The “cow tax”: not now, maybe not ever

In December, ranchers fell into a panic over a nonexistent E.P.A. proposal to tax methane emissions from cows. By February, panic was replaced by giggling: how could they every have worried over something so crazy as a “cow tax?” And now, to demonstrate how badly misplaced their fears were, a Democratic and Republican Senator have joined together to enshrine in law the sacred principle that American cows shall never be taxed. Smell the bipartisanship.

Including cattle in a cap-and-trade system is, of course, a fine idea. From an environmental perspective, cattle are a major source of a wide range of ills: methane emissions, land use changes, nitrous oxide emissions, ammonia emissions, etc. If you tally up the negative impacts of beef on human health and productivity, the societal cost of cows climbs even higher.

From an economic efficiency perspective, it generally doesn’t make sense to exclude sectors from a carbon cap. We want emissions reductions to come from the fastest, lowest-cost sources available, and it’s hard to imagine anything cheaper or lower-cost than reduced beef consumption. It takes decades to shut down a coal plant. It takes no time at all to not eat a strip steak. Moreover, energy is a primary input to just about every sector of the economy. The same can hardly be said for tender, delicious short ribs.

Finally, pricing is really the only policy implement up to the task of curbing beef consumption. The government might be able to fiddle around at the margins through consumer awareness campaigns and school lunch programs, but anything more heavyhanded would raise a justifiable backlash. (And, sadly, even these modest government interventions are ferociously resisted by industry.) Of course, the entire system of subsidies that keep beef so cheap needs to overhauled, but the end result is the same: when burgers fall off the dollar value menu, chicken nuggets start looking a lot better.

Anyhow, ranchers need never have worried. A cow tax is a political non-starter, simple as that. The tale is a reminder that market-based solutions to environmental problems need more champions, because when the meal is over, no one ever wants to pick up the check.

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  1. S. Lee - March 11, 2009

    Market solutions are generally the best ones, but take some time to work. I have seen some studies that indicate that if Americans ate one LESS hamburger and hot dog per week, we could stop world hunger in its tracks.
    So save a cow and a child at the same time; skip that burger and hot dog this week and improve your health at the same time. (Do you have ANY idea what is in those things?)

  2. Jackie - March 11, 2009

    There is a BIG piece you didn’t talk about – the feed lot, which leaches nastiness into our water – rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers!
    Then there are the health problems generated by feeding corn to fatten the beef, causing changes to the beef that comes from unhealthy cows. Cheap food is generally worth the price.
    Grass fed beef may eliminate the problems of water pollution and unhealthy beef, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of carbon emissions. I love beef too, and I will not eat it.

  3. Sandy - May 6, 2009

    We cannot address any problems without striking at the roots – and meat/dairy lie at the roots of most problems we face – global Warming, Pollution, Animal rights violations, Fresh Water scarcity, Obesity, Heart Disease and Cancer, Global hunger and poverty and many many others.