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Posts Tagged ‘Environmentalism’

I’m not a big fan of the International Monetary Fund for the simple reason that the international bureaucracy undermines global prosperity by pushing for higher taxes, while also exacerbating moral hazard by providing bailouts to rich investors who foolishly lend money to dodgy and corrupt governments.

Six years ago, I complained that the bureaucrats wanted a giant energy tax, which would have diverted more than $5,000 from an average family’s budget.

That didn’t go anywhere, but the IMF hasn’t given up. Indeed, they’re now floating a new proposal for an enormous global energy tax.

To give credit to the IMF, the bureaucrats don’t mince words or disguise their agenda. The openly stated goal is to impose a giant tax increase.

Domestic policies are thus needed to give people and businesses greater incentives (through pricing or other means) to reduce emissions…international cooperation is key to ensure that all countries do their part. …The shift from fossil fuels will not only transform economic production processes, it will also profoundly change the lives of many people and communities. …Carbon taxes—charges on the carbon content of fossil fuels—and similar arrangements to increase the price of carbon, are the single most powerful and efficient tool… Even so, the global average carbon price is $2 a ton… To illustrate the extra effort needed by each country…, three scenarios are considered, with tax rates of $25, $50, and $75 a ton of CO2 in 2030.

The IMF asserts that the tax should be $75 per ton. At least based on alarmist predictions about climate warming.

What would that mean?

Under carbon taxation on a scale needed…, the price of essential items in household budgets, such as electricity and gasoline, would rise considerably… With a $75 a ton carbon tax, coal prices would typically rise by more than 200 percent above baseline levels in 2030… The price of natural gas…would also rise significantly, by 70 percent on average…carbon taxes would undoubtedly add to the cost of living for all households… In most countries, one-third to one-half of the burden of increased energy prices on households comes indirectly through higher general prices for consumer products.

Here’s a table from the publication showing how various prices would increase.

The bureaucrats recognize that huge tax increases on energy will lead to opposition (remember the Yellow Vest protests in France?).

So the article proposes various ways of using the revenues from a carbon tax, in hopes of creating constituencies that will support the tax.

Here’s the table from the report that outlines the various options.

To be fair, the microeconomic analysis for the various options is reasonably sound.

And if the bureaucrats embraced a complete revenue swap, meaning no net increase in money for politicians, there might be a basis for compromise.

However, it seems clear that the IMF favors a big energy tax combined with universal handouts (i.e., something akin to a “basic income“).

A political consideration in favor of combining carbon taxation with equal dividends is that such an approach creates a large constituency in favor of enacting and keeping the plan (because about 40 percent of the population gains, and those gains rise if the carbon price increases over time).

And other supporters of carbon taxes also want to use the revenue to finance a bigger burden of government.

Last but not least, it’s worth noting that the IMF wants to get poor nations to participate in this scheme by offering more foreign aid. That may be good for the bank accounts of corrupt politicians, but it won’t be good news for those countries.

And rich nations would be threatened with protectionism.

Turning an international carbon price floor into reality would require agreement among participants…participation in the agreement among emerging market economies might be encouraged through side payments, technology transfers…nonparticipants could be coerced into joining the agreement through trade sanctions…or border carbon adjustments (levying charges on the unpriced carbon emissions embodied in imports from nonparticipant countries to match the domestic carbon tax).

I’m amused, by the way, that the IMF has a creative euphemism (“border carbon adjustments”) for protectionism. I’m surprised Trump doesn’t do something similar (perhaps “border wage adjustment”).

For what it’s worth, the bureaucracy criticized Trump for being a protectionist, but I guess trade taxes are okay when the IMF proposes them.

But let’s not digress. The bottom line is that a massive global energy tax is bad news, particularly since politicians will use the windfall to expand the burden of government.

P.S. Proponents sometimes claim that a carbon tax is a neutral and non-destructive form of tax. That’s inaccurate. Such levies may not do as much damage as income taxes, on a per-dollar-collected basis, but that doesn’t magically mean there’s no economic harm (the same is true for consumption taxes and payroll taxes).

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I’ve warned (over and over and over again) that supporters of larger government want big tax hikes on ordinary people.

But you don’t have to believe me.

CNN hosted a discussion yesterday with the major Democratic candidates about global warming…oops, I mean climate change…no, sorry, the preferred term is now climate crisis.

Shockingly, something newsworthy actually happened. As reported by the New York Times, most of the candidates expressed support for a big carbon tax that would be especially painful for poor and middle-class taxpayers.

