carbon tax is a regressive tax, but increased wealth transfers will likely make it increasingly progressive. Lower income families spend more of their income on energy than higher income families. The Wall Street Journal explains:
The Congressional Budget Office—Mr. Orszag’s former roost—estimates that the price hikes from a 15% cut in emissions would cost the average household in the bottom-income quintile about 3.3% of its after-tax income every year. That’s about $680, not including the costs of reduced employment and output. The three middle quintiles would see their paychecks cut between $880 and $1,500, or 2.9% to 2.7% of income. The rich would pay 1.7%. Cap and trade is the ideal policy for every Beltway analyst who thinks the tax code is too progressive (all five of them).
It appears that some of the proponents of carbon taxes are some of those five beltway analysts who believe the tax code is too progressive. They argue in favor of a carbon tax because it will not retard the formation of capital because it applies to everyone. In other words, since it would be spread over the population without regard to income, carbon tax proponents argue it will not reduce the incentives for high-income earners to generate wealth and create new jobs.
This alleged advantage, however, would never last politically because a carbon tax will be a visible and ever-increasing new tax. In response to that reality, lawmakers are likely to execute new, politically popular transfers of wealth—all with an eye on limiting the tax’s effect on lower-income families. Sales taxes, for example, could be uniformly applied across the economy, but in practice, sales taxes vary on certain items, in part, to help lower-income Americans deal with the increased costs imposed by them.
Carbon taxes would likely be accompanied by various rebate schemes to soften the regressive nature of the tax and make it a more progressive tax. This is currently happening with cap and trade proposals. One plan calls for the government to auction all emission permits and give each citizen a $700 check every year.Another option is to only give the rebate checks from auction revenues to lower-income citizens.
If the government imposes a carbon tax, it is very unlikely that the tax will remain uniform. In the end, not only will it hit the poor with a disproportionate burden of a carbon cap, but it will create yet another series of loopholes in the tax code. As history has shown, such a plan will further distort the market, render the tax code even more complicated, and hide yet another round of handouts to well-connected special interests.