Acton Institute Powerblog

The Regressive Carbon Tax

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

A new NBER working paper promises to blow up the myth that it is primarily the wealthy that will bear the cost of taxes on carbon emissions. In “Who Pays a Price on Carbon?” Corbett A. Grainger and Charles D. Kolstad explore the possibility that “under either a cap-and-trade program that limits carbon emissions or a carbon tax that imposes an outright tax on these emissions, the poor may be among the hardest hit. Because they spend a greater share of their income on energy than higher-income families, households in the lowest fifth of the income distribution could shoulder a relative burden that is 1.4 to 4 times higher than that of households in the top fifth of the income distribution.”

One of the assumptions of the study is that “all costs are passed on to the consumer,” which seems to be appropriate given the state of things in the oil refining business, for instance. As Christopher Helman writes in Forbes, “Even though rising fuel costs and taxes can mostly be passed along, they depress demand for refining. That causes refining margins to implode.” This brings up another set assumptions in the NBER study, however, that doesn’t account for modifications in demand, worker wages, or investor returns.

The authors are also improbably sanguine about the possibility of using the government to redistribute tax revenues to the poor to offset the regressiveness of the tax: “A price on carbon could yield substantial government revenues, and careful recycling of these revenues could offset the regressive nature of a national GHG [greenhouse-gas] emissions policy.” These revenues could also form the basis for a whole new government bureaucracy, which is much more likely than “careful recycling.”

But even with all those caveats, the point that the poor are almost always disproportionately impacted by policy decisions like this is an important one, which raises moral considerations beyond the dominant paradigm surrounding the question of carbon emissions, which simply pits the the impoverished two-thirds world against the developed world.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

Comments

  • Joe DeVet

    Good points, but leaves out what may be the biggest harm to the poor, if we adopt “cap-and-trade” or any of the other “remedies” for “global warming.”

    The biggest hit may come from the systemic effects of such interference in the market. When the free market is needlessly contravened by this type of government meddling, the whole economic system is weakened and economic prosperity is diminished.

    The rich are inconvenienced. The poor suffer privation and real want when such things happen. For the “global warming” “remedies”, the negative effects will be on our own poor and the poor of other places in the world.

    A good reason for Christians and all people of good will to fight hammer and tongs AGAINST what they tried to do at Copenhagen. Shame on those “blind guides” among our Christian leadership who expected draconian measures enforced globally, and will continue to agitate for them.