The political chances of carbon taxes
There’s an ecumenical rift in the carbon policy world. Some favor taxes, while others prefer cap-and-trade. I’m in the latter camp, though I’m sort of a carbon Unitarian: I like carbon taxes too. From a policy perspective, they fit together nicely.
Among the reasons I’m on the c&t side is that taxes can be radioactive, at least in U.S. politics. Now, this isn’t really a substantive objection to carbon taxes as a policy instrument, but the worry seems warranted. Consider how the opponents of climate policy have recently attacked cap-and-trade: They call it a carbon tax.
Take a look at some headlines:
- Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post, Newsweek, and elsewhere: “Just Call It ‘Cap-and-Tax.’”
- Michelle Bachman in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “Cap and Trade? More Like Tax and Spend.”
- George Will, just about everywhere: “Cap-and-Trade Is An Unjustified Tax,” and “Cap and Trade: A Devious Tax Plan.”
Clearly, these pundits believe that taxes are political poison pills.
Now, before the carbon tax true-believers begin their inquisition, I’ll confess something: cap-and-trade and carbon taxes are very similar in some fundamental ways. Both raise the price of carbon. Both can raise public revenue (though some flavors of cap-and-trade do not). The principle difference is that taxes have certainty about price, but not about carbon emissions. On the other hand, cap-and-trade has certainty about carbon emissions, but not about price. Pretty much any economist would agree with this much.
There’s much more to the debate, of course, and there are plenty of substantive reasons to worry about taxes (more on those later, perhaps). But when I see attacks like these, I’m not sure “taxes” per se have much chance politically. That’s just my judgment, of course. But naturally, I’m right.