I guess I should have something to say about the big new poll/survey from Jon Krosnick’s Political Psychology Research Group at Stanford. The results, in sum, are as follows: large majorities believe in climate change and want the government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, make polluters pay, and support clean energy. The one thing they don’t want? Taxes. The public doesn’t like taxes. They want polluters to pay … but they don’t want taxes. Pay … but not taxes. Hm …
Kevin Drum finds this reason to despair:
So there you have it: the American public believes in global warming and wants the government to do something about it. However, the American public doesn’t want to do anything — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — that might actually work. But they do want to open the federal goody bag and dole out subsidies and tax breaks to everyone under the sun, presumably because these all sound like pleasant things to do and they’re under the impression that they’re all “free.” Whether they work or not isn’t really on their radar.
Matt Yglesias pushes back:
In principle you could seriously reduce overall emissions through these kind of regulatory measures. But it would be much, much, much more economically costly than alternative approaches. Offering giant tax subsidies to manufacturers of fuel efficient automobiles and offsetting the lost revenue with higher income taxes and reduced public services will, over time, cut fuel consumption. But you could cut fuel consumption by an equivalent amount with a modest increase in the gasoline tax, which would produce revenue that could be used to reduce income taxes and increase public services. The difference between the two policies is that on the “free” option everyone loses except automobile manufacturers, whereas on the “expensive” option everyone who consumes a below-average amount of gasoline comes out ahead.
I honestly have trouble getting worked up about these polls. The public doesn’t understand energy very well. They don’t understand policy very well. They don’t have settled, coherent views on these things; they often support contradictory things depending on how they’re phrased. Their opinions flit back and forth based on the level of unemployment, the news of the day, even the weather.
Within certain broad parameters, I just don’t think public opinion is that significant. They worry about climate change, they don’t like polluters, and they want clean energy. That’s what policymakers need to know. (And policymakers don’t know it, so I do think this poll is worth celebrating.) Beyond that, does any serious legislator care that the public prefers a regulatory mechanism that makes polluters pay but doesn’t want a “tax”? I’m not even sure how you would operationalize that knowledge if you did take it seriously.
Representative democracy requires leaders that lead, based on the best knowledge available to them. We know very well that that the public is hungry for that leadership. We know very well what needs to be done. What’s left is for the U.S. Senate to stop being a pathetic embarrassment.