In NYC, there are 250,000 housing units that use more electricity than most others. The reason? Buildings without meters for each apartment have leases that say “utilities included”. So, whether tenants use more or less power, the rent is the same. Consequently, they perceive that their electrical consumption is “free”.
What happens when we think something has little or no cost? We tend to use more of it.
Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics wrote about how people abuse a good that appears free because it is owned by all of us. Called the tragedy of the commons, for a pasture, we overgraze our cows. For a workplace refrigerator, we create a mess. Factories tend to pollute more when there is no cost. Parking is tough to find when no one has to pay for a space. Dr. Ostrom believed though, that when people care about their common pasture or refrigerator or air, they can willingly formulate a solution together.
The Economic Lesson
With price as the y-axis and quantity as the x-axis, a demand curve is downward sloping. Lower prices make us willing and able to purchase more of an item. With a lower price, the item requires less sacrifice and we have more to spend elsewhere.
According to British economist Arthur Pigou (1877-1959), the tragedy of the commons can be solved with a fee or tax that makes an overused commodity more expensive. For those NYC overusers of electricity, individual meters that connect cost to usage would eliminate the extra expense to landlords and diminish the ease with which additional greenhouse gases can be created.
Would you support a penny an ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages? According to the NY Times and The New England Journal of Medicine, the idea is becoming increasingly attractive to many municipalities. By putting on our economic glasses, we can better decide whether to support it.
First, we can ask whether society should be compensated for the cost it experiences from unhealthy behavior. Any cost absorbed by an “innocent” third party because of someone else’s behavior is called an externality. The tax would then be a payback.
To make up our minds, we can also assess the cost and benefit of the decision to tax sugary beverages. Diminishing obesity, increased intake of healthier foods, and decreased risk for diabetes, are several of the benefits associated with the impact of a soda tax. As suggested by one study, a 10% tax would decrease consumption by 7.8%. Meanwhile, on the cost side, we have the impact on manufacturers, on jobs, and the expense of implementing the tax. Some people believe the biggest cost, though, is the freedom we lose.
Finally, we can focus on the tax itself. Opponents point out that the tax is regressive because when everyone pays the same amount, the less affluent feel a larger burden. By contrast, supporters ask us to focus on the revenue’s destination. If the soda tax becomes a “benefits received” levy, then the money would be destined for treatment of sugary drink related maladies.
The Economic Lesson
Named after economist Arthur Pigou (1877-1959), Pigovian taxes are levied on undesirable activities called negative externalities. At best, they eliminate the activity. But even when less successful, the revenue that is generated can be used productively.