Further thoughts on the carbon tax.

This post is in response to feedback from my previous post on this topic.


There are no panaceas.

But as abstract ideas go, pollution taxes are pretty appealing. Holding constant lots of things that we can’t really hold constant, it means replacing the inefficiency resulting from poorly defined/enforced property rights with a world where prices more accurately reflect the costs of one’s decisions.

Let me come back to the things we’re “holding” constant in a bit. Why do I want to throw my weight behind shifting public perceptions in favor of pollution taxes?

I think they’re underrated by the median voter. Climate change is just a subsidy paid in the form of worse conditions. But most people (including people who should know better) don’t have a good understanding of the problems caused by subsidies.

Which is not to say a carbon tax isn’t overrated by the median policy wonk. There are a ton of important caveats, but on balance, as a policy for use in the next 50 years, I think they’re a useful tool to enhance efficiency or replace worse tools.

Again, there are no panaceas. I’m also not a huge fan of the “Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends” as written (for reasons I’ve hopefully mostly addressed). I suspect the best case scenario for my preferred carbon tax policy would be a modest improvement. I think the bulk of the gain would be a cultural shift away from “let’s regulate our problems!” to “let’s leverage incentives to address our problems!” Not Earth shattering, but a step in the right direction.

So let me state my position, then we can dig into criticisms and caveats.

Let’s make marginal shifts away from taxing investment and towards taxing negative externalities. As we go, let’s spend a lot of effort trying to study the impacts and adjust accordingly. Let’s heavily agument that with abatement policies rather than trying to return to some pre-industrial climate target.

Okay, let’s dig into criticisms and caveats.

  1. Public choice considerations
  2. Geoengineering and other alternatives
  3. Cost
  4. Coordination
  5. Uncertainty

1-Public choice considerations

A Green New Deal will be a rent-seeking bonanza. Pollution taxes will face the same sorts of problems that plague the tax code in general. There will be intentional loop-holes and accidental screw ups.

We have to continue to push for reducing the complexity of tax codes in general. But I can’t deny that a carbon tax would be a step back on this margin.

Minus a hundred points for my position.

2-What about geoengineering?

Geoengineering sounds like a possible panacea. Maybe it is. But I’m not willing to flip a switch and find out the hard way all at once.

First off, geoengineering is scary. The climate is a complex system and complex systems are difficult-impossible to manage well. And that’s especially concerning if it means that anyone with a few million bucks can try to fiddle with Earth’s thermostat.

But it seems like a plausible tool that might be used to address climate change. Similar to my take on a carbon tax, I think the way to go is baby-steps plus research.

What about subsidizing “green _____”

Personally, I’m skeptical. Solar sounds appealing, and I (personally) think windmills are beautiful. But I don’t think the government will do a good job of picking winners and losers. Pollution taxes are appealing to me because they don’t require bureaucrats to choose. Again, I think the way to go is to use pollution taxes to offset other taxes–while continuing to advocate for reduced size/scope of government and a return to federalism.

Plus five points for my position.

3-Cost

We should also remember that GDP is an imperfect measure of well being. The current figures aren’t directly comparable to the figures we’d get in a post-carbon-tax world. A one-time fall in GDP doesn’t (necessarily) mean we’ve screwed things up.

A tax big enough to halt climate change would be incredibly costly. Too big a tax yields a negative net benefit.

Still, it’s worth remembering that a) we can go too far with a carbon tax, and b) we don’t have access to a silver-bullet solution. So let’s start small and gradually increase carbon taxes till we get close to (our best estimate of) the optimal level.

Plus epsilon points for my position.

4-Coordination

The basic idea of a carbon tax is that we’re dealing with a global-scale externality problem. But small scale taxes are unlikely to do much beyond shifting where pollution happens. A fully effective tax would require multi-lateral coordination. And, as a country, we aren’t very good at that.

Trying to create a tax on imported carbon-intensive goods that didn’t face a tax at home seems a) sensible at first blush, and b) a massive opportunity for public choice problems.

On the other hand, we could justify a tax commensurate with the local impacts (something like 10% of the global impact). This fits nicely with my idea of starting small and adjusting at the margin.

But even within the U.S. there are coordination issues. Long Island will likely face net costs from climate change, but other areas will benefit from a longer growing season.

Plus 10 points for my position, but also minus 10 points.

5-Uncertainty

Uncertainty cuts both ways: we’re currently accidentally manipulating the climate and that could turn out to be catastrophic. Trying to intentionally manipulate it in the other direction is also dangerous. Again, the appropriate focus is on marginal tinkering [much as it clashes with my non-interventionist priors] rather than ambitious global engineering [which grabs my priors by the lapels and knees them in the groin].

When I teach externalities, I draw a graph like this:

Negative externalities when we magically know their magnitude.

