Can a candidate win on a pledge of read my lips, some new taxes?

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Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention during Ec 10 (Economics 101 for folks who went to schools with “majors” and exams before Christmas).

My takeaway from that course in basic economics was not that all taxes and government intervention are bad. Nor was I brainwashed into the cult of Saint Adam Smith and required to say “the free market is good” 5 times a day while turning to face Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

One thing I did learn was that the government could manipulate market forces to encourage or discourage certain behaviors. For example, tax cigarettes through the roof and you might start to change some smoking habits. Provide subsidies for fuel efficient vehicles and folks may turn away from gas guzzling SUVs.

Politically, of course, we know that aside from proposing taxes on only the most universally-despised behaviors (like being very, very wealth), putting forth the idea to take any money from the American people – no matter what the end – is suicide. In fact, candidates often race to see who can promise the biggest tax cuts for the most people.

But in a time when we are faced with nearly unprecedented challenges that could profoundly change the face of the planet and the way of lives for billions, maybe the old rules of politics need to be set aside.

Tom Friedman, via Gristmill, outlines one part of the challenge:

Imagine for a minute, just a minute, that someone running for president was able to actually tell the truth, the real truth, to the American people about what would be the best — I mean really the best — energy policy for the long-term economic health and security of our country. I realize this is a fantasy, but play along with me for a minute. What would this mythical, totally imaginary, truth-telling candidate say?

For starters, he or she would explain that there is no short-term fix for gasoline prices. Prices are what they are as a result of rising global oil demand from India, China and a rapidly growing Middle East on top of our own increasing consumption, a shortage of “sweet” crude that is used for the diesel fuel that Europe is highly dependent upon and our own neglect of effective energy policy for 30 years.

Cynical ideas, like the McCain-Clinton summertime gas-tax holiday, would only make the problem worse, and reckless initiatives like the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep offer to subsidize gasoline for three years for people who buy its gas guzzlers are the moral equivalent of tobacco companies offering discounted cigarettes to teenagers.

The writer of the Grist commentary, Ryan Avent explains correctly that there is a difference between “arguing the removal of an existing tax would be pointless and arguing that the imposition of a new tax would be good.”

Unfortunately, it’s just such a new tax that will be necessary to hasten changes in behavior away from those that are oil-dependent to those that are greener and more sustainable, whether they be developing, marketing and purchasing vehicles that run on renewable sources of energy or changing habitation patterns to encourage density and clustering around mass transit.

Avent goes on to explain the obstacles:

The question is, how to build support for increased taxes in a world where the support of experts, “experts,” and the media cannot be guaranteed? One route might be to offer something to voters for their money. Specifically, are you more likely to have success with a plan that refunds revenues elsewhere, or with a plan that spends money on alternatives?

He has some solutions, or at least ways to talk sell the idea but acknowledges that:

We should never shy away from communicating the thinking beneath policies like carbon pricing or renewable portfolio standards, but it may be wise for greens to prepare themselves to make a complete, and perhaps a calculated, argument for the policies we need.

Considering what we saw earlier today about the premium placed on “speed,” all of us need to come together to slow things down so that such policies are given the time they need to be explained fully.

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