“James K. Boyce led a Zoom lecture on the concept of universal property in relation to carbon emissions.” Photo by Antyna Gould and Olivia Schanck Photo by Antyna Gould and Olivia Schanck.

On Feb. 4 from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m., the University of Maine’s Socialist and Marxist Studies Series held a “Carbon Dividends as Universal Property” talk as the first program in the series for the spring 2021 semester, featuring guest James K. Boyce of the Political Economy Research Institute of University of Massachusetts Amherst and moderated by professor of English and philosophy at UMaine Michael Swacha. 

As a part of the Socialist and Marxist Studies Series, the “Carbon Dividends as Universal Property” program was sponsored by the Maine Peace Action Committee of the UMaine Division of Student Life, with support from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Department of Philosophy. 

As introduced by Swacha, Boyce is an acclaimed author, economist and senior fellow of UMass Amherst. His most recent works include “The Case for Carbon Dividends” published in 2019, as content prominently featured in this talk, and “Economics for People and the Planet” published also in 2019. Boyce has written for Scientific American and the New York Times among numerous other publications including scholarly journals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ecological Economics and Climatic Change. 

Boyce began to think both about carbon dividends as universal property and of universal property as a necessity for long standing economic health upon reading Peter Barnes’ “Who Owns the Sky” which was published in 2001. 

“The idea, in a nutshell, is rather than letting the polluters dump carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for free, we ought to charge for whatever dumping is allowed,” Boyce said. “There could, of course, be regulations and other things assigned to limit the dumping, but whatever’s allowed shouldn’t necessarily be free. Instead, the money charged for dumping in the atmosphere, apart from providing an incentive to dump less, will also provide a source of [universal income] that could be distributed on an equal per-person basis to every woman, man and child in the political jurisdiction, state or country adopting such a policy.”

Based on this notion, Boyce expanded by introducing four types of property: private, public, common and universal. Sharing the costs and benefits of each type of property in order to properly frame universal property as an economic practice allows for money to “belong to the people, not to the government or big companies” and to trickle back to support businesses cooperatively. 

Boyce then added how universal property may be practically applied not only to carbon dividends but to both nature as a source for raw materials, nature as a sink for the disposal of waste such as carbon or other forms of pollution as well as forms of societal infrastructure for financial transactions or informational transactions, otherwise known as “big data.” 

An example of a current application in the United States as described by Boyce is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which both supports the local economy of all Alaskan residents through a straightforward verification process and serves as a monetary incentive to cut down on overall extraction from out-of-state businesses from which royalties do not benefit. 

“Alaska Permanent Fund is an example of a kind of universal property applied to oil in Alaska,” Boyce said. “When Alaska started pumping oil, the state set up something called the permanent fund, which takes royalties from the extraction of oil and puts them into a fund from which dividends are paid out equally to every resident to Alaska. Those dividends have amounted to as much as $2,000 a year [per person].”

Boyce then transitioned to a discussion of carbon dividends and how the U.S. may choose to cut down on fossil fuel extraction in congruence with current emission timelines while benefiting local economies, recognizing that there is no “silver bullet,” but combinations of regulations concerning taxes and caps to stay within a reasonable level of social cost and overall economic transition. 

To put current economics regarding current carbon emissions per income bracket, Boyce introduced the concept of “carbon rent” and the implications of adjusting current notions of equity to fit within the United States’ distribution of finances. 

“If we do have a price on carbon, through a tax or cap or a combination of the two, who pays?” Boyce asked. “Some people sometimes think, if you’re charging the price to the fossil fuels companies who are bringing the carbon in, that means that it’s the companies that will pay, it won’t hit the consumers. But that, of course, is a misconception. At the end of the day, the cost of the permits, the tax or the permit price, becomes part of the cost of doing business and it gets passed along to consumers at the pump. So the result of that is that people pay the money that ultimately goes into the carbon rent as a tax or as a permit price in proportion to their direct or indirect use of fossil fuels.”

Based on the notion that America’s top 20% consume more than half of all carbon emissions in contrast with the lowest 20% consuming 4% of all carbon emissions, the carbon rent disproportionately becomes a regressive tax, as explained by Boyce through an aviation emission example where more than half of Americans did not fly at all, yet still paid an equal, not equitable, carbon tax. Boyce challenged this regressive action by proposing progressive solutions, such as carbon dividends, an equity-focused, community-based method of reducing the United States’ carbon footprint. 

The talk ended with a brief Q&A session, featuring topics such as corporate acceptance and split incentive regulatory policies, the urgency of grassroots mobilizations in order to redistribute finances to a more accessible level for the common public, and the reception of Alaskan dividends in current practice. 

The next talk in the Socialist and Marxist Studies Series features Doug Allen, professor emeritus of philosophy at UMaine on Feb. 18: “Moral, Philosophical, and Spiritual Nonviolence and Socialism in 2021,” and on Feb. 25: “At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust From Goldwater to Trump,” given by Amy Fried, professor of political science at UMaine. 

For more information regarding the Socialist and Marxist Studies Series, visit their website umaine.edu/socialistandmarxiststudiesseries/ for additional upcoming events and posted recordings of previous lectures.