Thomas Friedman
“Where is my ball?”

Editor’s note: See David’s follow-up post to this piece.

Tom Friedman has done stellar work on green issues lately. He’s certainly given them a higher profile than any dirty blogger could. So I guess he’s owed some latitude. But his recent column is a disaster: wrong on the merits, politically tone deaf, and timed so poorly as to be malicious.

Timing

Next week, the House begins an intense round of hearings on a comprehensive Democratic energy/climate bill. This is not a pundit’s daydream or backbencher making a point. It’s a serious piece of legislation: the bill Democrats on the relevant committees will sign off on; the bill Obama will support; the bill that will go to the Senate; the bill that could, if everything goes well and progressives rally behind it, become law.

On the cusp of an enormous fight against well-funded proponents of doing nothing at all, Friedman has decided it’s time for “an alternative strategy, message and messenger”? Seriously?

There will be no grand retooling in the next week. If it has any real effect, Friedman’s endorsement of an alternative bill will simply divide supporters of the best chance for a serious energy/climate bill in 30 years. His timing could not possibly be worse.

Of course, Friedman is not a Democratic operative. He’s under no obligation to stump for a bill that doesn’t make his mustache tingle. When it comes to climate legislation, though, everybody has their own pony plan, their own messaging, their own strategy — the one those silly legislators should be using. The opposition is united, and keeps winning, but hey, at least those on the side of action are clever.

Message

The bill that’s heading into hearings next week is a comprehensive effort to address energy/climate issues. It’s got provisions boosting clean energy, accelerating energy efficiency, and upgrading the national electricity grid. It sets standards for fuels, for electrical generators, for appliances. It’s 600 pages long, and about a fifth is devoted to the carbon cap-and-trade program. That’s deliberate. Dems are well aware that clean energy, energy security, green jobs, and economic renewal are their strongest messages. They know the carbon stuff is wonky and unpopular. They put everything together into One Big Plan so that the stronger parts could be foregrounded and the carbon cap recede.

Yet Friedman says the Dems’ message is all wrong because … they’re too focused on the carbon cap. “[O]ur energy policy should be focused around ‘American renewal,’ not mitigating climate change,” he says.

Who’s focusing on the carbon cap here? Who’s calling it the “center” of the Democrats’ plan? Why, Friedman! Did he read the bill?

Politics

I have read the following sentence 50 times and I cannot make a lick of sense out of it:

Since the opponents of cap-and-trade are going to pillory it as a tax anyway, why not go for the real thing — a simple, transparent, economy-wide carbon tax?

Opponents of the carbon cap think they can kill the bill by calling it a tax. So the obvious political move is to… make it a tax. Because why again?

Maybe it’s because of the new requirement that seems to have sprung up recently for federal legislation that tackles the most complicated set of interlocking problems in the nation’s history: it has to be easy to explain to your grandmother. The tax code? Military budgeting? Medicaid? That stuff can be complicated. Dealing with energy and climate apparently has to be done via legislation that can be summarized in a Tweet. Because “people won’t support what they can’t explain,” says Friedman.

Friedman supports a bill with a “simple” tax that would rise automatically unless an independent board determined that emissions were no longer on track for the target, in which case the tax would be adjusted; also there would be a border tax assessed on imports based on their carbon content. According to Friedman, “people get that.”

It’s Friedman who doesn’t seem to “get” cap-and-trade, which he characterizes as “a firm in London trading offsets from an electric bill in Boston with a derivatives firm in New York in order to help fund an aluminum smelter in Beijing.” Indeed, he says, that’s what cap-and-trade is “all about.” Except it’s nonsense.

Best of all: “Americans will be willing to pay a tax for their children to be less threatened.” This is asserted with no supporting evidence, indeed in the face of virtually all available polling and the experience of the last three decades of American politics. Perhaps Friedman heard it in a taxi?

Manly man

Of course, no Friedman column is complete without the claim that people will fall in line if they are told what to think by a manly man. That’s what people understand: “Suck. On. This.” Friedman wants Gen. James Jones to ride to the rescue on his heaving steed, saving poor environmentalist damsels in distress. Jones, a Marine general in charge of coordinating defense policy, could sell a historic piece of domestic policy because, well, he’s military. And “imposing,” which makes some columnists tumescent.

The ball

Friedman says the Dem bill “hides the ball” because it’s not explicit about the price put on carbon. But this obsession with price misses the point. The price is not the ball. The cap is the ball. And that ball is right up front.

The price is unknowable in advance, since no one knows what it will end up costing to achieve the cap targets. So there is by definition no way to be transparent about the price before the fact. That’s why all “simple, transparent” carbon tax plans sneak in a provision whereby tax rates are continually adjusted based on progress toward … a cap. Except the price is adjusted by Smart Bureaucrats instead of markets. This is preferable, because a marine can explain it to your grandmother.

Somebody needs to hide Tom Friedman’s ball. When he plays with it in public like this, he does real damage to the most important legislative effort of this generation at exactly the time it most needs support.