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.

On 7 million deaths from air pollution

ATTN published a video of An-huld (the really cool guy who made my childhood by being in all my favorite action movies like Predator* and who ended up being the governor of California). In that short clip, Schwarznegger starts by saying that 7 million individuals die from pollution-related illnesses.

That number is correct. But it is misleading.

People see pollution as “all and the same”. But some forms of pollution increase with development (sulfur emissions and some would argue that too much CO2 emissions is pollution as it causes climate change). However, others drop dramatically – especially heavy particules (Pm10) which are a great cause of smog. Julian Simon (the late cornucopian economist who is one my greatest intellectual influence) pointed out this issue and noted that the deadliest forms of pollution are those that relate to underdevelopment.

Back in 2003, Jack Hollander published the Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence is the Environment’s Number One Enemy. Hollander pointed out that simply from the combustion of organic matter (read: firewood and animal manure – literally burning fecal matter) indoors for the purposes of heating, cooking and lighting was responsible for close to 2 millions deaths.

Since then, the WHO came out with a study pointing out that around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes with open fires and stoves that rely on biomass or anthracite-coal. They put the number of premature deaths directly resulting from this at over 4 million people. This is close to 60% of the figure cited by the former President of California (yes, I know he was governor – see here). In other words, 60% of the people who die prematurely as a result of strokes, ischaemic heart diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and lung cancers can be attributed to indoor air pollution. That means pollution resulting from the fact that you are so poor that you have to burn anything at hand at the cost of your health.

True, richer countries pollute and there are policy solutions (I have often argued that governments are better at polluting than at reducing pollution, but that is another debate) that should be adopted. But, these forms of pollution do not harm human life as much as those that come with poverty.

* By the way, when you watch Predator, do you realize that there are two future American governors in that movie? I mean, imagine that when Predator came out, some dude from the future told you that two of the main actors would end governing American states. Pretty freaky!

Is Australia’s Carbon Tax Repeal Really Market Enhancing?

Some libertarians cheer whenever there is any tax repeal. However, we need to distinguish taxes in form versus taxes in substance. Taxes in substance have no relation to a benefit or penalty attached to the payment. Taxes in form, but not in substance, pay funds to the government, but are tied to some benefit or compensation for damages.

It is standard economic theory that the best way to prevent pollution, as with other negative The effects, is to make the polluter, hence also the buyer of its products, pay the social cost of the pollution. The economist Arthur Cecil Pigou provided a thorough explanation in his 1920 book The Economics of Welfare. A tax on pollution has since then been called “Pigovian.”

One of the most discussed Pigovian taxes has been on the use of carbon-based fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil. A “carbon tax” can be on the fuel inputs or on the emission outputs. The most effective Pigovian levy is on the emissions, as that provides an incentive to reduce pollution such as by capturing the carbon before it gets spewed out. If the polluter does not compensate society for dumping on the commons, then in effect it gets subsidized, as it sells its output at less than the total social cost of production.

Many countries have been confronting pollution with inefficient policies such as regulations, credits for offsetting pollution with purchases of forest lands, and permits that can be traded. Australia enacted what was called a “carbon tax” with the Clean Energy Act of 2011, implemented in July 2012. But this was not a Pigovian tax. The Act created a “carbon price mechanism,” a cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme that at first set a price per ton of emissions. This mandated price had the effect of a ‘carbon tax’. But after 2015, the mechanism would have transitioned to a trading scheme.

However, in 2013 the newly elected prime minister sought a repeal of the “carbon tax” emissions trading scheme. In 2014, parliament passed the repeal.

The opponents of emissions taxes claim that this increases costs to business and households. This is narrowly true, but policy should consider the total costs to society. The pollution imposes a social cost on Australia and the rest of the world. This is not a cost paid in explicit money, but costs in the form of illness, a less productive environment, and possible effects on the climate.

The opponents of emission levies overlook that the absence of compensation for the pollution costs is in effect a subsidy to the polluters and their customers. A pollution charge is not a tax in substance, but rather the prevention of this subsidy, and compensation for dumping toxic materials on other people’s property.

The repeal did not provide a replacement, and this creates uncertainty for business about any future anti-pollution policy. This policy uncertainty reduces investment and growth.

The best way to implement a pollution tax is as a replacement of other taxes. Taxes in income, sales, and value added impose the excess burden of higher costs and less output and employment. If politicians are concerned with tax costs, why are they not repealing these taxes? When a pollution tax replaces such market-hampering taxes, the total costs paid by consumers does not increase, but rather shifts in favor of less- polluting products.

