Thursday, February 25, 2010

DC Clarifies Bag Tax, Saves Planet

In response to confusion about the bag tax, DC has posted this "notice of proposed rulemaking."

It is 9 pages of single-spaced type which supposedly clarifies exactly who is subject to the bag tax. I couldn't make head or tails of it. And beyond that, I am completely unclear on what this thing even is. Didn't we already pass a law?

Yes, we did. Apparently, though, nobody could understand it, so we need to pass another law to clarify the orignal law. This "notice of proposed rulemaking" is open for comments until March 5, 2010. Comments can be emailed to Marylynn Wilhere. I plan to do so, if I can figure out what exactly is being proposed.

So now that we have the bag tax, has the apocalypse come?

Where the hell have you been? Yes, it has! Obviously the bag tax is responsible for the two weeks of hell we've endured under the yoke of endless snow. The nation's first plastic bag tax just happens to coincide with the worst snowstorm in DC history. Coincidence? I think not.

Okay, well, maybe it is just a coincidence. But the bag tax has certainly generated a lot of attention. Not just in DC, but from outside. Attention from other cities who are wondering if this is an easy, politically correct way for them to make some cash. Attention from economists who are marveling at the social experiment that this tax represents. In many ways, even though I oppose the tax, I think I've actually been enjoying it from this perspective. How will the reality of its effects match my predictions? How much will people cut of their own noses to spite their face over this tax?

wapo-bag-pollThe Post did an online poll last month asking people how they felt about the tax. There were three choices: strongly oppose, strongly favor, or mostly indifferent. Only one percent of the 2,200 respondents chose the "indifferent" option. And everyone else was pretty much evenly split among loving and hating it.

This is really remarkable. I can think of very few social issues which generate such strong opinions. I mean, this is like abortion or gay rights as far as the conviction with which people choose a side. And over a freakin' 5 cent tax on plastic bags! How could this possibly inspire people to drive miles out of their way to avoid it? This interesting article discusses some of these quite unexpected effects and describes the tax as a "behavioral economist's dream."

The other thing that I think is worth noting about the very unscientific Washington Post poll is that it more or less proves that the tax is unpopular. That is - even though the poll respondents were evenly split, the demographics of someone who reads the Post online and responds to a poll like this is very different than the demographics of DC overall. The average online WaPo reader is almost certainly more tech-savvy and "green" than the average DC resident overall. Poorer people are much less likely to have internet access or to participate in this sort of online community. I think it's safe to say that the strongest support for this tax is among young, progressive, people -- a demographic that is almost certainly overrerpresented by an online poll.

With Every Challenge Comes An Opportunity

As soon as my foot is better, I plan to take advantage of the obvious loophole afforded by this law. While it prevents stores from giving away bags at checkout, obviously, you can't make it illegal to sell bags. You will see me, or one of my army of minions, selling "go-packs" of 10 plastic bags outside Giant for 25 cents.

I'm only half kidding. I'm kind of surprised that the supermarket chains don't just give DC the finger by offering for sale 10 or 20 packs of bags at the checkout. It would be perfectly legal, and any effort to prevent such sales would be pretty tough to legislate, unless you were planning to ban plastic bags from being sold, period. Good luck with that.

But what's interesting is that, actually, five cents for a plastic bag is not a terrible deal. In quantities of 1,000, these bags are around 3.5 cents each. Biodegradable plastic bags are 7 cents each! While I am sure someone like Giant who buys millions of these things is getting a better deal, at the end of the day, 5 cents is actually a pretty reasonable retail price for a supermarket bag. In order to have any kind of decent profit margin selling these things on the street to undercut the tax, you'd have to buy them in vast quantities. I must admit that I assumed they would be a lot less expensive, like on the order of a penny each.

Okay, so maybe I'm not quite ready to put the folding table up and fight for space with the shady guys selling incense and handheld-video copies of "Avatar 3D." But I really, honestly do use these bags all the time for picking up trash. The tax has already created a serious dearth of these things in my household.

But luckily, I have someone looking out for me. Someone who the architects of the law will despise, because barely six weeks into the law, she has reacted to it in the most obivous, yet despicable way.

For Valentine's Day, N. gave me a 1,000 pack of disposable supermarket bags.

No comments: