Monday, 4 July 2011

Chemical solutions to economic problems?

Rory O'Farrell: I feel it rare that I have reason to be thankful to the FF/PD government of 2002-2007. However, they had one policy that was so dramatic, that we can smell the change.

Last Saturday evening, while enjoying the Tall Ships festival in Waterford, a friend and I decided to go for a beer in a popular city centre pub. The lack of indoor seating pushed us outdoors into the 'smoking area'. At one point a stranger interrupted our conversation and asked for a light. I told him I don't smoke, and we looked around the 'smoking area' to find someone who did. We noticed only a minority of people smoking, and in the relaxed atmosphere and dimming sunlight of the summer evening the stranger laughed at how even in the smoking area people don't smoke. Since Charlie Haughey was Minister for Health Ireland has been at the vanguard of restricting the advertising of tobacco, a tradition which continued when Micheál Martin banned smoking in the workplace. The success of these policies are measured by reduced lung cancer, lower levels of tobacco use, and the fact that our policies have been imitated throughout Europe, rather than vice-versa. Let’s hope Micheál Martin is selective in how he emulates his predecessor as both Minister for Health and leader of Fianna Fáil.

In an article from the Sunday Independent that contained errors in as diverse a range of topics as etymology, and statistics, Marc Coleman says "high taxes on drink and cigarettes are not designed to curtail drinking or smoking" and "unless we want another civil war, we have to put an end to highly paid servants of the State using spurious morality to defend indefensible restrictions on our right to live the way we want to live." I am not sure which highly paid public servants he is referring to (certainly not I as I’m not a public servant).

To back up his claim he states "Those in the lowest income decile spend one-tenth of their income on drink and tobacco, compared with 4 per cent for those in the highest income decile." In fact, Table 2 of the 2004-2005 Household Budget Survey gives very interesting details of spending by income group. Marc Coleman does make a silly error when he calculates "the lowest income decile spend one-tenth of their income on drink and tobacco, compared with 4 per cent for those in the highest income decile". He appears to confuse the average gross income for the bottom (top) ten percent with the upper (lower) bound for that group. Accurate data can be seen in the below Figures, 1 and 2. The first shows average weekly expenditure on a selection of items, and the second give the expenditure as a share of gross income (one could argue that disposable income is more appropriate, but as the CSO only gives percentiles by gross income, this was used). Nevertheless, the core point that the poor spend a larger proportion of their income on cigarettes and alcohol than the rich remains.

However is this information shocking to the average follower of the TASC blog? Does it alter the general policy prescriptions for recovery? Not at all. It is common knowledge, that across the world, that the poor spend all their income, while the rich are more likely to save. In fact, the poorest 10% spend more than their income, possibly incurring debts or getting some help from others. The poorest spend less on drink and tobacco, but their income is also lower. It is said that “as with stamp duty and other taxes, the penal levels of indirect taxation are bringing our social contract into disrepute and killing the economy.” As Marc Coleman correctly states, indirect taxation (such as VAT, or excise duty) is usually regressive. This is commonly accepted. A more egalitarian tax policy will boost the economy, by increasing demand in the economy. Other policies, such as maintaining the minimum wage, and proper enforcement of JLCs, can also help boost the economy.

However, Marc Coleman also says “high taxes on drink and cigarettes are not designed to curtail drinking or smoking. It is precisely because the Government knows that the consumption of these products is inelastic that they are easy targets for a selfish state-driven tax trap”. Past governments are open to accusations of economic illiteracy, but if past governments were cynically trying to wring cash from smokers, would they really have banned tobacco advertising and smoking in pubs? It’s not a government conspiracy. Smoking is bad for you.

Of course economics is the study of choices over scarce resources. Irish alcohol and tobacco cost 70% more than the EU average. This is not a problem of structural competitiveness, it is purely due to taxation. As a country we made a choice to put high taxes on these items, and this choice could be reversed tomorrow if we wanted to. If we slash prices on tobacco it is unlikely to be a major boost to competitiveness. Tourists are unlikely to flock to Ireland because 20 John Player Blue no longer cost €8.65 (which coincidentally is the minimum wage). A choice has been made that it is better to tax tobacco highly, and questions of equality are not best dealt with through excise duty.

There is no chemical solution to an economic problem.

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