Warner-Lieberman to begin debates next week

I don’t think the WSJ editorial board much likes the Warner-Lieberman bill, which “would impose the most extensive government reorganization of the American economy since the 1930s.”

Thankfully, the American system makes it hard for colossal tax and regulatory burdens to foxtrot into law without scrutiny. So we hope our politicians will take responsibility for the global-warming policies they say they favor. Or even begin to understand what they say they favor. For a bill as grandly ambitious as Warner-Lieberman, very few staff, much less Senators, even know what’s in it. The press corps mainly cheerleads this political fad, without examining how it would work or what it would cost. So allow us to fill in some of the details.

The editorial board has some of our concerns about the cap and trade scheme — but does not propose alternative price signaling schemes. Clearly they do not support imposing carbon pricing — at least if the scheme does not include China, India, et al.

And for the most part, the politicians favor cap and trade because it is an indirect tax. A direct tax – say, on gasoline – would be far more transparent, but it would also be unpopular. Cap and trade is a tax imposed on business, disguising the true costs and thus making it more politically palatable. In reality, firms will merely pass on these costs to customers, and ultimately down the energy chain to all Americans. Higher prices are what are supposed to motivate the investments and behavioral changes required to use less carbon.

The other reason politicians like cap and trade is because it gives them a cut of the action and the ability to pick winners and losers. Some of the allowances would be given away, at least at the start, while the rest would be auctioned off, with the share of auctions increasing over time. This is a giant revenue grab. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that these auctions would net $304 billion by 2013 and $1.19 trillion over the next decade. Since the government controls the number and distribution of allowances, it is also handing itself the political right to influence the price of every good and service in the economy.