Replace ALL Federal Government Revenue With A Simple Energy Tax

America needs a new answer regarding energy, economics and the environment.  Our current systems are failing and the solutions currently on the table won’t work.  And everybody knows it.

We also need to rethink how we fund our government. The current tax system discourages work, productivity, free enterprise, job creation and almost every other goal and value our economy is purported to be based upon. The anger growing across America is in large part inspired by the complexity and irrationality of our tax system.

It is increasingly obvious that it isn’t enough trying to address the massive challenges that confront our nation by making minor adjustments to the sclerotic patchwork of contradictory public policies that has emerged over the decades. And recent efforts at government micromanagement of the entire econ0my are clearly not going to work. It is pretty clear from the polls that most Americans are fed up with Congress, the federal government and with politicians from both parties.

But one real solution to address many of our most fundamental challenges is astoundingly simple, clear and bold. It is a solution that can be strongly supported by people across the entire political spectrum of America – once we overcome our profound fear of sensible change.

I propose that it is time that we replace 100% of our federal government revenues with an energy tax and in doing so completely unleash our society  from the burdens and distortions of our current counterproductive tax system.

That sounds completely impossible at first thought, but as shown below, the numbers work. It is actually a far more realistic proposal than all counterproductive pseudo-solutions to the daunting problems our country faces that make their way through Congress these days.

After the failures of the Copenhagen Climate Conference and the Cap and Trade corporate welfare scheme in the Senate, the environmental and clean energy communities are regrouping to figure out what’s next.

Many environmentalists are now jumping on board with the Breakthrough Institute and others who are calling for massive new government research and development for clean energy solutions on the order of the Manhattan Project or NASA’s mission of the 1960’s to put a man on the moon. Surely better technology will be welcome. But after all the recent waste our federal government has been involved in and the massive deficits we already face, it is highly doubtful that Congressional or public support for such a huge government effort will be forthcoming.

Others have long argued that if we are serious about reducing pollution from our wasteful energy system, making renewable energy cost competitive, spurring the growth of dynamic new energy industries, creating bountiful new job opportunities, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, improving our balance of trade deficit and all sorts of other notable goals – then we clearly need to raise the price of petroleum. And we should do it simply and completely transparently through an oil tax. But up until now everyone, including me, has been talking about timid energy tax solutions that are unlikely to be enough to either do the job or garner adequate public support.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize conventional solutions aren’t nearly enough. Neither a modest energy tax or  significantly increased public investment in clean energy technology,  while infinitely better than corrupt proposals like Cap and Trade, are bold enough solutions. Facing continuing economic stagnation, as we pass the crest of the era of peak oil production, it’s time to completely re-imagine political possibilities and get serious about  transforming our economy and restoring our nation’s economic productivity.

Replacing 100% of our federal government revenues with an energy tax is a transformative proposal that can inspire the American people and appeal across the political spectrum, while igniting an unprecedented era of economic prosperity.

Look at the numbers:

According to the US Energy Information Agency, our country currently consumes 19,498,000 barrels of petroleum a day, which is the equivalent of 298,904,340,000 gallons of petroleum a year.

All federal revenues for fiscal year 2010 are projected to be about $2,165,000,000,000. That includes all individual income tax, corporate income tax, investment taxes, social security tax, disability insurance, hospital insurance, unemployment insurance, excise taxes, fees, energy and transportation taxes, and every other form of federal government revenue other than debt.

So doing the math, if we were to replace every single source of government revenue with a tax on petroleum, that tax would only be $7.24 per gallon. And if you add in the full recent cost of gasoline of about $2.60 a gallon nationally, not even discounting for the federal and state taxes already built into that price, the total price on gasoline and other petroleum based fuels would be $9.84 a gallon.

According to the US Energy Information Agency, that isn’t significantly more than average European gas prices in March of this year: Belgium-$7.18, France-$6.98, Germany-$7.12, Italy-$7.06, Netherlands-$7.68. And those countries are burdened with massive taxes on top of high energy prices.

On average according to the US Energy Information Agency, along with paying far more for petroleum, Europeans paid about twice what Americans paid for natural gas and coal in 2009. So if we added to the energy sources being taxed to offset current federal revenues both the over one billion short tons of coal consumed each year in the US, along with the 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas we consume annually, the overall level of fuel taxes could be around the same as  European energy prices, while completely replacing all other forms of federal taxation and government revenue.

