10 April 2009

Drum and Friedman: Fighting for the Ball

Kevin Drum waxes morosely over the self-defeating nature of the liberal agenda. Specifically, Drum condemns Tom Friedman's recent carbon tax musings as the death knell for an effective and comprehensive climate change policy any time in the next 30 years or so.

I like Kevin's writing and his politics. He's got a big brain and devotes much of that brainpower to general wonkishness. Furthermore, Kevin knows what he's talking about when he asserts that cap-and-trade "uses market mechanisms, has a proven track record with acid rain control, and raises money via auctions rather than taxes." I understand all that thanks only to writers like Drum who distill it for me. So when a Kevin Drum decries the call for a straight carbon tax from a Tom Friedman, I sit up and listen.

Thing is, I also found Friedman's column pretty compelling. I can't debate the pros and cons between cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax, but I think Friedman hits an important point and nails it: no matter what Dems propose, Republican opposition will call it a tax. "Since the opponents of cap-and-trade are going to pillory it as a tax anyway, why not go for the real thing — a simple, transparent, economy-wide carbon tax?"

Mustachioed ponderousity aside, Friedman's right. Dems and the White House are in a semantic bind over this. Call it cap-and-trade and be accused of playing hide the ball, or call it a tax and be accused of breaking campaign promises and raising taxes on the folks on Main Street. All this presents a thorny issue for legislators who by necessity must thread a very tight needle in order to control carbon emissions in our lifetimes (preferably sooner than later, contra George Will). Though any eventual legislation is about the policy, it's also about the politics. And in politics, the right words matter. A lot.

So what'll it be? With centrist Dems scrambling to distance themselves from anything that will make their own reelections harder (nowhere more evident than here in Colorado), climate change is one topic that might just prove that, though the Republican party is weakened in the public eye, its propaganda machine is still strong enough to scare away enough votes to pass anything effective, no matter what lawmakers call it in the end. We'll see.