Using Basic Income to Sell a Carbon Tax

You know, I may have been looking at the Basic Income + VAT wrong. Instead of using a value-added tax to fund the basic income, perhaps we should use a basic income grant to sell a different policy… the carbon tax!

Here’s what I have in mind: the US could adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax. The goal would not be to fund any existinng social services: instead, the carbon tax would be pooled and remitted to all citizens equally. I’m not sure this would quite sustain life at a dignified level all by itself, but the ideal of a carbon tax is its incentive structure. By discouraging carbon-intensive consumption, we could eventually get greenhouse-gas emissions under control. But of course, taxes are unpopular, and growth-restrictive, and in general a bad sell.

So sell it with as a tax rebate. All citizens would be eligible for a tax refund from the carbon tax administrator. Unlike the tax, which would be paid mostly by industry, the refund would be flat and paid to citizens. So you could really win out if you used very few carbon-intensive products but still got your share of the overall carbon-tax refund. Your prices would not rise to meet your refund check. The rich who used massive carbon-intensive goods like yacht and jet fuel would pay quite heavily, while only receiving the same flat refund, while the rich who spent their money on solar panels and electric cars would find that their investments in clean energy had serious dividends! Continue reading Using Basic Income to Sell a Carbon Tax

Beware of Awe

Over the holiday weekend, I spent some time with my family watching the series Planet Earth on a high definition television. It was moving and informative, a sublime challenge to our capacities in its global sweep and the depiction of interconnections between the planet’s various ecosystems. I found myself thinking that this was the perfect propaganda for environmentalism, insofar as it inspires a deep loyalty to the natural world that many city-dwellers would find it difficult to muster on their own.

But what, exactly, ought we be inspired to do on the basis on this awe-inspiring video? How can the natural environment it depicts be saved, and at what price? And how should we weigh the potency of this visual rhetoric against other kinds of arguments?

One very common kind of deference in the US is deference to faith and religious conviction. Environmental activists frequently traffic in a naturalized version of this kind of conviction, and earn deference in much the same way as the faithful. Like other kinds of deference, we ought to beware of revelation, whether it comes in the form of religious inspiration or natural awe.

Yet awe cannot simply be discounted. “Philosophy begins with thaumazein” which is the Greek word for wonder, amazement, and awe. Wariness is not skepticism, any more than doubt is solipsism. So we must also decide what to do about revelation and inspiration; passion and conviction cannot be ignored or denied. At base, this is question about the power of revelation versus the demands of reason: we recognize that many things that motivate action do not necessarily justify action. So how ought we to relate to experiences that are strongly motivational where there remains significant conflict over the appropriate justification?

Let’s say that I have a moment of ecstatic religious inspiration that persuades me to become an activist against torture and political exclusion. In a moment of clarity I see that God’s plan for my life is to oppose the evil that men do. Few would question my reasons or demand that I justify my positions, and many would be impressed by the depth of my faith. Though my quest would almost certainly fail, it is unlikely that anyone would call me crazy.

Now instead, imagine that I have a moment of ecstatic religious inspiration that persuades me to become an activist against the debauchery depicted on cable television. In this moment of clarity, I see that God’s plan for my life is to oppose the evil that men pretend to do. Many people would question my reasons for choosing this subject, and demand that I justify my position. Few would be impressed by the depth of my faith, and I would likely fail and be called crazy.

Clearly, many people have had both kinds of revelations, and clearly we react to the first sort of revelation much more sympathetically than to the second sort. Given this incongruity, my question is: why is the revelatory character of the motivation important at all? It seems that the method by which I have arrived at my convictions, whether it be reason or revelation, matters not at all: what matters is the substance and content of those convictions, and the acts that follow.

If we accept revelation as a source for moral justifications, then we have to ask how anyone can be expected to distinguish true from false revelations. If, on the other hand, we recognize revelation as a source of motivation but reject it as a source of justification, then we have to ask what work justification does: in what way are reasons — disconnected from my faith and fundamental concerns — reasons to act? The recipient of divine revelation is satisfied that God has spoken; political liberty seems to demand that we allow her to act on the basis of that revelation. Why not allow the “marketplace of ideas” to judge whether this revelation has merit? What right do we have to demand further (non-revelatory) reasons?

John Rawls famously argued that reference to purely private experiences for public justification fails the test of public reason. Since those who have not shared your revelatory experience cannot evaluate the claims that emerge from it, we ought to pursue thin, pluralist-friendly justifications instead. This places a very large obligation on the recipients of revelation to translate their convictions into the terms of those who don’t share that conviction. The burden of translation will often even suffice to silence or marginalize the convictions of those who receive some kinds of revelations. The fact that the quest for pluralistic justifications may ultimately undermine the substance of my revelation, as they would with anti-gay marriage or anti-abortion activists, is supposedly a feature rather than a bug in public reason.

Rawls himself was forced to revisit this conception of public reason when it became clear that his rejection of thick “comprehensive doctrines” that are incompatible with pluralism would also have squelched the religious rhetoric offered by Martin Luther King against segregation, or Lincoln against slavery! But his revision was only a weakened restatement: he concluded that activists like King must stand ready to supply “public” justifications to supplement their Christian rhetoric. Again, this is easy for Dr. King and difficult for Fred Phelps, which is a feature, not a bug.

Chris Eberle offered a defense of revelation in his excellent book Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics. There, he describes a Christian mystic who has a justice-oriented revelation that provokes activism on the part of the global poor. Try as she might, however, this hypothetical Christian mystic cannot find pluralist rhetoric capable of persuading non-mystics of the rightness of her cause. As a result, she switches to the more effective religious rhetoric, and seems to have failed Rawls’ test.

Now, the obvious response is that this is a contrived example: there are plenty of pluralist-friendly defenses of activism on behalf of the global poor. So the mystic’s failure to find rhetorically effective language is simply a personal failure, not a systematic failure of secular or liberal language as such. The unrecognizable comprehensive doctrines mostly fall on the other side of the debate, among those who argue that we need not attend to the needs of strangers beyond our borders. Those are the people who argue from a special feeling of solidarity to their fellow Americans or an exclusive set of indefeasible obligations to their own family that trumps all other possible demands.

Yet the disconnect between public justification and revelatory motivation remains a problem. In particular, it seems to me to be a problem whenever we must evaluate our own commitments, or discover that we feel strongly about something that others do not. It’s also a problem for Experimental Philosophy and its quest to substitute Hume’s theory of moral sentiments for anything approaching an externalist theory of moral justification.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead #3Last year, I wrote:

I’d like to see what a surviving-a-day-at-a-time hero looks like. Whatever collection of writers can come up with that story and characterization will make a lot of money breaking with the current anti-hero conventions. More to the point, it might be good for us. Though we may [not] have had too many actual-or-metaphorical vampires of late, perhaps we do still need to see complicated characters dealing with the morally ambiguous world, and for that I think there’s nothing better than a survivor’s tale, where ordinary folks face the ravages of an apocalypse without losing their humanity. Post-apocalyptic stories capture the sense of morally ambiguous survival without pretense of authenticity or excellence.

Well, it’s finally happened. AMC has begun production of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Kirkman’s zombie story is exactly what I was thinking of as I wrote those words: no climax, just life subsisting after the apocalypse, “it’s like a zombie movie that never ends.”

I think this is just what we need… unless it turns out to be true that zombies are popular when Republicans win elections.