Most sensible people would jump at the opportunity to trade a European level of energy prices in exchange for no IRS, no income taxes, no payroll taxes, no business taxes, no inheritance taxes, no government fees and no government interference with our business revenues and personal income.

For those who will inevitably scream this level of energy taxation will make American industry uncompetitive, the one other revenue source the feds should have is a tariff on goods from countries that don’t implement similar levels of taxation on energy. That unilateral action will do far more to spur other countries toward responsible energy policy than complicated well intentioned, but unenforceable climate treaties. At the same time it could further reduce our energy taxes, or perhaps help offset the federal budget deficit.

Of course change this profound couldn’t happen overnight and would need to be phased in. And inevitably in the transition, the winners and losers will all be lobbying madly in Washington to turn a simple idea into the inevitable compromised and complicated sausage making that is all Congress seems able to produce. But if we insist that simplicity and transparency are fundamental to success, perhaps a bold proposition like this could gain enough public support to overcome the corrupting influence of lobbyists.

Is this whole idea completely crazy? …..  Maybe.

Or maybe its so obvious and simple that the only reason not to consider it is all the special interests that will be completely upended by the elimination of our current corrupt and senseless tax system. Lets face it, this kind of change would impact every single American in a major way and will scare the hell out of many. But in the end, anyone honest will recognize that it would be a far more rational and sensible way to fund our government than the increasingly untenable ways we do so today.

Think of the business and investment potential it would unleash. Think of the truly free economy unfettered by manipulations of the tax code. Think of the productivity gains when businesses make decisions based on common sense rather than tax consequences. Think of the rebirth of American industrial opportunity when advantages are eliminated for cheap products from China being subsidized by their low cost energy, lack of environmental standards and the low cost of wasting fuel in transport. Think about the jobs created when we no longer impose punishing taxes on working, on hiring and on productive investment. Think of the jobs restored to this country when we eliminate the insane tax subsidies for shifting industrial productivity overseas and eliminate the payroll tax penalties on hiring people. Think about the time, money and talent it would free up when we no longer have to spend countless hours and dollars reporting our personal business to the IRS. (According to CNS news: The Internal Revenue Service  estimated that about 7.75 billion hours of human labor went into completing all of the 2009 tax forms and that doesn’t begin to count the huge amounts of time and money wasted figuring out how to game the system and avoid taxes).  Think of the personal freedom and productivity regained for everyone when we eliminate the entire irrational tax code.

Many will argue that people will start to conserve energy with high price signals, thus putting government revenues at risk. Radically reducing energy waste and pollution is one of the two fundamental propositions of the whole idea. And yes, significantly reducing the size and scope of the federal government is the other fundamental goal and benefit, one that would be a welcome relief to the vast majority of Americans.

Most Americans fundamentally trust and favor transparent market oriented solutions and don’t want the government meddling in our lives and in our economy.  Watching the sales of fuel efficient cars after the 1973 Oil Embargo, the 1979 Iranian Oil Crisis and the huge spike in gasoline prices in the summer of 2008, as well as the lack of interest in such vehicles when oil prices dropped, nobody should question the reality that unlike government programs, price signals actually  work to inspire the goals clean energy advocates hope to achieve.

This proposal is a real test for environmentalists, as well as political liberals and conservatives alike.

Are environmentalists really concerned about the environment, or as opponents often suggest, are environmental issues merely excuses for increasing the power of elitist bureaucrats to exercise government control over every aspect of our lives?

Are conservatives really interested in political freedom, economic efficiency and free markets, or is all their rhetoric really just a cover for protecting the special privileges and loopholes for increasing the wealth and power of the already wealthy and powerful corporate oligarchies in our country?

Liberals are bound to hate the idea initially because it removes all the redistributionist “progressive” aspects of our tax code. But based on the accelerating levels of wealth disparity in our country, the impenetrable complexity of the tax code and the hypocritical shenanigans that many prominent liberal politicians get caught using to avoid the tax burdens they want to impose on the rest of us, maybe its time for everyone to just admit that the current system is completely failing to meet those idealistic goals, which are negated by all the special loopholes embodied in the unreadable thousands of pages of the tax code. The reality is that when one includes payroll taxes in the overall calculation, our current tax system is neither progressive, fair or in any way rational.

