Monday, May 14, 2007

Excise taxes

I may be strange but while I was eating lunch this weekend I read this menu and only one thing jumped to mind... excise taxes. Excise taxes can mean a lot of things but generally they are thought of as "sin taxes" meant to discourage certain types of behavior.

For example, cigarette and liquor taxes are good examples of excise taxes. I can't believe how expensive cigarettes are in Chicago or New York City - it can be $4 - $5 / pack, and the vast majority of this cost represents taxes collected the government. Other excise taxes may be added to "gas guzzlers" (low mileage cars) and even gasoline.

Excise taxes are slippery from an ethical perspective... on the one hand, excise taxes may make people think twice before taking action. If cigarettes cost a lot of money, then people may think twice before starting to smoke. I don't think that there is much evidence that this is effective; for instance, the common complaint against the death penalty is that it doesn't act as a deterrent - however, excise taxes haven't deterred consumption of liquor or cigarettes (look at all the 20 somethings that smoke today) so they really don't work as intended.

Another way to describe excise taxes is that they can be used to pay for services that the bad behavior causes. For example, you could say that the cigarette taxes are used to pay for medical services used by smokers. In reality, however, this relationship is tenuous at best; the lottery was "sold" in Illinois in that the proceeds would go to fund education - what happened was that the state merely adjusted downward their contribution to take into account the lottery funds so that net, they imposed a lottery (with all its attendant negative consequences) without NET increasing funds for education.

If the government REALLY thinks that something is bad for you, then theoretically they should try to BAN the behavior (outlaw it), not PROFIT from it. As a libertarian I am not in favor of the government actually doing this in practice, but it is more ethically and philosophically consistent than taxing it.

In the most circular examples, the states sued the cigarette companies, extracted a huge settlement, and now they have an incentive to keep the sales up in order to bring in the cash flows. The states don't want to eliminate or really even reduce cigarette sales; they just want their share of the money. I believe North Carolina even used some of their proceeds from the tobacco settlement to subsidize tobacco growers...

Excise taxes are probably the most regressive of any type of taxes. When you significantly tax a pack of cigarettes, a lottery ticket (by reducing the winning %), or liquor, you are really hitting the poor the hardest, because this consumption represents a significant portion of their total income, while it isn't noticeable to the rich.

Finally the question is - why did this menu make me think of excise taxes? Simple. Look at the $1 PBR. Using the government's own logic, PBR is a terrible beer, and they ought to impose a 1000% excise tax on PBR to discourage consumption of this vile, awful, gut turning brew. At least in my opinion...


annie said...

Glad to hear you don't *really* think that the government should actually try to ban one more thing.
Btw, another libertarian?? And it's not even my birthday! Holy moly! Might we have an affinity for the Second Amendment, too? If so, that must be hard to reconcile with living in IL.

Carl from Chicago said...

I've got to earn a living... plus I am loyal to my state, even when they screw up.

Frank from Delavan said...

Tax PBR? Surely you jest. PBR is the ultimate Midwest beer, and we are blogging about life in the Midwest.

Tax Colorado Coolaid. The folks out west don't understand a good beer, that's why they drink Coors.


Dan from Madison said...

Frank, in the name of humanity stop drinking that swill and buy some New Glarus.

Kevin Lomax said...

You are of course aware that the fools in Madison are planning to raise said excise tax on beer in Wisconsin.