Sunday, March 1, 2009

An Inconvenient Tax - WSJ Editorial

An Inconvenient Tax
Cap and trade yields 'climate revenues.' But don't call it a t--.
Published: February 27, 2009

That didn't take long. The same week that President Obama promised (again) that "95% of working families" would not see their taxes rise by "a single dime," his own budget reveals that taxes will rise for 100% of everyone for the sake of global warming. Ahem.

You don't even have to burrow into yesterday's budget fine print to discover the "climate revenues" section, where the White House discloses that it expects $78.7 billion in new tax revenue in 2012 from its cap-and-trade program. The pot of cash grows to $237 billion through 2014, and at least $646 billion through 2019. If this isn't tax revenue, what is it? Manna from heaven? The offset from Al Gore's carbon footprint?

If it brings in revenue that the government then spends, it's a tax, and politicians should start referring to it as such. The Administration in fact projects that these "climate revenues" will become the sixth largest source of federal receipts by 2019, outpaced only by individual and corporate income taxes, payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare and (barely) excise taxes. We're supposed to be living in a new era of fiscal honesty, so let's start with cap and trade.

Of course it's easy to see why Democrats don't want the public to think of cap and trade as a tax. Tax increases aren't popular, as Mr. Gore learned when he and Bill Clinton tried to impose a BTU tax in 1993. The complex cap-and-trade tax would ripple throughout the energy chain and ultimately the entire economy. All consumers, not just "the rich," would pay more for goods and services that use carbon energy -- though some would pay more than others. A majority of those "95% of working families" probably lives in the middle of the country that relies far more on manufacturing and coal-fired power than do the better-off coastal regions.

Mr. Obama's Energy Secretary Steven Chu was refreshingly candid on this point with the New York Times earlier this month. Given that higher prices are supposed to motivate the changes necessary to reduce carbon energy use, Mr. Chu said he was worried that climate taxes may drive jobs to countries where costs are cheaper. "The concern about cap and trade in today's economic climate," he said, "is that a lot of money might flow to developing countries in a way that might not be completely politically sellable." You are correct, sir.

Meanwhile, the political class loves a cap-and-trade tax because it gives them new economic and political power. Congress would create a new property right to expend CO2, setting a price per ton on carbon output, and then Congress would also get to determine the distribution of allowances. The Administration wants all of them to be auctioned off, which is what creates the giant revenue windfall. The politicians would then decide how to spend all of that new "climate revenue."

Mr. Obama's budget proposes to spend this windfall on two items: $15 billion a year in more subsidies for alternative fuels, and $65 billion or so a year to finance tax subsidies for workers, many of whom don't pay income taxes. In other words, once this cap-and-trade tax is on the books, the revenue stream will create political constituencies that depend on it.

No new pot of gold goes uncontested, however, so you can assume that Mr. Obama's priorities will not go unchallenged. Already on Capitol Hill, Charlie Rangel's tax committee and Henry Waxman's energy clan are feuding about who gets to divvy up the spoils. Not to mention who gets the political control that will become a source of tens of millions in new campaign contributions from thousands of affected businesses.

By the way, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that cap-and-trade taxes would actually throw off as much as $300 billion every year -- not merely $78.7 billion -- and in a footnote the Obama budget implicitly acknowledges that its $645.7 billion estimate is a lowball: "All additional net proceeds will be used to further compensate the public." No doubt.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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