Friday, November 16, 2012

We Cannot Expect Republican Support for Carbon Taxes

On several recent occasions I've heard conservative talking heads make comments along the line of, "Global warming is real, the science supports it, but it's too late to do anything about it." Meanwhile, the global reality is that if it's a fraction of a penny cheaper to extract fossil fuels from the ground and burn them as compared to deriving energy from any other source, it's pretty clear that somebody is going to dig up or extract the fossil fuel and burn it.

Jamelle Bouie argues that conservatives should support (or is it "get back to supporting") some sort of tax on carbon emissions.
With a carbon tax off the table, new regulatory action becomes inevitable, with greater government intervention in the economy. This isn’t a hypothetical; when new taxes or direct spending is blocked as a means of implementing policy, the result is almost always a confusing, expensive and inefficient patchwork of regulations, mandates, and tax expenditures (see: the Affordable Care Act).

If conservatives believe that they can prevent any action on climate change indefinitely, then they should continue their opposition to a carbon tax or any other market-based mechanism for dealing with emissions. But if they have the slightest doubts, they would do well to open themselves to the possibility. All things being equal, it’s much better to conservative interests for the government to implement a tax and walk away, rather than develop a new scheme for regulation.
To which the "reasonable" people to whom I've previously alluded will argue that there's no point in a unilateral approach to climate change - if you can't bring China, India and the rest of the world along, the impact of unilateral action is modest. And as was suggested by the Republican approach to these issues during the primaries and presidential campaign, any regulatory approach is going to be derided as harming domestic oil production and driving up the cost of gas and heating oil to the detriment of U.S. consumers.

One of my frustrations with the debates is that both candidates were at times willing to adopt a narrative they knew to be misleading, not only because they stood to gain politically but also because the narrative is consistent with the beliefs of the voters they were hoping to reach. There are some issues for which pushing back against your opponent's false or misleading statement can hurt you politically.

The example that Bouie's argument brings to mind is the price of gas. Romney, who has to know better, was arguing that the President has some sort of magical control of gas prices. As if there's a valve hidden under his desk in the Oval Office that controls the nation's supply of gasoline. As if gas prices aren't affected by refinery capacity. As if increased domestic oil production will result in a sudden drop in the price of gasoline, even if the production has no meaningful impact on world supply or the price of oil in the global market. As if the difference between the price of gasoline on the date the financial crisis bottomed out and the price today is reflective of the White House energy policy instead of the laws of supply and demand.

Why not lecture Romney that he knows how commodity pricing works, and he knows that his argument is insipid? I suspect it's because polling and focus group testing suggests that it's not what people want to hear. Just like people don't want to hear that the President doesn't have granular control over the unemployment rate - as if a president in a recession who is looking at 8%+ unemployment would decide, coming into an election, "I think I'll keep unemployment high." People just don't want to know. And alas, politicians benefit by keeping the mythology alive.

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