As I frequently remind my readers I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I usually write about particular economic and fiscal problems facing our country. But every now and then I like to step back and view our overall situation at one time. The last time I did this was here.
Let’s take another look:
The economy is puttering along at 2% annual growth with a relatively low unemployment rate of 4.3% and a good indication that faster growth, up to 2.5% annually, is right around the corner, see here and here. The economy, at least, is headed in the right direction.
Foreign policy. Long term our biggest problem is China, which has four times as many people as we do and is growing economically three times as fast. China will soon surpass us in both economic and military strength. Our best insurance for this inevitable day is to have lots of democratic friends around the world.
Global warming is real and getting worse. Our best strategy for dealing with it is a revenue neutral carbon tax, rather than depending on ad hoc regulations like the Clean Power Plan and ever increasing auto emission standards. If the U.S. demonstrates its seriousness with a carbon tax, it is likely that the U.S. and China (which is highly polluted) could work together to establish world-wide carbon emission standards.
National debt, currently 77% of GDP (for the public debt on which we pay interest), is predicted by the CBO to keep getting steadily worse (see chart) without major changes in current policy. Right now our approximately $14.3 trillion public debt is almost “free” money because interest rates are so low. But sooner or later interest rates will return to more normal levels and, when this happens, interest payments on the debt will rise by hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This will inevitably lead to a severe fiscal crisis, far worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
Conclusion. I am relatively optimistic that we can maintain good relations with China and will have the good sense to better control carbon emissions. But our debt problem is politically very difficult to address because it will require spending curtailments. How do we successfully address such a huge problem?
As I have discussed previously, the evidence for global warming is overwhelming. I had hoped that President Trump would publicly recognize this scientific reality and decide to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. Nevertheless, it will take more than three years for the U.S. to completely withdraw.
But in or out of the Paris Agreement, the best way for the U.S. to show leadership on this critical issue is to adopt a (revenue neutral) carbon tax. The American Enterprise Institute has just issued a comprehensive report on the desirability and feasibility of doing this.
Here is the gist of the AEI argument:
$40 per ton is often taken to be the social cost of carbon in the atmosphere. A carbon tax at this level would raise the cost of gasoline by 36 cents per gallon.
A carbon tax is a consumption tax. Taxing consumption rather than income promotes economic growth. The revenue neutral offset would likely be an income tax such as the payroll tax or corporate income tax.
A carbon tax need not disadvantage the U.S. globally since a border adjustment tax could be imposed on imports from countries without a carbon price regime.
Replacing arbitrary regulations. The primary carbon-reduction regulations currently in effect are the 1) Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for vehicles and 2) Clean Power Plan which limits power-sector carbon emissions at the state level. Leaving carbon abatement decisions to carbon producers is far more efficient than leaving it up to regulators.
Growing public acceptance. 84% of registered voters, including 72% of Republicans, support actions to accelerate the development and use of clean energy. Even 49% of conservative Republicans say that “Americans will make major changes to their way of life to address climate change.”
Conclusion. For the U.S. to adopt a carbon tax would be an even stronger statement of world leadership than participating in the Paris Agreement.
Like many other people I am upset that President Trump has decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. It’s not that Paris solves the global warming problem but it is a major step in the right direction. We’re the biggest contributor of carbon emissions so it is our responsibility to lead in reducing them.
Here are some other major issues that need leadership:
Trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership would have been a big win for the U.S. But it is with China, responsible for two-thirds of our trade deficit, that we need a major rebalance.
NATO. Mr. Trump has withdrawn his campaign statement that NATO is “obsolete.” His criticism of NATO could turn out to be useful if it leads to an increase in NATO defense spending.
Faster Economic Growth. Economic strength is the backbone of our influence in world affairs. Lower corporate tax rates will encourage our multinational companies to bring their profits back home for reinvestment in the U.S. Administration efforts already under way to deregulate various aspects of the U.S. economy should soon lead to faster growth.
U.S. Budget. Mr. Trump has proposed to balance the U.S. budget within ten years which is hugely important. Unfortunately many of his specific proposals on spending and growth are not realistic.
Infrastructure Spending. This is an excellent idea if it is paid for directly and does not add to the federal deficit. Apparently Mr. Trump will soon announce a plan for private industry, cities and states to take the lead in new infrastructure spending with possible contributions from the federal government.
Conclusion. Although Paris is a disappointment, Mr. Trump will have many opportunities to redeem himself.
Spring in the U.S. is coming sooner each year on average.
The three biggest carbon emitters in the world are China, the U.S. and India in that order. But what is also true, and not sufficiently well appreciated, is that carbon emissions in the U.S. are dropping while they are still increasing in China and India:
In the 2015 Paris climate agreement, China pledged that it would start reducing carbon emissions by 2030 but, in the meantime, is still continuing to open coal burning power plants.
In the U.S. carbon emissions have been steadily decreasing since 2000 (see chart).
In India the economy is growing at 7% per year and 240 million people still lack electric power. This means that carbon emissions from coal burning are likely to double in the years ahead.
Coal use in the U.S. will continue to drop with or without enforcement of the Obama era Clean Power Plan because natural gas is now so plentiful and so much less expensive than coal. The best way for the U.S. to continue showing leadership in combatting global warming is for it to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax. This would let the market sort out which type of energy is the cleanest and most efficient in meeting our country’s growing energy needs. In fact a carbon tax might even be beneficial for the coal industry by creating a strong incentive to develop carbon capture and storage technology. Conclusion. Most Americans now agree that global warming is real and that this presents a huge threat to human civilization. It is likely that a revenue-neutral carbon tax will be adopted by our country in the near future.