What Good is “No Gas Day” Supposed to do?

It would be so entertaining to see well-meaning people engage in some sort of symbolic act that does nothing material other than “sending a message” were the joke not so tired. Seriously. What the hell good is going to the gas station on Wednesday or Friday instead going to do? (incidentally, I won’t run out of gas until this weekend and even that’s only because I’m going way out to the desert) It is exactly like meatless Mondays. How about meatless every day of the week except for Mondays? How about no gas week instead of no gas day? If there is any value to be had in these symbolic demonstrations (and that’s a pretty big if), it is this – it could be a chance to genuinely try out a habit or lifestyle or to think about something one generally avoids thinking about. Maybe.

What most bothers me about the whole concept isn’t the empty symbolism; I’m used to that and expect such from facebookistan. It is that it is yet another example of this cognitive dissonance I too often see in our movement – conflating the very different concerns of the health of the planet on one hand with very separate egalitarian goals, however laudable, on the other. The protest is about gas prices. If the prices are high, great. Maybe alternatives will finally be viable in the market. Don’t get me wrong; there is reason for environmentalists to protest gas prices – for being too low. It’s time to end the gas subsidies, end our oil diplomacy (and “diplomacy”) and end the socialization of costs where otherwise Americans’ stinginess (a force that knows no parallel) might otherwise prevent unwise use of scarce resources.

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=158856697501684

My Proposal – EcoTax

There is a deep, serious flaw in our tax system – it is too damn complicated. Which is to say, administrative costs dig in to what revenue it brings in and it is spurious (which means it is unfair). Whatever incentives and breaks might be won for the sake of the lower classes, there is an inherent bias in favor of those who can afford good accountants. Also, the process of having a governmental cash-ectomy would at least be less painful if it was quick.

There are a number of tax reforms, mostly proposed by the Right, to make things “fair” (same law applies to everyone) and simple. Some of them are quite ingenious and appealing, but I’ll explain why they all suck and mine is better (even though I’m not an economist… I hope a real economist gets a hold of the idea and fills in the cracks). I for one am not a right-winger (quite the opposite) but rather I think like a programmer. Where I see spaghetti code, I want to untie it and I see more spaghetti in our legal system than in an Italian restaurant (zing!)

FairTax

This taxes products at the end of the value chain – when purchased by the end-user. This replaces all the complicated mess of even paying taxes with a tax on final goods sold. The beautiful part is ordinary people don’t have to fill out paperwork. If you own a business, you simply have to pay the sales tax on what you sell. Genius. One problem with this is that, naturally, as you get richer, the proportion of your money you use to buy things decreases (the likes of MC Hammer and Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk notwithstanding). In this way, it disproportionately taxes the poor. FairTax partially gets around this through (p)rebates to families based on income.

On the Wikipedia article, you’ll see this picture. Yeah, that’s what I mean by untying spaghetti code. All those books are our current tax code, and that man is holding FairTax. Awesome.

Negative Income Tax

I believe this was Milton Friedman’s brainchild or at least he’s commonly associated with it. I think it sort of fell out of fashion among Libertarians in to FairTax, but it is also a good system. You pay the government a fixed percentage of your income, minus a fixed amount, the percentage and amount being the same for _everyone_. If it happens to be a negative amount (which happens if your income divided by the percentage is less than the fixed amount), the government pays you. Your tax is a linear equation. If you took math in middle school you are halfway to being a CPA. Awesome.

The system is, however, likely to be a lightning rod for fraud. Tax evasion now is simply a loss of income for the government (and therefor taxpayers), but if you could convince the government you make nothing, you automatically receive welfare. This also still has the disadvantage of making every citizen go through the trouble of filling their taxes. Okay, next.

EcoTax

Now to my proposal, EcoTax. Turn FairTax on its head. Instead of only taxing things at the end-product level, we only tax raw materials as they are taken out of the Earth. We’re not talking about any tariffs right now, since that’s complicated and really another subject. As far as product created within America is concerned, the tax is at the beginning and it’s up to these primary producers (homotrophes, to use an analogy to ecology) to increase their prices to offset their costs. In this way, the costs of things to a greater degree reflect their true ecological costs. This would naturally mean no subsidies for farmers (rather, they would be taxed for the water and soil they use).

The way EcoTax would work is this: the EPA would be given a new job assess the degrees to which various natural resources are renewable, the degree to which various activities are harmful to human health, etc. They will make no fiscal decision, but rather calculate a schedule of ratios. The income needed by the government to meet its operations and economic predictions will be factored in to create a multiplier. The taxes for the different activities will simply be the ratio in question times the grand multiplier. It’s so simple. The only thing an accountant needs is the latest copy of this (which the government should supply as a free PDF, too). Perhaps the government could supply free software with source code for this purpose to make it even simpler. The important thing is for the ratios to not be politically determined or for other concerns to be taken into account (that’s the job of politicians setting fiscal policy on how to use revenue and what to set the multiplier to).

Note this is related to the idea of Ecotax (or Pigovian taxes in general), but it’s different (you can tell because I capitalize the T). The best way to summarize the difference is this: I propose the only tax being Ecotaxes and the rationale is slightly different. The capital in the free market is derived from two main sources – labor and natural resources. I say you own that which your labor created, but that which is derived from our common natural heritage or which clearly has a negative externality you don’t truly own. Certainly, no one owns the atmosphere, though a section of it will be on your land at any given time and a part of the water table, which you also don’t own, may happen to be under your property. I don’t want to get into the specifics of well rights, etc, but just to point out the obvious fact that, as aging hippie douche would say “you can’t own the ocean, man!”

