Archive for the ‘Environmentalism’ Category

I don’t have strong views on global warming. Or climate change, or whatever it’s being called today.

But I’ve generally been skeptical about government action for the simple reason that the people making the most noise are statists who would use any excuse to increase the size and power of government. To be blunt, I simply don’t trust them. In Washington, they’re called watermelons – green on the outside (identifying as environmentalists) but red on the inside (pushing a statist agenda).

But there are some sensible people who think some sort of government involvement is necessary and appropriate.

George Schultz and James Baker, two former Secretaries of State, argue for a new carbon tax in a Wall Street Journal column as part of an agenda that also makes changes to regulation and government spending.

…there is mounting evidence of problems with the atmosphere that are growing too compelling to ignore. …The responsible and conservative response should be to take out an insurance policy. Doing so need not rely on heavy-handed, growth-inhibiting government regulations. Instead, a climate solution should be based on a sound economic analysis that embodies the conservative principles of free markets and limited government. We suggest…creating a gradually increasing carbon tax…, returning the tax proceeds to the American people in the form of dividends. And…rolling back government regulations once such a system is in place.

A multi-author column in the New York Times, including Professors Greg Mankiw and Martin Feldstein from Harvard, also puts for the argument for this plan.

On-again-off-again regulation is a poor way to protect the environment. And by creating needless uncertainty for businesses that are planning long-term capital investments, it is also a poor way to promote robust economic growth. By contrast, an ideal climate policy would reduce carbon emissions, limit regulatory intrusion, promote economic growth, help working-class Americans and prove durable when the political winds change. …Our plan is…the federal government would impose a gradually increasing tax on carbon dioxide emissions. It might begin at $40 per ton and increase steadily. This tax would send a powerful signal to businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprints. …the proceeds would be returned to the American people on an equal basis via quarterly dividend checks. With a carbon tax of $40 per ton, a family of four would receive about $2,000 in the first year. As the tax rate rose over time to further reduce emissions, so would the dividend payments. …regulations made unnecessary by the carbon tax would be eliminated, including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

They perceive this plan as being very popular.

Environmentalists should like the long-overdue commitment to carbon pricing. Growth advocates should embrace the reduced regulation and increased policy certainty, which would encourage long-term investments, especially in clean technologies. Libertarians should applaud a plan premised on getting the incentives right and government out of the way.

I hate to be the skunk at the party, but I’m a libertarian and I’m not applauding. I explain some of my concerns about the general concept in this interview.

In the plus column, there would be a tax cut and a regulatory rollback. In the minus column, there would be a new tax. So two good ideas and one bad idea, right? Sounds like a good deal in theory, even if you can’t trust politicians in the real world.

However, the plan that’s being promoted by Schultz, Baker, Feldstein, Mankiw, etc, doesn’t have two good ideas and one bad idea. They have the good regulatory reduction and the bad carbon tax, but instead of using the revenue to finance a good tax cut such as eliminating the capital gains tax or getting rid of the corporate income tax, they want to create universal handouts.

They want us to believe that this money, starting at $2,000 for a family of four, would be akin to some sort of tax rebate.

That’s utter nonsense, if not outright prevarication. This is a new redistribution program. Sort of like the “basic income” scheme being promoted by some folks.

And it creates a very worrisome dynamic since people will have an incentive to support ever-higher carbon taxes in order to get ever-larger checks from the government. Heck, the plan being pushed explicitly envisions such an outcome.

I’ve made the economic argument against carbon taxes and the cronyism argument against carbon taxes. Now that we have a real-world proposal, we have the practical argument against carbon taxes.

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I will always have fond feelings for Playboy, though not for the stereotypical reason.

My appreciation for the magazine is largely based on the fact that I got a very nice honorarium from the German version back in the 1990s for writing an assessment of Bill Clinton’s likely approach to economic policy (confession: he turned out to be much better than I predicted).

Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten almost all of the German I learned in high school, so I can’t read the translated version of the article that appeared in the magazine.

Now Playboy has done something else that I appreciate, putting together a very clever matrix showing what Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens think about various policy issues.

It’s obviously satire, but it’s very clever and effective because it does a good job of capturing stereotypes from each group (just like this poster showing 24 types of libertarians).

As you can see, the “libertarian chicken” obviously provided the answers for the third column.

