The Nation distorts I-732

[This post started as a comment to be posted after an online article in the Nation, and kind of grew into something bigger. I’m sharing it here as a way to articulate some of my thoughts about the recent controversy over I-732, the carbon tax initiative in Washington State.]

I was disappointed in this article in the Nation by Heather McGhee and Robert Reich, critiquing Washington’s recently defeated Initiative 732 for various reasons. Although I was a supporter of I-732, I’m agnostic on a number of the key questions about the initiative that divided Washington’s environmental community. Nevertheless, I felt that McGhee and Reich gave a distorted picture of the situation. Here’s a list of the points I found misleading:

First, the article misrepresents the policy. It refers repeatedly to tax breaks for corporations, but never mentions that the main tax effect of the policy would have been to reduce the sales tax—widely regarded as among the most regressive in the nation. I didn’t like it when supporters of I-732 touted this as “progressive,” because it was really an offset of another regressive element, the carbon tax itself, as none other than the initiative’s author conceded. (“To a first approximation, the household impact of the carbon tax and the sales tax reduction offset each other,” Bauman wrote here.) But to ignore it completely and only describe the corporate tax breaks is to give those unfamiliar with the issue a very distorted picture.

Second, McGhee and Reich uncritically repeat the state’s analysis of the budget impact of 732, without even acknowledging that it has been disputed, not just by CarbonWA (sponsors of the initiative) but by others as well. I don’t ask that the authors accept those criticisms, but to pretend they don’t exist is incomplete reporting, at best.

Third, the article smears another group through association with Yoram Bauman, author of I-732. Bauman said some very stupid things about race to a conservative commentator who published his remarks in the New York Times, and came in for some justifiable criticism as a result. But McGhee and Reich use these legitimate criticisms as a way to smear an entirely different group: Citizens Climate Lobby, which has been working for a national carbon tax for several years now. Watch how they do this:

“Another, more political concern is that the dividend-only idea is being heavily promoted to Republicans at the state and federal level, particularly by a group called the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL). Yoram Bauman, the architect of I-732, has partnered with CCL, while dismissing critics’ racial-equity concerns as a ‘political weapon’ for expanding government.”

The authors are gracious enough to add, parenthetically, “Certainly, many supporters of I-732 would not agree with this sentiment.” But the impression left, especially for incautious readers, is that both Bauman and CCL are guilty of “dismissing … racial equity concerns as a ‘political weapon.’” But there’s no evidence that CCL has done anything of the kind.

More subtly, especially in a venue like the Nation, phrasing like this suggests nefarious motives: “The dividend-only idea is being heavily promoted to Republicans … especially by … CCL.” There’s a suggestion here that CCL is a right-wing conspiracy of some kind, in league with racist elements. In fact, CCL is targeting Republicans because they hold power and need to be convinced to act if we’re going to get anything done. Reich and McGhee may disagree about tactics—they may believe that a mass mobilization of the left will force Republicans to act whether they want to or not, á la Nixon and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. But to imply that CCL’s motives are suspect in this guilt-by-association way is pretty dubious, IMO.

Having worked with CCL myself for the past 4 years, I can attest that it’s got a wide spectrum of views, from very far left (such as myself) to conservative, free-market Republicans like Bob Inglis. In fact, it’s an example of bridge-building across ideology to find common ground that the Nation, in a different context, might well find laudable. And it’s a very grass-roots organization, one that seeks to empower ordinary people in a political system that usually excludes them. It’s a shame that CCL comes in for this kind of insinuation simply because the authors disagree with its policy and tactics.

Fourth, the article plays a kind of shell game with the politics, not unlike the way it misrepresents the policy by leaving out the sales tax reduction entirely. Here’s how McGhee and Reich describe the results of the election:

“While Washingtonians rejected I-732 statewide, residents of the Puget Sound region voted yes on a $50 billion mass-transit program, which will create an estimated 200,000 jobs.”

What they don’t mention is that I-732 also won in King County, the main population center in the Puget Sound region. True, it didn’t win by much, and it lost in the other 2 big counties here—Snohomish and Pierce. But to elide this point is to, again, give an incomplete and distorted picture.

Finally, McGhee and Reich assert that investing the revenue in “desirable ways” will be more beneficial, particularly to poor communities and communities of color, than would simply offsetting the tax with a tax cut elsewhere. This has been an important talking point of the opposition (on the left), and they cite some research to support it. But there is other research that comes to a different conclusion, which they ignore.

As I said at the outset, I’m agnostic on a number of these issues, and now that 732 has lost at the polls I’m going to be looking for ways to work with the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and others who were critical of it, as they bring their proposals forward. My main concern is acting on climate and I’ll work with anyone who has what seems like a viable approach. I’m just unhappy that this article misrepresents the situation.

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