Global Warming and the Anthropogenic Financial Crisis

When listening to President Obama’s dire predictions of “catastrophe” if a stimulus bill is not passed now now now now now, is anyone else reminded of the global warming debate?

Even most skeptics about what Taranto calls “global warmism” would concede that there are valid reasons to want to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the resultant greenhouse gases. The debate arises over what measures should be taken, and how urgently. (Now now now now now!)

Similarly, there seems to be widespread consensus that the economy is in terrible shape, and that an increase in economic activity would help. The debate arises over how best to stimulate the economy, and how urgently.

In both cases, proponents of “doing something” now now now now now maintain that there is no time to worry about the possible side effects. But I firmly believe that when everyone around you is clamoring for immediate dramatic action, that’s exactly the right time to take a deep breath and think hard about the consequences. A few years from now the specifics of the stimulus package will be a lot more important than whether the bill was passed in February or March.

The one thing that seems clear to me is that if we are going to make a multi-hundred-billion-dollar effort to stimulate the economy, it should be done through a combination of a) tax cuts for lower-income people (pushing stimulus activity down to the individual level, among people who are likely to spend) and b) accelerating government spending that is destined to occur anyway.

That, of course, is not what the Democrats are planning. Here’s Krauthammer, on the “fierce urgency of pork” behind the “legislative abomination” that is the stimulus bill (emphasis added):

It’s not just pages and pages of special-interest tax breaks, giveaways and protections, one of which would set off a ruinous Smoot-Hawley trade war. It’s not just the waste, such as the $88.6 million for new construction for Milwaukee Public Schools, which, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, have shrinking enrollment, 15 vacant schools and, quite logically, no plans for new construction.

It’s the essential fraud of rushing through a bill in which the normal rules (committee hearings, finding revenue to pay for the programs) are suspended on the grounds that a national emergency requires an immediate job-creating stimulus — and then throwing into it hundreds of billions that have nothing to do with stimulus, that Congress’s own budget office says won’t be spent until 2011 and beyond, and that are little more than the back-scratching, special-interest, lobby-driven parochialism that Obama came to Washington to abolish. He said.

Krauthammer was writing about the House version of the bill, but I’ve seen little reason to believe that the Senate compromise reached last night is any better.

Meanwhile, Harvard economist and former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors Greg Mankiw describes “My Preferred Fiscal Stimulus“:

I would institute an immediate and permanent reduction in the payroll tax, financed by a gradual, permanent, and substantial increase in the gasoline tax. I would make the two tax changes equal in present value, so while the package results in a short-run budget deficit, there is no long-term budget impact. Call it the create-jobs, save-the-environment, reduce-traffic-congestion, budget-neutral tax shift.

I recognize that some state governments are now struggling in light of the macroeconomic crisis. For the next two years, I would let each state governor have the authority to divert a portion of the payroll tax cut in his or her state and take the funds instead as state aid. This provision would essentially be giving governors the temporary authority to impose a payroll tax on his or her citizens, collected via the federal tax system. Those governors who think they have valuable infrastructure projects ready to go would take the money. When designing a fiscal stimulus, there is no compelling reason for one size fits all. Let each governor make a choice and answer to his or her state voters. It is called federalism.

Note that by allowing governors (and I think you’d have to include state legislators) to determine whether to substitute spending for tax cuts, Mankiw’s proposal would mean that any decision about whether to build schools in Milwaukee would be made in Milwaukee, or at least in Wisconsin. And by gradually increasing the gasoline tax to offset the immediate payroll tax cut, the proposal would even… wait for it… help counteract global warming.

A Golden Opportunity for a Higher Gas Tax

Charles Krauthammer burnishes his credentials as a member of the Pigou Club with a cover story in the January 5, 2009 edition of Weekly Standard, titled “The Net-Zero Gas Tax: A Once-in-a-Generation Chance.” (Hat tip: Jonah Goldberg.)

The Pigou Club Manifesto was Greg Mankiw’s call in October 2006 to increase the gasoline tax significantly, thereby encouraging more fuel-efficient cars, reducing pollution, reducing oil consumption, and reducing the amount of money we send every year to oil-producing countries that hate us. His specific idea was for a $1 gas tax phased in over a decade, which seemed radical then but now sounds like it would barely get anybody’s attention.

Krauthammer dispenses with the phase-in and calls for an immediate $1 a gallon gas tax increase, offset by reducing other taxes so that the overall effect is revenue-neutral (thus the Net-Zero in his headline). The beauty of a gas tax is its simplicity, although there might need to be various offsets and exceptions to make such a system palatable. Krauthammer:

But whatever one’s assumptions and choice of initial tax, the net-zero tax swap remains flexible, adjustable, testable, and nonbureaucratic. Behavior is changed, driving is curtailed, fuel efficiency is increased, without any of the arbitrary, shifting, often mindless mandates decreed by Congress.

