Cap and trade is the tax that dare not speak its name, and Democrats are hoping in particular that no one notices who would pay for their climate ambitions. With President Obama depending on vast new carbon revenues in his budget and Congress promising a bill by May, perhaps Americans would like to know the deeply unequal ways that climate costs would be distributed across regions and income groups.
Politicians love cap and trade because they can claim to be taxing "polluters," not workers. Hardly. Once the government creates a scarce new commodity -- in this case the right to emit carbon -- and then mandates that businesses buy it, the costs would inevitably be passed on to all consumers in the form of higher prices. Stating the obvious, Peter Orszag -- now Mr. Obama's budget director -- told Congress last year that "Those price increases are essential to the success of a cap-and-trade program."
Hit hardest would be the "95% of working families" Mr. Obama keeps mentioning, usually omitting that his no-new-taxes pledge comes with the caveat "unless you use energy." Putting a price on carbon is regressive by definition because poor and middle-income households spend more of their paychecks on things like gas to drive to work, groceries or home heating.
The Congressional Budget Office -- Mr. Orszag's former roost -- estimates that the price hikes from a 15% cut in emissions would cost the average household in the bottom-income quintile about 3.3% of its after-tax income every year. That's about $680, not including the costs of reduced employment and output. The three middle quintiles would see their paychecks cut between $880 and $1,500, or 2.9% to 2.7% of income. The rich would pay 1.7%. Cap and trade is the ideal policy for every Beltway analyst who thinks the tax code is too progressive (all five of them).
But the greatest inequities are geographic and would be imposed on the parts of the U.S. that rely most on manufacturing or fossil fuels -- particularly coal, which generates most power in the Midwest, Southern and Plains states. It's no coincidence that the liberals most invested in cap and trade -- Barbara Boxer, Henry Waxman, Ed Markey -- come from California or the Northeast.
Coal provides more than half of U.S. electricity, and 25 states get more than 50% of their electricity from conventional coal-fired generation. In Ohio, it totals 86%, according to the Energy Information Administration. Ratepayers in Indiana (94%), Missouri (85%), New Mexico (80%), Pennsylvania (56%), West Virginia (98%) and Wyoming (95%) are going to get soaked.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The Wall Street Journal looks into the effect of Obama's proposed cap-and-trade plan: