Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some Frank Talk About Carbon Taxes

Good that Robert Frank wants to put climate change back on the agenda and points to the necessity of pricing carbon.  No matter which way the political winds are blowing, this problem is too important to ignore.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t help that mainstream economists keep getting this issue wrong.  They reinforce assumptions that dealing with carbon will dramatically lower the living standards of ordinary people, and they play into the kinds of political stereotypes that have stymied progress for two decades.
The good news is that we could insulate ourselves from catastrophic risk at relatively modest cost by enacting a steep carbon tax.
Presenting the necessary policy as a carbon tax makes the job nearly impossible right from the start.  Why lead with the promise/threat to tax people?  Pricing carbon is only a means, not an end.  The logical way to begin is to call for a system of carbon permits, just like we have hunting and fishing permits so that elk and trout aren’t harvested to extinction.  Auction off the permits and you put a price on carbon, but the means-end distinction remains transparent.  For one thing, you discuss tightening or loosening a permit system in terms of how many permits you want to issue, not on cost.  Our carbon policy should be calibrated in terms of the atmospheric carbon concentration we are targeting, not on how much revenue should be collected from a carbon tax.

Aside from its political virtues, a permit system has technical advantages that I discussed in a previous post.
A carbon tax would also serve....other goals. First, it would help balance future budgets. Tens of millions of Americans are set to retire in the next decades, and, as a result, many budget experts agree that federal budgets simply can’t be balanced with spending cuts alone. We’ll also need substantial additional revenue, most of which could be generated by a carbon tax.
Using carbon revenues to reduce income taxes is a terrible idea that hammers low and middle income people.  A price on carbon functions like a consumption tax and is regressive.  Using it to offset even mildly progressive income taxes is just one more way to bring about upward redistribution.  We’ve got enough of that already.  If you return the money as an equal rebate to all citizens, you’ve got downward redistribution.  What is most interesting from my point of view is that the issue of distribution doesn’t seem to matter to Frank at all; at least he never brings it up in this op-ed piece.

Incidentally, because a carbon tax is a consumption tax imposed on a very small subset of goods (essentially fossil fuels as consumed directly and indirectly), it is highly volatile compared to revenue from a tax on all the income we receive, regardless of how we spend or don’t spend it.
High unemployment persists in part because businesses, sitting on mountains of cash, aren’t investing it because their current capacity already lets them produce more than people want to buy. News that a carbon tax was coming would create a stampede to develop energy-saving technologies. Hundreds of billions of dollars of private investment might be unleashed without adding a cent to the budget deficit.
Yes, making fossil fuels more expensive will spur new investment in energy-saving technology.  But arguing that a radical change in relative prices is economically stimulative makes as much sense as saying that a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina is an economic blessing.  Destroy capital and there is demand for new capital, but common sense suggests that there is also a cost involved, perhaps much greater.  In the case of carbon, if large parts of the capital stock become uneconomic, the livelihoods of millions of people will be at stake.  When Bill McKibben points out that 80% of the fossil fuels now known to be recoverable under the ground has to stay there, it is clear that enormous, wrenching price adjustments are required.

Take the case of cars.  Getting to adequate carbon targets will mean not only much more efficient cars, but a lot less driving as well.  It will also mean less replacement of older cars, since as much of the carbon impact comes from production as operation.  This will be bad news for auto workers, auto-dependent communities and economies propped up by the employment and profits of the auto industry.  (Germany take note.)  Everyone knows this.  That is why there is great political resistance to taking the sort of forceful action we would need to limit global temperature increases to 2º C or so.

Pretending the problem doesn’t exist doesn’t help.  The only way to make progress politically is to recognize the issue and link action against climate change to other measures that can make the transition bearable.  Make economic commitments to workers and regions at risk.  Propose infusions of public investment sufficient to absorb those displaced by high fossil fuel prices.  Discuss these issues openly and forge alliances with unions and other organizations that represent those at risk.  Happy talk like Frank’s goes nowhere.

Economists have (or should have) expertise that helps address these issues.  The starting point is knowing that they exist.


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