In addition to mind-your-own-business Libertarians, Playboy gives us abortion-über-alles Democrats, elitist Republicans, and fuzzy-headed Greens. A bit of truth in all those caricatures.

So kudos to them for mocking all parties equally. Comedy Central probably wouldn’t be losing so many viewers if it also took this even-handed approach.

P.S. If you like libertarian-oriented humor (both pro and con), then click here and here.

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I’ve previously argued that private property rights are a vital component of a pro-environment agenda.

Interestingly, the Washington Post sort of agrees. At least with regards to fisheries. In a recent editorial, it acknowledged that the current communal system doesn’t work.

The world’s fisheries, which feed billions of people, are in serious decline. The authors of a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined 4,713 fisheries, accounting for 78 percent of the world’s annual catch, and found that only a third were in decent biological shape.

The editorial then points out that there’s an incentive to over-harvest because the oceans are communal property, which creates a “tragedy-of-the-commons” scenario.

…while the fishing industry as a whole has an interest in sustaining the fisheries that provide it profits and feed the world, individual fishermen have an incentive to take as much as they can as quickly as they can. Over time, they degrade the fisheries on which they rely, but if they want to stay in business, they have little choice.

And the editorial concludes that giving fishermen the property right to a “catch share” would create better incentives.

…governments have extremely effective policy options to eliminate this tragedy of the commons. …governments must give fishermen a stake in the overall health of their fisheries. …require fishermen to hold rights to catch a certain amount of seafood in a certain fishery, which allows governments to manage the total haul and reduces the frenzied competition to scoop up as much as possible as quickly as possible. Ideally, these “catch shares” could be bought and sold so that rights would end up with those who could fish most efficiently.

Some of the language in the editorial rubs me the wrong way, such as “require fishermen” and “allows governments to manage,” but the bottom line is that the new system would be much more akin to a genuine market based on property rights.

To understand, consider the following example. Imagine there’s a communally owned pasture and a bunch of sheep owners. Would there be any incentive for the individual shepherds to properly conserve and manage the pasture? Not really, because any grass that wasn’t eaten by their sheep would be eaten by another shepherd’s sheep. So you wind up with a system where all the shepherds have an incentive to have their sheep consume as much grass as possible as quickly as possible.

That doesn’t end well.

But what if the pasture was divided up so that each shepherd had a plot of land, along with the right to buy and sell that land? With that system, the incentive to practice good husbandry would radically change.

And that’s basically what happens when you create a property rights-based fisheries system.

And the Washington Post believes this kind of approach could be enormously beneficial.

If applied globally, modern management plans could rehabilitate the median fishery in less than a decade. By 2050, nearly every fishery on the planet would be healthy. The resulting benefits would be astonishing. Relative to business as usual, the refreshed catch would grow by an annual 16 million metric tons, and seafood stocks would rise by 619 million metric tons. Fishermen would see an annual $53 billion rise in profit, a jump of 64 percent. The world’s fisheries could feed more people, and the fishing industry could boom, too.

Wow, this is so effusive that it sounds like me describing the benefits of a flat tax.

But just like I rely on real-world evidence for my praise of the flat tax, there’s also real-world evidence for successful fisheries based on property rights.

Consider, for instance, the experience of New Zealand.

By the early 1980s, with dwindling inshore stocks and too many boats, the New Zealand fishing industry and the government realised that a new fisheries management system was needed. Measures such as moratoriums and controlled fisheries failed to work. The common warning that ‘too many boats are chasing too few fish’ was rephrased by one fisherman as, ‘too many boats chasing no fish’. Radical thinking emerged. …In October 1986, after two years of consultation and planning, the Quota Management System was introduced, with widespread industry support. …Under the quota system a sustainable total catch or harvest of fish was set. Individuals or companies were allocated the right to catch certain quantities of particular species. Quotas became like other forms of property – they could be leased, bought, sold or transferred.

And how has this system worked?

It’s been a big success.

New Zealand’s Quota Management System has been viewed internationally as successful. This is particularly in comparison with many of the world’s fisheries… New Zealand has (so far) largely avoided the significant stock collapses that have occurred in fisheries overseas. In the early 2000s the Ministry of Fisheries had records on the status of 60–70% of stocks. Of these, about 80% were at or near target levels for sustainable harvest, and the total allowable catch for some fish had even increased.

The Economist, meanwhile, has written about Iceland’s system.

