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Culture War Serves Nobody
economic policy wonks can turn out conservatives like Arthur Laffer,
after whom a theory about the relationship between tax rates and
government revenues is named.
Nearly 40 years after the economist famously sketched what became known
as the Laffer Curve on a napkin to bolster his argument, later embraced
by Ronald Reagan, that lower tax rates would result in higher federal
revenues, Laffer is talking up another provocative tax policy:
substituting carbon taxes for personal income taxes.
Laffer is not diving into the shark-filled climate politics tank in
order to tout an idea for reducing heat-trapping emissions. Unlike
egotistical talk show entertainers who claim to know more about climate
science than climate scientists, Laffer steers clear of the scientific
questions because he acknowledges they are not within his area of
expertise. Instead, Laffer keeps his focus on what he believes would be
the economic benefits of a tax swap—lowering taxes on work, thereby
encouraging more work, more production, more output, and more jobs.
Last month, Laffer dropped by a gathering in Manchester, New Hampshire
organized by Clean Air Cool Planet that attracted a crowd of New
Hampshire Republican worthies, including big tunas in the Legislature
and gubernatorial candidates. Not many Republican worthies would be so
bold, at this time of partisan battles to the death, to embrace
Laffer’s ideas, but the fact that he drew a crowd of conservatives to
hear him out is a sliver of hope that the climate debate might be
shifted out of the unforgiving culture swamp in which it’s been
Which is redounding to the discomfort of Republican officeholders who
either have scientific training and/or respect science enough to cringe
at the idea of their party being perceived as a gaggle of uninformed
nincompoops. Former Congressman Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican
whose 2010 primary loss was in part due to his acknowledgement of a
human link to climate change, told the National Journal
last year: “Being branded as anti-science is not a good future for us.
How can we say to young people, we’re dismissing science. That’s not a
good place for our party to be, and it’s not historically where we’ve
been. There are conservative voices that will hopefully show the way
back to conservatism and away from a populist rejection of science.”
Conservative columnist Michael Gerson said as much in a recent Washington Post
Gerson took to task both sides of the political
spectrum for indulging their fire-breathing extremes in what is really
an argument about the proper role of government. In Gerson’s view,
Democrats have enabled a meme that all Republicans have touted
anti-science populism in order to serve greedy oil and coal interests,
while Republicans have fanned
the flames of a trope that all Democrats wish to stuff free enterprise
with a European diet of high taxes and smothering
The stereotypes and sound bites, however, have nothing to do with
dioxide molecules care not a whit about ideological posturing. Global
average temperatures have increased since the 1950s, as demonstrated by
the exhaustive Berkeley
Earth Surface Temperature study. Patterns of
warming, chemical “fingerprinting” that ties CO2 to its origins from
fuels, and observations of heat being trapped in the
atmosphere at the wavelengths at which CO2 traps heat
point to CO2 from fossil fuel combustion as a leading culprit.
Such facts cannot be denied out of existence, nor are the physical laws
that underlay them subject to amendment or repeal. What we do about
these matters, however, is the proper province of political debate.
More efficiency? More nuclear power? More substitution of gas for coal?
A crash program to commercialize carbon capture and sequestration
technology? An aggressive shift to renewables? Some of the above? All
of the above? How much? How soon? What policy mechanisms would be best
suited for effecting a shift to a low-carbon energy economy? Emissions
allowance trading? Clean energy standards? Carbon taxes?
Those are the sorts of questions that should be debated, not whether
burning fossil fuels is a demonstration of moral virtue. As Gerson
wrote: “Any rational approach requires some distance between science
and ideology. The extraction and burning of dead plant matter is not a
moral good—or the proper cause for a culture war.”
Exactly. Let’s debate Arthur Laffer’s carbon tax proposal on its policy
merits and keep it out of the culture war trenches.