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Playing to lose: Dingell proposes carbon tax


In an odd bit of policy jujitsu, Democratic congressman John Dingell has promised to introduce carbon tax bill that he hopes will fail. Dingell is counting on the public outcry against any sort of new tax to make the currently trendy topic of climate change as politically radioactive as he’d like it to be.

Dingell is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He also represents Detroit, and has been a long-time thorn in the side of those seeking to curb carbon emissions. Environmental groups are not amused by Dingell’s gambit. They fear he is right that citizens will reach for their pitchforks and torches as soon as the “t” word is uttered. All the hard-won momentum for meaningful action on climate change could quickly evaporate.

In response to the kerfuffle, Dan Drezner asks a relevant question:

[Environmentalists’ response] raises a big-ass warning flag for those of us in the squishy middle who are genuinely concerned about global warming but are also concerned about the overall costs of dealing with it (not to mention the distribution of those costs). If Dingell is downplaying the benefits of reducing global warming, to what extent are environmentalists… downplaying the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions? As far as I can figure, cap and trade systems differ from tax systems in that they are a) less effective; and b) more opaque in distributing the costs. Sure, Dingell is playing politics, but…he’s not doing it differently from environmentalists.

In the abstract, I see some validity to this. Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems are far more similar than they are different, and it’s a shame that so much of policy discourse is driven by a Pavlovian fear of the word “tax.” Far better if such semantic sleight-of-hand could be set aside in favor of a discussion of the costs and benefits of different proposals.

In the real world, though, this exact game has played out in every policy battle since the beginning of time: you tout the benefits of your favored policy, minimize the negatives, and attempt to cobble together a winning coalition of interest groups. Environmentalists had better be able to play this game, because their antagonists have certainly learned its rules well. Policy debates are not won or lost on a spreadsheet analysis.

Further, from his position in the squishy middle, Drezner would surely be forced to concede that there’s been something of a scruple mismatch between the various parties to this debate. Opponents of climate change legislation haven’t so much “downplayed” the costs of climate change as denied, ridiculed, and lied about them. Advocates of carbon constraints, on the other hand, have been fairly honest about economic impacts.

It’s impossible to say how Dingell’s bit of political theater will play out. Sadly, I suspect that his intuitions are right. Which just means that environmentalists are going to have to get more cagey about the politics of climate change, not less.

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