A small community of people on a desert island would probably ration its resources very carefully, but would surely allow anyone who so volunteered to put as much time and effort as he wished into being productive, for whatever compensation he could negotiate with the others. The principle applies to any community living within a closed system – mankind, for example, living on the planet Earth: Public resources belong to the public, and an individual’s time and energy belong to the individual. This is the justification for collectively establishing the value of resources – in contrast to collectively establishing the right of the individual to work and produce any given product (a.k.a. communism). The present system of taxing income and production penalizes people and corporate entities for being productive. Consumption of wealth, not production of it, is what should be taxed. It is perplexing if not amusing that even hard core conservatives, even while quarreling about the numbers, have put up with the concepts of corporate and income tax for so long.
Taxing consumption of natural resources, rather than labor, would not only be smarter economics, it would be fairer. As the original owners, the people have the right to decide how much of their natural resources they want to sell to the private sector, how much pollution of public water and air they wish to tolerate, and for whatever reasons (environmental concern, profit, esthetics etc…).
Consumption tax, whether by auction of a fixed amount, or by a fixed rate tax, maintains free market principles, as opposed to the “cap-and-handout-and-trade” system that European nations adopted following the Kyoto Protocol. Handing over marketable carbon credits to some players but not to others is not only unfair, it is ineffective. One reason that the Kyoto Protocol failed to achieve its goal (justified or not) of curbing CO2 emission is that, by allocating carbon credits without hosting a fair competition for them, it avoided establishing a true value for fossil fuel.
The argument mouthed by some that taxing consumption would slow down the economy is inapplicable here. We are talking about shifting from income and corporate tax to consumption tax, so the public has at least as much money to spend as before. By making exhaustible resources more expensive to the individual, the tax would generally increase the amount spent on labor. (Why? Because if a material-intensive method of producing something costs less, before the tax is invoked, than a less material-intensive method, then the latter costs more because it spends more on labor.) The tax thus stimulates employment.
Why is replacing at least some of the existing tax burden with a fossil fuel tax so taboo that it is hardly even discussed in the media, even in the throes of what is widely perceived as an economic cataclysm? Apart from the usual reasons (denial, numbness, self-delusion, stupidity, powerful interest groups intimidating politicians and news media, etc.), there may be an additional factor at work – low self-esteem among the public. Americans have been taught from birth that a tax is something they have to pay, not receive. And they have been taught that oil is something that oil companies sell to them. So they end up fearing both high oil prices and high taxes. The view that they own the fossil fuel in the public domain, and that the revenue collected from an energy tax belongs to them, might make them keener on such a tax.
Wouldn’t the cost of a fossil fuel tax on the energy companies simply be passed along to the consumer? Of course it would be; that’s the point. But the point is also to simultaneously return those revenues to the public. A $100 per barrel tax, while raising current prices from the present value to those of June 2008, would provide the American family of four over $25,000 annually (tax free). This would easily cover most income taxes and the added energy costs. And that would be just our oil revenues. There is plenty more exhaustible wealth in the world. A nation’s citizenry could rake in further revenues for all the metals mined from public territories, and for allowing public land, water and air to be used as dumps.
Would powerful energy and mining companies lobby to quash the establishment of a natural resource tax? If they were smart and honest, they would see the tax as a benefit for themselves too. The added cost of the tax would in any case be passed along to the public, their private holdings would become worth more, and risk entailed by future ventures would be lowered. Currently, corporate bids on, say, drilling rights are surely limited by uncertainty. They can’t be sure of how much they can extract from any given site, so they have to either take a risk or assume the worst in deciding how much they are willing to bid. On the other hand, if they are paying for the drilling rights in exact proportion to the amount they eventually extract, nothing is left to chance.
This is yet another advantage of a natural resource tax: It is harder for corrupt civil servants and other insiders to evade the tax than to evade public scrutiny. Bids can be rigged, government administrators who award drilling rights, etc., can be bribed, but a tax fills in the difference – on which corruption could otherwise thrive – between true value and production costs.
If the word “tax” is too painful, let’s at least demand the right to keep our hard-earned income as well as our natural resources. Then we can spend the former on what we truly desire, and sell the latter for what they are truly worth.
March 19, 2009
David Eichler is a professor of physics at Ben Gurion University in Israel. He received his Ph.D. in 1976 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Further biographical information can be obtained here.
