Friday, July 18, 2008

Al Gore: The Good, The Bad & The Unsustainable

Yesterday, former Vice President Al Gore made a speech which his staff at describe as "inspiring," issuing "a powerful challenge: producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years." Clearly, this speech was intended to be a watershed event, setting the bar high with respect to energy/environmental policy for the coming election. Here is the low down:

The Good: In the first 75% of his speech, Mr. Gore truly is inspiring. He makes the case for switching to renewable, clean energy more powerfully and eloquently than could most. Anyone who has seen "An Inconvenient Truth" will find familiar territory here, but updated, with strong insights into the current fever pitch of the fossil fuel mess. What can be said: he is right, I agree completely, and he says it so dang well.

Further, Mr. Gore is deliberately setting the bar high. Even if it is not realistic that we can do away with fossil fuels in just 10 years, as many commentators seem to think, it is great that Gore is calling for a goal that pushes politicians to take the issue seriously.

The Bad: Buried 80% of the way through his speech, in one short paragraph, is what Mr. Gore himself identifies as the very crux of his policy proposal. How strange that it is almost hidden, given such short treatment, as though he knows this part is going to go over like a lead balloon. Hear the heart of what he proposes:
"America's transition to renewable energy sources must also include adequate provisions to assist those Americans who would unfairly face hardship... We should guarantee good jobs in the fresh air and sunshine for any coal miner displaced by impacts on the coal industry. Every single one of them.

Of course, we could and should speed up this transition by insisting that the price of carbon-based energy include the costs of the environmental damage it causes. I have long supported a sharp reduction in payroll taxes with the difference made up in CO2 taxes. We should tax what we burn, not what we earn. This is the single most important policy change we can make."
Unfortunately, even though Mr. Gore is right that carbon-based energy is getting a free ride, the core solution he proposes would be incredibly and unnecessarily painful. Frankly it would be disastrous for America, and unsustainable to boot. Gore does not say it directly, but if you read carefully, there can be no doubt that Al Gore proposes to bankrupt the coal industry, and probably oil too, within 10 years. (Which is why he proposes aid for coal miners: "Every single one of them.") But the damage may go way beyond that. The US economy is already reeling from the shock of skyrocketing oil prices. To add a carbon tax on top of that would be to effectively jack up the price of oil and coal even further. Doing so could well trigger an even more severe recession that we are already in, if not a global depression. All of us would suffer. Maybe that is part of the plan: reduce carbon emissions by collapsing the world economy.

Further, slashing payroll taxes would effectively collapse the social security, medicare and unemployment systems funded by those taxes -- at a time when Gore proposes government aid to tens or hundreds of thousands of laid-off carbon industry employees. Now, social security and medicare are off-topic for this blog, but it is no secret that these systems are approaching insolvency. To propose that these systems now be funded by a tax on industries that Mr. Gore plans to destroy is obviously unsustainable and dangerously irresponsible.

Whether or not reducing carbon emissions by collapsing the economy is the actual plan, there can be no doubt that this kind of ultra-painful shock-therapy -- which will only increase the financial hardship ordinary Americans are already feeling -- is totally unnecessary. There is more than one way to solve the dirty energy problem quickly, some painful, some painless. Hiking taxes abruptly on dirty energy is the painful approach.

Making clean, green energy 100% tax free is the painless alternative -- and far more effective to boot.

Rather than hiking the price of oil and coal, and dragging down those industries and the entire US and world economy with them, simply give a huge boost to the green energy sector until such time as renewable and carbon-free energy dominate the market. That way, instead of causing pain and depression, one is sparking a green energy revolution, creating new industries, hundreds of thousands of new jobs and a new era of prosperity based on clean, green technology. (See the post "Houston, we have lift off!" below for the basic argument for green tax cuts.)

Mr. Gore is actually 100% right about the need for a tax differential between clean and dirty energy to account for hidden social costs. He is merely wrong about the safest and easiest side of the equation to adjust.

