Did AOC nudge economists (including 12 from Nevada) to back a carbon tax?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) during a news conference February 7, 2019 with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) to unveil their Green New Deal resolution. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If all the economists were laid end-to-end, according to a very old joke, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion.

But more than 3,300 practitioners of the dismal science — not all perhaps, but an impressive sample — do appear to have reached a conclusion, and that conclusion is that the U.S. should adopt a carbon tax to curb climate change.

Last month, a group of 54 economists and former government economic and/or financial officials, spanning the ideological spectrum from libertarian heartthrob Alan Greenspan all the way to a bunch of prominent center-right people, were featured in an ad in the Wall Street Journal calling for a carbon tax.

The ad, and the statement, was the product of something called the Climate Leadership Council. And as of this week, the number of economists signing on to the statement had swelled to 3,333 — including a half-dozen each from UNR and UNLV.

Why the surge?

The charitable view is that economists and financial expert-texperts and prestigious erstwhile high-ranking government poohbahs (George Schultz! Larry Summers! Many Other Rich Old White Men!) are not aggressively ignorant, or at least not by default. Unlike some current high-ranking government officials, including the highest ranking of all, the would-be climate leaders on the Climate Leadership Council (CLC) acknowledge that climate change is not a big fat hoax perpetrated by China to convince the U.S. to convert to Islam and never build The Wall, but is in point of fact an existential threat that has already sparked a wave of extinctions, will displace millions of people the world over, and wreak planetary havoc, misery, and despair. All of which will be very expensive (we’re talking about economists, after all).

But that might not be the only reason the CLC fired up what evidently is a powerful organizing capacity and amassed so many signatures so quickly for an initiative that has mostly been out of public view, hidden in the cushions of that couch Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi shared on the National Mall more than a decade ago.

Former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, one of the carbon tax statement’s initial signatories last month, told the Financial Times that the tax…

would be more “feasible” and “sensible” than the Green New Deal in its current form. “This is a plan that harnesses markets, it is much more efficient and less costly than methods proposed by the proponents of the Green New Deal,” she said.

Sure, unchecked climate change will bring chaos and catastrophe to the world as we know it. But sweeping structural change that inextricably links action on climate change with social and economic justice and the sorely needed, long-overdue upending of systemically entrenched income inequality? Yikes! Now that’s a threat.

Plus! A carbon tax, according to the CLC statement, “will replace the need for various carbon regulations that are less efficient. Substituting a price signal for cumbersome regulations will promote economic growth and provide the regulatory certainty companies need for long-term investment in clean-energy alternatives.”

Regulations are so unfashionable. Markets are cool!

Industries chasing maximum profits in often lightly regulated markets are a big reason we’re in the climate mess we’re in, so obviously to fix the crisis we should turn to … those same market forces. That’s how ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Shell would do it. Those oil companies, and several other transnational conglomerates, are among the original corporate founders of the CLC.

“A carbon tax’s burden would fall most heavily on energy-intensive industries and lower-income households,” according to the Tax Policy Center.

But the CLC does propose a “dividend” program — money collected from the tax “would be returned to the American people on an equal and quarterly basis via dividend checks, direct deposits or contributions to their individual retirement accounts. In the example … of a $40/ton carbon fee, a family of four would receive approximately $2,000 in carbon dividend payments in the first year.”

Whoa if true. I guess.

As for the question in the headline: Did Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio nudge economists (including 12 from Nevada) to back a carbon tax?

The short answer is no. An overwhelming number of economists, and not just in the U.S., have favored a carbon tax for years.

An overwhelming number of economists (including at least 12 from Nevada) are also obsessed with economic growth while mostly — sometimes aggressively — uninterested in how the benefits of that growth are distributed. The discipline is lousy with modified trickle-downers.

But that doesn’t mean the carbon tax is a bad idea.

Alas, Republicans will never go for it, for reasons articulated by their best scientist:

But if our long national nightmare mercifully comes to an end on Jan. 20, 2021, the carbon tax is one of several steps the U.S. could take to curb emissions.

What the carbon tax is not, is what CLC founder Ted Halstead described it to be to the Financial Times: an either/or.

“I think it is fair to say that America has two choices,” Halstead said, “one is the route of the Green New Deal, one is the route recommended by the entire economic establishment, which is the carbon dividend plan.”

No, it is not fair to say that. They needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Here’s something, however, that is fair to say: For all the right’s attempts to mock and deride Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal, she, and it, are already moving the needle of public opinion, broadening the parameters of public discussion, and prompting, even forcing, a shift in priorities and a reimagining of what is politically possible. Or at least ExxonMobil’s front group thinks so.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.


  1. The GND is a menu of options with one urgent goal: reduction of fossil fuel use. One of the options in the GND Res is to use ‘market mechanisms” so a carbon price is part of the GND.


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