Okay, I’m on board completely with the desert island illustration…but I got lost in the switch to taxing consumption of natural resources, so let me work out how that could apply to me. Grass isn’t exactly a natural resource; it is, of course, but if I want GOOD pastures I have to plant seeds (the results of someone else’s labor and consumption of natural resources) or plant sprigs of Coastal Bermuda (ditto) and fertilize at least every three years, using either commercial fertilizers (ditto) or gather and compost the manure my animals produce, also consuming my time, energy, and “natural” resources which were produced from my labor and capital investment.
Just off the top of my head this doesn’t sound like an effective way to achieve a tax that penalizes all who choose to consume in exactly the same ratio. Yes…I do think I understand what he is saying. If I have to pay more for feed, seed, fertilizer, hay others have grown, and antibiotics (Does penicillin count as a natural resource? It grows, sort of, in the refrigerator…) then I will be both obliged to charge and justified in charging more for what I produce.
My fellow man can then decide whether or not to purchase vastly more expensive eggs, milk, beef, and produce, hypothetically. (I say “hopothetically” because current and fast-tracked legislation [SB 425, e.g.] make it impossible for me to sell anything without a Grade A dairy license it would cost me at least $75,000 to get, which is a little ridiculous for four goats producing an excess of about six gallons of milk a day. I can’t sell meat because I’m not a licensed butcher, and I’ll be lucky to be allowed to grow even a home garden under the provisions of the “food safety” act. Horrors! I use heirloom seeds, instead of Monsanto’s, which are altered genetically to produce crops without viable seeds. I’ll end up in jail yet. Or fined a million dollars a day, and no, I’m not joking, that is in the proposed law.)
I have been known to stand in front of the bacon display and comment, “HERE is where the revolution is going to begin!” Hog farmers are going out of business rapidly because most of us are loathe to part with five dollars for three-quarters of a pound of bacon. Yes, I know that G-D told us not to eat the stuff. Make it a package of crab for a hundred dollars. No, that doesn’t work either, I guess. How about a small roast marked fifty-seven dollars recently?! Food is produced only by the expenditure of large amounts of energy, natural resources, labor, and capital, and if the producers are driven out of business by taxation or having their products rejected on price grounds…I don’t think we had better start reforming taxation at the (forgive the pun) grass roots level.
Run it by me again how imposing a 250% tax on crude oil would put $25,000 in my pocket? Is that before- or after-tax dollars? Who gets taxed? The producer? The refiner? What does that make a gallon of gasoline cost? The last time a barrel cost $140, the price at the pump was $4 and up. Would that be a Smoot-Hawley thing that would cause reprisals from OPEC? Mexico just imposed duties on 90 American products to protest restrictions on trucks coming into the USA.
Is the theory that the government will be appeased by this rapacious act and dispense with taxing income? As nearly as I can tell neither governments nor false gods are ever placated even mildly by anything other ever-increasing sacrifices, be those virgins, babies, enemies captured in battle, the winners of soccer games, or anything less than what is required to keep tax serfs alive so that they can be harvested again.
The problem with sales taxes, flat taxes, and VAT is that, like Social “Security” taxes they may start at two per cent. but they can, are, and continue to be raised regularly. A legislative promise to scrap income tax in favor of a flat tax would not debar future legislatures from reinstituting such taxes.
We are all caught in traps of necessity or our own making. Israel has no choice about what must be spent to defend citizens and decreasing land. The utter insanity of demands to cede the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights leaves me aghast, as well as Israel ever agreeing to such demands in return for demonstrably false promises of “peace.”
America is sinking beneath the weight of socialism and lunatic programs which appeal to compassion and our better natures. It is a lovely thought that all children be guaranteed food, warm clothing, “free” medical care, and college educations whether they want them or not, but it just can’t be done. It certainly can’t be done when the USA has beggared itself since the end of WWII through foreign aid which did little, and then only rarely, to benefit the ordinary citizens it was purported to help. We have gone disastrously in debt trying to legislate a living wage for all and some sectors of morality. It is not possible to wage war successfully on abstractions such as poverty, illiteracy, and drug use. The war along the Mexican border is the direct result of trying to keep kids from smoking pot, an activity that was little known sixty years ago.
Someone made a good point here on W&G recently (It happens frequently!), asking how WE would have coped had Mandarins imposed a thin veneer of ancient Chinese civilization on us. It is another subject for another time, but we have seen what happens when reading is taught for a century as though English were Chinese ideographs rather than a phonetic system. We aren’t up to ancestor worship and Kentucky fried puppy, although a Great Wall sounds very good. One gigantic problem is that middle and far eastern nations don’t want what we are selling. Africa has been perfectly happy with the strong man du jour for millenia.
We don’t need an alternative tax. We need fewer programs, less government intrusion, and less taxation. Our chances of getting that are on the order of a conversion of Hamas to orthodox Judaism.
