"Raise Wages, Cut Carbon":

Conservative House members Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Inglis (R-SC), along with Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), have introduced an alternative to the cap-and-trade proposal developed by House Democrats: HR 2380, the "Raise Wages, Cut Carbon" Act of 2009. Their proposal is for a carbon tax that will gradually increase over time, offset by a reduction in payroll taxes. Here's Rep. Flake's explanation:

If there's one economic axiom, it's that if you want less of something, you tax it. Clearly, it's in our interest to move away from carbon. But if we're going to take the step of taxing carbon, that needs come with commensurate tax relief.

This legislation forces us to have an honest debate about protecting the environment, rather than simply raising more revenue for the federal government. Further, we shouldn't put ourselves in the position to decide what industries, whether it be nuclear or wind or solar, come out on top. Let's face it, government just isn't very good at making these choices.

You can be agnostic on the question of global warming and still recognize that, as a country, we need to move away from carbon. Republicans have articulately made the case that the U.S. needs to become energy independent, but the truth is that as long as we rely so heavily on fossil fuels, it's going to be awfully tough to get there from here.

I've been arguing that a revenue-neutral carbon tax is preferable to cap-and-trade for some time (see here and here). The real dealing has yet to begin, and already the House cap-and-trade bill is being watered down to accommodate corporate interests, and it will only get worse. I have no illusions about the likelihood of a "clean" carbon tax bill emerging from Congress, but I believe cap-and-trade is inherently more vulnerable to special interest manipulation -- a problem made worse since so few people understand what cap-and-trade means. As actually implemented, cap-and-trade is also less likely to spur the sort of innovation necessary to meet even less-ambitious climate targets, particularly if Congress insists on combining it with energy portfolio standards that constrain the market's ability to shift toward the most efficient means of emission reductions. So, in the case of carbon, it's time to consider a revenue-neutral tax.


Political Ignorance and the "Cap and Trade" Proposal:

As co-blogger Jonathan Adler points out, a recent Rassmussen survey shows that voters are incredibly ignorant about the Obama administration's proposal to fight global warming through a "cap and trade" program. The poll finds that only 24% of American adults understand that the plan has to do with "environmental issues"; 29% believe that it is a "Regulatory reform for Wall Street" and 17% answered that it is a type of "health care reform."

Obviously, knowing that cap and trade is an environmental policy proposal is only a bare minimum level of knowledge. One would need to know a lot more to really understand the pros and cons of the idea. For example, voters should have some understanding of how much it will really reduce global warming, what the economic costs will be, and how well the policy stacks up against alternatives such as a carbon tax. In addition, widespread public ignorance of even the most basic facts about cap and trade exacerbates the danger that the policy can be used as a tool for rent-seeking by narrow interest groups at the expense of the general public.

To avoid misunderstanding, I should note that I think that global warming is a genuine and serious problem (though I lack the scientific knowledge to know for sure). And I tend to agree with Jonathan that a carbon tax is preferable to cap and trade as a policy option for reducing warming. One of the advantages of a tax is that it's relatively easier for voters to understand.

Unfortunately, public ignorance about policy goes far beyond cap and trade. It extends to many other issues. As I have argued in various articles (e.g. here and here), political ignorance is actually rational behavior for most voters. But it is a serious problem for modern democracy, one that will only get worse as government continues to expand in size and complexity.

UPDATE: It's worth noting that we can't be sure that even the 24% really know that cap and trade is an environmental policy proposal. Some of the respondents who picked the right answer might have done so by random guessing. Survey researchers have shown that random guessing on surveys is actually quite common. For example, respondents will often express opinions about completely nonexistent bills made up by researchers rather than admit that they haven't heard of them.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Climate Policy as Sausage Making:
  2. Political Ignorance and the "Cap and Trade" Proposal:
  3. "Raise Wages, Cut Carbon":

Climate Policy as Sausage Making:

The NYT has an interesting article this morning on how cap-and-trade became the greenhouse gas emission-control strategy of choice.

How did cap and trade, hatched as an academic theory in obscure economic journals half a century ago, become the policy of choice in the debate over how to slow the heating of the planet? And how did it come to eclipse the idea of simply slapping a tax on energy consumption that befouls the public square or leaves the nation hostage to foreign oil producers?

The answer is not to be found in the study of economics or environmental science, but in the realm where most policy debates are ultimately settled: politics.

Many members of Congress remember the painful political lesson of 1993, when President Bill Clinton proposed a tax on all forms of energy, a plan that went down to defeat and helped take the Democratic majority in Congress down with it a year later.

Cap and trade, by contrast, is almost perfectly designed for the buying and selling of political support through the granting of valuable emissions permits to favor specific industries and even specific Congressional districts. That is precisely what is taking place now in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has used such concessions to patch together a Democratic majority to pass a far-reaching bill to regulate carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade plan.

Yet the same things that make cap-and-trade politically viable — the ability to buy off special interests — also makes it particularly vulnerable to rent-seeking and interest group manipulation. In politics this may be a feature, but for sound policy it is a bug. Rent seeking may grease the skids for a law's enactment (and help the sausage get made), it can also compromise the law's ultimate effectiveness (as Europe has discovered). And the more complex and comprehensive a cap-and-trade system becomes, the greater its vulnerabilities. The compromises in the House bill go beyond doling out free credits, and therein lies the larger policy risk. And insofar as cap-and-trade, in theory, can resemble a carbon tax — it's really a carbon tax plus corporate welfare.

Paul Krugman weighs whether the current House climate bill is "good enough" to merit liberal support. To some, a leaky cap-and-trade bill is still a major leap forward. In the short run, creating the regulatory architecture for carbon control is more important than precise emission limits. Yet Krugman goes farther, arguing that cap-and-trade would be superior to a carbon tax even if the latter were politically viable.

One objection — the claim that carbon taxes are better than cap and trade — is, in my view, just wrong. In principle, emission taxes and tradable emission permits are equally effective at limiting pollution. In practice, cap and trade has some major advantages, especially for achieving effective international cooperation.

Not to put too fine a point on it, think about how hard it would be to verify whether China was really implementing a promise to tax carbon emissions, as opposed to letting factory owners with the right connections off the hook. By contrast, it would be fairly easy to determine whether China was holding its total emissions below agreed-upon levels.

In my view, Krugman is just wrong. The idea that monitoring China's emission levels is "fairly easy" is, well, ludicrous. It's difficult to do in the United States and Europe — where annual emission inventories are regularly revised to incorporate new knowledge about emission sources and sinks — but Krugman thinks it will be "easy" to do in China?!? Even assuming we could monitor China's major industry, this does not account for all China's emissions. And if we're interested in monitoring net carbon impacts — and awarding offsets — the enterprise becomes vastly more complex. Measuring offsets would be tricky in the U.S., but impossible over there. In this regard, the relative simplicity of the carbon tax is a virtue, not a vice, even if it would be more difficult to enact. Add the fact that a carbon tax could be adopted without increasing the total tax burden on the economy, by offsetting it with reductions in other taxes, and I remain firmly in the carbon tax camp.