JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 31, 2010
Democratic pollster Joel Benenson has a new poll showing pretty strong public support for EPA regulation of greenhouse gasses. I'm generally skeptical of polls by interested parties that purport to measure public opinion, since it's so easy to craft language that steers respondents toward a desired position. But the language used here -- asking whether "the government should regulate greenhouse gasses from sources like refineries and power plants in an effort to reduce global warming" -- seems pretty straightforward.
The paradox of climate policy is that the most popular policy responses are those that hide costs from consumers. Cap and trade is more popular than a carbon tax, and regulation is more popular than EPA regulation. But cap and trade is more efficient than regulation, and a carbon tax is more efficient than cap and trade.
I'd say this ought to be an instance where representative democracy works. Elites, who have time to study policy options, should recognize that more efficient responses than regulation are available to solve to the externality problem caused by unabated carbon emissions. They could pass a carbon tax as a substitute for other taxes, and we'd be much better off. Instead, the legislative system appears unable to handle this issue, and we're stuck in a third-best world of regulation.
I think the solution can work, either indirectly (by forcing polluters to support a cap and trade bill) or directly. Indeed, holding fast on carbon regulation in the face of heated Republican opposition will be a crucial part of Obama's legacy. And it's encouraging to see that the public at least begins on Obama's side. But it would be even nicer if we had a functional legislative process.