Infrastructure, Deficits and Climate Change

Posted on March 28, 2018 by Mark R. Sussman

America’s infrastructure is deteriorating as the result of insufficient investment by federal, state and local governments.  In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our Nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+, stating that “Deteriorating infrastructure is impeding our ability to compete in the thriving global economy, and improvements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future.” The President and both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress seem to agree that we need to improve our Nation’s infrastructure.

The problem is “how do we pay for infrastructure improvements?”  In February, the President proposed a plan to invest $1.5 trillion in infrastructure improvements, but the plan relies mostly on privatization of government-owned infrastructure, and on state and local governments, whose resources are already stretched thin.  The federal government’s share of costs would be “only” $200 billion.  Congress is unlikely to agree to a significant investment in infrastructure given the massive deficits predicted to result from the recent Republican tax cuts and the bipartisan budget plan enacted in February.  The tax changes will reportedly increase the deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next ten years, and the bipartisan budget is expected to add at least $300 billion to the deficit.

Paying for the infrastructure improvements that almost everyone seems to agree upon will require either new sources of revenues, or enormous cuts in entitlements or other domestic programs.  Although Speaker Ryan and other proponents of smaller government might want to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, how likely are they to do so, especially in light of the huge tax give-away to our wealthiest citizens in the recent tax legislation?  Moreover, if they are successful in cutting the country’s safety net, what will that do to the tremendous income inequality that the United States is already experiencing?

One solution to this dilemma may be found in legislation optimistically called “America Wins Act” (H. R. 4209) proposed by Connecticut Congressman John Larson and 20 co-sponsors in November 2017. The bill, like the Carbon Dividends Plan offered by the Climate Leadership Council in February 2017, relies on a gradually increasing carbon tax of over $40 per ton, with some amount paid back to lower income Americans.  Our colleague and frequent blogger, Seth Jaffe, described the Carbon Dividend Plan in a post last year.  The main difference between the Carbon Dividend Plan, proposed by mainstream conservative Republicans, and the plan embodied by the America Wins Act, co-sponsored by Congressional Democrats, is that the former is specifically designed to be revenue neutral, while the later proposes to invest $1.8 trillion over ten years to fund infrastructure improvements.  Of course, since the Climate Leadership Council proposed its Carbon Dividends Plan, Congress blew a huge hole in the federal budget, so a completely revenue neutral plan no longer seems practical if we are to find revenues to support the rebuilding of our infrastructure.

The key elements of the “America Wins Act” include: (i) the imposition of a gradually increasing carbon tax imposed at the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy; (ii) a border adjustment fee on imports to maintain a level playing field with US producers; (iii) establishment of an infrastructure investment fund to finance highways, transit, airports, waterway and flood protection facilities, water pollution facilities, and broadband development; (iv) an energy refund program to provide “carbon dividends” to lower income households; and (v) a fund dedicated to supporting workers and communities heavily reliant on carbon-intensive industries, such as coal, to ease the transition to a new energy future. 

Unlike the Climate Leadership Council’s Carbon Dividend Plan, Congressman Larson’s proposal does not specifically include steps to reduce energy and climate change regulation that should not be needed if a market-based carbon fee program is adopted.  Nor does the “America Wins Act” contemplate the use of carbon offsets, like those suggested by our colleague, Jeffrey Fort, in his post of August 21, 2017.  These good ideas and others can certainly be incorporated into any legislation proposing to reduce carbon emissions, while simultaneously improving our Nation’s infrastructure without further exploding the deficit.  Such legislation offers a genuine opportunity for a true bipartisan approach to these critical issues facing the Nation.  Wouldn’t it be great if the President and our representatives in Congress actually worked in a bipartisan way to enact legislation that does not look to the past, but instead addresses policies that will strengthen our Nation’s economy and protect the World’s environment in the 21st Century and beyond?   Is it too much to ask our leaders to focus on implementing innovative, market-based solutions that can be supported by both conservatives and liberals, instead of spending all of their time trying to make partisan political points to be re-elected?



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