Herman Cain is unlikely to come across as an environmentalist by any stretch of the imagination. As the CEO of Godfather pizza, he presided over an ecologically problematic food industry that clogged arteries of millions. Cain has also publicly derided the Environmental Protection agency for even "regulating dust!"
But inadvertently, Mr. Cain has proposed one of the most progressive environmental policy measure that could have a transformative impact on American consumerism. Cain's 999 tax proposal to have a flat tax of just over 9% on all new goods purchased and an exemption for all used goods would create incentives for moving from a disposable economy to a durable goods economy with greater emphasis on service of durable goods in creating jobs. Creating incentives to reduce disposable goods being consumed is the holy grail of environmentalism as it would reduce mining and energy usage.
However, Mr. Cain was not motivated by environmental ideals in moving this forward. Rather his motivation comes from the view that the tax system needs to be streamlined and made simpler. The overall impact of the 999 policy has now been well studied and there is consensus that the plan would raise taxes paid by poorer Americans and decrease the tax paid by wealthier Americans. An increase of structural inequality is enough reason to oppose the plan but environmentalist should acknowledge that there is a green lining to "999." What is less clear to either Mr. Cain or environmentalists is how such a transition would impact livelihoods. Scant research exists on whether moving towards a durable goods economy through service sector jobs can create livelihoods to support our population base. What is more likely is that a move towards a reuse and recycled manufacturing economy could provide both reduced impact and jobs. Thus giving tax breaks to manufacturers and consumers who buy products made from recycled materials could provide a greater jobs base while mitigating environmental impacts (though not as much as the drastic shift of incentives towards used goods that 999 might provide).
So Mr. Cain has got himself embroiled in the green conundrum of consumption -- wrestling with these issues is good regardless of what our views may be about his ultimate candidacy for the top job.
Saleem H. Ali is professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and can be followed on Twitter at saleem_ali