Published at 13:01 on 22 September 2016
Revisiting a previous post of mine, it’s time to answer the question asked therein:
The question to ask, I think, is: How much harm will the proposed law actually do [emphasis added]? Note that this is a very different question from asking how far it falls short in addressing race and class issues, even though global warming almost certainly will harm the disadvantaged more.
Addressing the latter really isn’t the purpose of the legislation. Such issues should be addressed, of course, but the proper way to address them is via other, separate actions. On the other hand, if the measure does itself do harm to the disadvantaged, then that is a valid argument against it.
I’m going mostly on three articles run early last month by the Sightline Institute, a voice I generally respect: one, two, three.
The answer to the question seems to be “Some, but overall not very much.”
The Sightline articles (particularly the second one) assume the measure will be revenue neutral, as much as can be ascertained. On that, I’m skeptical. I’m generally inclined to trust the Department of Revenue’s estimates more than Sightline’s in most (but not all) cases. In particular, Sightline is assuming an all-but-inevitable court challenge will go their way, when by their own admission according to history challenges of that particular nature generally do not. However, even given that, it must be pointed out that it’s a small revenue shortfall.
Yes, I-732’s drafters failed to reach out to the disadvantaged. Shame on them — to paraphrase a humorous work of fiction I once read, organized environmentalism is the whitest movement since the Klan. While that may be hyperbolic, it is the case that environmental organizations tend to be drawn from a very historically privileged background. But, while the drafters’ lack of awareness was shameful, it was not actual harm and thus falls short of the standards I set forth in my earlier post.
To their credit, I-732’s drafters did recognize how shamefully regressive Washington state’s tax structure is, and attempt to do something about it. Unfortunately, the law was overly simplistic and there’s cracks in the law through which some of the poor will slip (and thus end up paying in the order of hundreds of dollars more taxes per year).
I-732 also fails to actively spend more money on renewable energy and conservation. Given its revenue shortfall problem, that’s probably a blessing in disguise. Also, this again falls short of my standard of doing harm: sins of omission are not sins of commission. Finally, it’s not as if the economic incentives created by the taxes won’t alter behavior and cause private parties to make such investments (in fact, that’s a huge part of their purpose); the investments may not happen directly by government action but they will happen nonetheless.
So to sum up, the actual harm done by I-732 is that it:
- Makes the state’s recurring budget crisis slightly worse by being slightly revenue negative.
- Makes a minority of the poor end up paying more, not less, in taxes, even though most of the poor will pay less.
At this stage in the game, I do not think that the total harm outweighs either the good the measure will do, or the harm that rejecting it will do. The latter is likely to taint carbon taxes with a stench of failure, thereby causing even more delays in attempting to address the most profound crisis that mankind has ever faced.