On tax day of this year, the animals rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) revived a hilarious proposal from 2011: put a tax on meat. The idea is a little like something you would come up with if you were a candidate for office secretly trying not to get elected. "My fellow Americans, I promise to put a tax on, uh, meat! And then, ban the NFL and Beyoncé. Vote for me!" It's a nonstarter outside of maybe the vegan wonderland of Portland, and even those folks probably wouldn't go for it.
PETA president Ingrid Newkirk has acknowledged that the her organization's activities are sometimes just in pursuit of "ink and airtime," so it's safe to assume this was meant to rile up anti-tax crusaders like Grover Norquist, the current US president, or, say, your dad. The folks at PETA have also proposed banning women from attending a buffalo wing festival because chicken ostensibly shrinks baby dicks, and they tried to fat shame women into being vegans—to name just a couple of recent examples.
But upon closer inspection, there's more to the meat tax—10 cents per pound of "chicken, turkey, pig, cow, fish, and other animal flesh sold in grocery stores and restaurants"—than just pissing off dads.
"I actually don't think it's a bad idea," said Dean Baker, co-founder of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, and one of the few economists to correctly predict the 2007 housing crisis. To put it in economics jargon, Baker said, "it seems reasonable to say there's externalities associated with farm animals, so why don't we incorporate those into the cost of the product."
"Externalities" are essentially costs that get passed onto the taxpayer one way or another. In this case, that means the public cost of healthcare, and damage to the environment. But not only do those externalities justify a possible tax, but they make the idea more politically feasible than it sounds.
There are obvious parallels with tobacco. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), taxing tobacco is the "single most effective way to encourage tobacco users to quit and prevent children from starting to smoke." From a global health standpoint, meat is a disaster too. An Australian study from last year surveyed data from 170 countries and found a close correlation between the availability of meat and obesity. And according to the WHO itself, processed meat is a "Level 1" carcinogen, placing it in the same category as tobacco.
According to Katherine Baicker, professor of health economics at Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health, the result of a tax is fairly predictable. Some consumers substitute something else for whatever you're taxing, "in this case, other food—whether that is vegetables or Cheetos," she told me in an email, adding, "Whether you think that that shift is a good thing depends on your views about the optimal 'basket' for people to consume." In other words, with a tax in place, some consumers who otherwise wouldn't have done so, will at least sometimes make vegetarian-leaning choices. But it remains to be seen if those choices would necessarily be healthier.
But of course there's more than a public health argument to be made in favor of the tax. "This is similar to the idea of a carbon tax," Baker said. "Farm animals are part of the story of producing methane gas, and global warming." Indeed, as of 2009 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions came from livestock alone according to a 2009 report out of the Netherlands. That report also found that switching to a low-meat diet globally would bring the costs of carbon stabilization down by about 50 percent. Meat also speeds up the rate at which bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
But when it comes to taxing retail goods out of a concern for a global problem, there is one major drawback: "In general taxes on food can be regressive [since] lower income people spend a higher share of their income on food," Baicker told me. In other words: this tax would hit the poor the hardest.
"Someone's going to be hurt, but the point is to make sure that most people are not hurt, particularly not disadvantaged people," Baker said. He wasn't being paradoxical. Taxes are a sticky wicket, and if you make poor people pay them, the idea is that they'll get something out of them. "Suppose you increase the Earned Income Tax Credit somewhat," he suggested, referring to a program that gives out money to low-income people if they're employed. "If someone eats a lot of meat they might still be worse off from [a meat tax] but if you've made most low-income people at least as well off, or maybe somewhat better off, I get the feeling that's a good policy," Baker said.
Still, a tax, and corresponding tweak to the social safety net? That's a tall order.
But Baker does at least think the idea has better-than-zero odds of gaining momentum, if the activists who support it can get their shit together, and act a little more like opponents of nicotine. Cigarette smoking was more than just normal, he reminded me. "It was considered rude if you didn't have ashtrays in your home," he said. And then a lot of stern, serious medical professionals talking about cancer eventually changed people's minds.
What should meat tax advocates say? "You just say, 'look, there are externalities,'" Baker suggested. "'We're not saying you're horrible people if you eat meat. Just that, you know, we want you to pay the cost.'"
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