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.

The California Solar Energy Property-Tax Exemption

California exempts solar energy equipment from its property tax. The exemption will last until 2025. The California Wind Energy Association has complained that this exemption puts solar energy at an artificial advantage relative to other renewables such as windmills. Biomass, the use of biological materials such as wood and leftover crops, is also at a relative disadvantage.

Rather than eliminate the solar tax exemption, the other energy industries should seek to eliminate the property tax on all energy capital goods. With this exemption, the government of California is recognizing that property taxes on capital goods – buildings, machines, equipment, inventory – impose costs that reduce production and innovation. Since this tax is toxic, the property tax should be removed from all improvements.

The best revenue neutral tax shift would be to increase the property-tax revenue from land value by the same amount as the reduction in the taxation of capital goods.

The other energy industry chiefs call the solar property-tax exemption a subsidy. We need to distinguish between absolute and relative subsidies. An absolute subsidy occurs when government provides grants to firms, or limits competition. A relative subsidy occurs when one firm or industry receives a greater subsidy than its competitors. All absolute subsidies are also relative subsidies, because they exist relative to the rest of the economy. But if the subsidy is not in funds or protection, but from lower rates on industry-destructive taxes, this is a relative but not an absolute subsidy.

Suppose that there are patients in a hospital suffering from continuous poisoning. The doctor stops poisoning one patient, and he recovers. But the other patients are still being poisoned. The other patients complain that it is not fair for one patient to be singled out for favored treatment. But the just remedy is not to resume poisoning the recovered patient, but to stop poisoning the others. The taxation of capital goods is economic poison, which the state recognizes would poison the solar energy industry they seek to promote. But why poison the other industries? The property tax should exempt all capital goods, all improvements.

A broader issue is the subsidies to energy. All forms of energy, except human muscles, are subsidized by the state and federal governments. Energy from oil and coal are implicitly subsidized by exempting them from the social costs of their environmental destruction. There is no economic need for any subsidies. But to obtain the true costs of energy, governments should also eliminate taxes not only on their capital goods but also on their incomes and sales. We cannot know whether renewable energy can stand on its own until we eliminate all the government interventions, including taxes, subsidies, and excessive regulations.

Since a radical restructuring of public finances is politically impossible today, a politically feasible reform would be to exempt all capital goods investments from the property tax. If this needs to be revenue-neutral, California could replace its cap-and-trade policy with levies on emissions. The relative subsidy to solar power is unfair to the other energy industries, but the real unfairness is the property tax on their investments.
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This article first appeared at http://www.progress.org/views/editorials/the-california-solar-energy-property-tax-exemption/

What Would You Do?

I picked up a five things to-do list from Grover Cleveland over at Pileus Blog if he were supreme ruler of the land. He in turn got his 5 from a prompt by Angus over at Kids Prefer Cheese. If readers have any more Top 5 lists they’ve come across let me know and I’ll link them accordingly.

Anyway, here are Angus’s Top 5: Continue reading