A “Net-Positive” Gas Tax
Richard Lugar, in the February 1 issue of the Washington Post  , supported Charles Krauthammer’s so-called “net-zero” gas tax idea.  This net-zero idea is an eminently fair and painless way to combat our looming oil crisis. What makes the idea so great is that the taxes collected are given back to tax payers in the form of an income tax rebate. And to sweeten the deal, the rebate can even be given before the tax is collected.
By artificially raising the price of gasoline, the net-zero gas tax uses highly effective market forces to channel usage and investment away from oil and toward alternative sources of energy. This market-based approach demonstrated its effectiveness in response to the surge in oil prices last year: gasoline consumption subsided and gasoline prices plummeted. During the surge, it was the Saudi’s pocketing the dough. Net-zero puts the dough back into U.S. taxpayers’ pockets.
The most compelling reason for a net-zero gas tax was neglected by Lugar and Krauthammer, though. The fact is that, on a household-by-household basis, net-zero is actually “net-positive”, and progressive. This is because there is a strong positive correlation between household income and household gasoline consumption.  Thus the net-zero tax gives a net positive financial benefit to a significant majority of households, because households with the greatest income tend to be extravagant while households with the least income tend to be frugal. The result is a financial windfall for a substantial majority of taxpayers, especially those with the greatest need. This will then also serve as an added economic stimulus, with immediate and continuing benefit to the economy.
There is urgency in implementing this net-positive gas tax idea, however, because of accelerating declines in global oil production.  Oil prices (and political tensions) will escalate in response to the inexorable increases in the global demand for oil, most notably in China and the developing world. Thus if a net-positive gas tax is to be imposed it must be done now, before natural free-market forces drive the price beyond our ability to bear an additional tax. This in fact already happened, last year. Fortunately, the current recession has given us a reprieve, one final window of opportunity it seems. But we must act immediately to hold down the price of oil, or else prepare to open our wallets to OPEC.
Hello Rancher Lady,
Sorry I lost you somewhere between a desert island and the rest of the planet.. So go back to the desert island, and let’s say you are the resident cigaretter producer. There’s a limited supply of matches, which are not renewable like tobacco. I just want my fair share of matches, to start my fires and cook my food, and to stay warm in the winter. If the others wish to fritter their matches away smoking cigarettes, that is their businesss, as long as I get my share. If it is unwieldy to distribute the matches to every individual, (e.g. it rains a lot) at least tax them and distribute the revenues. How much to tax them? I’d vote to make it enough to cover the labor costs of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together. If the tax hurts your cigaretter business, sorry. And don’t worry, it’s just temporary. The number of extra cigarettes you sell because of the convenience of matches is in any case limited to the number of matches. You can sell those extra cigarettes now, or later.
Now let me get this straight. You correctly complain about taxation and even extortion and outright organized crime legislatively controlling production and then you say “I don’t think we had better start reforming taxation at the (forgive the pun) grass roots level” ? You just convinced me, if I hadn’t been convinced already, that we need reform the whole corrupt system urgently. I’ll trade cheap bacon for the freedom to plant whatever seeds I want, as long as they don’t threaten anyone else’s farm.
Why be so scared of oil at $140 per barrel? You’ve been there before and you’ll be there again. The question is whether you want the money to go to American consumers or to Saudi Arabia (which, btw, is unlikely to buy bacon).
As per your questions “Run it by me again how imposing a 250% tax on crude oil would put $25,000 in my pocket? etc.”, I’ll be happy to. Here, by way of example, are the results of a spunky, if modest , preliminary attempt (as reported by the Boston Globe 9/13/08):
“With no statewide income or sales tax (italics added), Alaska funds about 90 percent of the state budget from royalties and taxes on oil producers. Soaring oil prices and a higher windfall oil profits tax – an increase pushed through by Palin, now the Republican vice presidential nominee – have state coffers overflowing with petrodollars. The Alaska oil industry calculates that its annual payments to the state doubled in a single year to $10.2 billion.”
$ 10 billion per year – that’s about $15,000 dollars per Alaskan, which would make it $60,000 per family of four…and at only $35 per barrel in oil taxes. Granted , even the “consevative” Governor Palin administration keeps most of it – as you say in so many words, no government is conservative – but at least they use it to run the state without any income or sales tax., and, like the Pharoah and Joseph, they keep a good fraction of it in reserve, unspent. But even the 20 percent that the citizens are allowed to keep, $12,000 per family of four annually, could buy a lot of bacon.
