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Washington Watch

We Interrupt Consideration of the Energy Bill for a New Idea

It's Unorthodox to Raise New Issues with Congress, But What the Heck

Congress Is Heading for Recess, So Let's Discuss Something that Would Make A Real Difference: A Sky Trust

by Mitch Rofsky, President, Better World Club

In the last Driving Change, we passed along the cynicism of NY Times Columnist Tom Friedman, who believes that Congress hasn't been able to escape the delights of energy money and shape a rational energy policy.

True enough. But part of a sane energy policy would appear to be higher gas prices, and Congressmen don't need lobbyists to tell them that's politically risky. It's time to think of something bigger--and, hopefully, better.

Peter Barnes has been doing just that. Peter was one of the founders of Working Assets, the socially responsible mutual fund that I once managed, as well as Working Assets Long Distance.

After retiring from Working Assets, Peter has used his time to think about how the marketplace could be used to solve various social problems. This led to his terrific book, Capitalism 3.0.

There, Peter resurrects the potential of the "commons", largely publicly owned assets (his definition is even broader but you'll have to read his book.) A key example would be...the sky. A “sky trust” could set/auction fees with polluters to compensate for their imposition on the trust. It costs a polluter to dump trash onto your lawn or other private property, why shouldn't it be the same for publicly owned assets? It would be a key strategy to stop our sky and waterways from being used as free public toilets, as they are today.

That's the environmental case. But the benefits of a sky trust don't stop there. Barnes makes the case that with higher energy prices, dividends from the trust would support US purchasing power. “Dividends (from the trust) are a way to replenish consumer purchasing power and keep the economy from tanking,” says Barnes.

Sound radical? Not if you live in Alaska. The Alaska Permanent Fund has sent every resident a dividend check with a share of the state's oil revenues every year since 1976. These checks have exceeded $1,000 per resident recently, roughly what Americans should get from the sky trust.

Every American would receive the same amount, based on the rate at which carbon was assessed. But the impact is unequal, of course: the poorer you are, the more valuable would be the dividend. According to calculations by Barnes and by James K. Boyce of the University of Massachusetts, about 70% overall would make money on the deal after higher energy costs are factored in. And, as noted above, the environment would be much better off.

According to Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, Boyce even has an idea for how to make the idea more politically acceptable: by earmarking 20 to 30% of the revenues in the early years for “transitional adjustment assistance” to carbon generators. And, Alter adds, "Other potential inequities aren’t as daunting as they seem. Those who drive the most and would be assessed the most also tend to live in low-density areas with lower cost-of-living, which means their dividend checks would go further.'

But the sky trust is just the start. What about a rivers trust, public lands trust, and a broadcast spectrum trust? Some of the greatest American fortunes were generated by exploiting public assets--shouldn't all Americans get a share? Especially when the money isn't going to the government, but to the people.

Which leads to my only disagreement with Barnes. I'm not convinced that the bulk of the money needs to be handed back in the form of income. Rather, I prefer a forced savings program, a form of Universal Trust Funds, that would enable every American to build assets for their children. $1-$2,000 a year--and more from other commons trusts--adds up.

But, whether viewed as a cash or asset generator, the sky trust makes sense. It's a classic, innovative example of marketplace liberalism (as opposed to the "socialism" liberals are often accused of advocating). Let's hope someone in Washington is paying attention.