14 May, 2013

The Philospher’s Preferred Instrument of Change: Tax

On ABC’s Lateline, last night, Emma Alberici interviewed Prof. Michael Sandel (the text is that of Lateline’s own transcription):

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER:  Our guest tonight is the famed Harvard University professor of Government, Michael Sandel.  Newsweek calls him the most relevant living philosopher.
Well, if Newsweek praise him—
EMMA ALBERICI:  Which takes me to the dangerous political territory which you traverse in the book around climate change.  Now, you talk about this market in buying and selling the right to pollute in a way that clearly demonstrates that you’re not a fan.
What she means, by “the right to pollute”, is the lawful, industrial emitting of carbon dioxide—the trace gas which is essential for life on earth—as a byproduct, for example, of generating affordable power.
MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, I think the best way to reduce carbon emissions would be a carbon tax, which is terribly unpopular, certainly in my country and elsewhere.
This, of course, is assuming that “carbon emissions” need to be reduced on the further supposition that they cause global warming.  Strangely, for a supposed philosopher, Mandel neglects to question those pseudo-scientific assumptions.  Not so strangely, for an awarmist presenter on the awarmist ABC, Emma Alberici doesn’t bother asking her guest for evidence to support his assertions.
Some international agreements on global warming have included provisions, often at the insistence of the US, to allow countries to meet their obligations either by reducing their own emissions or by paying other countries to reduce theirs.  The worry, it seems to me, my worry, is that if we’re trying to generate a global ethic on the environment, on climate change, we're going to have to cultivate a sense that we are all in this together.  And if we allow rich countries to buy their way out of shared sacrifice, I’m concerned that this could erode the attitudes, the sense of common commitment and shared sacrifice that we will need truly to tackle the long-term challenge of reducing emissions.  So attitudes matter.  And sometimes monetary incentives can damage or erode or even corrupt attitudes that we need to support a shared public, in this case global, ethic.
So, if richer countries were to transfer more wealth to poorer countries, it would be bad because that sacrificing of money wouldn’t be as sacrificing as losing wealth by making energy less affordable for the less affluent.  Why, pray, do we even need a “global ethic”?  If global warming were truly endangering us all would not prudent, cost-effective action be more important than possibly protracted attempts to alter ethics?  Would Prof. Sandel prefer that ethical positions be shared on, say, the evils of slavery or the wickedness of the use of torture in police investigations, ere such practices be banned?
EMMA ALBERICI:  But isn’t that problem equally levelled around the carbon tax in so far as if only one country does it – the whole idea of an emissions trading scheme was that everyone was going to be doing it together, wasn’t it?  I mean, the carbon tax will only apply in one territory.
MICHAEL SANDEL:  Well ideally I think the major countries should try to get together and agree on – to enact carbon taxes, but I think if the major economies begin to do so, I think that can have a desirable effect for others.  I’m all in favour of anything we can do internationally to create a sense of shared responsibility to tackle climate change and global warming.  My worry was that simply relying on tradeable pollution permits, giving rich countries the right essentially to buy their way out of shared sacrifice would undermine the global cooperation, the shared ethic we need as citizens of this planet to do something serious about climate change.
Right, and that “something serious” to “tackle climate change” is to ruin the economies of wealthier countries.
EMMA ALBERICI:  What are your attitudes towards the compensation element?  I mean, in this country we have a carbon tax and then in some circumstances households were overcompensated for the effect of the tax on their particular household budgets.  And we see the same thing with big corporations being compensated for the harmful effect of such a tax.
By “overcompensated” Alberici means that people have been assigned slightly more funds—taken from taxpayers—than the Government has calculated—using, too often, imagined figures—might be the average burden foisted on ordinary taxpayers by various rises in costs after the imposition of the “carbon” tax, without taking into account the deleterious effect on the economy generally.
MICHAEL SANDEL:  Well I think that trying to offset the regressive aspects of a tax, helping those who are least able to bear it, is a good way of making a carbon tax politically acceptable without putting the greatest burden on those who can least afford it.  I’m not familiar with the way the compensation works with regard to companies. But I wish that we in this country would adopt a carbon tax and helping alleviate the burden on those who can’t afford it.  Because I think it would begin to change habits and change attitudes as well as practices and the emissions themselves with regard to one of the biggest challenges long term that we face.
Well, there you go:  a philosopher, and promoter of global ethics, wants to change others’ habits, beliefs and practices; he therefore advocates that governments impose additional taxes on them in order to force the changes he supports.  How philosophical and ethical!

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