MIT academics propose carbon tax as the solution to America's deficit problems

Compared to the fiscal cliff, a carbon tax would boost growth while cutting emissions.

The Washington Post's Brad Plumer reports on a paper from the MIT Global Change Institute which argues that a carbon tax could, and should, replace the Bush tax cuts in the US.

Plumer:

The authors model what would happen if, this December, Congress enacted a small fee on carbon emissions to fend off a portion of the tax hikes and spending cuts that are scheduled to occur. The carbon tax would be levied directly on fossil fuels—on coal that comes out of the mine, say, or oil that’s shipped in from overseas—and would start at $20 per ton of carbon in 2013, rising 4 percent each year thereafter.

The authors, Sebastian Rausch and John M. Reilly, estimate that this tax would raise $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

To advocates of a carbon tax, this paper ought to be a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, the framing of the tax in terms of sensible deficit reduction is one of the better ways to get it in the debate. In both Britain and America, there is – for good or ill – an agreement that high deficits are a major problem which needs to be dealt with, and so hitching any policy to that cause is a far better recipe for success than pointing out its efficacy at fighting climate change.

On the other, the purpose of the tax could get muddled if this is how the debate is to proceed. Look, for example, at debates over the Robin Hood tax. No-one can agree whether it is being implemented to raise revenues, cut down on practices like high-frequency trading, or some undefined mixture of the two.

With a Robin Hood tax, that may be an acceptable confusion, but with a carbon tax, it is undoubtedly introduced to reduce carbon emissions. To think otherwise would be dangerous indeed. And so yoking a deficit reduction program to the tax creates some perverse incentives on the part of lawmakers. For if the tax does succeed in reducing carbon emissions – which the authors of the MIT paper suggest it will, though not by nearly enough to single-handedly solve the problem for the US – then the revenues gathered by it will drop accordingly.

Even so, having a carbon tax is still better than not having one, and the choke point the authors identify – the US fiscal cliff, and all the uncertainty it brings with it – could well be a time for introducing novel legislation of all stripes to the house.

A protest placard from Australia, where the carbon tax is rather unpopular. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.