Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Missed Opportunity

From Donald Marron:

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed its climate change bill by a slim margin. The bill’s key feature is a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. That system would set national emission limits and would require affected emitters to own permits (called allowances) to cover their emissions.

The number one thing you should know about this bill is that the allowances are worth big money: almost $1 trillion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and more in subsequent decades.

There are many good things the government could do with that kind of money. Perhaps reduce out-of-control deficits? Or pay for expanding health coverage? Or maybe, as many economists have suggested, reduce payroll taxes and corporate income taxes to offset the macroeconomic costs of limiting greenhouse gases?

Choosing among those options would be a worthy policy debate. Except for one thing: the House bill would give away most of the allowances for free. And it spends virtually all the revenue that comes from allowance auctions.

As a result, the budget hawks, health expanders, and pro-growth forces have only crumbs to bargain over. From a budgeteer’s perspective, the House bill is a disaster....

Economists have spent decades demonstrating the potential benefits of using environmental taxes to help finance the government (and make no mistake, a cap-and-trade system is a tax; the Congressional Budget Office, much to its credit, even scores it that way). But that economic logic works only when a substantial fraction of the revenues are used to improve fiscal policy — e.g., reducing deficits or reducing distortions from the tax system. The House bill does neither.

Donald is right. The Pigou Club is not happy.