Environmentalists tend to use the terms "carbon tax" and "carbon offset" interchangeably. Both, after all, refer to the same concept: Increasing the price of certain goods and services to reflect the environmental damage they cause.
Just-published research suggests such a structure could have widespread support among Americans — or create another partisan split between Republicans and Democrats. It all depends upon what it is called.
A research team led by Columbia University psychologist David Hardisty came to this conclusion after conducting a series of studies, described in the journal Psychological Science. The 245 to 337 participants (depending upon the study) had an average age of 41. Thirty-six percent described themselves as Democrats, 25 percent Republicans and 37 percent Independents.
In the first study, Hardisty and his colleagues presented participants with a one-page explanation of the carbon tax/carbon offset concept. The description was identical except for a single sentence at the end, where the idea was described as either a tax or an offset.
Participants were then presented with descriptions of four products or services and given two price levels for each: a cheaper one and a more expensive one which included the carbon tax/offset. (One was a round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles, which cost either $345 or $352.) They were they asked to choose between the two prices, and give an option whether the offset/tax should be mandatory for all products or services of that type.
When the added cost was framed as an "offset," 50 to 60 percent of people in each political category went for the more expensive option, with Democrats scoring the highest. But when it was framed as a "tax," the differences were striking. Among Democrats, slightly fewer people chose the expensive option, but the percentage went down by half among Independents, and by three-quarters among Republicans.
To determine the reasons for this result, the researchers conducted two additional studies, which attempted to ascertain how the participants made their decision. Using the concepts of "query theory," they attempted to ascertain and then manipulate the order in which various aspects of the proposal were evaluated.
In one study which focused on the airfare, "half the participants were told to first list thoughts supporting the tax/offset ticket and then list thoughts supporting the cheaper ticket," while the other half received the opposite direction. This turned out to be not as easy as one would imagine.
"Republicans had a hard time complying with our request to first list thoughts favoring the more expensive option when framed as a tax, with many reverting to their natural tendency to first list arguments against that option," the researchers write.
Specifically, only 46 percent of Republicans asked to list pro-tax options first complied with that instruction. Their negative reaction to the term "tax" was apparently strong enough to push it to the top of their decision-making process, which colored their subsequent consideration of the pros of such a program.
The researchers conclude by noting that policymakers and their advisers "would be wise to note the different impact that policy labels may have on different groups." Specifically, they suggest, an emotionally neutral word such as "offset" will likely have wider appeal than the polarizing term "tax."
"What might seem like a trivial semantic difference to one person," Hardisty and his colleagues conclude, "can have a large impact on someone else."
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