California’s nascent cap-and-trade program appears to be threatened by a ballot measure that is both substantively idiotic and yet diabolically clever. Basically, the measure would suspend implementation until California’s unemployment rate declines to below 5.5 percent. Financial backing comes from oil companies and other big polluters. Shocking, I know.
Anyway, it’s a stupid idea on the merits because, apart from one industry-funded study, detailed analysis has shown that the bill would actually be beneficial to California’s economy, lowering energy bills and creating jobs.* (Plus, the measure would, of course, reduce the state’s sizeable contribution to the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions; and California’s carbon footprint is roughlyequivalent to that of France.)
So why is it clever? Because linking the outcome to unemployment cements the (incorrect) impression that carbon reduction is bad for the economy. In fact, simply describing the measure requires one to link climate protection and unemployment. It’s a masterstroke of framing, and it’s a technique that progressives could stand to learn.
Fortunately, this is a game that anyone can play! It shouldn’t be too hard to start adopting this kind of thing in ballot measure-saturated states in the West. So to get the conversation started, here’s a formula I just invented:
[State] will levy an X percent tax on [bad-guy industry product] until [desired social or economic outcome] occurs.
Here’s how it might work:
- Oregon will levy a 25 percent tax on cigarettes until teen smoking declines below 10 percent;
- Montana will levy a 50 percent tax on the in-state profits of payday lending firms until the state’s child poverty rate declines below 10 percent.
- Washington will levy a 10 percent tax on petroleum products until US oil industry profits decline below $50 billion per year.
You could tweak the dials here: change the numbers, change the targets, whatever. But I think you get the idea. In a best case scenario, progressives could win big fat Pigovian tax victories, and net a bunch of revenue to direct to their objectives.
But even if the ballot measures failed, they would amount to a campaign season’s worth of PR for their pet issue. Tobacco sales are bad for kids; payday lending hurts poor children; the oil industry is screwing consumers. It’s fun, right?
I mean, if your state’s politics are locked in the death spiral of cynical bought-and-paid-for faux-populist ballot initiatives, the least you can do is leverage the dysfunction to do a little good for the world.
* Update 4/23/10: An informed reader tells me that the study actually shows a close-to-zero impact on the state’s economy when the cap-and-trade program is considered in combination with complementary policies, such as energy efficiency.
Matt the Engineer
Genius. But why stop there? Most of society’s problems could be solved with a slight modification of this formula: just add “per year”!WA will increase gasoline taxes 5% per year until VMT is cut in half.MT will increase carbon taxes 10% per year* until the state is carbon neutral.CA will increase speeding ticket fines by 30% per year until speeding is eliminated.* well, they’d have to start with a carbon tax first
Well, but California’s is a suspension of [something] until [something]. So:WA will suspend building new roads for motor vehicles until 25% of all commute trips are on bike paths, or rail passengers account for 30% of all trips between major cities, or …
Eric,This is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Way to pick up some ingenious framing. Literally, we should use something along these lines all the time. Anyway, thanks for the tremendous post. Like for example, in Whatcom County they’re right now considering a .2% sales tax increase (to the ballot this month) to continue to fund their transit authority.With this framing formula, they could have framed the debate as: The measure will increase the local sales tax by .2% until transit ridership reaches 130% of its current level. Or something.
Maybe this idea could be expanded nationwide, too. For instance: All fastfood restaurants will levy a 25 percent tax per gram of saturated fat to patrons’ bills until nationwide obesity falls by 90 percent.
Nice tool you’ve created. Here are some more resources on framing for your readers to use:Framing TutorialsI hope they are helpful.Best,Joe BrewerDirector, Cognitive Policy WorksP.S. I am also located in Seattle. Let me know if you’d like to get together and share ideas.