Another Perspective

Granting Environmental Indulgences

What next from Waxman-Pelosi? Salem witch trials?

By 7.15.09

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As soon as a coin in the coffer rings
A soul from purgatory springs.

So went a mantra from 16th-century Europe, when salvation -- or, so the idea went -- could be purchased by anyone willing to pay the price: sold to the sinner for cold hard cash. Sins were absolved, sinners sanctified, offenses forgotten. Money, not the commitment to a better life, promised that debauchery and divinity could cohabit in the ledgers of the holy treasurer. By virtue of a self-promoting religiosity, these indulgences, as they were called, purported to place spiritual caps on the consequences of forbidden acts. A weekend of decadent and intemperate living brought no punishment for breaking with accepted piety. In theory, at least, a person could excuse all the depravity he wanted, as long as those indulgent acts were economically sanctioned by appropriate authorities. Contrary to the hopes of the sinner, however, financial machinations had not the power to sanctify the sinner. The sins remained even when the money did not. What started out as a dubious collection plate, ended up decimating the reputation and structure of organized religion in Europe. Sin and corruption, rather than dissipating, coalesced at the foundation of Western Religion, paving the way for years of violent reformation. 

Is Cap-and-Trade just another politically indulgent Indulgence?

The comparison is not without merit. Last month, Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, preached the virtues of righteous energy policy, pressing members in a twilight session with supernal promises of political -- and most assuredly, financial -- indulgences. After not a little dealing and celestial wrangling, Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Waxman did sufficiently succor their sheep, and H.R. 2454 ("Cap-and-Trade") passed 219-212: filled, to be sure, with all manner of goodies for the faithful 219 who supported it.

Through those 219 votes, House leadership secured unprecedented relief and forgiveness for immoral acts of environmental irresponsibility. Carbon footprints would remain but would be washed clean in the waters of financial justification. Corporations that emitted excessively sinful emissions would be permitted to atone for their conduct by dropping punitive offerings into the governmental coffer (i.e., purchasing "carbon credits"). Wherefore, if a corporation feels particularly righteous, it can demonstrate contrition by purchasing indulgences for its harmful conduct and/or trading with a non-offending corporation for rights to its accumulated footprints of the carbon variety. Whether offering lucre directly to the Government or trading with non-offending corporations for rights to their unblemished credits, the offending acts still occur, however, and like the sins of that earlier version, the environmental vice remains. The only real change is that which is found in the financial ledgers of the Government, or the pockets of the ministers of financial regulation -- those who oversee the process. Sounds horrifyingly illogical enough, but what of the political ramifications sewn in the seeds of such atavistic audacity?

One queries the mind: How will constituents respond to a bargain that causes producers to raise energy prices so that consumers can hear the governmental coffer ring louder and faster? Will voters be willing to grant their leaders the immortality of another term when the promised jobs and agricultural boon bear little more than higher costs, higher unemployment, and a dustbowl of political chaff? By what authority will the likes of Chairman Waxman and Speaker Pelosi add years to the terms of their 219 over the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of constituents' teeth? How will the planet be safer when polluters export their sin from wealthy to impoverished countries that have much less concern for the environmental well-being of their communities -- not to mention open debates on the subject? Under Cap-and-Trade's proposed bargain, behavior wouldn't change, only change would: from the payrolls of the corporations to the coffers of the regulators.

Just what are the environmental and economical effects of these caps? Do we know? Surely, if a single member of the House had read the 1300-page bill, we might have been told. Our elected officials call Cap-and-Trade a "moral imperative" that is necessary to reduce environmental heresy -- again, a moral imperative whose text was not read by a single member of the House. Apparently, they believe that devotion to their ineffable plan is sufficient to keep the flock from squirming out from under its financial yoke. Do they believe their parishioners won't seek out more liberating pastures free of the unnecessary and largely unknown encumbrances that are sure to come? This latest chapter in environmentalism's holy writ has neither the reason nor the canonical authority to direct the economic or social instincts of the masses. Given the growing number of environmental apostates, people who have left the global warming faithful, it would seem, in fact, that the planet and its stewards would be better suited by a more measured and reasonable approach -- one that has been discussed, debated, and even read by those demanding its passage. Until such reasonable energy policy is presented, sermons of planetary and economical salvation seem disingenuous at best and at their worst, unsupportable. 

Rather than allowing reasonable minds debate and dissent, environmental heretics are threatened with social and political excommunication. When consumers seek answers, the masses are rebuffed and logic is stymied. Despite a tectonic shift in the claims and warnings of environmental data, the rush to act pushes for immediate conformity. Pay now, before it's too late! The coffers need to be filled! Details will come after the bill is passed (and read)! Take that leap of faith and (environmental) salvation is yours! There is no time to waste!

But alas, the time for illumination is not over, and an enlightened debate can bring reasonable dogma and people together. The Reformation of old removed barriers to holy writ, and brought comprehension and light to the confounded. The masses were respected enough to be seen as arbiters of their own existence in accordance with the written word. With the increased knowledge came an increased ability to understanding each person's respective responsibility.  Access to the text showed trust and respect. Likewise, is it too much to expect that our elected officials illuminate us on the actual contents of something that is so "imperative"? Perhaps that is one indulgence that they can share with us. Pollution and environmental mayhem are enemies to all: consumers, voters, and the planet. Energy policy must be addressed in the light of day, not in harried sessions of hyperbole and ad hominem.

As they continue their crusade against the invisible hand of Adam Smith, those who would mar the debate solely for political gain need to be exposed as the fallen priests that they are. Their sins against sound economic and energy policy cannot be tolerated, nor can their pleas for indulgence be answered. Cap-and-Trade does not cap environmental sin but merely trades a self-serving social agenda for economic misery. Environmental health and longevity has a shrine in the marketplace of liberty and commerce. This shrine, free from the yoke of excessive regulation, protects and rewards the good steward of conservation. It nurtures the economy, promotes policies that ensure environmental immortality, and persecutes those who abuse our natural resources.  

Rather than being wary of the market's ability to shepherd good energy and environmental policy, we should protect our flocks from promises of false profits made by false prophets.

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About the Author

Robert P. Kirchhoefer is a Washington, D.C. attorney who previously worked in banking and finance.