The Politics of Cap and Trade

Good overview in the NYTimes on the politics of cap and trade.  The bottom line:

How did cap and trade, hatched as an academic theory in obscure
economic journals half a century ago, become the policy of choice in
the debate over how to slow the heating of the planet? And how did it
come to eclipse the idea of simply slapping a tax on energy consumption…

The answer is not to be found in the study of
economics or environmental science, but in the realm where most policy
debates are ultimately settled: politics…Cap and trade…is almost perfectly designed for the buying
and selling of political support through the granting of valuable
emissions permits to favor specific industries and even specific
Congressional districts.That is precisely what is taking place now in the House Energy and Commerce Committee…

Here is how Tyler and I put it in Modern Principles: Microeconomics

With a tax, firms
must pay the government for each ton
of pollutant that they emit. With pollution
allowances, firms must either use
the pollution allowances that they are
given or if they want to emit more they
must buy allowances from other firms.
Either way, firms that are given allowances
in the initial allocation get a
big benefit compared to having to pay
taxes. Thus, some people say that pollution
allowances equal corrective taxes
plus corporate welfare.
That’s not necessarily the best way of
looking at the issue…

…To make progress against global warming, may require building
a political coalition. A carbon tax pushes one very powerful and interested
group, the large energy firms, into the opposition. If tradable allowances are
instead given to firms initially, there is a better chance of bringing the large energy
firms into the coalition. Perhaps it’s not fair that politically powerful
groups must be bought off but as Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor,
once said,”Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
We can only add that producing both laws and sausages requires some pork.

Careful readers may recognize a friendly jab at a competitor. 


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