Krugman Supports Waxman-Markey

May 18, 2009

Paul Krugman comes out in support of the cap-and-trade bill in his NY Times column. I’d be interested to see more of his arguments on why cap-and-trade is superior to a carbon tax. I’d say he unarguably right about auctioning permits: giving them free to power companies is nothing more than a taxpayer payoff to industry to buy their support for (or at least acquiescence to) the bill. It’s a regressive tax, but strictly in terms of carbon emissions it’s equally effective.

“I’m with Mr. Gore. The legislation now on the table isn’t the bill we’d ideally want, but it’s the bill we can get — and it’s vastly better than no bill at all.

One objection — the claim that carbon taxes are better than cap and trade — is, in my view, just wrong. In principle, emission taxes and tradable emission permits are equally effective at limiting pollution. In practice, cap and trade has some major advantages, especially for achieving effective international cooperation.

Not to put too fine a point on it, think about how hard it would be to verify whether China was really implementing a promise to tax carbon emissions, as opposed to letting factory owners with the right connections off the hook. By contrast, it would be fairly easy to determine whether China was holding its total emissions below agreed-upon levels.

The more serious objection to Waxman-Markey is that it sets up a system under which many polluters wouldn’t have to pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases — they’d get their permits free. In particular, in the first years of the program’s operation more than a third of the allocation of emission permits would be handed over at no charge to the power industry.

Now, these handouts wouldn’t undermine the policy’s effectiveness. Even when polluters get free permits, they still have an incentive to reduce their emissions, so that they can sell their excess permits to someone else. That’s not just theory: allowances for sulfur dioxide emissions are allocated to electric utilities free of charge, yet the cap-and-trade system for SO2 has been highly successful at controlling acid rain.

But handing out emission permits does, in effect, transfer wealth from taxpayers to industry. So if you had your heart set on a clean program, without major political payoffs, Waxman-Markey is a disappointment.”

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