EcoTax isn’t meant to be the panacea of environmental protection. Rather, we’re removing the artificial economic incentive to destroy that which you do not own. Protecting our species’ viability, wild places, natural habitats and so on cannot rely entirely on the government. Indeed, to the degree people value these things (which they should), they shall donate to private charities that buy up land, such as the Nature Conservancy. The government must not force people to be eco-conscious (it’s not the government’s job to make people do the right thing all the time), but to protect that which is everyone’s property from the few.

The biggest drawback I can see with this is there may be a drop in revenue unless the multiplier is set high enough to put some good companies out of business. There should be a transition period where the old scheme is slowly replaced with the new to give people a chance to switch to other industries. There could temporarily be harsher tariffs against countries that use too much farming subsidies to give our companies enough time to compensate, then the tariffs must be dropped again. This may also make things hard on small farmers, but that could be remedied by in the short term paying for Dutch farmers to teach Americans better efficient farming techniques. A purist Libertarian may scoff at the idea that government intervention is needed to counter the ill effects of government intervention, but it is a fact. “Government intervention” refers to too broad a category for that scoff to be taken at face value.

The problem with the ecocentric argument for protecting biodiversity…

…isn’t ecocentrism. It’s just that the ecosphere is too damn strong.

Yes, anthropocentric “stewardship” type thinking can learn from ecocentrism. For example, between two species that are facing undue (anthropogenic…but why isn’t it undue if it’s aviogenic? hmmm) early extinction, we find that environmental movements go for the more charismatic species, rather than the one that is more important in its ecosystem or that can be saved with fewer resources (though it may be easier to drum up support, getting funds for more charismatic species).

This is why I’m ecocentric (at least up to a point), but believe the primary reasons for environmentalism are anthropocentric. There are very few things we could do that would severely put life as a whole on serious jeopardy. Countless terrestrial natural disasters have failed to wipe the slate completely clean and, if anything, created the opportunities needed for our species to come into existence. But it would be terrible if our population growth decreased each individual’s quality of life and robbed humanity of untouched natural habitats to heal individuals who wish to partake. It would be terrible if all the cute animals went extinct.

But more than just “it being terrible if life quality dropped and there were no more hiking trails,” call me a homo sapiens chauvinist, but I don’t want us to go extinct. We’re exactly the kind of animal that is at risk here… and that is why “we are stewards” is absolutely wrong thinking. If we’re in control, then a better analogy is we’re steering a ship and even a sense of self-preservation shall make us want to make sure we don’t hit a rock (one good thing about this analogy.. we can do better than nature! the ecosphere has failed repeatedly to prevent asteroids, but our missiles and nukes might fill in).

The Low-Hanging Fruits of Fiscally Conservative (Economically Liberal) Environmentalism

Here are some of the more obvious things that could help combat global environmental crises like global warming in a way that doesn’t crush individual economic liberties or doesn’t increase state control of the economy. This is all leading up to something. You’ll notice that for many of these, it’s simply a case of the cost of something not reflecting the environmental cost, due to marketing controls.

Of course, the ones of these that are both obvious and easy do get implemented – slowly. Green Scissors has their influence, but that only gets the really low-hanging fruits. I’d like to see leadership in the executive branch have the gonads to implement the obvious, but politically suicidal (particularly #2!).

I’m naturally more interested in the not-so-low-hanging fruits, but that’s the subject of past (and future!) blog posts.

  1. End farm subsidies. They are the reason alfalfa is grown in the desert and meat is cheap. They only help the richest farmers, anyway.
  2. Stop making gas cheap. End subsidies for gas, oil. The government fights the creeping “problem” of gas being expensive. There are many, many creative folks working on alternatives to hydrocarbons, yet here we are artificially reducing the demand for their work.
  3. Make national parks, state recreation areas, etc. pay for themselves. Wild nature is a scarce resource. Charge for it. There is an opportunity cost in keeping these lands, and it costs money to clean up after the homo sapiens. For this matter, private corporations can do the same thing! It is unlikely a nature-enjoyment use of a land will win out against more exploitative uses in the free market often enough to preserve biodiversity, but stranger things happen (like churches being rich!) and rigging the game slightly in favor of such entities would be much less statist than so many other proposed measures…
  4. Big business, trade unions are forces to be reckoned with. Though they may temporarily work to protect the environment, they are more often foes. The government needn’t (and shouldn’t) oppress these entities, but it can stop giving them unchecked political power that isn’t afforded any individual human. If asked to donate to a club the whales fund, I think you’re answer would be “pshaw!”, yet that corporation you own stock in, or that union you’re in, may lobby time and again against your wishes – without asking you once! Businesses and trade unions’ lobbying limbs exist to maintain status quo – but status quo is precisely the cause of our troubles, no?
  5. Lower taxes. More money to donate to the Nature Conservancy. When people pay less in taxes, they donate to charitable causes, and some are bound to be environmental. Land-grabbing orgs large and small do much more using less, than the federal government.
  6. Let the private sector feed the poor. Poorige is good for you and lower on the food chain. And, it’s cheaper (unless the government artificially makes foods higher in the food chain cheaper, which they do). Food stamps give you the power to buy the laziest foods, which also require the most industrial processing. Poor people have time on their hands, not money. Let them have potatoes, not potato chips. Oh, yes, and population growth is a doozy and when you must choose between feeding yourself or having a child who will stave, just maybe you might choose the former.
  7. Enforce property rights. An industry doesn’t have any special rights to pollute my property.
  8. and much more…