Central to its policy are the individual transferable quotas given to each fishing boat for each species on the basis of her average catch of that fish over a three-year period. …Subject to certain conditions, quotas can be traded among boats. Bycatch must not be discarded. Instead it must be landed and recorded as part of that boat’s quota. If she has exhausted her quota, she must buy one from another boat… All quota changes, catches and landings are posted on the internet, enabling everybody to see what is going on. The idea is to let fishermen be guided by the market. …Iceland no longer suffers from overcapacity, and the catch per boat is increasing. …Iceland offers lessons for other countries. The essential elements of its policies are to give fishermen rights that offer a reasonable expectation of profitable long-term fishing by encouraging the conservation of stocks. The system is clear, open and fairly simple, and it is well policed. It thus enjoys the respect of fishermen.

And the contrast to the command-and-control system used by the European Union is dramatic.

This contrasts with the common fisheries policy of the EU… For years, the union has simultaneously discouraged and promoted fishing, even as stocks have declined. Overfishing has intensified and the overcapacity of the fleet a few years ago rose to the point where the number of boats was almost twice the number needed for a sustainable harvest. The EU has offered inducements to those who gave up fishing even as it provided subsidies… The EU’s fisheries policy has long been notorious for its destructiveness, epitomised by the practice it either mandates or encourages of chucking back dead fish that are not big enough or not valuable enough, or just the wrong sort. …No wonder the EU’s stocks are 88% overfished, as the European Commission itself now admits. …No minister is present to represent the taxpayer, the consumer or the environment, let alone the fish.

The key, everywhere in the world, is a system of property rights.

Europe could surely learn from Iceland, but how widely could Iceland’s policies be copied? …The solution for Europe, and for other places, lies in a policy with Icelandic features: transferable quotas for all commercial species… Property rights are nearly always crucial in this. The tragedy of the sea is the tragedy of the commons, which is that anyone with access to a common resource has an interest in over-exploiting it because if he does not, someone else will. …Most fish…live fairly close to land, which is where they can, if the political determination exists, be assigned to the ownership of people with an interest in both exploiting and preserving them for a very long time, if not eternity. That this is so has been shown by Christopher Costello, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues, in a study of over 11,000 fisheries. In the 121 with ownership-share systems, he reported in Science last September, the rates of collapse were significantly lower than in the others.

Having “rates of collapse” suggests that the property rights-based systems don’t always work perfectly. But that fact that those rates are “significantly lower” also indicates that they are far more effective than communal fisheries in preserving fish stocks.

P.S. There’s a worrisome analogy between communal fisheries and the welfare state since both involve a tragedy of the commons. In the case of the welfare state, when too many people decide to rely on the “communal property” of government for their existence, this creates a “tipping point” because productive people at some point are either unable or unwilling to continue pulling the wagon.

P.P.S. This is a lesson that the Pilgrims learned very quickly.

P.P.P.S. Unfortunately, larger societies have a tendency to develop “goldfish governments.”

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Remember the cluster-you-know-what in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina? Corrupt and incompetent politicians in both the city and at the state level acted passively, assuming that Uncle Sam somehow should be responsible for dealing with the storm.

And we’ve seen similar behavior from other state and local politicians before, during, and after other natural disasters.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that the federal government shouldn’t have any responsibility for dealing with natural disasters. All that does it create a wasteful layer of bureaucracy, while also inculcating a sense of learned helplessness on the part of state and local officials who should be responsible for dealing with storms and other local crises.

In other words, the answer is federalism. State and local governments should be solely responsible for state and local issues.

But not just because of some abstract principle. There’s a very strong practical argument that you get more sensible decisions when the public sector is limited (as Mark Steyn humorously explained) and there is clear responsibility and accountability at various levels of government.

And this is why the biggest lesson from the scandal of tainted water in Flint, Michigan, is that local politicians and bureaucrats should not be able to shift the blame either to the state or federal government. Which was my main point in this interview.

To be sure, it is outrageous that state and federal bureaucrats knew about the problem and didn’t make it public, so I surely don’t object to officials in Lansing and Washington getting fired.

But I do object to the political finger pointing, with Democrats trying to blame the Republican Governor and Republicans trying to blame the Democratic President.

Nope, the problem is an incompetent local government that failed to fulfill a core responsibility.

