Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An ill-conceived war on plastic bags?

13 comments:

Maggie said...

Perhaps an all-out ban on plastic bags is not the solution, but it seems as though a bag tax is. Although this article points out that grocery bag bans actually cause net bag consumption to increase due to the lack of grocery bags available for re-use in various ways (trashcan liners, lunch bags, etc.), a bag tax would avoid this problem while still minimizing total bag consumption.

Ian Thresher said...

Why are we wasting time taxing or banning bags though? They account for one percent of trash and they are recyclable. Surely there are better ways to reduce pollution. Besides, isn't this tax on bags the same idea as the tax in the Healthcare bill? Both are essentially doing the same thing (attempting to change social behaviors through taxes). If healthcare goes this had better go too.

Maggie said...

1. The face that there are better ways to reduce pollution doesn't mean that a bag tax isn't a step in the right direction. 1% less trash is still 1% less trash.

2. I don't see a problem with attempting to change behavior that causes negative externalities. You have to consider the social and environmental costs of plastic bag consumption. This is the same reason we tax cigarettes and gasoline.

Maggie said...

I meant to say "fact". Oops.

TJE said...

1. Bagmyths (Regard the source):

http://www.apmbags.com/bagmyths

2. Some might argue that the tax code is not the best vehicle to pursue social policy.

Maggie said...

I obviously can't respond to every one of the "myths" but I'll try to respond to some.

The argument that San Francisco's bag ban led to an increase in paper bags isn't really relevant--DC's bag TAX includes both paper and plastic and looks like it has had an overwhelmingly positive net effect on the environment: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/29/AR2010032903336.html

I already stated my view on the fact that plastic bags are only a small percentage of total trash. I still think this is better than nothing.

Clearly this is not an unbiased source. The majority of the arguments attempt to debunk the "myths" by showing that the environmental harm caused by plastic bags is not as severe as environmentalists claim. Even if this is the case, however, I still stand by my reasoning that some benefit is better than none. Even if plastic bag manufacturing uses less crude oil than other industries, such as transportation, I still think that if we can curb this usage by implementing a simple tax, then it's well worth it. Plastic bags are certainly not helping the environment, and I would say that when implemented correctly, a bag tax is a small step with relatively big results in terms of environmental benefit. The only opposing argument I see valid is the tax's effect on the poor. While I do not know enough about this to really comment on it, I do know there are bag give-away programs that help alleviate potential impacts.

Ian Thresher said...

I guess my point is that that if legislators and reporters are so interested in creating a better environment, why make such substantial changes for such limited impact? I understand your argument that some is better than none, but there are far less intrusive ways of accomplishing a lot more. These legislators do not deserve a pat on the back from envrionmentlists or consumers. Instead, they should come up with substantive policy changes that are less invasive and more productive.

On a slightly different note, you said "I don't see a problem with attempting to change behavior that causes negative externalities." Well, who decides whether those behaviors are negative or, if they are, the issue of causation? The Government? You really open yourself up to a line of attack because you seem to suggest that the Government can and should do something to change social behaviors deemed "negative." The Government cannot and must not engage in anything of the sort because to do so would infringe on individual liberty rights.

PBM said...

I don't think a 5 cent tax is invasive to anyone's personal liberties. From my experience in Europe and DC I think this is a really good idea that makes my actions much more environmentally friendly. In Rome, I always reused bags that I had previously bought either on my next grocery trip, or as trash bags in my apartment. In DC so far, I have pretty much only used reusable bags for groceries. I realize there are problems with these too. Constantly using hundreds of plastic bags unnecessarily is horrible for the planet no matter how you cut it. These bags do not biodegrade, and if they are left in the environment, whether it be rock creek, or the pacific garbage patch, they are destructive to animals and the environment. This seems like a pretty common sense step to me that is not very intrusive, and is very helpful to local ecosystems (the tax not the ban).

Maggie said...

