Lynne Heller made a great point on the Lynne and Michael Show this past Sunday and then employed it to come to the wrong conclusion. Lynne argued correctly that in American there’s far too great an emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to act in ways that minimize social problems rather than on our collective obligation through government and other institutions to address them. Lynne implied, again correctly, that the reason for this over-emphasis on individual action is because such an emphasis tends to insulate those with wealth and power from the taxes and regulations necessary to address poverty and stop corporate polluters.
Lynne also made the very just point that it’s not fair to expect people who are barely making it or not making it to act contrary to their own personal interests just because it will benefit all of us in the long-run. Then Lynne’s logic faltered. She claimed that my call for a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was an example of my reliance upon personal responsibility to reduce global warming. Indeed, it is just the opposite.
Currently, the economic incentives in America are all for burning carbon. The cost to the carbon consumer is a fraction of the per calorie cost that burning it imposes on all of us through air pollution and global warming among other noxious externalities. As long as we allow carbon burners to externalize these costs, we will be incentivizing its use. Expecting people to use less of the product when it is clearly in their short-term financial interest to consume it is relying upon personal responsibility to solve global warming. But, if we raise the price of carbon through a significant enough tax, it will be in each consumer’s immediate financial interest to use carbon alternatives. People will no longer need to behave “responsibly,” i.e., contrary to their own short-term economic interests, in order to reduce their carbon consumption sharply. Instead, the individual’s short-term interest, using the cheapest possible energy, will correlate with society’s long-term interest in slowing, stopping, and ultimately reversing global warming.
I’ve said it so many times that I shouldn’t have to say it again but because carbon taxes are regressive and would hit many financially struggling Americans particularly hard, we should redistribute to poor and working class Americans all collected carbon taxes.