The Wall Street Journal has the same perspective, opining that the mess in Flint is a failure of government.

…the real Flint story is a cascade of government failure, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

More specifically (and as I noted in the interview), we have a local government that became a fiefdom for a self-serving bureaucracy that was more concerned with its privileged status than in providing core government services.

…after decades of misrule: More than 40% of residents live in poverty; the population has fallen by half since the 1960s to about 100,000. Bloated pensions and retiree health care gobble up about 33 cents of every dollar in the general fund.

And the WSJ editorial also castigated the state and federal bureaucrats that wrote memos rather than warning citizens.

MDEQ and the EPA were chatting about Flint’s system as early as February. MDEQ said it wanted to test the water more before deciding on corrosion controls, though it isn’t clear that federal law allows this. …the region’s top EPA official, political appointee Susan Hedman, responded… “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City.” She also noted over email that it’s “a preliminary draft” and it’d be “premature to draw any conclusions.” The EPA did not notify the public.

The lesson is that adding state and federal bureaucracy impedes effective and competent local government.

The broader lesson is that ladling on layers of bureaucracy doesn’t result in better oversight and safety. It sometimes lets agencies shirk responsibility for the basic public services like clean water that government is responsible for providing.

Here’s the bottom line.

Federalism is about getting better government by creating clear lines of responsibility and accountability in an environment that allows state and local governments to learn from each other on best practices.

The current system blurs responsibility and accountability, by contrast, while also imposing needless expense and bureaucracy. And we get Katrina and Flint with this dysfunctional approach.

So whether it’s Medicaid, education, transportation, welfare, or disasters, involvement from Washington makes things worse rather than better.

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When I first read about armed protesters taking over a federal building in Oregon, I thought some nutjobs were about to cause some real trouble. Was this a right-wing version of the loons from the Occupy Wall Street movement, only with guns?

Then I learned that the “federal building” was nothing more than a remote and unoccupied structure in a wildlife refuge, making this story a molehill rather than a mountain.

Now I’m learning that the ostensible nutjobs have some very genuine grievances, specifically about the way the Hammond family has been viciously mistreated by the federal government.

David French, an attorney and veteran, has a column in National Review that looks at why folks in Oregon are upset with Washington.

…what if they’re right? What if the government viciously and unjustly prosecuted a rancher family so as to drive them from their land? Then protest, including civil disobedience, would be not just understandable but moral, and maybe even necessary. …Read the court documents in the case that triggered the protest… What emerges is a picture of a federal agency that will use any means necessary, including abusing federal anti-terrorism statutes, to increase government landholdings.

Here’s his summary of the situation.

The story…begins…with the creation and expansion of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a tract of federal land…The federal government has since expanded…in part by buying adjacent private land. Protesters allege that when private landowners refused to sell, the federal government got aggressive, diverting water during the 1980s into the “rising Malheur lakes.” Eventually, the lakes flooded “homes, corrals, barns, and graze-land.” Ranchers who were “broke and destroyed” then “begged” the government to buy their “useless ranches.” …the Hammonds were among the few private landowners who remained adjacent to the Refuge. …the government then began a campaign of harassment designed to force the family to sell its land, a beginning with barricaded roads and arbitrarily revoked grazing permits and culminating in an absurd anti-terrorism prosecution based largely on two “arsons” that began on private land but spread to the Refuge.

Arson sounds serious, but French explains that it’s not what city folks assume when they hear that word.

While “arsons” might sound suspicious to urban ears, anyone familiar with land management…knows that land must sometime be burned to stop the spread of invasive species and prevent or fight destructive wildfires. Indeed, the federal government frequently starts its own fires.

Here’s the part that’s most disturbing. David explains how the federal government used a sledgehammer to go after a fly.

In 2010 — almost nine years after the 2001 burn — the government filed a 19-count indictment against the Hammonds that included charges under the Federal Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act…the Hammonds and the prosecution reached a plea agreement in which the Hammonds agreed to waive their appeal rights and accept the jury’s verdict. It was their understanding that the plea agreement would end the case. At sentencing, the trial court refused to apply the mandatory-minimum sentence, holding that five years in prison would be “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses”… The federal government, however, was not content to let the matter rest. Despite the absence of any meaningful damage to federal land, the U.S. Attorney appealed the trial judge’s sentencing decision… the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals…ruled against… The Hammonds were ordered back to prison.