Ian--

But what happens when an individual’s actions infringe on another’s liberties? We cannot all exercise complete freedom without sometimes imposing harm on others and society. In this case, the government’s failure to act would be neglecting to protect the rights of some citizens in order to protect certain rights of others. Clearly, this raises an important question about the role of government. This is where the concept of externalities comes into play. There may be no objective measure by which we may determine how government should proceed in such situations. But an analysis of social costs and benefits, in my opinion, may be the best measure we have. While you may argue that attempting to change consumer’s behavior by taxing bags infringes on individual liberties, I would argue that those who consume bags unintentionally impose a cost on society for which they must be held accountable. If the individual, in their own cost/benefit analysis, determines that the benefit they get out of consuming a plastic bag outweighs a 5 cent cost of that consumption, than they may continue to do so, and pay for the environmental harm they cause through the tax.
Individual liberties do not grant us exemption from paying for our actions that harm others and society. Without a government tax on negative externalities, individuals may continue to infringe on the rights of others, society, and the environment without compensating those they harm.

And what other “less invasive and more productive” ways of accomplishing environmental goals do you suggest? It seems that no matter which way government aims to protect the environment, it faces harsh opposition.

Ian Thresher said...

I would agree with you Peter in the sense that a 5 cent tax does not ipso facto invade my personal liberties. My point, which is more ideological and somewhat removed from the issue of plastic bags, is that if the Government can tax me for an action (in this case using a plastic bag instead of bringing one of my own) and the purpose of that tax is to get me to engage in a behavior that I would not normally do, that strikes me as interfering with my own personal liberties. Why should I be forced to engage in an action (or punished for engaging in an action) simply because it goes against the grain of society. The Government’s power to tax is unquestioned, but the Government cannot use taxes to change social behaviors. Taxing as a form of social control is the fundamental problem, and I think this law heads down that path.

Megan,
You are, of course, quite right in suggesting that “we cannot all exercise complete freedom without sometimes imposing harm on others and society.” You contend that the Government must act to protect certain individual rights. I agree. But then you go on to assert a quasi-utilitarian idea in which what is best for an individual is what is best for society. While there were people who flirted with the idea that utilitarianism was the best form of Government, utilitarianism overlooks the simple fact that there is no way to measure what is best for all. Additionally, I believe you overlook one of the most important facets of our republican government: freedom from the tyranny of the majority. If I must do something that is in society’s best interests (or be punished for something that goes against it) I am effectively conforming to a social mold. Fortunately, under our constitution, I can be a general nuisance and espouse all kinds of ideas and set up a company that is in some way detrimental to society. In this case, I may be polluting, but you must balance the will of society with the liberties of the individual, and I think that the liberties of the individual always come first. The one percent of trash I would prevent from going to a waste dump does not, in my opinion, allow society to tax me for engaging in this behavior. It about balancing the two interests and I do not think that society has enough interest at stake to allow them to tax my behavior.
As for how government can do it, I believe Cap and Trade is great idea. Expand the size of our natural parks, ensure that Farmers do not allow run-off, reduce ethanol subsidies… The list goes on. All of these require changes, but none of attempt to change an individual’s actions through taxes.

PBM said...

Ian, the government taxes people to shape behavior all the time and we aren't going to change that overnight. Abandon ideologically perfect fantasyland and come back to the real world.

Ian Thresher said...

corsheI assume you are referring to "sin" taxes. The Government does indeed tax things like alcohol and tobacco, but these are fundamentally different from this bag tax. For one thing, the Government taxes them at relatively the same amounts. It does not present consumers with any kind of real choice. For instance, if you want to buy cigarettes then you buy cigarettes. The Government does not try and influence which brand you buy. If you want to go grocery shopping, though, you must bring your own bags or suffer the consequences. Additionally, there is a difference in intent. The intent of the plastic bags is to stop me from using them. The intent of higher alcohol or tobacco taxes is to raise revenue. Nobody really thinks that taxing plastic bags will raise revenue because it doesn't. The program barely pays for itself. The issue is that the government is solely trying to influence my behavior through taxes, which it cannot do.

Patrick_L said...

Btw, a huge part of the intent of "sin" taxes on tobacco and alcohol is that they reduce consumption. For instance, researchers estimate that each 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes is likely to cause consumption to
fall by 4 percent to 6 percent (probably more in the case
of teenagers). See CBO http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9925/12-18-HealthOptions.pdf and http://books.google.com/books?id=XsGdBReOQSgC&pg=PA440&lpg=PA440&dq=Researchers+estimate+that+each+10+percent+increase+in+the+tobacco&source=bl&ots=jNxNrxR__a&sig=gaI6Wy-HrVIfCVhePzbWoqlDczM&hl=en&ei=KqSSTcWROZGgtwepy6VO&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CDUQ6AEwBTgU#v=onepage&q&f=false