Opinion: State agencies fail the basic math of CO2 cost, but believe they can do the calculus of economic transformation

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center doesn’t believe adding more power to the government and more taxpayer subsidies to failed policies won’t solve that problem.

Todd Myers doesn’t believe adding more power to the government and more taxpayer subsidies to failed policies won’t solve that problem

Todd Myers
Washington Policy Center

After a rocky and costly start to Washington’s new tax on CO2 emissions, where Governor Jay Inslee failed badly to predict the very high price his policy would impose at the gas pump, the governor has turned to two arguments. 

Todd Myers, Washington Policy Center
Todd Myers, Washington Policy Center

First, he pleads that his administration did the “best job they could” with their failed price projections, even as most others made predictions at the time that were far more accurate.

Second, he argues that we must put more power and faith in the hands of the same politicians and bureaucracies that failed to make that relatively simple cost projection. The governor still claims he can see decades into the future and successfully remake Washington’s entire economy. Becky Kelly, one of the governor’s climate advisors, once claimed her goal was nothing less than “remaking the economy of the nation, the whole globe.”

Inslee is simultaneously arguing that politicians and bureaucracies have the expertise and foresight to successfully transform the economy but apparently can’t be expected to do simple math. That contradictory logic is the corner into which the governor has painted himself.

Yuval Levin, of the American Enterprise Institute, argues that people trust politicians when we “think they are competent and when they are restrained.” Continuing to push a radical transformation of the economy even after such a simple and embarrassing failure shows the Inslee Administration is neither.

During the past 11 years, the Inslee Administration has failed to meet virtually any of its self-imposed environmental targets. Salmon populations have declined or stagnated. Forest fires have increased. Perhaps most embarrassing is that Washington’s CO2 emissions have increased since Inslee became governor, despite repeated claims that emissions would decline.

If Washington’s environmental policy were succeeding, the failure to project the price impact of his tax on CO2 would be embarrassing, but not typical. Instead, it is emblematic of a pattern.

State politicians and government officials seem to learn nothing from their repeated failures. Instead of becoming humble, Washington politicians become emboldened, seeking to extend their political control to even more corners of the economy.

Very high CO2 prices garnered more than $1 billion in extra tax revenue. Rather than return some of that windfall to taxpayers, legislators are creating new ways to spend it. How government bureaucracies spend that money will be based on even more complex and long-range predictions. Having failed to do basic math, the claim is that government can calculate the marginal benefit of their policies years into the future.

Perhaps most ironic (and absurd) is the assumption by the Inslee Administration that the same study that failed to accurately predict one variable in the near term, is reliable when predicting the economy-wide impact of the CO2 tax decades from now.

That same faith in bureaucratic planning is being applied to recycling. Bills in the State House and Senate would mandate a government-takeover of our recycling system. One bill requires that any innovation in recycling first be approved by government bureaucracies. This is the worst of both worlds – giving control over the state’s recycling system to bureaucracies that can’t accurately predict one year into the future while simultaneously stifling the private-sector innovation that has been the greatest force in reducing waste.

Other legislative proposals would give government the power to micro-manage the clothes we wear and how we mow our lawns. 

Some argue the governor’s errors weren’t a mistake; that he was intentionally misleading. Documents showing that in 2014 Governor Inslee’s own policy advisor accurately predicted the high cost impact of a CO2 tax certainly lends evidence to that belief.

If that is true, it means the governor is willing to sacrifice the well-being of Washingtonians to advance his political agenda.

Whether the deception was intentional or unintentional, the failure to predict the cost of the CO2 tax reveals that big-government environmental planning can’t solve important environmental challenges. Government bureaucrats and the politicians who empower them don’t have the capability to handle complex environmental issues. They cannot keep up with the dynamism of ecological systems or the rapid advances in technological innovation. 

Adding more power to the government and more taxpayer subsidies to failed policies won’t solve that problem.

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center.

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