Oil Demand Elasticity
I have to confess that my rationale is not 100% Pigovian. It seems clear to me that, even if Al Gore is only a little bit right about the causes and consequences of global warming, the optimal Pigovian tax is extremely high – much higher than what would be politically feasible (in the US) even in my wildest dreams. Energy demand is just not elastic enough, even in the long run, and the social costs of global warming are too high. So, for practical purposes, I see any increase in energy taxes more as a nondistortionary tax than as a Pigovian tax. There is a standard argument that taxes don’t do any harm if they don’t change behavior; in this case, changing behavior is gravy. (As for global warming, well, I’m just glad I’m going to die in another 40 years or so.)“Energy demand is just not elastic enough, even in the long run…” After today’s news, I’m not so sure:
Oil consumption fell in the developed world last year for the first time in more than 20 years…Never mind the rest of the article; the first half of the headline is enough. I thought oil consumption might fall eventually, but I was sure it would take a big recession to accomplish that. But instead here it is: good, old-fashioned demand elasticity. Make energy more expensive, and people just buy less of it. I feel like a kid who is old enough not to believe in Santa Claus but then sees a man in a red suit climb out of the fireplace.
I still think the optimal Pigovian tax is considerably higher than anything that might conceivably be politically feasible in the US. But I’m willing to say now that this is more a problem with the US political climate than with the enormity of the economic problem surrounding climate change. The economic problem is still a big one, but perhaps not so gargantuan as to be unsolvable. And I guess I can be a true Pigovian now, rather than a Ricardian masquerading as a Pigovian.
I temper my newfound optimism, however, in a couple of ways. First, as implied above, given political reality, I do not think a Pigovian tax would be sufficient to solve the problem (especially when you recognize that the US – indeed the whole developed world – is only part of it). Second, I’m not quite sure this guy in the red suit is really Santa Claus: a lot of what has happened recently is a shift of energy-intensive production from the developed world to the developing world, and most of the products are still consumed in the developed world, so it’s not clear how much of this ostensible reduced demand is really just a geographic shift in where the energy is used to satisfy existing final demand. Still, I didn’t expect to see anyone in a red suit coming out of the fireplace, so I’m pretty impressed, even it’s just Uncle Joe who decided to do something crazy after the 20th eggnog.