…more than half of the 10 candidates at the forum openly embraced the controversial idea of putting a tax or fee on carbon dioxide… Around the country and the world, opponents have attacked it as an “energy tax” that could raise fuel costs, and it has been considered politically toxic in Washington for nearly a decade. …In addition to proposing $3 trillion in spending on environmental initiatives, Ms. Warren also responded “Yes!” when asked by a moderator, Chris Cuomo, if she would support a carbon tax… Senator Kamala Harris of California, who on Wednesday morning released a plan to put a price on carbon, …calling for outright bans on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas, and on offshore oil and gas drilling. …Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who also released his climate plan on Wednesday, took the stage declaring his support for a carbon tax… The parade of far-reaching plans on display, ranging in cost from $1.7 trillion to $16.3 trillion… Two other candidates who said they would support carbon pricing, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and the former housing secretary Julián Castro.

Interestingly, Crazy Bernie didn’t hop on the bandwagon.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont…is one of the few candidates who has not called for a carbon tax.

In this case, his desire to selectively target upper-income taxpayers presumably is even stronger than his desire to grab more revenue to fund bigger government (and the burden of government would be far bigger under the Green New Deal).

By the way, there was a very interesting admission in the article.

The United States generates almost 25 percent of global economic output, yet our share of carbon emissions is much smaller.

…the United States is the world’s largest historic polluter of greenhouse gases, it today produces about 15 percent of total global emissions.

You would think the climate fanatics would be praising America. But they instead want people to believe the U.S. is worse than Cuba.

Anyhow, let’s return to the main topic of today’s column.

What exactly would it mean for ordinary people if politicians imposed a carbon tax?

The Democrats didn’t offer many specifics last night, so we’ll have to use a proxy estimate. In a column for the Hill, Vance Ginn and Elliott Raia highlight how families would get hit if U.S. politicians followed U.N. suggestions.

…travel…could soon be cost-prohibitive, if the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has its way. …Its recommendation: a carbon tax of as much as $200 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 to an astonishing $27,000 per ton by 2100. For America families, this could mean the price of gasoline soaring to $240 per gallon. Remember when we thought $4 per gallon was high? …Regardless of the amount, a carbon tax would…disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class, who pay a higher percentage of their incomes for motor fuel and energy. …Concrete, for example, is perhaps one of the most common carbon-intensive products… At the IPCC rate of $200 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, the cost of building with concrete would rapidly rise. …Take a new home of 3,000 square feet. A simple slab foundation (with no basement) could use 100 cubic yards of concrete. Adding a $370 tax per cubic yard for a ton of carbon based on the $200 rate above would mean the cost of that home would likely rise $37,000.

For what it’s worth, the statists at the International Monetary Fund endorsed a $1.40 tax increase on a gallon of gas in America, which was part of a proposal to increases taxes on the average household by more than $5,000.

To be fair, I imagine the Democrats – if ever pressed for specifics – will propose taxes lower than what the U.N. or I.M.F. are suggesting.

That being said, it’s also fair to warn that taxes which start small almost always wind up becoming onerous.

Let’s close with a political observation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, people don’t like being saddled with higher taxes. And, as Sterling Burnett explains, they seem especially hostile to energy-related taxes.

From Alberta to Australia, from Finland to France, and beyond, voters are increasingly showing their displeasure with expensive energy policies imposed by politicians in an inane effort to purportedly fight human-caused climate change. …This is what originally prompted protesters in France to don yellow vests and take to the streets in 2018. They were protesting scheduled increases in fuel taxes, electricity prices, and stricter vehicle emissions controls, which French President Emmanuel Macron had claimed were necessary to meet the country’s greenhouse gas reduction commitments… Also in 2018, in part as a reaction against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate policies, global warming skeptic Doug Ford was elected as premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. Ford announced he would end energy taxes imposed by Ontario’s previous premier and would join Saskatchewan’s premier in a legal fight against Trudeau’s federal carbon dioxide tax. …in August 2018, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced to resign over carbon dioxide restrictions he had planned… In Finland, …the Finns Party, which made the fight against expensive climate policies the central part of its platform, came out the big winner with the second-highest number of seats in Parliament.

I’ve previously written about taxpayer uprisings in France and Australia.

Perhaps the most relevant data, though, is from the state of Washington. Voters in that left-leaning state rejected a carbon tax in 2018 (after rejecting a different version in 2016).