And here’s his bottom line.

There’s a clear argument that the government engaged in an overzealous, vindictive prosecution here. By no stretch of the imagination were the Hammonds terrorists, yet they were prosecuted under an anti-terrorism statute. …To the outside observer, it appears the government has attempted to crush private homeowners and destroy their livelihood in a quest for even more land. If that’s the case, civil disobedience is a valuable course of action. …I sympathize with the ranchers’ fury, and I’m moved by the Hammonds’ plight. …now they’re off to prison once again — not because they had to go or because they harmed any other person but because the federal government has pursued them like a pack of wolves.

I would have said a pack of hyenas, but that’s a rhetorical difference.

What matters is that the federal government has behaved reprehensibly.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about the standoff, citing the federal government’s brutish efforts to grab private land.

…armed occupation of federal buildings is inexcusable, but so are federal land-management abuses and prosecutorial overreach. …The drama is bringing attention to legitimate grievances, especially the appalling federal treatment of the Hammond family. …The government has…been on a voracious land-and-water grab, coercing the area’s once-thriving ranchers to sell. The feds have revoked dozens of grazing permits and raised the price of the few it issues. It has mismanaged the area’s water, allowing ranchlands to flood. It has harassed landowners with regulatory actions that raise the cost of ranching, then has bought out private landowners to more than double the refuge’s size. …Many in rural Oregon view this as a government vendetta. …The ideology of “national” land has become the club to punish private landowners who are the best source of economic stability and conservation. The Bundy occupation of federal land can’t be tolerated, but the growing Western opposition to government harassment of private landowners ought to be a source of political concern.


By the way, this doesn’t mean that the protesters automatically are right about being victimized. Yes, in some cases, federal bureaucrats are grossly mistreating folks. But in other cases, ranchers may be fleecing taxpayers because of implicit subsidies for things like grazing rights on federal land and water rights.

Moreover, according to CNN, the Bundy family (which is leading the sit-in at the wildlife refuge) has no problem mooching off taxpayers.

Ammon Bundy, a leader of the armed protesters who took over a federal building in Oregon, and his family are…not opposed to government and said that taking a six-figure loan from the Small Business Administration doesn’t conflict with his political philosophy.

But even if there are no pure good guys in this story, there is a pure solution.

And that’s to shrink the federal government’s ownership of land. As you can see from this Wikipedia map, Uncle Sam owns most of the land in America’s western states.

This makes no sense. It means potentially valuable land is locked up, which undermines the economy’s growth and efficiency.

Why not auction up a huge portion of that land so it’s in private hands where there will be proper incentives for wise stewardship (including conservation)?

And if politicians decide that some of the land should be set aside for parks, that should be the result of open and honest deliberation. Just as decisions to obtain private land (for genuine public purposes, not Kelo-style cronyism) should be legitimate and include proper compensation.

P.S. This story reminds me that I need to create a special page for “Victims of Government Thuggery” to augment the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame and Moocher Hall of Fame.

The Hammonds would be charter members.

It would also include people like Andy Johnson, Anthony Smelley, Charlie Engle, Tammy Cooper, Nancy Black, Russ Caswell, Jacques Wajsfelner, Jeff Councelller, Eric Garner, Martha Boneta, Carole Hinders, Salvatore Culosi, and James Lieto, as well as the Sierra Pacific Company and the entire Meitev family.

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Since it’s basically a way of protecting property rights, environmental protection is a legitimate function of government.

That’s the easy part. It gets a lot harder when calculating costs and benefits.

Everyone surely agrees that a chemical company shouldn’t be able to dump toxic waste in a town’s reservoir because the costs would out-weigh the benefits. And presumably everyone also would concur that banning private automobiles would be crazy because this would be another example of costs being greater than benefits.

But there’s a lot of stuff in between those extreme examples where agreement is elusive.

And I’ll admit my bias. I don’t trust the modern environmental movement, particularly the climate alarmists. There are just too many cases where green advocates act like their real goal is statism.

Moreover, the hypocrisy of some environmental dilettantes is downright staggering.

And they also seem to be waging a regulatory war on modern life.

I’m giving all this background to create context for an article I want to discuss.

John Tierney, a columnist for the New York Times. has a piece that debunks recycling. He starts by looking back 20 years.

