How to compensate consumers under carbon pricing

By Felix Salmon
September 28, 2009
Greg Mankiw, when it comes to cap-and-trade, is more or less on the side of the angels: he's quite right that permits should be auctioned rather than given away to polluters. But is the tax code really the best way to compensate consumers for the higher energy prices they're going to end up paying? Mankiw writes:

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Greg Mankiw, when it comes to cap-and-trade, is more or less on the side of the angels: he’s quite right that permits should be auctioned rather than given away to polluters. But is the tax code really the best way to compensate consumers for the higher energy prices they’re going to end up paying? Mankiw writes:

From the standpoint of economic efficiency, the price of carbon emissions should be passed on to consumers in the form of higher energy prices, so that consumers can make optimal decisions regarding energy consumption. Consumers should be compensated for paying these higher prices via cuts in income or payroll taxes. Those tax cuts would be financed by the revenues received from the auctioning of carbon rights (or, better yet, a carbon tax).

The first sentence is right, it’s the second I take issue with. If you cut income or payroll taxes, you end up giving more benefit to high earners than to low earners, and people who pay little or no taxes at all (eg the unemployed) get precious little benefit at all.

Better would be a flat refundable tax credit: the government essentially gives every taxpayer a flat amount each year, passing on the revenues it gets from the carbon auction.

Even that, however, would create inequities: three college roommates sharing a small city apartment would get three times the amount going to a single mother trying to raise three kids in the countryside — someone whose energy consumption would naturally be much higher.

There isn’t a simple and fair way of doing things — even channeling fixed payments through the energy companies themselves would unfairly advantage people who use say electricity and natural gas and heating oil. Instead, I fear that the fair method is going to be complicated, based on ZIP codes and size of household at the very least.

But the compensation should certainly be capped at no more than the average energy bill for the area. If people use less energy than the average, then it’s fine for them to profit from that. But there’s no reason to use a carbon-pricing mechanism to give high earners yet another tax break.

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