So maybe Crazy Bernie was being Smart Bernie by not embracing the tax. And Joe Biden also chose not to explicitly back the proposed tax hike.

P.S. The parasitical bureaucrats at the OECD also have endorsed higher energy taxes on the United States.

P.P.S. I don’t have an informed opinion on the degree of man-made warming, but I am highly confident that statists are using the issue to promote bad policies that they can’t get through any other way.

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While it’s very good to have a clean environment, many environmentalists don’t understand cost-benefit analysis. As such, they make our lives less pleasant – inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, inadequate washing machines, crummy dishwashers, dribbling showers, and dysfunctional gas cans – for little if any benefit.

We can add recycling to that list.

To be sure, all the hassle and time of sorting our garbage might be an acceptable cost if something was being achieved.

Unfortunately, as Jeff Jacoby has explained, that’s not the case. Not even close.

Let’s explore the issue.

In an article for the American Institute for Economic Research, Professor Michael Munger explains that most recycling actually is a net negative for the environment.

…I was invited to a conference called Australia Recycles! …Everyone there, everyone, represented either a municipal or provincial government, or a nonprofit recycling advocacy group, or a company that manufactured and sold complicated and expensive recycling equipment. …Recycling requires substantial infrastructure for pickup, transportation, sorting, cleaning, and processing. …For recycling to be a socially commendable activity, it has to pass one of two tests: the profit test, or the net environmental-savings test. If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done. People are already recycling gold or other commodities from the waste stream, if the costs of doing so are less than the amount for which the resource can be sold. …The real question arises with mandatory recycling programs — people recycle because they will be fined if they don’t, not because they expect to make money… If you add up the time being wasted on recycling rituals, it’s even more expensive to ask each household to do it. The difference is that this is an implicit tax, a donation required of citizens, and doesn’t cost money from the public budget. But time is the least renewable of all resources… For recycling to make any sense, it must cost less to dispose of recycled material than to put the stuff in a landfill. But we have plenty of landfill space, in most of the country. And much of the heaviest material we want to recycle, particularly glass, is chemically inert and will not decompose in a landfill. …landfilling glass does no environmental harm… So, is recycling useful? As I said at the outset, for some things it is. Aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard, if they can be collected clean and at scale, are highly recyclable. …But for most other things, recycling harms the environment. …If you care about the environment, you should put your bottles and other glass in the regular garbage, every time.

Jon Miltimore explains, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, that hundreds of cities have repealed recycling mandates because they simply don’t make sense.

…after sending my five-year-old daughter off to school, she came home reciting the same cheerful environmental mantra I was taught in elementary school. “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” she beamed, proud to show off a bit of rote learning. The moral virtue of recycling is rarely questioned in the United States. …recycling is tricky business. A 2010 Columbia University study found that just 16.5 percent of the plastic collected by the New York Department of Sanitation was “recyclable.” “This results in nearly half of the plastics collected being landfilled,” researchers concluded. …hundreds of cities across the country are abandoning recycling efforts. …Like any activity or service, recycling is an economic activity. The dirty little secret is that the benefits of recycling have been dubious for some time. …How long? Perhaps from the very beginning. …there are the energy and resources that go into recycling. How much water do Americans spend annually rinsing items that end up in a landfill? How much fuel is spent deploying fleets of barges and trucks across highways and oceans, carrying tons of garbage to be processed at facilities that belch their own emissions? …It’s time to admit the recycling mania is a giant placebo. It makes people feel good, but the idea that it improves the condition of humans or the planet is highly dubious.

On a related topic, another FEE column even shows that anti-waste campaigns may actually increase waste.

To reduce waste, most governments run communication campaigns. Many try to make consumers feel guilty by telling them how much people like them waste (food, paper, water…). …The idea is that once people realise how much they waste, they will stop. Unfortunately, research has shown that when people are told that people like them misbehave, this makes them act worse, not better. In a June 2018 study, we confirm this backfiring effect in a series of studies on waste… Indeed, we found that backfiring effects of anti-waste messages happened because of difficulty. When consumer read that everyone wastes a lot, they think that it must be difficult to cut waste – so they don’t even try.

Let’s get back to the specific issue of recycling.

The fact that it doesn’t make sense is hardly a new revelation.

Way back in 1996, John Tierny had a very thorough article in the New York Time Magazine that summarized the shortcomings of recycling.

