Carbon Gridlock Redux in Washington State

September 17, 2017
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A year ago—it already seems like another era—an initiative to set up a carbon tax in Washington State, I-732, was defeated by the voters.  The proposal was to use the money for tax reductions in accordance with the standard economic view that taxing “bads” rather than goods generates a double dividend.  I disagree with that (I think the deadweight loss case against taxes is weak), but I agree that carbon prices operate like a sales tax and are regressive, so it’s a good idea to return the money according to an egalitarian formula, preferably equal rebates per person.

But most of the political left sees it differently.  When they look at carbon pricing they see a big new revenue stream that can be used to fund all the things they have been unable to get in a period of conservative (or neoliberal) political dominance.  They want infrastructure, mass transit, community development projects and environmental restoration, and for them returning the money is unthinkable.  So the left in Washington State, including unions, social justice organizations and most of the environmental activist community, opposed 732, denouncing it as a corporate subterfuge.  A carbon tax is always going to face headwinds, but with the left as well as much of the right in opposition, it was doomed.

So here we are again, looking at another round of state carbon tax initiatives for 2018.  The group that organized the left campaign against 732, the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, is drafting their version, which will surely funnel most of the money to the causes (and in some cases the organizations) of their constituents.  But, perhaps in a play to get a bigger voice in the process, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, an umbrella group of 57 tribal governments in the region, has just announced it has begun drafting its own initiative, one that earmarks most of the money for environmental purposes, with a chunk dedicated to the tribes.  The prospect is for heated backroom meetings, where the leadership of various organizations push and pull to divvy up the potential carbon cash.  Whether the product of this process can survive at the polls is another question.

As I’ve written before here and elsewhere, I’m appalled at this deformation of carbon politics.  It doesn’t take into account who pays the carbon tax and the effect higher energy prices will have on living standards.  It naively assumes that governments will spend carbon money only on new projects and not shift existing spending in order to free up more funds for whatever they really want to finance.  There is no pretense of democracy in the way it establishes its earmarks.  And it puts the fight to get a piece of carbon revenues ahead of the urgent need to address the climate crisis, with predictable political consequences.  Revenue recycling in the simplest, most transparent fashion is the way to go, but if there are to be earmarks they should be decided democratically.

The politics of carbon activism are tangled in knots, and year after year goes by without serious action to avert an almost unimaginable climate catastrophe.

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