January 01, 2010

New Year, New Tax

Happy New Year!

Now pay up.

DDOE's New Speak CampaignOur city council and mayor, ever desperate for new sources of revenue, have levied, effective today, a five-cent tax on every paper and plastic bag.  So unless you carry reusable bags in your pockets for every unforeseen trip to the store, get ready to shell out.

The stated purpose of the tax is to clean up the Anacostia River and three or four cents of every nickle collected will go to the Anacostia River Protection Fund.  Some stores have the option of offering a five-cent credit to customers who bring their own bags.  In such cases, store owners will be allowed to keep two of the five cents of the tax they collect.

The bag tax applies to every store that sells food or alcohol.  Since Best Buy sells candy near its check out lines, the tax applies there, too; you’d better take a reusable bag to carry your new DVD player home on the Metro.

Paper bags, which are biodegradable, are also taxed, not because of any potential impact on the Anacostia, but because of politics: store owners feared that a tax on plastic bags would encourage customers to opt for their more expensive paper counterparts.

For those who own cars (your author is not one of them), it might be easy to store one’s bags in the trunk and to pull them out at the store.  The rest of us are expected to carry bags on our persons, which is a nuisance that the mayor, with his city-provided SUV, and the council, with their free street parking in front of the Wilson Building, probably don’t understand.

Our biggest complaint about this tax is not so much the money, but the degree of condescension it exudes, implying that those who use plastic bags are sinners destroying the Anacostia.  Readers of this blog will note our distaste for litter, especially the heaps of it that pile up in front of the Howard Theater on the Block of Blight.  It’s easy to levy a feel-good tax, whereas a sustained effort to fine people who litter and to sanction businesses whose customers litter isn’t nearly as sexy.

New Year, Newspeak

Adding to the condescension is the legislation’s wording, which refers to the tax by the more innocuous word fee, as though city residents are too stupid to identify a tax when they see it.

The District Department of the Environment, which is responsible for administering the new tax (oops, I mean “fee”) has jumped on the Orwellian bandwagon, too, refusing to use the word tax.  Even worse, their campaign against plastic bags (see the image above) is an exemplar of newspeak, urging us to “skip the bag [to] save the river”.  For those of use who don’t litter— the majority of District residents— to “skip the bag” will not “save the river” since we wouldn’t have littered anyway and by reusing other bags, we avoid paying the tax to finance the river clean-up.  Ironically, by skipping the bag, we are not helping to save the river.

Cleaning up the river is a worthwhile goal, but levying yet another regressive excise tax wrapped heavily in moralistic rhetoric is neither honest nor fair.  Financing river cleanup should come from proven sources of river pollution, including sewers (by taxing water bills), impervious real property (WASA already charges a fee for this), and by enforcing anti-littering laws more aggressively.  Many of us, the majority I’d expect, use plastic bags and dispose of them responsibly so they don’t soil our communities and rivers.  Nonetheless, we are the scapegoat pretext for this new tax.

We are willing to bet a shiny nickle that this latest feel-good tax will do little to curb littering and we expect the heaps of garbage to continue to pile up in front of the Howard Theater.

Categories: Good Goverment, Safety & Order, Taxation
Tags: , , ,

14 Replies

  1. Well said. I’ve been mentally trying to figure out the wording for something like this for a few days now (since January 1, to be exact), but it looks like you did it for me.

    Suburban Sweetheart - January 4, 2010 @ 12:08 am
  2. This is totally a tax. However, for a lot of people, this is an optional tax: if you do bring your own bag, you don’t have to pay it.

    I carry a messenger bag with me — it’s good for assorted electronics, a book or two, and a few re useable bags. Folding them can be a bit of a pain in the ass, but they’re not particularly heavy.

    Also: I work a part-time retail job in DC. I was informed by management that if a customer chooses to return their bag (provided it is in good, re-useable condition), with their receipt, they will receive a refund for it.

    I mean — I don’t know why you’d want to take all that hassle for a nickel, but it’s an option.

    Malnurtured Snay - January 4, 2010 @ 7:52 am
  3. I hope you realize that even if you don’t litter — and from looking around my neighborhood I’d say you may be in the minority — that plastic bag’s gotta end up somewhere. While that somewhere may not be the river, the bottom line is that plastic bags are bad for the environment.

    Alex - January 4, 2010 @ 7:53 am
  4. [...] pretty sure I’ve seen a soda machine in their queue before. After writing this, I read Left for LeDroit and they indicate Best Buy is also charging the bag [...]

  5. As someone who was car-less in DC for many years (in your hood, even), I must agree that carrying reusable bags is a thousand times easier for car-owners. There is no room for argument on that point. Sure, many of us carry one of the tiny fold-up kind in our handbags or backpacks, but that is not enough room to carry everything one might buy on every unexpected trip to the store.

    However, I think it should be pointed out that DC is not the first city to enact this tax. It’s working wonderfully in many other U.S. cities where plastic bag consumption is drastically down. So, maybe it’s the exact push we need to make life changes.

    I do agree with you that littering should be more heavily punished.

    Sparklebot - January 4, 2010 @ 11:07 am
  6. I guess this is nitpicking, but the fee is actually an example of a progressive tax, not a regressive one. When you are taxing an optional behavior that you are trying to reduce or eliminate it is by definition progressive, regressive taxes are on essentials like housing that cannot be avoided and tend to impact lower income people disproportionately.

