Conservatives and Carbon Taxes

[Ross] Matt Yglesias wonders why more right-wingers aren't singing the praises of a carbon tax:

Every once in a while I wonder why you don't see a constant, dogmatic drumbeat of enthusiasm for carbon taxes from conservative pundits. You'd say, "we should have a carbon tax and offset it with reductions in income taxes" and split yuppie liberal types who worry about global warming from more traditional populist types. What's more, since to be effective a carbon tax would need to succeed in reducing carbon emissions you'd also set the federal government on a glide path to reduced revenues. It's great. But you almost never see people beating this drum.

I can imagine a few explanations. One is that most conservative pundits have allowed that portion of the brain that one uses to analyze a substantive question of national policy to atrophy to the extent that they don't understand why this is something that conservatives should like. Another is corruption; this proposal would be bad interest group politics and the energy companies are major financiers of the right. A third is hackishness; this proposal would put you in disagreement with George W. Bush and other Republican Party politicians. Last is the politics of resentment; conservative pundits just hate environmentalists too much to see the forest for the trees. Some combination of factors may be at work. And it's worth saying that several of your better conservative pundits -- Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks come to mind -- are on the bandwagon.

Well, Matt's least-favorite conservative pundit is on the bandwagon too. So is David Frum, and so are various right-of-center economists: Greg Mankiw is all for it; Bruce Bartlett has suggested that he'd be amenable; Tyler Cowen is on board; and so on. It's true that the broader "movement" hasn't embraced the concept the way they've embraced, say, the war against "Islamofascism," and I'm obviously sympathetic to the idea that the Right has let the domestic-policy side of its brain atrophy a bit in the last decade or so, and that conservative intellectuals haven't pushed back nearly enough against the GOP's interest groups of late. But I'm not sure that the case of the missing carbon tax is a problem with conservative pundits, in particular, so much as it is a manifestation of a problem with punditry in general. If you were to pick a really good policy idea that liberals ought to be supporting but aren't, I suspect you wouldn't find all that many prominent left-of-center pundits championing it, because most prominent pundits just don't champion innovative domestic policy ideas very often.

Why? Well, because American punditry is geared around horse-race analysis of the kind that dominates most political talk shows (see this Yglesias post, for instance, which highlights a particularly sorry example), and at the higher end it's filled with writers who have been given columns because their editors like their writing style, not their substance. (Thus Maureen Dowd, thus Frank Rich, thus Anna Quindlen, and so on the down the list of liberals who sound sweet and have almost nothing substantial say.) In addition, foreign policy is much, much sexier than domestic policy, so the smarter pundits tend to gravitate toward writing about war and peace, not VATs and EITCs and all that boring stuff.

All of which is easy to bemoan, but it's also the case that TV shows and newspapers serve an audience of consumers (a dwindling audience, in the latter case), and to a certain extent they're just responding to what this audience demands: I'm willing to bet that horse-race talk, foreign-policy arguments, and Dowd-style stylings sell way more newspapers (to the extent that any punditry sells newspapers) than serious proposals for, well, a carbon tax. Which, to bring this post full circle, is also part of the reason the Right has grown so much less interesting, so much staler and so predictable, in recent years - because conservative writers are playing to a mass market in a way that the old NR gang and the '70s neocons weren't, and that market doesn't want new and troubling ideas like a carbon tax with an income tax offset (I'd prefer a payroll tax offset myself, but that of course just makes the idea even more confusing) - it wants, well, this.