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Carbon Tax

The Introduction of a New Order of Things

10:07 AM EDT on July 17, 2007

In his essay, "Valuing the Commons," Charles Komanoff discusses congestion pricing and carbon taxes and the difficulty in convincing people to pay for their negative externalities. Komanoff wrote it back in June and it's on Grist this week:

What, then, is standing in the way of congestion fees and a nationalcarbon tax? The power ofan entrenched minority, for one thing. In NewYork City, fewer than one in 20 working residents drives toll-free intothe intended congestion charging zone, but they know who they are andare not shy about protecting their self-awarded entitlement to atoll-free commute.

Conversely, the benefits of congestion pricing will be broadlydistributed but not life-changing. Indeed, judging from polls, many NewYorkers don't even realize they are potential beneficiaries.

"Losers cry louder than winners sing," wrote University ofMichigan professor Joel Slemrod in explaining the near-impossibility ofoverhauling the U.S. tax code, and the same holds true for thecongestion fee and the carbon tax.

What is more, the benefitsfrom road fees or carbon taxes aren't just diffuse; because they lie inthe future they are by necessity uncertain.

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand," Machiavelli observed in The Prince,"than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things ...the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under theold conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well underthe old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do wellunder the new."

That is why enacting the Bloomberg congestion plan is so hard, andso necessary. America's civic polity is stuck in traffic, so to speak.Getting it moving again will require us to imagine something other thanpermanent stalemate and act upon that vision.

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