transportation projects. Thinking that their
taxes were already plenty high... some citizens organized an initiative campaign,
as Washington law allows, to junk the new levy: No New Gas Tax.

Two popular conservative talk radio hosts, Kirby Wilbur and John
Carlson, explained why the gas tax was bad news and urged listeners to
sign the 225,000 petitions necessary to get the rollback initiative on
the November ballot, though they played no official role in the
campaign and regularly featured on their shows defenders as well as
opponents of the tax hike. With the hosts' help, the petition drive got
almost twice the needed signatures, but the ballot initiative, strongly
opposed by labor unions, the state's liberal media, environmental
groups, and other powerful interests, narrowly lost.

Meantime, however, a group of pro-tax politicians sued No New Gas
Tax, arguing that Wilbur's and Carlson's on-air commentaries were
"in-kind contributions" and that the anti-tax campaign had failed to
report them to the proper state authorities. The suit sought to stop
NNGT from accepting any more of these "contributions" until it
disclosed their worth"”though how the initiative's organizers could
control media discussions or calculate their monetary value remained
unclear. The complaint also socked NNGT with civil penalties,
attorneys' fees and costs, and other damages...

The real target of the suit was clearly Wilbur and Carlson, or, more
accurately, their corporate employer, Fisher Communications. If NNGT received the "contributions," that meant Fisher had sent
them by broadcasting Wilbur's and Carlson's support for the initiative.
Washington law limits contributions in the last three weeks of a
political campaign to $5,000. Depending on how one measured the dollar
worth of on-air "contributions," Fisher could thus face big fines and
criminal sanctions if it let Wilbur and Carlson keep talking about the
gas tax. "Thankfully, Fisher assured us that we could keep
talking about the subject on the air, and we did," Wilbur says. The
judge ruled in favor of the pro-tax pols, though he finessed the $5,000
limitation problem by ruling only on the "contributions" that occurred
prior to the campaign's last three weeks.

I find this offensive.  And expect similar "in-kind" donation logic to be coming to a blog near you.  And while Democrats may short-sightedly cheer as long as this logic is applied against conservative talk radio, this "in-kind" logic is a Pandora's Box that will be very hard to close.  For example, lets say my wife's reading club organizes 200 women to go out to a 3-hour rally to support Hillary Clinton.  In doing so, the club just mobilized 600 "man"-hours for Ms. Clinton, which at $10 an hour, which is a low value for a professional person's time, is worth $6000.  Have they violated the law?  Or, lets say a lawyer who normally bills $300 an hour spends all day Saturday and Sunday marching in a rally for George Bush.  Is he over the limit?

We are in the absolutely terrifying and historically unprecedented position of having had Congress pass a law that no citizen (except a few media people and a few government licensed political groups) can criticize a member of Congress by name within 60 days of an election.  And the Supreme Court signed off on this travesty!

"Sin" Taxes Put Perverse Incentives on Government

The government has found over time that it is able to sell higher taxes to the voters on certain items if they can portray those items as representing some socially unwanted behavior. These are often called "sin" taxes. The justification for the tax in its beginning is as much about behavior control as revenue generation.  Taxes on cigarettes, alcoholic beverages and even gasoline and plastic grocery bags have all been justified in part by the logic that higher taxes will reduce consumption.

However, a funny thing happens on the way to the treasury.  Over time, government becomes dependent on the revenue from these taxes.  The government begins to suffer when the taxes have their original effect -- ie reducing consumption -- because then tax revenues drop.  The government ultimately finds itself in the odd position of resisting consumption drops or restructuring the tax so it no longer incentivizes reduced consumption so that it can protect its tax revenue collections.

Cigarettes are a great example.  In this article, via overlawyered, from Forbes (simple registration required):

Big tobacco was supposed to come under harsh punishment for decades of deception when it acceded to a tort settlement seven years ago. Philip Morris, R.J.Reynolds, Lorillard and Brown & Williamson agreed to pay 46 states $206 billion over 25 years. This was their punishment for burying evidence of cigarettes' health risks.

But the much-maligned tobacco giants have subtly and shrewdly turned their penance into a windfall. Using that tort settlement, the big brands have hampered tiny cut-rate rivals and raised prices with near impunity. Since the case was settled, the big four have nearly doubled wholesale cigarette prices from a national average of $1.25 a pack (not counting excise taxes) in 1998 to $2.10 now. And they have a potent partner in this scheme: state governments, which have become addicted to tort-settlement payments, now running at $6 billion a year. A key feature of the Big Tobacco-and-state-government cartel: rules that levy tort-settlement costs on upstart cigarette companies, companies that were not even in existence when the tort was being committed.

So, a tax that was originally meant to punish supposed past wrong doing by cigarette makers is causing problems because it was... actually doing what it was supposed to by hurting those companies.  Lots of good stuff, I encourage you to read it all - basically state governments have gone from opponents of the cigarette companies to their partners.  Antarctic Liberation Front opponent Eliot Spitzer comes in for particular attention.

A second example I discussed comes from San Francisco, where a tax aimed at discouraging use of plastic garbage bags was modified so that it collected more money, but no longer discouraged use of plastic.

A third example comes to us via Vodka Pundit, which points out that California now is considering supplementing their gas tax with a per-vehicle-mile tax.  The gas tax was always effectively a per-vehicle-mile tax, since the amount of gas you used was proportional to the number of miles you drove.  And, of course, the gas tax is far easier to manage than a per-vehicle-mile tax (yes, coming soon, its the odometer auditors!)

So why a need for the new tax?  Well, it turns out that Californians are buying a lot of very fuel-efficient cars, including new hybrids, which reduces gas consumption and thus taxes.  Of course, this is EXACTLY what most people hope the gas tax is doing - helping to conserve gasoline and reduce emissions and incentivizing people to purchase efficient vehicles.  Now California is considering substituting a new tax that collects more money but provides no conservation incentives.

UPDATE:  Welcome Carnival of the Vanities!  If you're looking to kill more time at work today, check out my rant on the recent New London eminent domain case in front of the Supreme Court titled "all your base are belong to us".