Initiative 732

(Reposted from Facebook,  I would prefer put it here than have it lost to the sands of time.)

The state of Washington will soon vote on on a large revenue-neutral carbon tax, and will probably reject it. As relayed by Vox, I found the story one of the most compelling political tragedies of the season, something that made me sad rather than concerned or confused or horrified. (If it wasn’t clear yet, this post is going to be lightly-informed political venting.)

The basic proposal, initiative 732, is extremely sensible: shift tax revenue from regressive and distortionary taxes to a carbon tax which roughly reflects the social cost of carbon. This is about as close as you get to a free lunch.

Yet the measure is not very popular amongst climate activists in Washington. There are a few problems, but the most basic seems to be this: when you tax carbon you will produce revenue, and then you have to decide what to do with it.

I-732 lowers other taxes, which is not the left’s preferred use of revenue. And of course the right would not be thrilled with raising a whole lot of new tax revenue and spending it on a giant basket of liberal projects. So no one can be happy.

Almost every political issue will have some effect on the size of government or on the extent of redistribution. That conflict seems to always be an order of magnitude more salient than any kind of analysis of whether a policy is actually a good idea, and people line up accordingly. We end up in some kind of nightmare where conservatives oppose food stamps and liberals support a $15 minimum wage.

I-732 is as close to neutral as it could realistically get on the conventional axes of political dispute. But anything can become a proxy conflict about the size of government and the extent of redistribution. As far as I can tell, by rejecting I-732 at this point, climate activists are doing nothing to help future climate legislation, they are rejecting a positive sum trade because it doesn’t redistribute and expand the government enough (“In the best of all possible worlds, I-732 goes down, but not by much”).

(I think that people interested in climate change should support both I-732 and support an alternative bill which spends the revenue vaguely sensibly, or a bill that doesn’t auction the carbon permits and just hands them out, or whatever other positive-sum trade is on offer.)

Now it may be that merely taking climate change seriously is enough to alienate voters on the right, and once you are giving up on them anyway you might as well stick it to them as hard as you can. After all this is a democracy and what matters is how many people support you, it’s not some kind of crazy utilitarian technocracy where we try to maximize welfare. And so you might as well throw in as much pork as needed to build your coalition on the left, drawing in people who are largely interested in climate change as a political opportunity to advance their other interests.

I could accept this kind of coalition-building process as the messy reality of politics. But to celebrate it, to actually stand behind it and say that this is how policy-making ought to work, that seems to be going too far. Maybe behind closed doors people are just playing the game they need to play, and talking the talk they need to talk in order to build the coalition they need to build. But if there is a sensible and compassionate driving force somewhere, it no longer has any place in the public discourse and it seems like a species that is shrinking and liable to eventually disappear.

(Extra disclaimer: my knowledge of initiative 732 is limited to the ballot language, Vox’s story, and a few op eds. So this may be a commentary on some fictionalized version of the issues. Given that I won’t do anything about it and this is just an opportunity to vent / make a point, I didn’t feel like digging more.)

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