As you sort everything into the right bins, you probably assume that recycling is helping your community and protecting the environment. But is it? Are you in fact wasting your time? In 1996, …I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that…the modern recycling movement had really just begun just a few years earlier, they predicted it would flourish as the industry matured and the public learned how to recycle properly.

So what’s happened over the years? Has recycling become more feasible and rational?

Not exactly. From a cost-benefit perspective, it’s a scam. It simply doesn’t make sense.

…when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all. Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. …the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years. …The future for recycling looks even worse. As cities move beyond recycling paper and metals, and into glass, food scraps and assorted plastics, the costs rise sharply while the environmental benefits decline and sometimes vanish. …“Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected…”

Tierney specifically addresses the issue of greenhouse gasses.

…well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits. …Here’s some perspective: To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. …if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere.

A traditional argument for mandated recycling is that landfill space is vanishing.

But that’s always been bunk.

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. And that tiny amount of land wouldn’t be lost forever, because landfills are typically covered with grass and converted to parkland… Though most cities shun landfills, they have been welcomed in rural communities that reap large economic benefits (and have plenty of greenery to buffer residents from the sights and smells).

Moreover, incinerators are another practical option.

Modern incinerators, while politically unpopular in the United States, release so few pollutants that they’ve been widely accepted in the eco-conscious countries of Northern Europe and Japan for generating clean energy.

The bottom line is that recycling is an expensive feel-good gesture by guilt-ridden rich people.

In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year — about half the budget of the parks department — that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions. …why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it? Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint.

I don’t have a strong opinion on whether rich people should feel guilty about their resource consumption.

But I definitely get agitated when they try to atone for their guilt by foisting costly and ineffective policies on other people.

P.S. That’s why I consider myself to be pro-environment while also being a skeptic of environmentalists. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

P.P.S. Some environmental policies lead to disgusting examples of government thuggery (some of which, fortunately, are not successful).

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When the International Monetary Fund endorsed a giant energy tax on the American economy, I was not happy.

And not just because the tax hike would have been more than $5,000 for an average family of four. I also was agitated by the hypocrisy.

…these bureaucrats get extremely generous tax-free salaries, yet they apparently don’t see any hypocrisy in recommending huge tax increases for the peasantry.

And when the similarly un-taxed bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development added their support for a big tax hike on energy, I was irked for that reason, and also because they wanted to use much of the money to make government bigger.

…the OECD is basically saying is that an energy tax will be very painful for the poor. But rather than conclude that the tax is therefore undesirable, they instead are urging that the new tax be accompanied by new spending.

Moreover, I also criticized Barack Obama’s former top economist for endorsing a big energy tax.

So does this mean I’m against energy taxation? The answer is yes, but with a big caveat. I want the government to collect tax (hopefully a small amount because we have a small government) in the way that does the least amount of damage to the American economy.

So while my instinct is to oppose any proposed tax, I’m theoretically open to the notion that we can make the tax system less destructive by replacing very bad taxes with taxes that aren’t as bad.

And that’s what some pro-market economists want to do with an energy tax. Here’s some of what Greg Mankiw wrote for the New York Times.

Policy wonks like me have long argued that the best way to curb carbon emissions is to put a price on carbon. The cap-and-trade system President Obama advocates is one way to do that. A more direct and less bureaucratic way is to tax carbon. When polled, economists overwhelmingly support the idea. …It encourages people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, form car pools with their neighbors, use more public transportation, live closer to work and turn down their thermostats. A regulatory system that tried to achieve all this would be heavy-handed and less effective.

In other words, Mankiw argues that not only could the revenue be used to finance equal-sized tax cuts, but the carbon tax would end any need for destructive regulations.

Which creates a win-win scenario, he argues, citing British Columbia as an example.

Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina, heads the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University A recent winner of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, which is given to public officials, he has been pushing for climate change solutions that are consistent with free enterprise and limited government. Environmentalists in the United States would do well to look north at the successes achieved in a Canadian province. In 2008, British Columbia introduced a revenue-neutral carbon tax similar to that being proposed for Washington. The results of the policy have been what advocates promised. The use of fossil fuels in British Columbia has fallen compared with the rest of Canada. But economic growth has not suffered.

Professor Mankiw makes some reasonable points, but now let’s get the other side.

Three of my colleagues at the Cato Institute have just produced a working paper on carbon taxation. They directly address the claims of pro-market advocates of energy taxation.