In this market, we end up with an equilibrium quantity defined by the point where Marginal Private Cost equals Marginal Social Benefit (MPC = MSB). But the Marginal Social Cost (MSC) is greater, so we get a deadweight loss equal to the triangle I’ve shaded in red and purple.

It’s important to note: we don’t actually know where the MSC curve is. It’s somewhere above MPC, but we’re basically in the position of trying to eliminate a subsidy we don’t know the size of.

The relevant models–climate models and economic models–are filled with uncertainty that we simply cannot resolve without real life experience.

What does the economic way of thinking tell us? Act on the margin. Setting a tax that pushes supply (MPC) up to the green line doesn’t fully address the problem (as I’ve assumed it to be in this graph), but it’s an improvement.

Even better, it’s an improvement where the biggest returns are experienced up front. This modest tax fails to get rid of the red deadweight loss (DWL) area, but it eliminated 3/4 of the total DWL.

Plus X points for my position where X is a random variable with an unknown distribution, positive first derivative, and negative second derivative.

tl;dr:

At my friend’s behest I’ve been looking at Bob Murphy’s critique of carbon taxes. I find it’s shifted the magnitude of my prior opinion, but not the direction. I still think carbon/pollution taxes are a good idea, but I no longer think they’re a great idea. My take away from Murphy’s work is that the optimal carbon tax is fairly modest. My response is to advocate for getting a very modest carbon tax on the books, then gradually shift tax policy in that direction.

For climate change (and any other problem) we ought to be pluralists. A mix of approaches is ideal. Part of the appeal of Pigouvian taxes is that they allow and encourage a wide range of responses. The best pollution abatement scheme isn’t something we can look up in a binder. We have to discover it, and crowdsourcing is the appropriate way to do that.

But carbon taxes are only one part. We should also advocate for changes that will ameliorate harm. I am more bullish on these policies than I am on a carbon tax:

  • Make it easier for the world’s poorest people to move to rich countries that will be better able to cope with climate change.
  • Quit subsidizing flood insurance.
  • Quit subsidizing polluting industries (and other industries).

Even though geoengineering scares me, we should try to learn more. Ditto for any other possible tools that come along.

Summing up: the year of irrationality

Brandon says I’ve got one last chance to write his favorite post of the year. But it’s the end of a long semester and I’m brain dead, so I’m just going to free ride on his idea: a year end review. If I were to sum up the theme of this year in a word, that word would be irrational.

After 21 months of god awful presidential campaigning, we were finally left with a classic Kodos vs Kang election. The Democrats were certain that they could put forward any turd sandwich and beat Trump, but they ultimately lost out to populist outrage. Similar themes played out with Brexit, but I don’t know enough to comment.

Irrationality explains the Democrats, the Republicans, and the country as a whole. The world is complex, but big decisions have been made by simple people.

We aren’t equipped to manage the world’s complexity.

We aren’t made to have direct access to The Truth; we’re built to survive, so we get a filtered version of the truth that has tended to keep our ancestors out of trouble long enough to get laid. In other words, what seems sensible to each of us, may or may not be the truth. What we see with our own eyes may not be worth believing. We need more than simple observation to actually ferret out The Truth.

Our imperfect perceptions build on imperfect reasoning faculties to make imperfect folk economics. But what sounds sensible often overlooks important moving parts.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Only a small minority of the population will ever have a strong grasp on any particularly complex thing. As surely as my mechanic will never become an expert in economics, I will never be able to do any real work on my car. The trouble arises when we expect me or my mechanic to try to run the country. The same logic applies to politicians, whose job (contrary to what your civics teacher thinks) is to get re-elected, not to be a master applied social scientist. (And as awful as democracy is, the alternative is just some other form of political competition… there is no philosopher king.)

But, of course, our imperfect perception and reasoning have gotten us this far. They’ve pulled us out of caves and onto the 100th floor of a skyscraper*. Because in many cases we get good enough feedback to learn a lot about how to accomplish things in our mysterious universe.

We’re limited in what we can do, but sometimes it’s worth trying something. The trouble is, I can do things that benefit me at your expense. And this is especially true in politics (also pollution–what they have in common is hot air!). But it’s not just the politicians who create externalities, it’s the electorate. The costs of my voting to outlaw gravity (the simplest way for me to lose a few pounds) are nil. But when too many of us share the same hare-brained idea, we can do some real harm. And many people share bad ideas that have real consequences.

Voting isn’t the only way to be politically engaged, and we face a similar problem in political discourse in general. A lot of Democrats are being sore losers about this election rather than learning and adapting. Trump promised he would have done the same had he lost. We’re basically doomed to have low-quality political discourse. It’s easy and feels (relatively) good to bemoan that the whole world is going to hell.

We’re facing rational irrationality. Everyone is simply counting on someone else to get their shit together, because each of us individually is more comfortable with our heads firmly up our asses.