Rather than everyone just pointing fingers and blaming the other guys for our problems, if we focus on finding solutions simple enough, bold enough and sensible enough to actually garner broad support, maybe maybe there is a possibility of rediscovering consensus in our society.

Lets start taxing waste and pollution instead of using the tax system to punish people for working, creating jobs and making productive investments. Let’s actually try real market based solutions and restore the economic competitiveness our nation enjoyed before every aspect of the economy was micromanaged by the government and manipulated for tax reasons.   Let’s encourage the prudent conservation of our limited fossil fuel reserves so we don’t impoverish our children and grandchildren with our prolifigate waste. And yes less sensibly prune back the over-reaching size and scope of our federal government.

Why single out fossil fuels for taxation? Energy is the lifeblood of a modern economy. The highly concentrated energy available from fossil fuels is a precious resource both for us and for future generations. Unlike metals and other minerals that can be readily recycled in a prudent society, once mined and burned, the concentrated energy in fossil fuels is dissipated and unavailable for future use. Arguably, those concentrated energy resources stored over millions of years shouldn’t be squandered, but rather be husbanded wisely, as higher price signals would encourage. Balance of trade, foreign policy, pollution and a variety of other reasons which almost everyone is aware of, further contribute to the selection of fossil fuels as the sensible focus for taxation.

Perhaps as this fundamental idea of tax shifting gets refined, we will find consensus to add other wasteful, dangerous or polluting industries to the mix of appropriate consumption taxes, so we can begin to balance our federal budget and pay down our out of control federal debt, while also making our nation a safer, healthier and saner place to live.

But we should start the conversation recognizing how surprisingly affordable it could be to align rational revenue policy with sensible market mechanisms that would encourage economic prosperity, job and business growth, broadly shared environmental and clean energy goals along with the basic principles of freedom and liberty that our country was founded upon.

Let’s fundamentally reform the American economy with a government funding system that no longer undermines the most essential ideals and principles of our national heritage. Let’s support an idea bold enough, simple enough and compelling enough to actually work.

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3 Comments

Filed under Best Stuff, Climate Policy, Economic Policy, Energy Policy, Environmentalism, Politics

3 responses to “Replace ALL Federal Government Revenue With A Simple Energy Tax

  1. Michael Barrow

    Very interesting proposal! I remember voting for the independent presidential candidate John Anderson in the 1980 election because I wanted to see our country embrace the dollar a gallon tax he proposed. I’d like to think that this type of proposal would stand a chance of being enacted, but I guess the skeptic in me looks are a few truisms:
    1) People don’t like change. This is pretty dramatic.
    2) As with any change of this magnitude, there will be winners and losers. The losers will scream bloody murder and do everything in their power to misrepresent the nature of this proposal and to instill fear in others to oppose it. Look how good Republicans are at that process.
    3) A large amount of education and rational thinking are required of most people to understand this and get comfortable with it. The majority of American people are not much known for either quality.
    4) People love to hide their flaws and schemes behind complexity. Whole industries (insurance, health care, Congress, Wall Street, the tax code) are built around this. They will fight to the death, because inmost cases, it will be their death if something like this passes.
    I’m totally with you on the fact that we need something extreme by Washington’s standards. I am a little scared that my skepticism with Washington, in particular, is coagulating into cynicism. I really don’t believe that our current political system can get anything done with enough magnitude to make a difference. Like a drunk, we appear, as a nation, to be needing to really bottom out hard before we “get it” and turn our ways around. I hope I am wrong.

  2. You are not accounting for the reaction of consumers of petroleum to the drastic increases in prices. The total revenue collected by the petroleum tax will undoubtedly be less than you project as consumers find alternatives.

  3. fredunger

    Eric,

    As I suggested:

    Many will argue that people will start to conserve energy with high price signals, thus putting government revenues at risk. Radically reducing energy waste and pollution is one of the two fundamental propositions of the whole idea. And yes, significantly reducing the size and scope of the federal government is the other fundamental goal and benefit, one that would be a welcome relief to the vast majority of Americans.

    That said, this proposal is a starting point for a tax shifting discussion which could include similar taxes on coal, natural gas, and other resources we hope to husband more wisely or products that there may be a national consensus to discourage generally

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