In answer to the question “Is the theory that the government will be appeased by this rapacious act and dispense with taxing income??”:
No, not appeased – intimidated by our right to vote. (And why is taking my share of oil and turning it over to Exxon less rapacious than letting me charge them for it?) Here is how the Alaskan public responded to an attempt by a previous administration to grab more of the oil wealth:
“Indeed, in 1999, with oil prices going as low as $9 per barrel and Alaska’s oil consultant Daniel Yergin forecasting low prices “for the foreseeable future”, the State put an advisory vote before Alaskans, asking if government could spend “some” part of Permanent Fund earning for government purposes. Gov. Knowles, Lt. Gov. Ulmer, and many other elected officials urged a “yes” vote. Campaign spending greatly favored the “yes” side. The public voted “no” by nearly 84%. (Oil prices rose dramatically, starting about two weeks after Yergin’s prediction, to above $60 per barrel, though the quantity produced continues to fall.) Many Alaskans now think of it as a “permanent dividend fund”, much to the dismay of “original intent” advocates. Perceived support of the dividend program is so universally strong that it ensures the dividend’s continuity and the protection of the Fund’s principal, since any measure characterized as negatively impacting dividend payouts represents a loss to the entire populace. That is, legislators willing to appropriate the Fund’s annual earnings are constrained by the politically suicidal nature of any decrease in the public’s dividend.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_Permanent_Fund
So don’t be too defeatist, every couple of centuries or so the people actually do rebel against excessive government spending.
Then you say ”The problem with sales taxes, flat taxes, and VAT is that, like Social “Security” taxes they may start at two per cent. but they can, are, and continue to be raised regularly. A legislative promise to scrap income tax in favor of a flat tax would not debar future legislatures from reinstituting such taxes.”
So how about a constitutional amendment banning them? (I didn’t advocate a “flat” tax.) Anyway, is the possibility of intelligent legislation being reversed by future idiocy reason for not passing it now?
As for “Would that be a Smoot-Hawley thing that would cause reprisals from OPEC? ” and “The utter insanity of demands to cede the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights leaves me aghast, as well as Israel ever agreeing to such demands in return for demonstrably false promises of ’peace.’ ”…..
I don’t recall mentioning Israel or asking them to cede these territories, but , as you raised the issue, I will bet the reason tIsrael is under constant pressure from the U.S. to make these concessions is that the U.S. fears reprisals from OPEC for not acceding to their demands. A cut in oil production, after all, would raise the price of bacon. So again, when oil returns to $140 per barrel, do you want the money to go to OPEC or to the US public, who will face higher prices in any case?
“It is a lovely thought that all children be guaranteed food, warm clothing, “free” medical care, and college educations whether they want them or not, but it just can’t be done.”
Actually, with $25,000$ per year per family, I am sure they could all feed and clothe themselves, even if meat got more expensive. As for the meat producers, not that it is my responsibility to care, why should some of you have to go out of business just because income, sales, corporate taxes are replaced by a tax on oil? Couldn’t you grow other things, or, in the event of a guaranteed minimum of $140 per barrel of oil, lease your land for renewable energy? ( I concede that what others eat is none of my business, unless they ask me to pay for their medical care. And I certainly didn’t ask anyone to pay for mine.)
Finally, taxing oil consumption would, when the price of oil would be otherwise driven up by high demand, generally increase the net amount of profits earned by goods that the oil is used to produce. This is because the lower demand for oil lowers production costs of the goods by more than the loss in sales. So even if some hog farmers have to pay higher production costs (fertilizer costs or whatever), they win, provided they get their fair share of the oil tax revenues The argument is perhaps a bit mathematical, but, if you stomach a little arithmetic, you can find it at
Now let me get this straight. You correctly complain about taxation and even extortion and outright organized crime legislatively controlling production and then you say “I don’t think we had better start reforming taxation at the (forgive the pun) grass roots level” ? You just convinced me, if I hadn’t been convinced already, that we need to reform the whole corrupt system urgently. I’ll trade cheap bacon for the freedom to plant whatever seeds I want, as long as they don’t threaten anyone else’s farm.
Finally, taxing oil consumption would, when the price of oil would be otherwise driven up by high demand, generally increase the profit earned by goods that the oil is used to produce. This is because the lower demand for oil lowers production costs of the goods by more than the loss in sales. So even if some hog farmers have to pay higher production costs (fertilizer costs or whatever), and even if they sell less because it is more pricey, they win, provided they get their fair share of the oil tax revenues The argument is perhaps a bit mathematical, but, if you stomach a little arithmetic, you can find it at http://www.factsandarts.com/articles/the-unemployment-paradox-and-commodity-taxes/
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