THE BLOG
12/30/2014 06:05 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

Is Anyone Listening to Irwin Stelzer's Sound Advice?

Irwin Stelzer has to be the loneliest man in America.

For the last few months, the veteran conservative economist has been urging the right to embrace the wisdom of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Back in May 2014, Stelzer took to the pages of the Weekly Standard to make his case:

Conservatives can maintain their skepticism about global climate change, but that does not mean that a bit of prudential action might not be appropriate should it turn out that carbon emissions are indeed having a negative effect on climate. A carbon tax would allow for rebating a portion of the regressive payroll taxes that are job-killers, while further reducing our still-heavy dependence on oil imported from countries that don't like us, and providing a market-based substitute for costly subsidies and regulations that are piece-by-piece turning the energy sector over to government control. They say that in politics you can't beat something with nothing, which is what Republicans and conservatives have been doing when it comes to energy policy.

After being assailed by the usual shameless shills for the fossil-fuel lobby, Stelzer tried to reason with his critics in a July Standard piece:

Conflate two separate issues and you get one policy error. That is what too many opponents of carbon taxes are doing, getting caught up in the argument about climate change, which really has nothing to do with the case for a carbon tax. That case is that such a tax can make growth-inducing tax reform easier to achieve, and reduce the need for an expansion of the regulatory state, while protecting the competitiveness of our industries...

Carbon taxes [could] help conservatives [achieve the following] objectives:

· Revenues with which to replace growth-stifling taxes on work and risk-taking;

· Reduction of the regressive nature of the current tax system to help the middle class increase take-home pay by reducing payroll taxes or developing some other efficient and equitable means of instantaneous tax-cut offsets to carbon taxes;

· Removing the reason offered for subsidizing inefficient energy sources by eliminating the alleged competitive advantage fossil fuels have by virtue of not paying the social cost of their production and use;

· Reducing the growth of government by eliminating the justification for the web of regulations the administration is weaving around the energy sector;

· Protecting and enhancing the competitiveness of American industry by linking a carbon tax with border adjustments that impose equivalent costs on goods from China and other countries that refuse to impose comparable taxes. Hard cash costs beat "moral leadership" every time when dealing with the Chinese regime.

Persuasive? Not to the reactionaries who can't countenance the idea of making polluters clean up after themselves. By this point, Stelzer should have realized that trying to get the most backward elements of the right to move forward on a carbon tax was a lost cause. Still, bless his heart, he kept on trying. In a September Standard piece on President Obama's climate efforts, Stelzer asserted:

...[T]he politics of energy use have increased the probability that some sort of deal will be cut in Paris that can be dubbed a success -- from zero into positive territory. Developing nations, accounting for over half of the world's emissions, will have to be placated and China, which accounted for more of the recent increase in CO2 emissions than the rest of the world combined, will have to be convinced that any deal does not interfere with its current struggle to recharge its growth engine. The regime, recognizing that it cannot continue on its present path without seriously reducing livability in its major cities, is experimenting with a cap-and-trade emissions reduction program and, according to Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, "will make an even greater effort to address climate change and take on international responsibilities."

The good news for Mr. Zhang, and indeed for all those who believe emissions-reductions are essential, was the unveiling of a study contending that if carbon emissions are taxed, and the proceeds used to reduce growth-stifling income taxes, we can have both lower emissions and higher growth rates, a position this writer has long taken, even though not among the true believers in climate change. But neither I, nor anyone else for that matter, can be certain the believers are wrong. So, nodding in their direction, if it includes a pro-growth adjustment to the tax code, would be worth putting on the table in Paris. And, in fact, pursuing it here in America now as a way of helping the U.S. economy while leading others down the path of environmental virtue. That's what the leadership required of a great nation is all about.

Now, Stelzer is preaching the carbon-tax gospel in National Review, the right-wing rag notorious for its disgusting rhetorical assaults on climate scientist Michael Mann. In a December 29 post on National Review Online, Stelzer declared:

Conservatives... have always had two objections to pricing carbon. The first is that, like any tax, it would provide funds for a further increase of government spending. But this need not be the case. We can make a carbon tax revenue-neutral by providing a simultaneous reduction in payroll taxes, accomplishing two conservative goals: lowering taxes on work and risk-taking while raising them on consumption.

The second conservative fear has always been that a carbon tax would impede growth, rendering the U.S. uncompetitive in world markets as China went merrily along emitting CO2. The weight of the evidence now suggests that such a fear, while not completely unwarranted, should not be allowed to outweigh the efficiency gains to our economy from substituting a market-oriented tax for far blunter regulation, and from setting the stage for ending subsidies to wind, sun, and other uneconomic schemes.

More important, a review of the rules governing the World Trade Organization suggests that if any country did try to take advantage of an American decision to tax this pollutant, we could impose a tax on imports that would mimic the tax on American manufactures. An exception contained in Article XX of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the guiding document for the WTO, states, "nothing in this agreement shall be construed to prevent the adoption or enforcement by any contracting party of measures... (b) necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health; ... (g) relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources.

Considering the vicious reaction from right-wingers in the comment section of Stelzer's piece, it seems that he's not gaining much traction among his political tribe for the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. There's an obvious reason why.

Mr. Stelzer, a friendly bit of advice. Stop equivocating on the science; you're not convincing anyone when you do so. Knock it off with the references to the "religion" of global warming. You know well that the scientific verdict on climate change has been upheld repeatedly -- and you know damn well that the right will destroy itself politically if it does not move from climate denial to climate action as soon as possible.

Instead of trying to pitch your message to folks too blind with hatred of Al Gore to see the truth of what you're saying, how about taking your idea to less-irrational figures on the right, such as Representative Chris Gibson of New York or Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina? A revenue-neutral carbon tax is a wise and bold idea, but you need wise and bold individuals to embrace it and fight for it. Perhaps Stelzer should conduct a review to see who meets that standard.