The Unsustainable: Mr. Gore, despite the wonderful work you have done to fight global warming, you can't propose bankrupting entire industries, destabilizing social security and medicare, hiking prices and throwing the world economy into a downward spiral, and expect that such a policy will actually be adopted... or if it is adopted, that people will actually stick with it as the suffering gets worse and worse. It is an unsustainable policy. It will produce an ENORMOUS political backlash that will make it fail.

Sustainability has become an increasingly important concept for both environmental sciences and economics. It should also be a key consideration when crafting policy and legislation. Will a policy be sustainable? Or will it produce so much hardship and pain, and such a backlash of opposition, that it will be doomed to fail? We need effective policies, but especially ones with minimal backlash.

Too often, environmental reformers seem to be stuck in an outdated ideological groove that makes it far more important for them to punish and coerce what they see as corporate evil doers than boost entrepreneurial do-gooders. Bashing the bad guy is emotionally satisfying to be sure, but it is a behavior that is more appropriate to comic books than economic policy: ultimately, it causes fierce political backlash that finally kills the policy. It has happened time and again -- look at the collapse of California's well-intentioned attempt to coerce the automobile industry into producing electric cars. It is far better policy -- much more sustainable and easier to implement, provoking much less backlash and hardship -- to help the good guys win, than to coerce and punish everyone else.

Any policy that is going to solve the carbon problem can't outright kill the carbon industry in a few years -- or create massive national hardship and economic chaos -- because the backlash will simply be too severe for the policy to be implemented or sustained.

Rather, we need to give the carbon industry a way to profitably transform itself: to move the carbon industry to ever cleaner methods, to replace the dirty old technology and ultimately to diversify from carbon to carbon-free energy. Simultaneously, we need to give completely clean, green, carbon-free technologies the greatest possible advantage with complete tax freedom, so that these become the dominant energy sources.

If we do that, rather than triggering a depression, we can insure a new age of prosperity, with minimal backlash. It seems just insane to see Mr. Gore, who is so rational and has done so much for the green energy revolution, make proposals that will cause massive suffering and blowback -- and so ultimately fail -- when far more effective, sustainable, prosperity-inducing alternatives exist.

Mr. Gore's current thinking seems, apparently, a bit too stuck in the old school, comic book bash-the-bad-guys brand of politics. Which is a shame... one hopes that a "New Democrat" would be a bit more open to unleashing a creative explosion of green entrepreneurship by tax cutting (versus tax hiking) solutions. Maybe he just hasn't considered all the possibilities. His heart is in the right place, bless him, and the problem he wants to solve is very, very real. He is really so close to the right answer, he's just focused on the wrong side of the equation. My hope and expectation is that he will soon rethink this and get it right.

R. R. Richardson


Anonymous said...

The great advantage of this over carbon tax proposals is that while economists say that carbon taxes will get us to the goal more quickly, they ignore the political difficulty involved -- a good example of the need for cross-disciplinary thinking in solving real-world problems. I agree that government purchasing can prime the green energy pump and create economies of scale; but I also think that positive incentives are necessary. I'm not sure a complete tax holiday is necessary when a tax "nudge" would be sufficient, however.

Rod Randolph Richardson said...

Anon: What economists? If you know of any economist that has compared carbon tax hikes to green energy tax cuts, please let me know. I doubt there is a consensus on the question.

I doubt a mere tax nudge is sufficient. If we want to reach the point where clean, renewable energy accounts for 50% to 100% of the US and global market in 10 - 20 years, we need to raise global green energy investment by about 500%, from the present $150 billion annually, to $750 billion. The only way to do that is with a massive reallocation of private investment, which will need to be driven by some major incentives such as proposed here. If the US makes green energy 100% tax exempt, I have no doubt that not only will we reach those investment goals in a few short years, but that most of global green energy investments will funnel through the US, making us the leader in a new era of prosperity driven by clean technology. If we do less than that, the leadership will be taken by others, the transition will take many more decades, and global warming will proceed apace.

Remember, the incentives must be of sufficient magnitude to persuade the carbon industry to diversify, happily and without backlash, to carbon-free sources.