Actually, the revenue obtained from Australia’s brief carbon tax was used to compensate taxpayers and affected companies. But the most effective policy would have been to have an explicit tax on pollution instead of a trading scheme, and to lower other tax rates, along with a transitional compensation to those with net losses.

Some opponents claim that Pigovian charges would be good if applied globally, but in a single country, would put its industries at a disadvantage. But that would not happen with a “green tax shift,” the replacement of inefficient taxes with a “green tax” on pollution. A green tax shift would reduce the environmental cost of pollution while not increasing the total tax costs for the country’s economy.

Hayekian Environmental Policy

Just as decentralized knowledge implies economic non-intervention, so too it implies environmental non-intervention.

One of the contributions to economics made by the Austrian-school economist Friedrich Hayek is the theory of scattered knowledge. In his famous article, “The use of knowledge in society,” Hayek analyzed how the knowledge needed for economic activity by consumers, producers, legislators, and bureaucrats is dispersed, tacit, and ever-changing. Sellers of goods can conduct surveys to find out what people want, but such data collection reveals only a small fraction of the subjective desires of buyers. The knowledge of how to produce goods is decentralized among the firms, each of which has its own local knowledge of the costs and the demand for its goods.

Much of the knowledge about goods is tacit, not written down. A label can list the ingredients, but it will not tell the buyer about how good it will taste, and does not reveal the full story about the nutritional benefits and harmful effects. A government bureaucrat cannot know all the details about the way a company handles its goods. The biggest and fastest computers cannot be programmed to know everything the economy is doing. The supplies and demands for goods are dynamic, always changing, like the weather, so that even when knowledge is gathered and analyzed, it soon becomes obsolete.

The Hayekian knowledge problem is one reason the Austrian school of economic thought concludes that only a truly free market can effectively apply the relevant knowledge. Government officials who try industrial policy, the promotion of some goods at the expense of others, often fail. For examples, subsidies to energy from the wind end up wasting resources, as a uniform policy cannot be applied to suit local conditions, and the full effects (such as windmills killing birds) are not known in advance, resulting in bad unintended consequences.

The natural environment, everything apart from human action, is too complex for human beings to fully understand it. As with economic knowledge, the data needed to understand human effects on the environment is both global and local. The knowledge of environmental conditions is tacit, and changing. The ecologies of the earth, like the economies, have interconnected elements with feedback loops. Kill the mountain lions, and the deer multiply, eat up the vegetation, and then the rains wash away the soils.

The Hayekian perspective on global climate change as well as local impacts is to admit that we don’t know the full effects of human activity, but we do know that interference with long-established interconnections can be deadly. The policy implication is that we should minimize unnecessary human interference with the natural environment. Any human presence displaces the natural presence, as a farm replaces meadows and forests. But it is excessive to burn down large areas of rain forests in order to have a few years of crops until the soil nutrients are depleted.

The optimal application of the knowledge issue is to understand that we can apply some general knowledge but not specific knowledge. For example, we know that emissions from power plants, factories, and vehicles have bad effects. Costs are ultimately subjective, but some costs, such as lost income and resources, can be quantified. We cannot precisely measure the social cost of pollution, but by comparing places with various amounts of pollution, and the various rates of diseases in those places, we can obtain some estimates of the ill effects. Policy can therefore require a payment for emissions that invade others’ property. To do nothing is to declare a price of zero, which is less accurate than the positive price obtained by statistical means.

The Hayekian policy for emissions is therefore a payment for the estimated damage. A pollution charge requires less knowledge than detailed regulations such as engine requirements, gasoline additives, and smog tests. The emissions charge would not be based on uncertain climate changes, but on the proposition that human interventions into the atmosphere and oceans could be catastrophic. The probabilities are uncertain, but what we do know is that a small probability times a huge cost equals a substantial present value. Because the earth’s environment is a balance of water and air temperatures, cycles of carbon emissions and absorptions, feedback loops, and substances such as the ozone layer, the probability that human interventions are harmful is much greater than the chance that they are beneficial. The mutual relationship of wolves, deer, and vegetation imply that killing off either the wolves or the deer will have bad effects.

The knowledge problem implies that policy has to confront the environmental issue rather than ignore it, because human activity is inherently environmentally interventionist. In some cases, intervention can help the environment, such as with artificial coral reefs. But large interventions such as deliberately dumping iron compounds into the ocean should be avoided.

