Matters of Opinion

Should we tax people for being stupid?

smog and traffic

An intriguing article in the New York Times broached the idea of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and that is, taxing people for being stupid.

Okay, the word stupid may be a bit impolite, although it’s a lot kinder than the one I scream at the 6 o’clock news when some nitwit decides to go hiking during snow storm and we have to pay the overtime of a hundred cops to look for him; or someone who insists on smoking during a walk in the woods and starts a fire that requires the departments of six towns to put it out. Just to be clear, The New York Times article did not talk about taxing stupid people, it talked about taxing external costs, which are the costs of a private transaction that society has to pay for. The concept has been around for a long time, but is gaining ground with economists and politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Air Pollution a prime example of an external cost.  When we drive cars we put the products of combustion into the atmosphere. These added gases contribute to climate change and sickness, which costs society billions of dollars not included in the price at the pump.

The article began, in fact, as the author sat in a massive traffic jam outside and he wondered not only about the external cost of thousands of people breathing polluted air and losing valuable work time. He wondered if there would be fewer people on the road during rush hour if they had to pay extra to be there. There already is such a tax in London and Stockholm and Milan. It’s called a congestion tax, which charges a hefty fee for any vehicle entering the downtown during working hours.

The theory is that enjoying the comfort and convenience of your private car rather than public transportation is an encroachment on the health and safety of the rest of us, and a therefore a privilege you should have to pay for.

Needless to say the idea has not gained a lot of momentum in the United States. We do penalize tobacco smokers with a federal tax that pays for the health care coverage of poor children. And Californians did go to the polls last November to vote on a tax on sugary drinks that make kids fat. But the idea failed. And so would a tax to get over the bridges to Cape Cod on a hot summer weekend.

In recent months, however, there has been a lot of talk about a tax on gun ownership as a way to lessen the number of guns in people’s hands. It is estimated the health care costs from firearm deaths and injuries total about $40 billion/year. And some say that if we taxed gun buyers a hefty tax per purchase it might give some of them pause before they added another gun to their arsenal.

But what would you tax? Think about it. What’s costing you time and money? What do people do, out of laziness, out of arrogance, out of greed and selfishness that puts you at risk? Right now there is a massive flu epidemic and the worst outbreak of whooping cough in decades. The flu is contagious so is it too harsh to tax people who do not get vaccinated? You may say we can’t go that far.

Okay, how about people at the gym who sweat like Sumo wrestlers and don’t wipe down equipment when they finish? Why should you stay home from work because they can’t use a spray bottle? Shouldn’t they have to pay for your babysitter when you have to call in sick?

How much of our hard-earned money goes to paying for  things any idiot wouldn’t do if they thought about it twice? Remember the mortgage meltdown that sank the economy? I don’t know who was to blame, greedy banks or stupid people who knew they couldn’t afford a huge new house or a home equity line of credit. But we ended up paying for it.

How about the massive waste of food in western society. Newsweek recently reported that half the world’s food, 2 billion tons is thrown away every year in the United States and Europe while the demands for water in food production has tripled in a time of drought. Should we tax people who don’t finish everything on their plate?

You can get really carried away with stuff if you think about. How about people who let their dogs run free to poop on the shellfish beds? Should there be a tax for dog owners to offset the price of enforcement? How about people who won’t shut up in movie theaters? Do they owe you the price of admission if you can’t hear what’s on the screen?

How much are we responsible for our individual effects on the world? I don’t know the answer to this but I do know thing. If they ever do decide to tax people for doing dumb things…I’m going to go broke.

I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.