The Weekly Standard cover story last week was by Charles Krauthammer: "The Case for a Net-Zero Gas Tax." Joe Klein calls it "an absolutely compelling, and completely unexpected, argument" and the tax itself "without doubt, the most elegant way to lower carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil."
Your honor, I object.
First off, it isn’t unexpected — Krauthammer has argued for a gas tax before. And you’ll notice that more and more conservatives are popping up in favor of refunded gas or carbon taxes. (See, e.g., here.)
Second of all, it isn’t particularly compelling. In fact, it’s full of howlers. More on that later.
Third of all, re: "elegant," I can’t speak to its aesthetic appeal, but a gas tax is most certainly not the fastest or cheapest way to lower carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil.
Fourth of all, if you find yourself agreeing with Charles Krauthammer, one of the most vicious, mendacious soldiers in the right-wing chickenhawk brigade (see, e.g., here for his argument for torture), it’s time for some soul searching.
After all, Krauthammer is quite clear that he views a gas tax as an alternative, not a compliment, to government investments or regulations. Indeed, he seems to think a $1 gas tax would single-handedly drop U.S. oil use, cut world oil prices, cripple hostile regimes, and make the U.S. energy independent. And maybe increase your sex appeal. And it could do all this while obviating or eliminating other environmental policies.
This is a major benefit of the gas tax that is generally overlooked. It is not just an alternative to regulation; because it is so much more efficient, it is a killer of regulation. The most egregious of these regulations are the fleet fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards forced on auto companies. Rather than creating market conditions that encourage people to voluntarily buy greener cars, the CAFE standards simply impose them. And once the regulations are written–with their arbitrary miles-per-gallon numbers and target dates–they are not easily changed. If they are changed, moreover, they cause massive dislocation, and yet more inefficiency, in the auto industry.
The net-zero gas tax not only obviates the need for government regulation. It obviates the need for government spending as well. Expensive gas creates the market for the fuel-efficient car without Washington having to pick winners and losers with massive government "investment" and arbitrary grants. No regulations, no mandates, no spending programs to prop up the production of green cars that consumer demand would not otherwise support.
Sure, conservatives are supposed to hate taxes, but my God, consider the alternatives ..
Yes, a high gas tax constitutes a very serious government intervention. But it has the virtue of simplicity. It is clean, adaptable, and easy to administer. Admittedly, it takes a massive external force to alter behavior and tastes. But given the national security and the economic need for more fuel efficiency, and given the leverage that environmental considerations will have on the incoming Democratic administration and Democratic Congress, that change in behavior and taste will occur one way or the other. Better a gas tax that activates free market mechanisms rather than regulation that causes cascading market distortions.
We therefore have a choice. These measures can either be radical and economically ruinous, such as renewed moratoria on oil and gas drilling, the effective abolition of the coal industry, forced production of green cars that have no market and are so economically unviable that they will ruin the companies that make them. (The Chevy Volt will go 40 miles on a charge and cost about $35,000 after a required $7,500 government rebate. A real winner.) Or we can do it sensibly. Curtail oil consumption and encourage fuel-efficient technologies by means of a net-zero gas tax.
Lurking in the background, of course, is a total failure to appreciate the urgency of the climate problem:
If anthropogenic global warming is real, a reduction in driving and increase in fuel-efficiency is an unvarnished good. If anthropogenic global warming is as yet unproved, as I happen to believe, then the reduction in CO2 pumped into the atmosphere is a reasonable bet in conditions of uncertainty.
What can we take away from this? I certainly don’t want to come off as saying a gas tax is a bad idea because a turd like Charles Krauthammer supports it. Guilt by association, etc. And I sincerely don’t think it’s a bad idea — it easily clears my better-than-nothing bar.
But does it amount to a serious climate/energy solution? Those who welcome the new conservative ardor for gas and carbon taxes should be very, very careful about who they empower, and how, and what political dynamic results. From the evidence on hand, the conservatives in question:
- don’t understand the urgency of climate change;
- wildly overestimate the potential to create large changes with relatively small tax shifts;
- see taxes as alternatives, not compliments, to other climate policies; and
- hate government regulations, hate government investment, and generally hate government.
Oh, and they hate environmentalists.
It’s possible such folk will serve as efficacious allies in the climate fight, but I for one am keeping my hand on my wallet. What was it Reagan said? Trust but verify.