Krugman Endorses “Carbon Tariff”

Paul Krugman came out today for “border adjustments” (tariffs) on goods from countries who aren’t participating in economy killing CO2 emissions control taxation.

His argument:

If you only impose restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from domestic sources, you give consumers no incentive to avoid purchasing products that cause emissions in other countries; as a result, you have an inefficient outcome even from a world point of view. So border adjustments here are entirely legitimate in terms of basic economics.

Actually they’re “entirely legitimate” if you swallow the premise Krugman is pushing here, namely that CO2 is a “pollutant” and its restriction is a “legitimate” reason for imposing taxes on both your own economy and the goods coming from another economy which doesn’t agree with the premise. And, of course, this ignores the probable reaction countries hit with this tariff might have.

Krugman then attempts to justify such a “border adjustment” by claiming such a move is probably legal under “international law”:

The WTO has looked at the issue, and suggests that carbon tariffs may be viewed the same way as border adjustments associated with value-added taxes. It has long been accepted that a VAT is essentially a sales tax — a tax on consumers — which for administrative reasons is collected from producers. Because it’s essentially a tax on consumers, it’s legal, and also economically efficient, to collect it on imported goods as well as domestic production; it’s a matter of leveling the playing field, not protectionism.

And the same would be true of carbon tariffs.

What he sort of dances around when he claims this will “level the playing field” is all products, regardless of their origin, will see dramatically increased pricing. The point of the tax is to hopefully steer consumers to domestically produced products which are produced under government approved conditions rather than those from countries like China and India which aren’t playing the game the US wants them to play. Not only will the consumer here be asked to pay for the CO2 offsets imposed on domestic industry, but they will have to pay for offsets for foreign producers as well when the VAT cost is passed on in the price of the goods.

The thinking, obviously, is that if prices are the same, US consumers will buy US goods instead of, say, Chinese goods. The problem, of course, is much of what we consume isn’t made here anymore. So the result would be the US consumer would end up paying higher prices for goods produced in China with no change in behavior by China.

Additionally, China will view this as a protectionist measure, whether the WTO thinks it is “legal” or not. China will simply claim that the US, as a rich country and large “polluter”, should be doing more than they are doing in terms of emissions control, and impose its own “WTO legal” VAT in response. Same with any other country targeted by the US for a tariff.

This is, frankly, an invitation to a trade war. Krugman can wrap his protectionist argument in whatever legality he’d like, but the fact remains most countries effected will view it as an attempt to limit trade and react accordingly. And, of course, by Krugman’s own admission, it is you who will be paying the tariff cost for China and India if this is ever passed into law.

[Crossposted at QandO]

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