Anatomy of a Tax Increase

Via the Club for Growth:

[San Francisco's] Commission on the Environment is expected to ask the mayor and board of supervisors Tuesday to consider a 17-cent per bag charge on paper and plastic grocery bags. While the goal is reducing plastic bag pollution, paper was added so as not to discriminate.

"The whole point is to encourage the elimination of waste, not to make people pay more for groceries," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste.

Environmentalists argue that plastic bags jam machinery, pollute waterways and often end up in trees. In addition to large supermarkets, other outfits that regularly use plastic bags, including smaller grocery stores, dry cleaners and takeout restaurants, could eventually be targeted.

Officials calculate that the city spends 5.2 cents per bag annually for street litter pickup and 1.4 cents per bag for extra recycling costs.

What might have started out as a desire to change behavior or pay for a specific problem has become, as is typical, a general revenue grab.  Note two things:

  • They want to reduce plastic bag use, but put the tax on all bags.  Therefore, it will have no effect on behavior in the market when someone asks "paper or plastic" since they still will cost the same.  If they had put it only on plastic, then people might well have shifted en mass to asking for paper - I certainly would, as I am usually indifferent as to bag type.  But someone probably pointed out that if they only taxed plastic, everyone would shift to paper and they would get no extra revenue, despite the fact that the behavior shift was what started the proposal in the first place.
  • If they really only wanted to pay for cleanup costs, which presumably were calculated based on plastic since paper biodegrades pretty fast, they would not have made the tax 2.5 times their calculated cost.  What is the extra amount over 6.6 cents for?  General revenue of course.

If you think I am reading too much into this, ask how much of the cigarette taxes imposed by the tobacco liability settlement really went towards education and the health care costs of smoking-related illnesses (the original intent).  The answer is well less than half, and in some states, none.  In fact, the tobacco settlement has become such a strong general revenue source for states that some states are now supporting legislation to protect the business of large tobacco companies in the settlement. 

By the way, in a story only related because it involves taxes in California, all I can say is go, Arnold, go.