The Austrian school of economic thought is critical of central planning due to its absence of economic calculation via market prices, and due to the knowledge problem. But the absence of pollution charges itself implies mispricing and the presumption that we know nothing about the effects of emissions. Given today’s highly regulated economy, the implication of Hayek’s thought on knowledge is to replace regulations and emissions trading schemes with the requirement to pay the estimated social costs. Firms (and their customers) can then either pay that cost or else avoid that cost by polluting less. To be most effective, pollution charges would need to be applied globally.

Some free-market economists respond to the pollution issue by stating that property rights are sufficient to solve the problem. But any negotiation or lawsuit to compensate others for negative external effects necessarily requires an objective estimate of the damages. A complete prohibition of an external effect, whether of emissions or noise or visual effects, imposes a cost on the emitter. Tort law, with transferable lawsuits, as well as arbitration and mediation, could replace governmentally enacted pollution levies when the victims can be identified, but there is no avoiding some objective estimate of costs. And where torts are not effective, an international agreement on pollution charges would be warranted.

The Civilization Bubble

There have been many financial and real estate bubbles during the past few hundred years, and there have been empire bubbles, but never before has there been the global civilization bubble in which we are now in. The bubble will collapse within a few decades. It will be the end of civilization, and will result in world-wide violence, deaths, and chaos.

Empire bubbles can last several hundred years, as for example the Mayan civilization or the Roman Empire. What brings down empires is invasion, bad economic policy, environmental exhaustion, or weakened tyranny. The Soviet Union, for example, was a statist bubble that was brought down by economic decay and weakened tyranny.

Most of the world is now in a global civilization. There are two enemies of this global order. One enemy is terrorist pseudo-religious supremacists. They could bring down the global civilization with electromagnetic bombs that would wipe out the storage and transmission of data that the world’s economy depends on. Very little is being done to protect the global electronic infrastructure from attack, thus the bubble.

The other threat to global civilization is internal, or as scientists say, endogenous. Global civilization is rushing towards an environmental collapse. There are hints of this in the plastic contamination of the oceans, the depletion of fresh water, the destruction of fish and corals, the eradication of forests, and possibly accelerated climate change. What will most likely bring down global civilization is the plundering and poisoning of the natural infrastructure of the earth. Continue reading

Environmentalism and Property Rights

The horrible air in Beijing has been making the news again, and for good reason. Check out these pictures for reasons why. The topic of environmentalism and its compatibility with liberty has been brought up before here at the consortium, but I’d like to briefly use this opportunity to point out something on property rights.

Conservatives and, lamentably, some libertarians often attribute environmental destruction to “the tragedy of the commons,” but this is short-sighted. Anthropologists have long pointed out that land and property held in common is actually governed quite well. Political scientists and economists have recently begun to come around to this point as well, with Elinor Ostrom (a political scientist by training) winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on how some societies govern the commons.

Common land and its use often requires an informal set of rules for maintaining a harmonious balance between man and land, and is also a characteristic feature of societies that we would variously label, rightly or wrongly, as stateless, pastoral, foraging, tribal, or my personal favorite: undeveloped. In other words, common land is often exploited by poor people who do not have the resources to institute a regime based largely on private property. With this in mind, just think: would you want to be the party that is found guilty for violating an agreed-upon set of rules for a specific area of land? Even if there were no formal state apparatus charged with enforcing a society’s rules? Not only would you have to face justice, but you’d also be held responsible for the possible suffering of many other people depending on the land, which could lead to other forms of punishment besides fines or violence; punishments that could affect the lives of your loved ones and your loved ones’ loved ones. Continue reading

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

The world’s oceans are being poisoned. Some of the plastic litter is visible, such as in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There, plastics and other debris are trapped by the “gyres” or currents of the North Pacific. Some plastics float while others sink.

Even worse are the plastic particles that are not visible. Much of the plastic tossed into the ocean breaks down into molecules, both of the plastic material and also of toxic chemicals. The particles are eaten by fish and other animals. The plastics then enter the food chain for fish, birds, turtles – and human beings. Worse yet, the plastic molecules absorb pollutants, so the food chain gets poisoned. The pollutants become ever more concentrated as they go up the food chain of contaminated animals. Pollution from eating fish becomes a source of diseases such as cancer. Continue reading