“Cap-and-Trade is a Tax”

Thomas Friedman says that opponents of policies to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases are going to point out that cap and trade is equivalent to a carbon tax, and make a political issue out of it, so why not go for the real thing?

Show Us the Ball, by Thomas Friedman, Commentary, NY Times: …Last week, House Democrats, with administration support, introduced a 600-page draft bill … to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through a complicated cap-and-trade system. These people have the very best of intentions, but I wish they would step back and ask again: Can cap-and-trade pass? Will it really work? And is it the best strategy, with all the bureaucracy it will require to monitor, auction emissions permits and manage the trading?

Advocates of cap-and-trade argue that it is preferable to a simple carbon tax because it … “hides the ball” — it doesn’t use the word “tax” — even though it amounts to one. …

That was true as long as no one thought cap-and-trade could ever pass, but … opponents are not playing hide the ball anymore. In the past two weeks, you could hear a chorus of Republicans, coal-state Democrats, right-wing think tanks and enviro-skeptics all singing the same tune: “Cap-and-trade is a tax. Obama is going to raise your taxes and sacrifice U.S. jobs to combat this global-warming charade… Worse, cap-and-trade will be managed by Wall Street. If you liked credit-default swaps, you’re going to love carbon-offset swaps.” …

They could easily kill this effort. So, if the Obama team cares about … a stronger America and a more livable planet,… I hope it will consider an alternative strategy, message and messenger.

STRATEGY Since the opponents of cap-and-trade are going to pillory it as a tax anyway, why not go for the real thing — a simple, transparent, economy-wide carbon tax? …

People get that — and simplicity matters. Americans will be willing to pay a tax for their children to be less threatened, breathe cleaner air and live in a more sustainable world with a stronger America. They are much less likely to support a firm in London trading offsets from an electric bill in Boston with a derivatives firm in New York in order to help fund an aluminum smelter in Beijing, which is what cap-and-trade is all about. People won’t support what they can’t explain.

MESSAGE Climate change is a real threat to a healthy planet… But because the worst effects are in the future, many Americans have more immediate concerns. That is why our energy policy should be focused around “American renewal,” not mitigating climate change.

We need a price on carbon because it will stimulate massive innovation in … energy technology. … I.T. could be the foundation for a second American industrial revolution, plus it would tip the whole planet onto a greener path. So American economic renewal is the goal, but mitigating climate change would be the great byproduct.

MESSENGER The Obama administration’s carbon tax spokesman — the one who should sell this to the country — should be the president’s national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, not the environmentalists. The imposing former head of the Marine Corps could make a powerful case that … the country with the most powerful clean-technology industry in the 21st century will have the most energy security, national security, economic security, healthy environment, innovative companies and global respect. That country must be America. So let’s stop hiding the ball and have a strategy, message and messenger that tell it like it is — and make it so.

The tax changes can be made revenue neutral so that there is a change in the incentive to consume goods with high carbon content, but no change (implicit or explicit) in the overall tax burden (e.g. see here for a carbon tax example – a cap and trade equivalent exists). In addition, such rebates, if properly distributed, could help with the political problem Friedman is worried about.

Originally published at the Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.