Review of the Book
by Alan Thein Durning
[Reprinted from the Christian Science Monitor,
8 May, 1998. Tina Kelley writes regularly for The New York Times and
Northwest Environment Watch, a Seattle-based think tank, has proposed
a new tax system to put the financial squeeze on pollution, not
people. Tax carbon-dioxide emissions, smog, sprawl, and pesticides,
they say, instead of business, income, and sales.
Sometimes an idea comes along that makes so much sense you just want
to snap your fingers, turn into the benevolent dictator of the world,
and put it in place. But only rarely do such ideas come with operating
instructions, small steps to take while the public gets used to
Sweden is already implementing similar taxes. In an effort to reduce
pesticide use by 50 percent in five years, Sweden has increased taxes
to fund antipollution research efforts. And in San Diego a private
company built two highway lanes with a scanner toll system for people
willing to pay to drive on the less congested road.
Minnesota, Vermont, and Maine are talking about a carbon tax per ton
of emissions, and if one or two states go forward, others are likely
to follow suit. Existing taxes on the chemical industry could
gradually be adjusted to be proportionate to emissions, and business
taxes could be lowered accordingly.
The authors of "Tax Shift," Alan Thein Durning and Yoram
Bauman, point to taxes that reward the least-polluting fifth of the
population with tax breaks, while doubling taxes on the most-polluting
fifth. Such taxes could work at the gas pump, where clean-burning
fuels have traditionally been at a disadvantage because of their
slightly higher cost. Give them a tax break while shifting the burden
to the dirtier varieties, and the market will adjust itself
accordingly, and cleanly. A similar shift could work on vehicles, with
the dirtiest 20 percent paying double sales taxes, while the cleanest
20 percent would be sales-tax free. Such taxes could use existing
information - odometer readings, emissions reports - without having to
set up whole new bureaucracies.
Northwest Environment Watch points out that our current tax structure
evolved from a long tradition of revolts. Realizing it could be hard
to get voters to rally behind a huge new tax structure, the authors
note smaller steps to a more enlightened code.
Congestion taxes could be phased in one road at a time, with higher
tolls on busier roads at peak hours. On a regional basis, taxing land,
rather than the buildings on it, could reduce land speculation,
sprawl, and the concomitant loss of farmland and open space while
encouraging development of vacant urban lots, which already have
utilities, public transportation, schools, and easy access to work.
And taxing pesticides on a state-by-state basis could result in
significantly cleaner waterways and healthier fish stocks.
The proposals could result in a proliferation of new political
bedfellows, as they combine traditionally liberal techniques and
issues - concern for the environment, fair wages, punishing polluters
- with conservative watchwords like reliance on market forces,
enterprise, and responsibility. A broad coalition could be built
around the proposals, bringing environmentalists together with
small-scale industrial polluters who would sign on when they realized
drivers of sport utility vehicles would finally have to share some
blame for smog over cities.
The tax shift plan carries good news and bad for the average voter. "People
get to keep their paycheck, the whole thing," says Mr. Durning. "The
bad news is they'll pay more for high impact goods. They'll pay more
to drive, and they'll pay more for virgin paper and non-organic
food.... We can get prices to tell us the truth about the cost of our
actions on others."
And as the report notes, when you tax something, you get less of it.
If less pollution, less sprawl, and less congestion are possible under
these proposals, it's easier to imagine a populace that is happier
about doing its civic duty, pulling together while paying up.