If you don’t want to read this long excerpt, all you need to know is that landfills are cheap, safe, and plentiful.

Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes makes sense — for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative. Mandatory recycling programs…offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources. …Americans became racked with garbage guilt…  Suddenly, just as central planning was going out of fashion in eastern Europe, America devised a national five-year plan for trash. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a “Waste Hierarchy” that ranked trash-disposal options: recycling at the top, composting and waste-to-energy incinerators in the middle, landfills at the bottom. …Politicians across the country…enacted laws mandating recycling and setting arbitrary goals…, typically requiring that at least 40 percent of trash be recycled, often even more — 50 percent in New York and California, 60 percent in New Jersey, 70 percent in Rhode Island. …The Federal Government and dozens of states passed laws that required public agencies, newspapers and other companies to purchase recycled materials. …America today has a good deal more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago. …there’s little reason to worry about modern landfills, which by Federal law must be lined with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection systems, covered daily with soil and monitored regularly for underground leaks. …Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side. …This doesn’t seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. …The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. …many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself… The leaders of the recycling movement…raise money and attract new members through their campaigns to outlaw “waste” and prevent landfills from opening. They get financing from public and private sources (including the recycling industry) to research and promote recycling. By turning garbage into a political issue, environmentalists have created jobs for themselves as lawyers, lobbyists, researchers, educators and moral guardians.

The bottom line is that most recycling programs impose a fiscal and personal cost on people for very meager environmental benefits.

Indeed, the benefits are often negative once indirect costs are added to the equation.

So why is there still support in some quarters?

In part, it’s driven by contributions from the companies that get paid to process recycled material.

But that’s only part of the story. Recycling is a way for some people to feel better about themselves. Sort of an internalized version of virtue-signalling.

That’s not a bad thing. I like a society where people care about the environment and feel guilty about doing bad things, like throwing trash out car windows.

But I’m a bit old fashioned in that I want them to feel good about doing things that actually make sense.

P.S. There’s a Washington version of recycling that is based on taxpayer money getting shifted back and forth between politicians and special interests.

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I’m in Sydney, Australia, but not because I’m confirming that this country will be my escape option if (when?) the United States suffers a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Instead, I’m Down Under for the annual Friedman Conference.

This gives me an excuse to write about Australia, especially since national elections just took place this past weekend. Interestingly, the incumbent, right-of-center government retained power in an upset, winning 77 or 78 seats (out of a possible 151).

Here’s the breakdown.

The folks at Slate lean to the left, so their article is understandably riddled with anguish.

Australia’s dysfunctional, unpopular, conservative government…held onto power for a third term in Saturday’s national election. This happened despite the fact that most analysts expected it to lose a large number of seats; despite being (seemingly) out of step with the nation’s emerging consensus on climate change.. A Labor Party win had been anticipated for three years, with the opposition winning every single poll of the last term. …Expected swings against the coalition in several regions of the country didn’t materialize, while there was a crucial 4 percent swing against Labor in the state of Queensland (alternately described as Australia’s Alabama or Florida). …Progressive Australians are—to understate things—“hurting,”…(only they’re threatening to move to New Zealand instead of Canada). …Labor’s environmental stance, while not actually all that bold, hurt it in coal-friendly Queensland and among voters worried about the costs of acting on climate change… Progressive Australians are reeling because any lingering illusions that we were a “fair” nation have been shattered. Whatever Labor’s political shortcomings, Australians in general voted against a detailed platform that aimed to seriously address climate change, raise wages, increase cancer funding, make child care free or significantly cheaper, close tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy, fund the arts, fund the underfunded public broadcaster… Instead, they voted for … not much of anything (other than some tax cuts).

Since I’m a wonk, I’m much more interested in the policy implications rather than the political machinations.

The good news is that Labor’s defeat means Australia will be spared some costly tax increases and some expensive green intervention.

But it’s unclear whether there will be many pro-growth reforms.

The right-of-center Liberal-National Coalition has promised some tax relief, but I don’t know if it will be supply-side rate reductions or merely the distribution of favors using the tax code.

For what it’s worth, Australia needs to lower its top tax rate on households, which is nearly 50 percent. European-type tax rates are always a bad idea, and they are especially senseless for a country that has to compete with Hong Kong and Singapore.

It would also be nice if the newly reelected government chooses to fix some of the housing policies that have made Australian cities very unfriendly to families.

Joel Kotkin explains why this is a problem in an article for City Journal.

