The Spectacle Blog

It’s a Duck

By on 3.7.09 | 5:45PM

Green trade e-zine "Climate Wire" reports this week:

Death by sound bites? The language of the cap-and-trade debate

For Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), it is "cap and invest." [NASA] climatologist [sic; he's an astronomer] James Hansen says it is "tax and trade." Then there are "cap and cash back" and "cap and dividend," mottoes promoted by environmental investing expert Peter Barnes to describe proposals to cap greenhouse gases, often called "cap and trade." Aware of the ability of slogans to drive political debate, policymakers are ramping up their rhetoric about global warming like never before, and analysts say all sides have opportunities to gain political traction by choosing their words carefully."

Please allow me to help. There's no need for a "Top 10 Things to Call the Global Warming Tax."

It's a global warming tax.

It's just a very expensive one, 4-5 times as expensive as simply taxing emissions, according to center-left economist William Pizer of Resources for the Future. But that expense added to an already regressive energy tax is ok, you see, because "cap-and-[whatever]" isn't transparent, but hidden in the form of Soviet-style production quotas. It's also cloaked in the gauzy (and also quite clearly misleading) rhetoric of being somehow a "market mechanism", because buying and selling are involved.

As such it allows Members of Congress and the Obama administration to say they supported something other than a "tax". It's a "revenue measure", at $80 billion per year approaching the largest such tax ever imposed, the (expiring) tax to pay for WWII ($107 billion annually in inflation-adjusted dollars). Now that it turns out the Obama budget footnotes taht this may prove very, very conservative, it seems likely to be nearly three times the size of that tax as was originally reported. (Worse, it turns out that this is the source of the revenue funding Obama's ballyhooed "tax cuts for 95% of Americans", though it gives most of us less than it takes.)

If Republicans can't make this stick, their problems are as serious as some suggest. Yet to date the response has been halting and even took a while before they called it a "tax", though they still play the game by agreeing to use "cap and trade", losing their audience.

Remember, Al Gore told the Financial Times in the November 4-5, 2006 weekend edition that the failed - much smaller - 1993 BTU energy tax proposal was largely responsible for the Democrats losing Congress, indicating that going through the front door maybe wasn't the best idea anymore.

So, Democrats obviously "remember BTU". It's unclear the other team does. I briefed a Republican senator for nearly two hours on the cap-and-[whatever] issue, after which he asked, "what does ‘BTU' mean?" I suggested he think of it not as a British Thermal Unit measurement of energy content, but as a verb. As in "to Bork".

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