Friday, January 23, 2009

A new entry for the Town Crier's greatest hits album

This week, we find the leaders of the fifth-most educated small town in America trying to one up each other with dumber and dumber reasons for opposing a tax on plastic bags. The Los Altos City Council began the shenanigans by voting 4-1 against Santa Clara County's proposed 25¢ per bag fee. The reasoning (apparently provided for them by the sinisterly-named American Chemistry Council) seemed to be that people ought to get paid for things that they should be doing already. A few days later, the award-winning editorial pages of the Town Crier joined the fray, and you can imagine where it went from there.

County should ‘bag’ the bag tax

Ha!

A recent proposal by the Santa Clara County Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission for paper and plastic grocery and retail bag reduction and a 25 cent per-bag tax received a cool reception from the Los Altos City Council. The issue wasn’t so much bag reduction – in these “green” times, reductions are appropriate. It was the "tax" part of it that council members rejected.


I'm sending both this headline and opening paragraph to the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

We’re glad they did. Councilwoman Val Carpenter hit the nail on the head when she said the city would be better off implementing incentives for residents using fewer bags than agreeing to impose a tax. And the prospect of another tax in this weak economy is equivalent to hitting the taxpayers when they’re down. Frankly, there are far bigger environmental issues to tackle, such as toxic waste disposal and water conservation.

The Town Crier editorial writer may be happy about this, and Val Carpenter did in fact say that, but everything else in this paragraph is wrong.
the city would be better off implementing incentives for residents using fewer bags than agreeing to impose a tax.
My idea to give people an incentive to use fewer bags: charge a fee that they can avoid by using fewer bags.
And the prospect of another tax in this weak economy is equivalent to hitting the taxpayers when they’re down.
Three issues here: 1) Technically, it would be the tax itself doing the hitting, not the prospect of it, 2) this fee would be especially easy to avoid, and 3) I'm pretty sure Los Altans can afford an extra quarter in the extreme circumstances where it becomes necessary.
Frankly, there are far bigger environmental issues to tackle, such as toxic waste disposal and water conservation.
This sentence is particularly egregious. Its premise is a false dilemma that imagines society can either address the problem of plastic bags or deal with other environmental concerns, but not both. It also lacks any evidence for its claims. And given that the Town Crier still pretends that we are not changing the climate, I find it a little hard to trust assertions like this one. In fact, I even question the writer's frankness.

The editorial goes on to argue that the market should magically provide reusable bags, missing entirely the idea that plastic bags are artificially cheap because of the external costs that the market is not capturing. And in a coup-de-grace against both logic and the English language, we get this:

For anyone who’s been in Whole Foods Market, an occasional price break would be quite welcome.

Let's leave aside for now the irony of complaining about high food prices and then letting it slip that you shop at whole foods. Also, let's ignore that one of Whole Foods' main selling points is that the food it sells has fewer associated externalities than does the food from Safeway, Trader Joe's or Ralph's, thereby justifying the higher costs. The main problem with this is that Whole Foods presumably sets its prices in a way that takes into account the discounts it gives shoppers for using renewable bags, essentially taxing shoppers in the same way that the County's proposal would.

Hopefully Mountain View will have a more intelligent debate when it takes up the issue this week.

3 comments:

jocelyn said...

Sigh. So many brave stands taken by that wonderful paper in these "green" times.

Anonymous said...

Why not write this guy some letters of encouragement?

Councilman David Casas, who had introduced the idea of supporting a regional effort to devise complementary ordinances, said that changes to bag use were a near-to-sure thing in the region’s future.

“Being at the stage we are, it is relatively new,” Casas said. “But it is coming.”

"Madame" said...

I had trouble "getting" this article. "Upon first reading" it was totally unclear that you copied the "TC" article (which already had a link) and made your comments in between sections. My first reaction was that YOU were against the tax and I thought "that" couldn't be "right"! I DID learn some "new" punctuation, however.