Few places on earth are better suited for middle-class prosperity than Australia. From early in its history, …the vast, resource-rich country has provided an ideal environment for upward mobility… Over the last decade, though, Australia’s luck has changed… Despite being highly dependent on resource sales to China—largely coal, gas, oil, and iron ore—Australia has embraced green domestic politics more associated with Manhattan liberals or Silicon Valley oligarchs than the prototypical unpretentious Aussie… Historically, the Australian Labor Party, like its counterpart in Britain, was a party of the working class. …These views seem almost quaint today, particularly for a Labor Party increasingly dominated by those operating outside the tangible economy, as part of the professional class—media, finance, public service—and concentrated in the largely family-free urban cores. …Australia’s commitment to renewable energy dwarfs that of even the most committed green-leaning countries. Per capita, Australia has installed roughly five times as many renewable-energy installations as the E.U., the U.S., or China, and even two-and-a-half times more than climate-obsessed Germany. …The most pernicious assault on Australia’s middle class comes from regulation of land and expenditures to promote urban density. …In Australia, only 0.3 percent of the country is urban. As in major cities in Great Britain, Australia, the U.S., and Canada, “smart growth” has helped turn Australia’s once-affordable cities into some of the world’s costliest. …Sydney’s planning regulations, according to a Reserve Bank study, add 55 percent to the price of a home. In Perth, Melbourne, and Brisbane, the impact exceeds $100,000 per house. Australian cities once filled with family-friendly neighborhoods are becoming dominated by dense apartments. …Today, many Australians face an uncharacteristically bleak future. Urged to settle where the planners and pundits prefer, they’re stuck in places both unaffordable and inhospitable, as part of a needless governmental drive to make life there more like that of the more congested, socially riven metropoles of Britain.

For all intents and purposes, I want Australian lawmakers to rekindle their reformist zeal.

If you look at the historical data from Economic Freedom of the World, you can see that Australia enjoyed a big jump in economic liberty between 1975-2000.

Basically climbing from 6 to 8 on a 0-10 scale.

Sadly, there hasn’t been much reform this century. That being said, Australia’s era of liberalization last century is still paying dividends. The country is routinely ranked in the top-10 for economic liberty.

Interestingly, many of the changes between 1975-2000 happened when the Labor Party was led by reformers such as Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Mr. Hawke, incidentally, just passed away. His obituary in the New York Times acknowledges that he liberalized the economy.

Bob Hawke, Australia’s hugely popular prime minister from 1983 to 1991, who presided over wrenching changes that integrated his nation into the global economy…, died on Thursday… Rising to power as a trade union leader, Mr. Hawke led his center-left Australian Labor Party to four consecutive election victories in a tenure of nearly nine years, in which Australia emerged dramatically from relative isolation… Confronting chronic strikes, soaring inflation, high unemployment and trade deficits, Mr. Hawke revolutionized the economy. He cut protective tariffs, privatized state-owned industries…reined in powerful unions… “We are now living in a tough, new competitive world in which we have got to make it on our own merits,” Mr. Hawke told The New York Times in 1985.

I’m irked, though, that the article doesn’t mention that Hawke (in power from 1983-91) began Australia’s system of personal retirement accounts.

That excellent reform, which was expanded by the Keating government (in power from 1991-96), is paying big dividends to Australia.

Indeed, let’s wrap up today’s column with some excerpts from a laudatory article in the Economist.

The last time Australia suffered a recession, the Soviet Union still existed and the worldwide web did not. …No other rich country has ever managed to grow so steadily for so long. …Public debt amounts to just 41% of GDP—one of the lowest levels in the rich world. That, in turn, is a function not just of Australia’s enviable record in terms of growth, but also of a history of shrewd policymaking. Nearly 30 years ago, the government of the day overhauled the pension system. Since then workers have been obliged to save for their retirement through private investment funds.

It’s noteworthy that the system of personal accounts, known as superannuation, manages to attract praise from unlikely quarters.

And it is one of the reasons for the country’s success. Here’s an accompanying chart showing that Australia has enjoyed more growth, higher wages, and less debt than other major nations.

Is Australian policy perfect? Of course not.

But does the data from Australia show that better policy leads to better results? Definitely.

P.S. The Aussies also reaped big benefits by unilaterally reducing trade barriers (it would be nice if a certain person residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue learned from that experience).

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I have a series of columns where I explore tactical disagreements with folks who generally favor free markets and less government.

