Thursday, December 6, 2012

Al Gore's Earth in the Balance 12: Ideological Flexibility

For my write-up today on Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, I'll use as my starting point something that Al Gore says on pages 348-349:

"To most of us, the principle sounds unassailable: let the polluter pay.  But what about when it applies to each of us instead of to a nameless, faceless corporation?  For example, rather than require homeowners to pay higher property taxes to cover the cost of garbage collection, why not lower property taxes and then charge for garbage collection directly----by the pound?  Those responsible for creating more garbage would pay more; those who found ways to cut down would pay less.  The interest in recycling might rise dramatically.  And when choosing between products at the store, people might even start avoiding unnecessary and bulky packaging if they knew it was going to end up in their garbage.  There is an economic rule of thumb: whatever we tax, we tend to get less of; whatever we subsidize, we tend to get more of.  Currently, we tax work and we subsidize the depletion of natural resources----and both policies have contributed to high unemployment and the waste of natural resources.  What if we lowered the tax on work and simultaneously raised it on the burning of fossil fuels?  It is entirely possible to change the tax code in a way that keeps the total amount of taxes at the same level, avoids unfairness and 'regressivity,' but discourages the constant creation of massive amounts of pollution."

In the 1992 Vice-Presidential debate, Dan Quayle said to Al Gore about Gore's book: "In the book you also suggest taxes on gasoline, taxes on utilities, taxes on carbon, taxes on timber. There's a whole host of taxes. And I don't just -- I don't believe raising taxes is the way to solve our environmental problems.  And you talk about the bad situation in the auto industry. You seem to say that the answer is, well, I'll just make it that much worse by increasing the CAFE standards. Yes, the auto industry is hurting, it's been hurting for a long time, and increasing the CAFE standards to 45 miles per gallon, like you and Bill Clinton are suggesting, will put, as I said, 300,000 people out of work."

As far as I could tell from the transcript, Gore didn't get a chance to respond to Quayle on this.  But what Gore probably would have said was that Quayle's reading of Gore's book was rather one-sided, for Gore in the book endorses certain tax cuts, plus Gore believes that environmental technology can save companies money and entail the creation of jobs.  While Quayle portrayed Gore as a hard-core leftist, Gore in the passage that I quoted from his book actually appears to be quite flexible and open to a variety of approaches, some of which can be characterized as conservative: privatization of garbage collection (if I'm understanding Gore correctly), reduction in property taxes, and lower taxes on work.  Whether that matches Gore's voting record and the record of the Clinton Administration, I don't know.  But one thing that I have admired about Gore in terms of his book is his openness to different ideas.

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