Wish He Was a Baller

Friedman fumbles with last-minute call for a carbon tax

As virtually all of America knows by now, Tom Friedman is a big environmentalist. He loves nature, green things, responsible business practices, stuff Europe does, and so on. That’s how America knows the New York Times columnist is a good guy, despite the fact that he’s otherwise pretty much a shill for global corporations. Lately, having gotten over a certain geographical confusion, his columns have focused on tactics to improve the environment. In September, he urged U.S. policymakers to “Green the Bailout” by targeting stimulus money to sustainable business practices. In December, he waxed enthusiastic about instituting a gas tax to curb auto emissions.

Now the sage of Bethesda has discovered the elegance of the carbon tax. On April 8, in a column about cap and trade called “Show Us the Ball,” he explained that “since the opponents of cap-and-trade are going to pillory it as a tax anyway, why not go for the real thing—a simple, transparent, economy-wide carbon tax?”

Friedman’s “big ideas” are seldom straight-up awful ones. But they are also rarely timely or original. Most economists actually agree with Friedman that, in theory, a carbon tax is the most straightforward path to pollution reduction. That being said, since the republic suffered for almost a decade under a president who only acknowledged in about 2007 that global warming was a real thing caused by pollution, a cap and trade bill alone is a pretty impressive move.

Friedman has decided that, despite the fact that there’s already a serious bill being debated in the House, Obama and the Democrats have gone about this whole thing the wrong way and it’s time to start over, because, as Friedman puts it:

I am really encouraged by President Obama’s commitment to clean energy and combating climate change. I just have three worries: whether he has the right policies, the right politics and the right official to sell his program to the country. Other than that, things look great!

The fact that his suggestion is both outdated and politically impractical is immaterial to Friedman. It appears that the columnist, who specializes in irritating, Reaganesque generalizations, just had a metaphor with which he wanted to run, relevance be damned:

Advocates of cap-and-trade argue that it is preferable to a simple carbon tax because it fixes a national cap on carbon emissions and it “hides the ball” — it doesn’t use the word “tax” — even though it amounts to one. So it can get through Congress. That was true as long as no one thought cap-and-trade could ever pass, but now that it might under Mr. Obama, opponents are not playing hide the ball anymore.

Hide the ball. He wanted to write “hide the ball.” Never mind that the game is a terrible metaphor for the legislation he describes; the goal of hide the ball is to find the ball and capture it as a prize. The “ball” here is a tax on carbon emissions.

The problem with Friedman’s cap and trade piece is that he is coming to this realization about the carbon tax months or even years after everybody else already thought about it. Anybody concerned about this issue already understands the carbon tax—and recognizes why it isn’t being proposed right now. Carbon tax advocates have come to understand that the carbon tax idea is politically unpopular and, furthermore, that congressmen can easily manipulate taxes for the benefit of assorted interest groups. Friedman’s presenting it as if he made a wonderful new discovery, instead of just being lazy and late in this realization.

Of course, it’s only so often that Friedman makes these forays into actual policymaking. That’s not really his thing; he specializes in environmental solutions that are a) really simple, and b) not being done in the United States. Last week he mercifully returned to his comfort zone, writing a fluffy (and somewhat inaccurate) piece about Costa Rica’s environmental policy. At least he knows his strengths.

“Show Us the Ball” actually does a pretty good job demonstrating why a carbon tax isn’t going to happen: because there’s already a draft cap and trade bill in the House. Now is not the time for a new strategy, policy, and message, despite how entertaining it might have been for Friedman to write one up. His proposal is both late and arrogant—climate experts and economists knew about the idea of the carbon tax earlier in the game, and still rejected it as politically unfeasible. Friedman’s decision to enter the debate at this stage just looks like too little, too late. Is anyone surprised?

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.