  • In Part I, I defended the flat tax, which had been criticized by Reihan Salam
  • In Part II, I explained why I thought a comprehensive fiscal package from the American Enterprise Institute was too timid.
  • In Part III, I disagreed with Jerry Taylor’s argument for a carbon tax.
  • In Part IV, I highlighted reasons why conservatives should reject a federal program for paid parental leave.

Today, we’re going to revisit the carbon tax because Josiah Neeley and William Murray of the R Street Institute have a column in the Hill that claims that levy would not finance bigger government.

…There have been numerous tax rate changes in the past 70 years, with the marginal income tax rate falling from a high of over 90 percent in the 1950s to as low as 28 percent in the late 1980s. Yet during this entire time period, federal tax revenue has stayed in a fairly narrow band when measured as a percentage of gross domestic product, never rising above 20 percent or falling much below 15 percent between 1950 and 2018. This phenomenon, which keeps federal revenues within a relatively narrow band, is known as Hauser’s law…the belief that any kind of new taxation introduces even greater government spending is based on very little actual evidence. Instead, Hauser’s law provides evidence that certain kinds of tax swaps, such as exchanging an income tax for a carbon tax, may actually increase the rate of economic growth without increasing the tax share of the overall economy.

They also claim that higher taxes don’t lead to more spending.

…demand for government spending drives tax policy, not the other way around. This conclusion has important implications for the carbon tax debate. …The relative imperviousness of the gross domestic product tax percent equilibrium since the late 1940s suggests that spending pressures drive taxes and not the other way around.

I have two responses to this analysis.

First, I very much want Hauser’s Law to be true. It would be very comforting if politicians in Washington could never seize more than 20 percent of the private sector’s output.

Sadly, that’s simply not the case. Just look at Europe, where central governments routinely extract far more than 40 percent of economic output.

All that’s required is taxes that target lower- and middle-income taxpayers. That’s happened in Europe because of harsh value-added taxes, punitive payroll taxes, onerous energy taxes, and income taxes that impose very high rates on ordinary people.

Needless to say, a carbon tax would be a step in that direction.

Second, the authors offer zero evidence that “government spending drives tax policy, not the other way around.”

By contrast, there is some persuasive data for the “starve the beast” hypothesis, which is based on the notion that higher taxes will encourage more spending.

In other words, Milton Friedman was right when he warned that “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

Though I actually don’t think this causality debate is very important. The bottom line is that higher taxes are a bad idea if they trigger higher spending, and higher taxes also are a bad idea if they merely enable higher spending.

The column in the Hill is a spin-off from a recent study published by the R Street Institute.

Let’s look at that publication to further explore this issue. It starts with the basic hypothesis that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be desirable.

…a carbon tax…provides a source of revenue that can be put to beneficial purposes, such as funding cuts to other existing taxes. By using the revenue from a carbon tax to replace existing ones, such a revenue neutral “tax swap” would greatly reduce or eliminate the economic costs of the tax. Indeed, in some cases, even if benefits from reduced emissions are not considered, a tax swap could be a net positive for the economy. …many critics of a carbon tax are skeptical as to whether a revenue-neutral carbon tax could be enacted. Some critics go further, arguing that even if a carbon tax started out as revenue neutral, it would not remain so. …While there are no guarantees, the existing evidence suggests that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would not lead to larger government over the long term and could even shrink it.

I don’t object to the notion that a carbon tax would be theoretically desirable if it replaced a tax that did more damage per dollar collected, such as the corporate income tax.

My concern has always been such a swap is highly unlikely. Indeed, many proponents of the carbon tax are very explicit about wanting to use the revenues to create a new entitlement. That would be the worst outcome, assuming we want more growth.

And, as noted above, I don’t think Hauser’s Law would save us from higher overall taxes and a larger burden of government spending.

Interestingly, the study basically acknowledges the same thing.

…given that Hauser’s Law is not an iron law of economics, it would be imprudent to put too much weight on it when considering the effects of a tax swap.

There are a couple of other parts of the study that deserve attention, including the assertion that politicians would have a hard time using the carbon tax as a money machine.

…a carbon tax has natural limitations that preclude it from being used to generate ever-increasing amounts of tax revenue. This is because higher carbon-tax rates induce a more rapid fall in greenhouse gas emissions. This, in turn, limits the overall revenue collected from the tax. In fact, unlike revenue from income, sales or property taxes, which tends to increase over time even at a constant tax rate, revenue from a carbon tax is likely to remain stable or fall gradually as emissions decline.

