Tuesday , February 19 2019
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Economists’ letter on carbon

The "Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends" in the Wall Street Journal this week is a remarkable document. It's short, sweet, and signed by, as far as I can tell, every living CEA chair, every living Fed Chair, both Democrat and Republican, and most of the living Nobel Prize winners. (Thanks to a commenter who corrected ...

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The "Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends" in the Wall Street Journal this week is a remarkable document. It's short, sweet, and signed by, as far as I can tell, every living CEA chair, every living Fed Chair, both Democrat and Republican, and most of the living Nobel Prize winners. (Thanks to a commenter who corrected an earlier count.)

It offers four principles 1. A carbon tax, initially $40 per ton. 2. The carbon tax substitutes for regulations and subsidies and (my words) the vast crony-capitalist green boondoggle swamp, which is chewing up money and not saving carbon. 3. Border adjustment like VAT have 4. "All the revenue should be returned directly to U.S. citizens through equal lump-sum rebates."

That the carbon tax is better than regulations and subsidies in choosing technology gets a lot of press. Yes, should we have rooftop solar cells or utility cells in the desert? Is it better to have battery powered cars or high speed trains? Do we really have to have washing machines that no longer actually clean clothes? And the only way to actually save lots of carbon -- nuclear -- has a much better chance under a carbon tax than hoping our political system will allow it.

But most people forget what economists know best -- that a carbon tax is the only way to change behavior. The answer to energy savings isn't as much new technology as in old behaviors. Turn the lights off. Take fewer trips. Turn the heat down. Move nearer your work. Carpool. Without a carbon tax there is no way for the average bleeding heart Palo Alto climate worrier to realize that one trip to Europe is like driving a car for 10,000 miles. (Planes get about 80 passenger miles per gallon -- but it's a lot of miles to Europe.) Twenty years ago, my then 8 year old daughter, reading about fuel economy standards, piped up "if they make cars more fuel efficient, it will be cheaper to drive. Won't people just move further away?" Indeed.

I try to sell a carbon tax deal to friends who are climate skeptics. Well, our government is going to do something. Given that fact, the carbon tax will cause much less damage than ever increasing regulations and subsidies. And I try to sell it to carbon warrior friends too. The tax instead of the regulations and subsidies, in our political system, is going to save you a lot more carbon.

The last proposal is, I think, the most contentious. Optimal taxation theory, as several of the signatories pointed out in other contexts, says that the carbon tax should go to reduce other distorting taxes. This will create more economic growth. As Holman Jenkins  put it,
A tax reform that included a carbon tax to replace taxes that depress work, saving and investment would be an incentive to do everything in a less carbon-intensive way, bringing forth new technologies 
Here the authors step back from benevolent-planner optimums and think politically. Well, we live in a political system.

But there is a bright side. One big point of the dividend is to guarantee that revenues will not go to financing ever larger green boondoggles like the California high-speed train to nowhere, or to subsidize a Tesla in every VCs driveway. Carbon dividend means no "green new deal." The view that the tax system is what it is, and a major new source of revenue will not go to reducing marginal tax rates in a growth-oriented reform sounds quite realistic to me. If our Congress were interested in growth-oriented tax system it would already look a lot different than it is today.

A flat dividend is also immensely progressive. It is, effectively a universal basic income. And casual observation on ownership of large houses and jet travel suggests wealth people spew a lot more carbon than poor ones. I guess that is an effort to get Democrats to give up some of their cherished regulations and subsidies to get these long sought goals. (Like any UBI, it's going to make immigration a tougher issue, but we won't go there today.)

Tyler Cowen disagrees with the dividend.
"It strikes me as economists thinking they know what makes good politics, something which economists are rarely good at."
Well, he has a point, and I also think economists should emphasize more when they have expertise and when they don't. On the other hand, I don't see anybody else having much better idea what makes good politics these days, and the list of "economists" that created and signed the letter, starting with George Shultz, have immense political experience.

The dividend may not be the economically most efficient thing to do, but it will guarantee a lifetime of political support for the carbon tax! Hamilton figured this out with the assumption of national debt.

It has taken me some time to come around, as attached as I am to reducing marginal tax rates, but the political advantage that out keeps the money from being spent on boondoggles, and creates a constituency in favor of the tax and against spending the results on boondoggles, is strong.

I also worry about the wide range of environmental issues that have been forgotten in the Great Carbon War. Butterflies and Frogs are disappearing. The pacific garbage patch grows. Rhinos and Elephants will be gone long before climate bothers them. Take your pick, if we passed the carbon tax, and if this issue could disappear as one of the issues uniting partisanship and sweeping up the entire environmental movement, it would be a lot better for life on the planet.  Once upon a time, there were Republicans in the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Greenpeace, and other formerly non-partisan organizations. Put carbon behind us, and it could be so again.

"Big Names Bake a Climate Pie in the Sky" complained Holman Jenkins. His complaint, largely, is that the deal won't be kept -- we'll get the tax and regulations, and the dividend promise will disappear into the bowels of Washington.
Besides, since we face a “climate emergency,” wouldn’t the money be better spent on speeding up deployment of wind and solar? As for existing mandates and subsidies, sure, we might expend additional political energy to repeal these. And pigs might fly. 
This is an important point. As reducing marginal rates and removing deductions sounds nice, our tax reforms (especially the last) reduce marginal rates but don't remove deductions. The VAT with no income tax is a much better system, but many free market economists don't favor it because they don't trust the deal. Trusting the deal, carbon tax in return for no regulations, is a stretch.

However, I can hope that a deal could be struck, carbon tax in return for no new regulations and subsidies, or subsidy extensions -- no "Green New Deal."  If we give up that deals can ever be struck and kept, we might as well give up on democracy.

Of course, in the 5th week of a shutdown, over a completely symbolic issue, with great deals on the table that benefit both sides, if only each could let the other have a symbolic victory, is not a great time to advance such hope. But even here, once you realize the shutdown has nothing to do with immigration, you see hope. This is a battle to the end over the Trump presidency. If he backs down, his presidency is finished. The Democrats think they can achieve that, and if they back down their left wing takes over. There is no way out of that one -- and reason to hope that when Washington is bargaining over actual policy and not over a symbolic but life-and-death battle, that they can do it.

John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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