Doyle McManus: Consider a carbon tax

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The chairmen of Congress’ primary tax committees, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., have launched a bipartisan effort to reform our messy, inefficient federal tax law. They’ve agreed to look for ways to lower tax rates on both individuals and corporations and at the same time “close loopholes.”

But Baucus and Camp are going to run into a big problem: One taxpayer’s “loophole” is another’s sacred birthright. The only deductions in the personal income tax code big enough to make a significant difference in revenue are the ones for home mortgage interest, charitable contributions and state and local taxes. And every previous attempt to trim or limit them has run into a buzz saw of opposition.

So here’s another good bipartisan idea that the tax committees should consider: a new federal tax on emissions — more frequently called a carbon tax.

We already know that we use more energy from oil, gas and coal than we really need. We know that lower consumption would make us less dependent on other countries for energy. We know that oil and coal produce air pollution, which we’d like to reduce.

Economists call the hidden costs of energy consumption — the prices of climate change, pollution and national security — “externalities.” They’re real costs, but they’re not included in the price of the gasoline you put in your car or the electricity you use at home.

Even the federal gasoline tax that’s now levied doesn’t come anywhere near covering its purpose of paying for highways. The gas tax has been stuck at about 18 cents a gallon since 1993; if it had risen with inflation over those 20 years, it would be about 30 cents.

A federal carbon tax, though, would apply to more than just gasoline. It would be levied on any fuel that produces carbon dioxide emissions. That means it would fall heavily on coal, less heavily on oil and only lightly on natural gas. It would make energy efficiency more valuable and alternative energy more competitive.

The downside, of course, is that it would raise prices. A recent carbon tax proposal from the Brookings Institution, for example, would raise the price of gasoline by 16 cents a gallon in the first year, and would increase with inflation after that.

That’s where tax reform fits in. Any increase in the price of gasoline will feel like a raw deal to every car owner — especially low-income car owners. But if a carbon tax is part of a larger tax reform effort, most or all of the money that’s collected can be returned to consumers — in the form of lower tax rates, tax rebates or other measures to ease the pain.

Who could possibly like a big new federal tax like this one? Republican economists, that’s who.

An astonishingly long list of conservative economists have endorsed this idea — mostly because they’re convinced that global warming is a real problem and they’d rather address it through the efficient mechanism of prices than the inefficient (often Democratic) answer of regulation.

GOP supporters of a carbon tax include Glenn Hubbard, who was Mitt Romney’s chief economic adviser last year; Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who advised 2008 presidential candidate John McCain; N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush; and George P. Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan.

So who’s against it? Republican politicians, led by House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. Boehner thinks a carbon tax “would raise energy and gas prices and cost American jobs,” his spokesman, Michael Steel, told me recently.

Other conservatives worry that Congress won’t keep any promise to cut other taxes in exchange for raising an energy tax. And any new tax — especially one that raises gas prices — will be a hard sell to many voters.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., proposed a modest increase in the gas tax last year to fund highway construction but got little support from either party; now that he’s preparing to run for re-election in 2014, he has dropped the idea.

Even President Barack Obama, who has said he wants to do more about global warming in his second term, has steered carefully around this remedy. “We would never propose a carbon tax,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said last year.

Does that mean the carbon tax is an idea whose time has not yet come? No; it’s merely an idea most of us haven’t heard enough about to make us comfortable.

There’s a lot to like about a carbon tax. It would promote efficiency, reduce air pollution, slow climate change and increase energy independence.

DOYLE MCMANUS is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His column is distributed by MCT Information Services.

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