Since I’m a fan of the Laffer Curve, I think this argument is very reasonable in theory.

In effect, the R Street Institute is making the same argument – excessive tax rates can reduce revenue – that Alexander Hamilton used when endorsing tariffs.

But where is the point where carbon taxes become excessive? I don’t know the answer, but I’m very worried that there would be ample leeway to collect a lot of tax revenue before getting close to the revenue-maximizing point (the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a $25-per-ton carbon tax would generate more than $1 trillion in the first ten years).

The bottom line is that I worry that a carbon tax likely would be akin to a value-added tax. Yes, there are negative feedback effects from a VAT, as I noted at the end of yesterday’s column. But that doesn’t change the fact that the revenue-generating capacity of the VAT helps to explain Europe’s bloated welfare states.

I understand how a carbon tax, in theory, might not enable bigger government. But I see no way, in reality, that politicians wouldn’t use this new levy to finance even more spending.

P.S. If you’re not already convinced that a carbon tax will mean bigger government, then all you need to know is that both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development support higher energy taxes for the United States.

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I don’t like the tribal nature of American politics, in part because I get criticized for not playing the game.

I tell both groups that I care about public policy rather than personal or partisan loyalty. Not that this explanation makes either group happy.

Today, I’m going to give a “thumbs up” to the President for what he’s doing about car mileage regulations. Which means the first group will be happy and the second group will be irritated.

To be more specific, the Trump Administration is proposing to ease up on the CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) rules. The Obama Administration, working with California environmentalists, proposed to make these regulations far more costly. Trump’s people basically want to freeze the car mileage mandate at the current 37-miles-per-gallon level.

Here’s a look at the history of the CAFE standards.

Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute explained earlier this year why these regulation impose high costs. And deadly costs.

The federal government’s auto fuel economy standards have for decades posed a simple problem: They kill people. Worse, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has covered this up. …To call it a coverup isn’t hyperbole. CAFE kills people by causing cars to be made smaller and lighter. While these downsized cars are more fuel-efficient, they are also less crashworthy. …A 1989 Harvard-Brookings study estimated the death toll at between 2,200 and 3,900 a year. Similarly, a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study estimated that CAFE had contributed to up to 2,600 fatalities in 1993. …The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which closely monitors crashworthiness, still provides the same advice it has been giving for years: “Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer.”

The Trump Administration apparently was listening to Sam, and has decided to block future increases in the CAFE mandate.

Environmentalists are predictably upset, but the Wall Street Journal opined on this topic a couple of days ago and explained why it is good news.

The Trump Administration’s deregulation is improving consumer choice and reducing costs… Its proposed revisions Thursday to fuel economy rules continue this trend to the benefit of car buyers… Obama bureaucrats were acutely blind—perhaps willfully so—to economic and technological trends in 2012 when they set a fleetwide average benchmark of 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025. …Americans prefer bigger cars, which makes it harder for automakers to meet the escalating Cafe targets. …As prices rise to meet the new standards, consumers would also wait longer to replace their cars. The average age of a car is approaching 12 years, up from about 8.5 in 1995. Newer cars are more efficient and safer, so longer vehicle turnover could result in more traffic fatalities… Thursday’s Trump Administration proposal to freeze—not roll back—fuel economy standards at the current 2020 target of 37 miles a gallon. …Automakers also want to duck a prolonged legal tussle with California, which received a waiver from the Obama Administration under the Clean Air Act in 2013 to establish its own emissions standards and electric-car mandate. The proposed Trump standards would apply nationally.

Holman Jenkins of the WSJ also weighed in on the issue, pointing out that undoing Obama’s expansion of CAFE mandates will have no impact on the earth’s climate.

…the effect on climate change would be zero. The Obama White House at the time exaggerated by a factor of two the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of the effect on total emissions over the lifetime of the cars involved. It doesn’t matter. Two times nothing is still nothing. …Let’s remember the truth of Mr. Obama’s fuel-economy rules. He did not wander the balconies of the White House gazing far into the future when he drafted the 2021-25 fuel economy target of 54.5 miles a gallon. His flunkies, as documented in a House investigation, simply were looking for a impressive-sounding number to serve the administration’s political interests at the time. …in undoing Mr. Obama’s policies, Mr. Trump is doing nothing to hurt the climate.

Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute also wrote on the topic and noted that Trump’s policy will save about 1,000 lives each year.

