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Dissecting the Carbon Tax

Friday, July 13, 2012

Even in flush economic times, carbon taxes would be bad policy. When economies are already laboring under too much spending and are at diminishing-return levels of taxation, implementing a carbon tax would be a mistake.

Editor’s note: Carbon taxes are in the news again, with several members of the Republican establishment pushing the idea. The op-ed below, originally published a year ago, dissects the carbon tax and points out problems with the concept that are even more relevant today.

Back in 2007, along with my colleagues Steve Hayward and Kevin Hassett, I coauthored a policy study examining the possibilities of a carbon tax or carbon cap-and-trade. The findings of that study were that a revenue-neutral carbon tax was better than cap-and-trade, which would be better than regulation.

For coauthoring that study, my friends in the more purist domains of the free-market movement lambasted me for playing into the hands of an insincere green movement. At the time, I thought they were going overboard. I naively thought that a revenue-neutral carbon tax might be possible, and if done right, might offer economic benefits that might mitigate its economic harms; if we replace taxes on productivity with taxes on consumption, we might get a net, economy-wide benefit.

However, watching states loot "dedicated" eco-taxes for general revenue, seeing the emergence of more proposals for revenue-raising carbon taxes to finance continued deficit spending, and generally bearing witness to endless insincerity on the part of greens and their allies, I have to admit that my friends in the free-market movement were right: A carbon tax would simply become another general revenue raiser and a step in carbon-seduction. "Oh, come on, you've already accepted the tax, now let's do cap-and-trade and regulation."

Hence, my views on the carbon tax have evolved: I no longer believe that such a tax (or, for that matter, other eco-taxes) can be implemented in the sort of ideal, economically beneficent way that people favoring individual liberty, free markets, or limited government might sanction. Here are a few reasons why:

No gain — There would be virtually no environmental benefits to unilateral greenhouse gas emission reductions by developed countries (whose GHG levels are already flat and slowly declining), while developing countries are pouring out virtually every kind of pollutant with joyous abandon. Some argue that we'll get "co-benefits" from reducing other pollutants, such as particulates. Well, we already have highly effective (if economically damaging) regulations for conventional pollutants. If they're not working, they should be fixed. Establishing a new set of controls based on ancillary benefits is not simply wasteful, it's dishonest.

A carbon tax would also have limited impact: If $4-per-gallon gas won't reduce consumer demand, how is adding another 10 cents, 50 cents, or dollar going to do so? Low carbon taxes won't have a significant effect, and high carbon taxes won't retain political support long enough to provide environmental benefits. That's not surprising: Houses, cars, and energy-consuming appliances are long-term investments that can't easily be changed when fuel prices fluctuate. Jobs are also not abandoned lightly, so commuting distances aren't easily adjusted.

Plenty of pain — Studies continue to show that carbon taxes, through their influence on energy prices, would cause considerable harm.

They're recessionary: High energy costs reduce economic productivity and are passed along to consumers in everything they buy, from medical treatments to food and clothing. In fact, research at the American Enterprise Institute suggests that half of the total spending consumers do on energy is invisible to them: Its costs are embedded in the things they buy and the services they use. The more things cost, the less people consume, which means less production, less economic growth, and fewer jobs.

They're regressive:  Most analysis shows that energy taxes are highly regressive. After all, it's not the rich people who are driving around old cars with poor mileage, living in old houses with poor insulation and inefficient appliances, or having limited career mobility and lengthy commutes from poor communities into wealthier communities where there are jobs.

They're anti-competitive: Energy taxes also make countries less competitive when it comes to exports, particularly when they're competing against countries that don't impose comparable taxes. Carbon tax proponents argue that such things can be handled with border taxes on imported goods from non-carbon-priced regimes, but does anyone really believe that such activities will not set off innumerable trade wars?

They are bait-and-switch: If climate alarmists really thought that the goal was to get the price right, you'd hear them promising to remove all of the other regulations of carbon emissions if they got their carbon tax. They'd talk about repealing vehicle efficiency standards, appliance standards, technology standards, emission standards, unraveling regional trading systems, ending low-carbon energy subsidies, and more. But they don't. Climate change alarmists, like Al Gore, have never been shy in admitting that they will not be content with a carbon tax and will still want additional layers of carbon suppression through cap-and-trade as well as regulation. This will result in rampant over-pricing of carbon emissions and energy.

As the country grapples with economic havoc, some are pointing to carbon taxes as a potential solution to the government's revenue shortage. Carbon taxes might be "better" than cap-and-trade or regulations, but then, in a train-wreck, losing a hand is better than losing a forearm, which is better than losing an entire arm. Most would rather skip the wreck. Even in flush economic times, carbon taxes would be bad policy. When economies are already laboring under too much spending and are at diminishing-return levels of taxation, implementing a carbon tax would be a mistake.

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at AEI.

FURTHER READING: Green also writes “Energy Abundance vs. the Poverty of Energy Literacy,” “Why Are Gasoline Prices High (And What Can Be Done About It)?” “Government Is a Lousy Venture Capitalist,” and “Voters Beware Carbon Tax Seductions.” Sharon Kehnemui discusses “Global Air Travel and the EU Carbon Tax.” Kevin A. Hassett, Aparna Mathur, and Gilbert E. Metcalf contribute “The Consumer Burden of a Carbon Tax on Gasoline.”

Image by Dianna Ingram/ Bergman Group.

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