Wireless sin taxes discourage cell phone use

by on March 15, 2011 · 5 comments

Over at [Neighborhood Effects](http://neighborhoodeffects.mercatus.org/), the Mercatus Center’s state and local policy blog, my colleague Dan Rothschild [compares wireless taxes to sin taxes](http://neighborhoodeffects.mercatus.org/2011/03/14/cell-phones-cigarettes/). His analysis is too good not to reprint here in large part:

The purpose of taxes is to raise money for necessary governmental functions. To that end, economists frequently prescribe that rates be low and broad in order to minimize the impact on consumers’ behavior — so-called tax neutrality. This is because taxation should be about raising revenue, not changing behavior.

Some economists tweak this prescription through the Ramsey Rule, which holds (in a nutshell) that the more influenced by tax rates consumers are (demand elasticity) the less something should be taxed (and vice versa).

Sin taxes are the opposite; they’re about reducing a behavior that policy makers judge to be morally offensive (like many people view smoking).

Relatedly, Pigouvian taxes seek to bring the costs to society (the social cost) in line with the costs born by a buyer. (For instance, some people advocate higher alcohol taxes on the theory that drinkers impose costs on others, though this argument is fraught with difficulties.)

Cell phone taxes above regular sales taxes levied by states and localities do not fit any of the four rationales provided here. On the one hand, taxing them at over twenty percent of a user’s bill is hardly neutral. Nor does it likely fit the Ramsey Rule prescription; consumers respond to cell phone taxes by buying less of it or by avoiding taxes by pretending to move. (Just look around you at how consumer takeup and use of cell phones has changed as prices have fallen over the last decade.) Cell phones are not sinful or offensive. And there’s no serious case to be made that the social cost of cell phones exceeds the cost born by users. In short, by any principle of public finance, high cell phone taxes are a bad bad bad idea.

Now here’s hoping he takes this awesome analysis and turns it into a paper!

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