tax shifting
green taxes

Review of Environmental Tax Shifting

Citizens' Guide to Environmental Tax Shifting: for a cleaner environment; stronger economy; fairer tax code. By Hanno Beck, Brian Dunkiel and Gawain Kripke. Introduction by Paul Hawken. Washington: Friends of the Earth, 1998. Booklet, 60 pages.

Friends of the Earth is a major environmental organization and is very serious about tax reform. This new booklet tells the whole story of the movement toward a "green tax shift" -- the principles, the examples, the challenges, are all outlined for the general public. Here's our review:

reviewer: Adam J. Monroe Jr.

As its title suggests, American citizens should find the Citizens' Guide to Environmental Tax Shifting very helpful for learning how taxes could be shifted to preserve Earth's ecosystem. It will also help them to see how our revenue system could be made simpler, fairer and less burdensome to most citizens and to the US economy in general. Those well acquainted with "ecotaxation" and/or the science of political economy might consider parts of this publication less expository. But, since it demonstrates such a cohesive understanding of the true purpose of taxation in the relationship between nature and society, even experts will probably find it enlightening and helpful.

Given its historical context, it seems picayunish to critique this booklet as a piece of literature. But, poetry, it is not. However, clear, informative, helpful and interesting, it very much is.

If written by only one individual rather than a committee or if the group had been of a more single mindset, perhaps this booklet would have been more gracefully composed. But if that would have meant sacrificing its balanced voice or one bit of its content, the utility of the final product would have been severely compromised. For example, the tone is perfect; personal and engaging, yet not emotional or flippant; educational, yet not overly technical. Readers will easily become immersed in and absorb the subject matter. Stylistically, given its purpose and context, I feel that this booklet's composition deserves very high praise.

Visually, though no kaleidoscope of excitement, this booklet is fairly effective. All layout and design considerations have, apparently, not been very carefully decided (though empty space can make text easier to read, it also seems out of place in a book about the environment). Also, some of the images chosen and their placement seems gratuitous, rather than as a visual aid to understanding text. Conversely, many are quite helpful. After only one read-through, for example, some of the images tend to stick in one's head, reminding the reader of what would have otherwise been a more easily forgettable description of ecotaxation utility or methodology. However, concerned citizens are not necessarily most citizens, so, in my view, greater effort could have gone into visually stimulating readers, that they might have been encouraged to read adjoining texts more affinitively or more often.

Though a small publication (60 pages), Environmental Tax Shifting provides several points of reference to its subject. While these points flow well, one to the next, the outline seems more a series of reinitiations from different perspectives than a gestalt in the evolution of economic thought. Its thoroughness alone, however, is commendable enough to far outweigh its somewhat disjointed construction.

If written for a specific group, rather than the entire population, the booklet's general theoretical approach may have been more in evidence. However, as we all know, in a democracy, it is the general population, not just experts and activists, who must be made to understand reform issues. Thus, Friends of the Earth was wise to so direct this publication and I think the authors carried out that mission in an admirable and in what will ultimately prove an effective manner.

Obviously, with this subject matter, the opportunity to simply rile up readers in favor of ecotaxation is difficult to resist, yet the authors have taken a thoughtful, objective stance. This indicates considerable foresight on their part, for there are several aspects of the issue which may give one pause despite the fact that lowering taxes is popular, and pollution, unpopular. Rather than shying away from such concerns, the authors have smartly answered them in advance by educating the reader and being specific regarding when, where and how taxes on pollution would and would not be most effective. Consequently, I expect this booklet to have long-lasting positive effects toward progress in this area of reform and, adjacently, in advancing public understanding of the science of political economy.

Some of the intelligently chosen reference areas covered include test cases, both foreign and domestic, of various ecotaxation methods and their results, current US tax revenue source percentages, definitions of commonly used tax reform terminology, business concerns and their relation to incentives, disincentives, externalities and predictability, the economic principles of tax fairness and efficiency, updates and comparative discussions on related, current federal and state tax reform proposals, a recommended reading list and explanations of the many methods citizens may utilize to promote environmental tax shifting. Also, documentation and footnotes are very thorough, which for this type of publication, is crucial.

Perhaps the most delicate potential problem inherent, these days, in reform literature is one which the authors of this publication have most deftly negotiated: the Left-Right political paradigm. It would be extremely difficult for anyone to call this booklet a piece of propaganda for any of the usual suspects. Wisely, the authors have turned the tables -- by cultivating public awareness and understanding, they might force political leaders of every ilk to take intelligent steps toward the establishment of a more sound economic system, which, naturally, would do a far better job preserving the source of all wealth, natural resource. By marrying instead of agitating "business vs. environment" concerns, this work's creators have proven themselves true Friends of the Earth, by demonstrating their friendship toward its inhabitants.

Despite its minor technical deficiencies, which, perhaps, only a critic would even notice, I think this booklet will prove a powerful tool for achieving the reform it endorses. Intended for the average citizen, it is, as it should be, engaging, instructive, clearly worded, visually palatable, well-dispositioned, varietal and simultaneously thorough, yet concise. Overall, it is easy to read, yet makes its case very strongly without engendering political bias.

Personally, being an activist, my favorite aspect is the wealth of fact and wisdom Environmental Tax Shifting provides in such a short amount of reading time. I plan to refer to my copy often and I will be empowered, therewith, in many ways. I highly recommend this booklet. Significant gratitude and congratulations should go to Friends of the Earth for its commission and to its authors for the thoughtful use of their many obvious talents and for the depth of consideration they've given its assemblage. I think this booklet will actually make a difference.

You can order the Citizens' Guide to Environmental Tax Shifting from Friends of the Earth. Just phone 1-202-783-7400. Also, the booklet will be for sale at the CGO Conference in Portland, Oregon.

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