This is a major benefit of the gas tax that is generally overlooked. It is not just an alternative to regulation; because it is so much more efficient, it is a killer of regulation. The most egregious of these regulations are the fleet fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards forced on auto companies. Rather than creating market conditions that encourage people to voluntarily buy greener cars, the CAFE standards simply impose them. And once the regulations are written–with their arbitrary miles-per-gallon numbers and target dates–they are not easily changed. If they are changed, moreover, they cause massive dislocation, and yet more inefficiency, in the auto industry.

CAFE standards have proven devastating to Detroit. When oil prices were relatively low, they forced U.S. auto companies to produce small cars that they could only sell at a loss. They were essentially making unsellable cars to fulfill mandated quotas, like steel producers in socialist countries meeting five-year plan production targets with equal disregard for demand.

As Krauthammer notes earlier in his article, the federal gasoline tax in America is 18.4 cents per gallon, while in England and much of Europe the gas tax approaches $4 per gallon. (Hmmm… I wonder why people drive smaller cars in Europe than in the U.S.?) A higher gas tax makes sense on so many levels. But given the car lust that seems to be part of the DNA of so many Americans, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.

Mr. Obama: Declare War on Rube Goldberg

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins identifies the key culprit in the current economic woes. It’s not Hank Paulson or Hank Greenberg or Stan O’Neal or even George Bush. The most formidable enemy of the American economy is Rube Goldberg.

Jenkins starts by discussing the complex set of rules that have enabled autoworkers to win the contracts that have crippled the American auto industry:

… the single biggest factor in preserving the UAW’s monopolistic power has not been labor law but Congress’s fuel-economy rules. These effectively have required the Big Three to lose tens of billions making small cars at a loss in UAW factories. Not only were the companies obliged to forgo profits they might have earned importing such cars, but CAFE deprived them of crucial leverage to control labor costs by threatening to move jobs to a factory in Spain or Taiwan or Poland.

The CAFE standards — a Rube Goldberg system known formally as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards — distort the automobile marketplace while dismally failing at their fundamental reason for existence, which is to reduce carbon emissions. Jenkins then ties the proposed auto bailout to the financial meltdown and other issues (emphasis added):

A whole lot of Rube Goldbergism is coming home to roost, in the auto business, in the mortgage market, in the health-care market, in farm policy. We need to simple-down. The economy has a giant adjustment ahead, paying off debts, going from a heavy absorber of foreign capital and goods to a rebalanced relationship with the world.

The good news is that we have a natively resilient, flexible economy capable of making these adjustments — unless bound up in Rube Goldbergian mandates. Barack Obama, bless his heart, may or may not be ready for what’s coming his way. Yet his objectives are perfectly amenable to the simple-down approach.

He asked on Monday for Detroit to deliver a “plan” somehow to reconcile, at long last, the fantasy life of Washington, with nobody losing a job, with super energy-efficient cars, and yet somehow all this being done at a profit to Detroit.

Here’s a plan, but it requires Mr. Obama to play a role too, finally relinquishing such chronic free-lunchism where autos are concerned. He should simply get rid of the CAFE rules and impose a gasoline tax to move the country to a “new energy economy,” if he really believes in panicky climate predictions and/or that “energy independence” would be a net improver of American welfare. And be prepared for Detroit to shift jobs offshore if the UAW won’t concede competitive labor agreements.

Economist Greg Mankiw has been a champion of a gasoline tax for years, periodically welcoming new members in the Pigou Club, a collection of economists and pundits who favor Pigouvian taxes, which Wikipedia describes as “a tax levied to correct the negative externalities of a market activity.” Mankiw does a thorough job of advocating for a gas tax in his Pigou Club Manifesto. Here’s my shorthand version: Raising the gas tax substantially would automagically lead to more fuel-efficient cars, and the tax revenues raised could be used for good purposes such as reducing other taxes and remediating carbon emissions.

Having already established my credentials to offer “improvements” to Mankiw’s ideas, I want to point out that his specific proposal, which seemed bold when he unveiled it two years ago, now looks quaint:

I would like to see Congress increase the gas tax by $1 per gallon, phased in gradually by 10 cents per year over the next decade.

After watching gas prices go from $2 to $4 and back to $2 in a matter of months, it now seems clear that a series of annual 10-cent increases would go virtually unnoticed, thereby reducing the desired effect. But that’s a quibble — maybe it should be 50 cents annually for four years, or whatever.

Today’s WSJ also has a tantalizing hint that Mr. Obama might be amenable to taking on Rube Goldberg:

As part of his plan to kill government programs “that have outlived their usefulness,” the President-elect singled out farm subsidies for the rich. If he really means it, this would be big news.

Indeed it would — especially if it were a first step toward eliminating the Goldbergian farm subsidies altogether, along with the negative externalities they entail.