    Also for the record I do not have a car, but I have made a point of bringing reusable bags to store with me for a while now, I dont see what the big deal is.

    Rob - January 4, 2010 @ 11:21 am
  7. @Rob – i don’t think you’re nitpicking at all. there’s a world of difference between progressive and regressive taxes, and it reduces the post’s argument to a not-very-convincing “waah, i don’t want to be bothered with carrying a plastic bag with me. i’m not the problem, don’t punish ME!”

    the post’s argument against the tax, as constructed, is neither honest nor fair.

    laloca - January 4, 2010 @ 1:26 pm
  8. Rob, I disagree.

    The progressivity of tax has nothing to do with its intention to reduce a behavior. A progressive tax is simply a tax “increasing in rate as the base increases“. An example of this is the Federal income tax, since the tax rate actually increases the as your income gets higher. Optional behavior— in this case, varying your number of bags (the base)— does not affect the rate, which is fixed at 5 cents per bag.

    Though the rate is technically proportional, just like the sales tax, it is effectively regressive in relation to one’s income (much like a sales tax on food) since the demand for items usually placed into such bags (groceries) are relatively demand-inelastic— that is, all people, rich or poor, don’t reduce their grocery consumption very much when prices go up. When prices go up, people may switch to a store brand, but they will still buy things that need to be carried home since food is a necessity of living.

    Eric Fidler - January 4, 2010 @ 2:05 pm
  9. I don’t get the argument that it’s so much harder on car-less people. If you’re going to the grocery store without a car, you still have to carry plastic bags home that are now filled with groceries. How is it any more of a hardship to carry folded up, empty bags TO the store?

    Hell, just re-use old plastic bags that you can wad up into a little ball that fits in your pocket.

    G_in_Dupont - January 5, 2010 @ 9:59 am
  10. I think it’s worth reading both the D.C. website on the plastic bag fee (http://green.dc.gov/green/cwp/view.asp?a=1248&q=463102&PM=1) and the Anacostia Watershed Trash Reduction Plan (http://ddoe.dc.gov/ddoe/lib/ddoe/2009.01.29_Trash_Report_1.pdf). Both make a good case for the fee.

    I understand some of your objections to it, but I think that we have to start recognizing that our collective actions have impacts on the environment. In the case of the Anacostia, one of the main sources of trash is plastic bags, so it seems obvious to find a way to limit plastic bag use. A five-cent fee is a good way to encourage people to start using reusable bags and not prohibitively expensive for most people that need or want to use plastic. (My bet is that most folks that use plastic bags will simply start re-using them, thus saving themselves the fee.)

    The District has done a very good job with letting people know this fee was coming and partnering with local businesses (CVS, for example) to provide free reusable bags to consumers. All told, somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 of these bags are being given out for free. That’s a good thing.

    Finally, I don’t think this fee says that anyone who uses a plastic bag is killing the Anacostia. But it does remind us that our everyday actions have consequences, and though we’re used to those “free” plastic bags, they’re not really “free” if we end up paying extra taxes to clean them out of the river.

    Martin - January 5, 2010 @ 12:03 pm
  11. I also wonder, how many disposable plastic bags could be produced for the same energy it costs to manufacture a car? I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the pro-bag tax crowd actually do own cars.

    To answer Rob’s question: it’s impractical because every trip to a store has to start from home, not the office, not the park not school or the library, etc. You have to carry plastic disposable bags with you (which become garbage themselves after a few uses – you want that in your pocket?) Or you get stuck overpaying for a bag by a factor of a hundred (the cost of which was built into your purchase anyway). Like was said above, if you’ve got a car, a ten block trip back home is nothing, if you’re on foot, it’s a pain in the ass just to avoid some overbearing tax. People without cars appreciate their mobility, the bag tax means you’re tethered to your house for a supply of reusable bags – or you’re stuck paying a tax because you don’t own a car.

    @laloca: way to go straight for the ad hominem. Am I the only one who’s been surprised by the level of pettiness and bile from the bag tax enthusiasts? Do you guys have nothing but character assassination to go with? People point out that the bag tax is improvident and potentially counter productive public policy (besides being a hardship for those of us who were already doing without a car) and we’re “lazy” or “whiny” because we don’t want to stuff the pockets of our work clothes with dirty plastic bags. Grow up or be quiet.

    Steve S - January 7, 2010 @ 2:39 am
  12. Yeah, but come on now Steve — if you don’t own a car anyway, then you’re going to be walking home, so you’re probably not going to buy more groceries than would fit in five or six plastic bags, right? Are you really going to choose to walk home for your resueable bags, or just say, “Hey, it’s thirty cents … I’ll just pay it.”

    Malnurtured Snay - January 7, 2010 @ 2:39 pm
  13. carry a reusable bag, stop acting like your life is one giant inconvenience, and read this:

    http://www.bestlifeonline.com/cms/publish/health/Our_oceans_are_turning_into_plastic_are_we_2.php

    witchhiker - January 7, 2010 @ 9:03 pm
  14. Would this also be a problem with biodegradable plastic bags? All the grocery stores near me (I live in Europe) moved to biodegradable plastic bags over the last year. They aren’t as strong as the old bags, but do get the job done. They cost the same as the old plastic bags (we have to pay for bags, but that’s the retailer charging for bags — it’s not mandated by the government since it’s not a government fee/tax).

    Justin - January 11, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

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