…the administration has struck a blow for consumer choice that will be good news for drivers planning or hoping to buy a new car in the next decade. That’s because the mileage mandate is one of the main causes of rapidly rising vehicle prices. …Meeting ever more stringent fuel economy standards is driving up new vehicle prices. Sticker shock is thereby causing a lot of people to hang on to their current cars. The average age of all cars on the road is now at an all-time high of over 11-1/2 years. …Freezing CAFE standards will make new cars more affordable for millions of Americans and also allow many of them to buy bigger and hence even safer new models. How much safer will be hotly debated. The Transportation Department concludes that the proposed changes will prevent about 1,000 traffic fatalities a year. …For many people, fuel economy will still be the most important factor in choosing a new car. The good news for them is that the Trump administration’s action will in no way prevent them from buying a model that gets great gas mileage. The good news for everyone else is that the choice of models will be much wider than if the CAFE standard remained 54.5 mpg.

By the way, this isn’t simply a matter of saving lives.

After all, we theoretically could save thousands of lives by simply banning automobiles. In the world of sensible public policy, we make trade-offs, deciding if achieving a certain goal is worthwhile when looking at all the costs and all the benefits.

So it’s theoretically possible that a policy that leads to more premature deaths might be acceptable.

But CAFE fails even on that basis. As Marlo Lewis explained a few years ago, the policy both kills people and imposes net financial costs.

The bottom line is that Donald Trump just improved his grade on regulation.

Back in April, I gave him a B+ on regulation. But then he did something foolish in June that (if I recalculated) would have dropped him to a B. Now he’s probably back at a B+ because of the change to the CAFE rules.

Given what he’s doing on trade, he needs to boost his other grades as much as possible!

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Since I focus on public finance, I think California is crazy because of punitive taxes and reckless spending policies.

But I can understand why other people think California is crazy, period.

This is a state, after all, where politicians come up with bizarre ideas such as regulating babysitting and banning Happy Meals.

Not to mention banning other things as well.

So you won’t be surprised to learn that the Golden State is leading the way in attacking the horrible scourge of plastic straws.

Plastic straws are quickly becoming a takeout taboo. Starbucks has vowed to get its iconic green sippers completely off store shelves by 2020, while Seattle banned all plastic utensils, including straws, from bars and businesses city-wide earlier this month. San Francisco quickly followed suit this week and passed an ordinance that, once approved, will ban plastic straws beginning in July of 2019… It may seem as though the quarter-of-an-inch diameter drinking straw is the least of our worries. But environmentalists say the fight’s got to start somewhere. “We look at straws as one of the gateway issues to help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem,” Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen told Business Insider.

If I’m willing to claim earmarks are the gateway drug for big spending, then I can’t complain when other people come up with imaginative claims about other types of “gateways.”

In any event, there is a legitimate reason to be concerned about plastic.

Some straws drift out to sea, becoming just one more piece of the 79 thousand-ton colossal floating iceberg of trash called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists who’ve studied the patch, a trash heap wider than two whole Texases that bobs somewhere between Hawaii and California, have discovered it’s essentially a watery pit of litter and illegal dumps that’s trapped in the ocean currents, and it is basically all plastic. …The anti-straw movement may have first picked up steam because…Texas A&M graduate student Christine Figgener…noticed something encrusted in the nose of one of the male turtles. …The team soon figured out it was actually a “plastic straw stuck in his nose,” and removed it, hoping the extraction might help give him some more breathing time on Earth.

But the people on the left side of the country are not actually solving this problem.

Plastic pollution is basically a problem caused by developing countries.

So the politicians in Seattle and San Francisco are making the Nanny State more intrusive without achieving anything.

A classic case of virtue signaling.

But look at the bright side. It’s already generated some great political satire.

Starting with this little girl.

I imagine the plastic straw will be a gateway for operating an unlicensed lemonade stand!

And if SWAT teams run out of harmless pot smokers to harass, they now have new target to justify their budgets.

And the gun grabbers will appreciate the importance of dealing with high-capacity straw dispensers.

Though it’s unclear how the left will deal with the danger of concealed straws.

Especially since some of those straw nuts will become dealers.

I’ve saved the best for last. For those old enough to remember OJ Simpson and the white Bronco, this image of a renegade toddler will bring back memories.

Remember, if you outlaw straws, only outlaws will have straws.

Next thing you know, they’ll try to outlaw tanks.

It’s a slippery slope!

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