It’s a classic tragedy of the commons and it should prompt us to find some way to minimize the harm of our lousy politics. We’ve been getting better at this over the centuries. Democracy means the levers of power can change hands peacefully. Liberalization has entailed extending civil and economic rights to a wider range of people. We need to continue in this vein. More freedom has allowed more peace and prosperity.

 

So what do we do? I’d argue that we should focus on general rules rather than trying to have flawed voters pick flawed politicians and hope for the best. I don’t mean “make all X following specifications a, b, and c.” I mean, if you’re mad, try and sue someone. We don’t need dense and exploitable regulations. We don’t need new commissions. We just need a way for people to deal with problems as they arise. Mind you, our court system (like the rest of our government) isn’t quite ready for a more sensible world. But we can’t be afraid to be a little Utopian when we’re planning for the long run. But let’s get back to my main point…

We live in an irrational world. And it makes sense that it’s that way; rationality is hard. We can see irrationality all around us, but we see it most where it’s cheapest: politics and Facebook. The trouble is, sometimes little harmless irrational acts add up to cause real harm. Let’s admit we’ve got a problem with irrationality in politics so we can get better.


*Although that’s only literally true in 17 cases.

Thoughts on climate change

Last week I heard a sermon on climate change (no, it was an actual sermon). I’m roughly agnostic on the existence and degree of climate change, but I err on the side of assuming it is a large problem of externalities with no obvious property rights solution and will have costs. And I think that under those assumptions there is an important moral element to it. With that in mind, below are some of my thoughts on the weak points of the sermon:

1) Authority is only a starting point; we cannot defer ultimate responsibility to authority. If an expert or someone I trust tells me something about X, and I don’t have any prior knowledge about X, then I believe them. In the case of global warming there are two basic sorts of information you will get from information: a) diagnosis (temperatures could rise X degrees in the coming century), and b) prescription.

The climatology involved in a) is well above my pay grade, and so rather than undergo the costs of informing myself on the existence or importance of climate change, I just figure the truth is somewhere in the middle of what reasonably informed people say and instead focus my effort on my areas of comparative advantage. Now the actions in b) are typically about reducing waste and that’s well within the realm of economic thinking, so I’ll comment on that!

1b) Blindly deferring to authority to assuage your guilt is wrong and bad. Someone says you should drive an electric care to save the environment? Don’t do it before thinking through the matter, this is a big decision for most people. Where’s the energy coming from to power that car? (Coal. That is burned hundreds of miles away from your car… that’s like having a car with a hundred mile long drive shaft.) How much energy and material does it take to make the car? (Hint: look at prices.)

2) It’s called climate change, not climate universal and uniform worsening. If climate change means a warmer climate for Canada and Russia, that will come with extended growing seasons and savings on winter heating costs. Burma? It’s probably going to suffer a lot. Climate change will surely have the biggest impact on the poorest people in the world, and this is where I see the real moral issue because…

3) We can respond to climate change in a way to reduce suffering. Specifically, we can open borders. First off, that would increase human well being, with an enormous benefit to the world’s poorest people. Second, the effects of climate change won’t harm the poor as much as they could. Is climate change still a bad thing if we do this? Sure, but if a building is burning, why not help people get out?

Loose ends:

Should I recycle everything? Only if it will actually help. Recycled aluminum is chemically identical to virgin aluminum and uses fewer resources to produce (which is why it’s cheaper!). Recycling paper creates a lower quality product, uses a lot of energy and creates pollution.

Paper bags are brown, that’s good, right? Plastic bags are almost ethereal; they use a fraction of the material per unit of carrying capacity resulting in big savings. Yes, there are offsetting costs to using plastic, but it isn’t as simple as “this brown, it must be natural and therefore good!” And while we’re on the topic, brown M&Ms are stupid. There’s a layer of white sugar between that brown outer layer and the actually brown chocolate. Brown M&Ms are as unnatural as any of the other colors.

Should I buy local? Maybe if you live in California, but not if you live in Massachusetts. The biggest environmental impact of food is growing it; plowing fields, planting, watering (outside where the water could just evaporate!), and harvesting use a lot more energy than transportation. So if you live in a place with poor growing conditions, then buying local only does more harm. That said, fresh food tastes better, so by all means pay the cost if you value the flavor, just don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re reducing energy usage by doing so.

Consider opportunity cost and present value! So you’ve got a solar panel and now electricity is free for the next 20-30 years! Or you’ve installed new modern insulation for your home. Or you bought a car that costs less to run (and you’ve promised not to increase your usage). But at what cost? If your solar panel used 40 years worth of energy to build and install, then you’ve done more harm than good. And you’ve done that harm upfront. Even if one of these investments has a positive return (it saves more resources than it uses), you should still consider whether it’s a good investment. We don’t have unlimited resources, and that means that if you spend $10,000 on insulation that will give you a 0.4% ROI then you’ve given up the chance to invest that money into something that will generate more good.