Last week, I took part in a debate at Salon.com on the merits of pricing carbon (and related matters). My debate opponent was Steve Everley, manager of policy research at American Solutions and a contributing author to To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, by Newt Gingrich. Salon has graciously agreed to let us republish the debate here. There will be four installments.
Steve Everley: As we conclude, let me thank David for a spirited and well-informed debate. In a time of intense partisanship, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this important issue on rational terms with a person who clearly has an intellectual faculty to be envied. I can only hope my arguments have made the feeling mutual.
What we have been debating is actually about values. Do we value affordable energy, or do we value a European model of high energy prices? Do we value an empowered private sector, or do we value an empowered and, yes, even larger government? Most importantly, do we value creating American jobs today, or do we value making insignificant changes in temperatures 90 years from now?
Supporting a market-based economy, what could be called “the freedom culture,” is a necessary prerequisite for enduring prosperity and protecting the American way of life. Continuing to do this will, in turn, continue to pay the dividends we have already reaped: An expansion of wealth through greater opportunities and higher productivity; an economy that is globally envied and attracts immigrants from the world over; and exciting new inventions and technologies, including those that protect the environment in ways central planners could never conceive.
This is the fundamental reason why opposition to cap-and-trade is so high. The American system rejects the long disproven notion that we can tax our way to prosperity. The Left may believe in their hearts that cap-and-trade will create jobs and make life better for everyone, but that is a conclusion taken blindly on faith, not its compatibility with the American system.
Nor is it even based upon empirical research, as Spain and Europe as a whole have discovered. Numerous reputable analyses have indicated that cap-and-trade will kill jobs, and it is universally accepted that cap-and-trade will raise energy prices: Even President Obama says so, and the president’s now-former budget director has testified that higher prices are necessary for cap-and-trade to work. The only mitigating factor for these new taxes is the hope that government will fulfill its promise to redistribute wealth effectively. Again, that must be taken on faith, not history or experience.
As a representative democracy, the American people have the power and freedom to choose, through tradeoffs and establishing priorities, how they want to address a host of problems, ranging from the economy to the War on Terror. On global warming, it’s clear that Americans do not support a policy that will kill jobs and raise their taxes so they might put an insignificant dent in temperatures many decades from now.
Cap-and-trade is an attempt to redistribute wealth, kill jobs, and let the government define what opportunities are permissible, all of which represent a fundamental rejection of the American freedom culture.
David Roberts: Thanks to Steve for a lively debate. It is too rare these days for people with opposing viewpoints to come together and engage directly; I hope this isn’t our last time.
America faces serious challenges. Above all is the one Steve seems keen not to talk about: climate change. Another is increasing dependence on oil just as the world’s supply is set to plateau. In coming decades the pursuit of oil will be dirtier and riskier (as we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico, to tragic effect). The pursuit of coal will follow the same arc.
More immediate are the grievous ongoing effects of recession and 10 percent unemployment. We’re in a politically delicate situation in which we need both short-term stimulus spending and a long-term plan to address the structural deficit. Ultimately, the deficit problem cannot be solved without new sources of economic growth. What will they be? What industries will dominate the 21st century? Given the Herculean work involved in putting the world on a path to low-carbon prosperity, energy is the obvious candidate.
With some political leadership and a smart set of choices, we can tackle multiple challenges at once. For instance, a top priority in the coming five years should be ramping up energy efficiency programs, particularly around buildings. It’s a win-win-win: construction trades suffer from crippling unemployment rates, efficiency can lower energy use and carbon emissions at a profit, and reduced demand can lower energy bills even if rates rise. We can also put people to work by funding state public transportation programs and building new low-carbon infrastructure like rail lines and transmission wires.
Longer term, we need a stable source of revenue for the necessary investments in clean energy research, development, and deployment. The obvious source for that revenue is a price on carbon. Unlike capricious government tax credits, a carbon price shifts investment incentives across the entire economy at once, especially as it slowly ramps up over time. It also provides money, if necessary, to protect consumers from short-term bumps in energy prices, reduce other tax rates, or pay down the deficit.
I simply don’t share Steve’s conviction that we must cling to the dirty energy status quo or our economy will crumble. I have faith that American researchers, entrepreneurs, and workers can overcome this country’s challenges, if only we set them to the task.