Within conservative and libertarian circles, a small but vocal group of academics, analysts, and political officials are claiming that a revenue‐neutral carbon tax swap could even deliver a “double dividend”—meaning that the conventional economy would be spurred in addition to any climate benefits. The present study details several serious problems with these claims.

Much of the debate revolves around scientific issues such as the potential long-run harm of carbon emissions.

In the policy debate over carbon taxes, a key concept is the “social cost of carbon,” which is defined as the (present value of) future damages caused by emitting an additional ton of carbon dioxide. …the computer simulations used to generate SCC estimates are largely arbitrary, with plausible adjustments in parameters—such as the discount rate—causing the estimate to shift by at least an order of magnitude. Indeed, MIT economist Robert Pindyck considers the whole process so fraught with unwarranted precision that he has called such computer simulations “close to useless” for guiding policy.

Models about climate change also play a big role.

Additionally, we show some rather stark evidence that the family of models used by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are experiencing a profound failure that greatly reduces their forecast utility.

As well as the use of cost-benefit analysis.

…the U.N.’s own report shows that aggressive emission cutbacks—even if achieved through an “efficient” carbon tax—would probably cause more harm than good.

I’m not overly competent to discuss the issues listed above.

But the debate also revolves around what happens with the revenue generated by a carbon tax. For instance, is it used to lower other taxes? Or does it get diverted to fund bigger government?

The Cato authors argue that carbon taxes can be just as damaging – and maybe even more damaging – than existing taxes on labor and capital. And they also fear that revenues from a carbon tax would be used to increase the burden of government spending.

…carbon taxes cause more economic damage than generic taxes on labor or capital, so that in general even a revenue‐ neutral carbon tax swap will probably reduce conventional GDP growth. (The driver of this result is that carbon taxes fall on narrower segments of the economy, and thus to raise a given amount of revenue require a higher tax rate.) Furthermore, in the real world at least some of the new carbon tax receipts would probably be devoted to higher spending (on “green investments”) and lump‐sum transfers to poorer citizens to help offset the impact of higher energy prices. Thus in practice the economic drag of a new carbon tax could be far worse than the idealized revenue‐ neutral simulations depict.

I have mixed feelings about the above passages.

On a per-dollar-raised basis, my gut instinct is that a carbon tax does less damage than revenue sources such as the corporate income tax. So you theoretically would get more growth with a revenue-neutral swap.

But my colleagues are probably right that a carbon tax is more damaging than other taxes, such as the payroll tax (which, after all, is a comparatively less-destructive flat tax on labor income).

Indeed, this is what we see in some of the evidence they cite in their study. You only get better economic performance if carbon tax revenue is used to lower the tax burden on capital.

In any event, the most persuasive argument against the carbon tax is that a big chunk of the new revenue would probably be used to make government even bigger. And this is why I argued back in June that supporters of limited government should reject the siren song of carbon taxation.

Last but not least, I should point out that the evidence from British Columbia is not very persuasive according to the authors of the Cato study.

…in British Columbia—touted as the world’s finest example of a carbon tax—the experience has been underwhelming. After an initial (but temporary) drop, the B.C. carbon tax has not yielded significant reductions in gasoline purchases, and it has arguably reduced the B.C. economy’s performance relative to the rest of Canada.

Now we’re back in an area where I’m unable to provide helpful commentary. Other than a one-time analysis of fiscal policy in Alberta, I’ve never delved into the economic performance and competitiveness of Canadian provinces, so I’ll resist the temptation to make any sweeping statements.

Returning to the big issue, my bottom line is that a carbon tax might be a worthwhile endeavor if Professor Mankiw somehow became economic czar and was allowed to impose policies that never could be altered.

In that scenario, I have confidence that we would get a pro-growth revenue-neutral swap. Which means the negative impact of a carbon tax would be more than offset by the pro-growth effect of eliminating or permanently reducing other taxes.

Unfortunately, we don’t have this scenario in the real world. Instead, I fear that well-meaning proponents of a carbon tax are unwittingly delivering a new source of revenue to a political class in Washington that wants to finance bigger government.

P.S. This is the same reason why I’m so strongly opposed to the value-added tax even though it theoretically doesn’t do as much damage – per dollar collected – as our onerous income tax. Simply stated, I don’t trust politicians to behave honorably if they get a new source of revenue.

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