The unsung inventor of the carbon tax
An 86-year-old MIT professor finally sees his idea catch fire—without credit for his work
David G. Wilson’s latest invention sits in the corner of his MIT office. It’s a silver-domed solar cooker for use in African villages that lack electricity. Wilson, a native of England, and an 86-year old professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, has never lacked for big ideas. In the 1970s, he pioneered the modern recumbent bike, on which the rider sits reclined with legs stretched in front, for better ergonomics and faster speeds. He still pedals one between MIT and his home in Winchester. He’s designed new mass transit propulsion systems and machines for sorting municipal waste and recyclables. He started a company based on his patents for high-efficiency gas turbines, which was his primary research field.
Over the years, Wilson has learned that ideas don’t succeed based on merit, or sheer creativity, or even the doggedness of their advocates. They must also fit their times, find the right audiences, and get a few serendipitous nudges along the way. Sometimes, a proposal that seemed dead can be resurrected by changing circumstances. That’s the story of the idea that Wilson considers the biggest and most important of his career—the revenue-neutral energy tax.
In 1973, OPEC’s oil embargo had Americans lining up for blocks at gas stations that were running dry. Amid calls for gas rationing, Wilson proposed an alternative: Spur conservation by taxing fossil fuels, but keep the revenue out of government coffers by returning it all in equal dividend checks to every adult. Starting in early 1974, Wilson wrote articles, gave talks, and even testified about his tax plan before Congress. While the proposal appeared later that decade in writings by other scholars, none of whom cited Wilson, it never went anywhere as a policy and eventually faded from public discourse.
Today, the alarm over resource scarcity is muted, but Wilson’s scheme has resurfaced, with powerful new bipartisan support and a new purpose—slowing carbon emissions and climate change. The backers of a revenue-neutral carbon tax on fossil fuels include renowned climate scientist James Hansen as well as conservative economists, although there’s still fierce opposition and debate (see sidebar). Nobody mentions Wilson in these discussions, but after four decades, his big idea is back with a vengeance. As we discovered recently when we spoke with Wilson in his MIT office, he’s thrilled by that, but upset to not have his years of work on the subject be part of the story.
IDEAS: How does a mechanical engineer start thinking about energy taxes?
WILSON: When I came to MIT in 1966, I had no lab. The university had a huge grant from General Motors for transportation research, and my department head told me I should work on that project instead. That led to an appointment to a special commission on the MBTA, which was losing a lot of money, as it continues to do.
When I looked into it, it amazed me that the incentives given to the employees of the MBTA were all negative. The idea of structuring incentives absolutely consumed me. And [a few years later] when I was asked to be on commissions on solid waste legislation, I was a little bit at loggerheads with people who wanted to have recycling highly subsidized. It seemed to me that what needed to be done was to put a fee on the use of virgin materials, a resource-depletion tax. That would automatically bring about incentives for recycling.
Then, in 1973, the oil crisis came and took over everything else. I stopped all my previous work on transportation and on trash and solid waste recycling and went to work on energy. I decided to apply the virgin materials tax to this problem.
IDEAS: What sparked the idea of returning all the tax revenue to people as a dividend?
WILSON: I started calculating this fossil fuel tax, and I realized that with the amount we use in this country, there would obviously be a vast flow of money into the government where people would do silly things with it. That worried me. So I began to search for ways that money could do more good, and it occurred to me that we could recycle the money, and it would have all kinds of other beneficial effects that I hadn’t thought of yet.
IDEAS: What kind of reception did the idea get?
WILSON: I kept sending off articles about this scheme, and I couldn’t get them published in the professional economic journals. They can’t stand the idea of non-economists proposing things in their field. I tried to make them more mathematical, and that didn’t work either. So I wrote op-ed articles and gave talks at symposia, and things like that. I was brash enough sometimes to send out my own news releases. I also sent a letter about the policy to every member of Congress.
I worked hard on it in the 1970s, but then in the ’80s I had many other things to do, and I more or less dropped it.
IDEAS: When did you first hear someone promoting this sort of idea in the context of carbon emissions and climate change?
WILSON: In the 1990s, I was coming to my retirement age, and at intervals, I was asking if I could work in energy policy with people at MIT. They always turned me down. One of them cited Peter Barnes, who wrote a book called “Who Owns the Sky” [in 2001]. And to my amazement it was almost exactly my policy. So I invited [Barnes] to MIT to give a talk, which he did. I asked him how he came up with this scheme, and he couldn’t explain it. So I wrote to him later to explain how I came up with the scheme and never got a response. I also wrote to Jim Hansen to congratulate him on adopting this scheme and said that it was something I’d been working on and I’d love to help. [Note: Barnes did not respond to two requests for interviews; Hansen, reached by e-mail, said he did not recall where he first heard of the idea.]
IDEAS: What do you want from those who now promote this idea?
WILSON: What’s disappointed me is that I’ve reached out in a respectful, collegial fashion. I’ve been turned down from working with these people. They have all been advocating a version of my policy, which came from the very earliest time before I came up with various improvements.
IDEAS: Like what?
WILSON: The first was a protection against inflation. I was modeling the effects of this increase in energy fees, and I realized that everybody would be faced with increased cost of almost everything. And so the way the cost of living is evaluated in this country is that a so-called market basket of goods and services is dreamed up and the costs are then assessed on these. It occurred to me that at the same time that people are having to pay more they’re getting a rebate, so that rebate should be deducted from the cost of living.
A second improvement was to have the fees increase under the jurisdiction of a congressional committee, instead of a fixed sequence of artificial rises in fees. I don’t like Congress either, but they’ve got to be given a job and this is the perfect job for them, it seems to me.
IDEAS: How do you feel about the idea finally getting some real traction in both conservative and liberal policy circles?
WILSON: I unashamedly believe the policy is the best possible thing that could happen to this country. So, I feel delighted and thrilled that so many people like the scheme. I feel extremely frustrated that they don’t want to have any input from me about the improvements I’ve made over the years since 1973. I certainly would, selfishly, like a little acknowledgment, if that’s the only way I can get my voice heard.
IDEAS: When you think back on your career accomplishments, where does this idea rank?
WILSON: I’ve always had a lot of things going on, and so this isn’t the main part of my career. But I tend to be a guy that if I’ve been pursuing something that will benefit people, I’m not going to just walk away from it. If this were adopted, it would be far bigger than anything I’ve ever done.
Chris Berdik is a journalist in Boston. His book, “Mind Over Mind,” was published in 2012 by Current, an imprint of Penguin.