A carbon tax would bring long-term rewards, but it will take leaders willing to make short-term sacrifices.
We are at an unacknowledged turning point for the economy and the environment. We could, right now, substantially reduce our debt and deficit projections, take a major step toward a better environment, create a simpler and fairer tax system, make job creation easier, and raise economic growth a bit. For all of these reasons, we could and should adopt a carbon tax.
Taking this step depends on two men: President Obama and Senator Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Both men want to leave an important legacy, and both are in a unique political position: They still possess real political power, but neither will ever face another election. (Obama, of course, is limited to two terms, and Baucus has just announced that he will retire.) Acting together, the two of them could completely change the odds of enacting a carbon tax this year.
Right now, if you ask around, as I have, there are many across the ideological spectrum who agree that a carbon tax would help us solve a lot of problems, but they won’t take a public step because they see no leadership support. My own gut feeling is that there would even be energy industry support for a carbon tax. President Obama and Senator Baucus could change this picture by making a carbon tax a priority and building bipartisan support for the project.
Why should we care? Let’s look at four issues: federal revenues, the tax system, jobs, and – oh, yeah – the environment.
First, a carbon tax of $20 a ton would raise about $120 billion a year, or $1.2 trillion over a decade. Right now, everyone anywhere near the budget debates is in a convenient and delusional state of mind about revenues. The conventional wisdom is that we either do not need more revenues or they are easy to find. So here are some counter-assertions: (1) despite the right’s imagination, we are not going to cope with the retirement of the boomers, the doubling of folks on Medicare, and our need for fundamental infrastructure investment without new revenues; (2) despite the speeches the left makes to itself, the problem won’t be solved by taxing whomever the left decides is rich; (3) we aren’t going to end the home mortgage and charitable deductions. There will come a point when $1 trillion in new revenue over the next decade that actually makes the economy and the world a little better will look pretty interesting, so why not try for it now?