If, as appears likely, cap-and-trade legislation is not going to be enacted this year or any other time soon, it represents more than a setback for the Obama administration (or for the environment). It’s also another blow to the high concept of using market mechanisms rather than direct government control to address major public policy challenges.
Cap-and-trade was originally designed, after all, as an alternative to command-and-control environmental regulations, which is why it was once championed by Republicans, particularly during and after its successful use in reducing acid rain in the 1990s.
But as the New York Times‘ David Leonhardt (with an exclamation point from Jonathan Chait) explained this week, Republicans have abandoned cap-and-trade just when it might be most useful, with some former advocates, ironically, embracing command-and-control:
[T]he great economic strength of market systems like cap and trade also happens to be their political weakness. They set prices and allow people to react. In the process, market systems acknowledge that reducing pollution may actually cost a little bit of money.
Politicians don’t like to admit this, because voters don’t like it. Accepting higher costs is especially hard when the economy is weak. So Congressional Democrats have been repackaging their energy bills to make them look less and less market-oriented. Senator John McCain, who supported a permit system for carbon as the Republican presidential nominee, no longer does. Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, has reversed his position as well.
What does Mr. Graham now favor? A series of command-and-control regulations. He has introduced a bill with Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, that would mandate specific standards for cars, trucks, homes and offices. It would also give the energy secretary the power to award loans to companies he thought could do a good job of setting up programs to retrofit buildings. State officials would do the same for factories. The bill, in short, puts more faith in government than the market.
Leonhardt clearly believes that the transparency of cap-and-trade when it comes to costs is its major political flaw. That’s definitely a factor, but I’d argue that something more fundamental is going on. Once Democrats embraced cap-and-trade, Republicans began retreating from it as a simple matter of politics. And this distancing effort has been immensely reinforced by the rightward trend in the GOP during the last few years, in which leaders who simply denied there was any climate change problem, and/or that government had any useful role to play on the issue, have been in the ascendancy. So “cap-and-tax” was demonized and essentially placed off limits for Republican politicians, to the point where those like Lindsay Graham and Dick Lugar who weren’t quite in the “denialist” camp found it easier to just support direct federal regulation.
We saw a similar dynamic play out on health reform, where a market-based managed competition model long supported by Republicans, and championed quite recently by Mitt Romney, became toxic the moment it was fully advanced by Barack Obama. And even as they savaged ObamaCare as “socialized medicine,” Republicans saw little irony in posing as last-ditch defenders of Medicare, a relic of an earlier Democratic drive for a government-run single-payer system.
On both health care and climate change, it’s not surprising that many progressives are impatient with Obama’s determination to promote market-based approaches that the supposed party of market-based policy, the GOP, will no longer support. But nobody should for a moment mistake the identity of the prime mover in shifting the political ground away from the once-promising “centrist” convergence on using market mechanisms to address public sector challenges. The GOP could have declared partial victory and celebrated the Democratic Party’s abandonment of big government solutions, and then fought it out over the details. Instead, Republicans have burned down every structure on the potential common ground that Americans seem to crave. They may be able to succeed for a while in opportunistically deploring the inability of Democrats to get anything done. But if and when Republicans regain power, they may well discover that the GOP policy arsenal has been emptied by their own hands.