June 10, 2009

How Bad can it be?

Cap-and-trade looks worse and worse

As all good economics textbooks teach (see chapter 10 of my favorite one), the purpose of market-based policies to deal with externalities is that they are more efficient than command-and-control regulations. In the case of carbon emissions and global climate change, putting a price on carbon is supposed to be a better substitute for government micromanagement.

Apparently, that lesson is lost on the writers of the bill making its way through Congress. Although the bill changes incentives by putting a price on carbon, it also offers a large dose of command-and-control regulation. Essentially, the sponsors don't seem to believe that getting incentives right is enough.

The Washington Post reports:

THE RUNNING joke in Washington is that nobody has read the 900-plus-page energy bill sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), which the House will consider in coming weeks. What you hear from its backers is that its cap-and-trade provisions would create a market-based program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- which should mean that a simple, systemwide incentive encourages polluters to make the easiest reductions in greenhouse gases first, keeping the costs of fighting global warming to a minimum. In fact, the bill also contains regulations on everything from light bulb standards to the specs on hot tubs, and it will reshape America's economy in dozens of ways that many don't realize.

Here is just one: The bill would give the federal government power over local building codes. It requires that by 2012 codes must require that new buildings be 30 percent more efficient than they would have been under current regulations. By 2016, that figure rises to 50 percent, with increases scheduled for years after that....

According to the bill's advocates, America's buildings account for perhaps 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions, and technology is available for builders to meet the targets in ways that are economical for building owners. Much of the problem is old buildings that waste huge amounts of energy, which wouldn't necessarily be touched by the new code. But it would be good if builders met these efficiency goals with new construction.

Is the best way to achieve that, though, to federalize what has long been a matter of local concern? And if the point of cap-and-trade is to change market incentives, why does Congress, and not the market, need to dictate these changes?

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