Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Much Ado About a 20 cent Fee You Can Easily Avoid

I addressed the proposed 20 cent bag tax that Seattle finally ended up passing in July here. Since then apparently a petition drive has been organized by the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax. To this end they have gathered over 20,000 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot. They need 14,374 valid signature to get on the ballot so with the 20K they probably have the buffer they need to get into the next election after the November 4, 2008 election. There has been a minor controversy about the use of paid signature gatherers that may be lying about the petition being PRO bag tax and not ANTI to collect signatures. The CtStSBT is apparently mainly a front for the American Chemistry Council which is the lobbying arm of the plastics industry. The ACC picked up most of the costs of the paid signature gatherers and the web site linked to above.

Personally I am kind of amuse by the hysteria of the CtStSBT and their frantic attempt to stop the bag tax from going into effect. It seems to me the arguments against the bag tax can be boiled down into:

1) Its an unfair burden on the poor. It will cost them $300 a year that they can't afford.
While its true that poor people can ill afford to lose $300 to a bag tax all they really have to do is invest $5.00 in some reusable bags that will last them for years. I'm pretty sure that Seattle is going to be sending out free reusable bags in the near future anyway.

2)The City's own research shows that 91% of Seattle's citizens reuse or recycle their bags.

Hey that's great. We Seattlites always have been good recyclers, it's good to know that we are really kicking ass on reusing/recycling our plastic bags. I don't know what percentage reuse as opposed to recycle but it would be better for the environment and more energy efficient for the recycled bags to never have been made in the first place. I reuse my plastic grocery bags as garbage bags and to scoop kitty litter but I'm not going to freak out if I have to start buying garbage bags or some other small plastic bags to use instead.

This next one I've seen in the PI Sound Off section a couple of times (go down a few comments) but not on any anti-bag tax web sites:

3) The bag tax is a health hazard.
Seattle bag tax is health hazard especially for low income families. When meat is carried home in a reusable bag one day (and it leaks) and then vegetables are carried home the next day you get cross contamination. With reusable bags, you create a breeding ground for bacteria which will quickly build up to extremely dangerous levels (especially if the bags are kept in warm areas between uses) which can also contaminate other customers food items. Since the poor are less likely to pay the 20 cent bag tax, they are the ones most at risk - as well as those who are buying groceries behind them.

Ok, I'm no expert on bacteria, or leaking meat containers but this argument just seems silly to me. If meat leaking on vegetables was a huge health hazard I think we would have heard about massive outbreaks of death by now. I have been reusing both paper bags and cloth bags for a while now and I haven't noticed any meat leakage or any bacterial growth so far. I also figure if I my cloth bags got messy I'd just, well... clean them.

Look, I'm not a huge proponent of the bag tax but it seems to be a step in the right direction. I mean how many more people recycle now that it is mandatory then when it was a voluntary program. Even when it was voluntary the city "encouraged" people to recycle by making the recycle pick-up fees cheaper than regular garbage. Sometimes people have to be guided into doing the right thing. The plastic bag tax is not incredible burdensome and all you have to do to avoid it is to bring your own bag when you go grocery shopping. I think its a small price to pay to take a small step towards reducing waste and encouraging people to step out of the "disposable mindset" we find ourselves in these days.

Oh yeah and I'm also pretty cynical about the involvement of the American Chemical Council who's motives seem to by quite transparent.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A State Income Tax

I think it is about time for Washington State to adopt a state income tax. I know the thought of paying "more taxes" always makes people hit the panic button and freak out. I think that if people would sit down and really think about it they would see that it could be a good thing for both them and the state if handled properly.

First lets consider a few things:

1) Right now most of the state income comes from the 6.5% sales tax (plus most cities have their own sales tax).
2) Sales tax is an inherently regressive tax.
3) Although food is exempt from sales tax other necesseties like clothing are not.
4) The gas tax weighs heavily on the less wealthy because they cannot afford to live close to their jobs as rents push them away from city centers. I'm not saying that we should reduce the gas tax but reducing other tax burdens would help the poor deal with this.

Now I'm not for doing away with the sales tax and replacing it with a state income tax but I think we should be able to reduce the sales tax and replace the lost revenue with an income tax that is more progressive. The state income tax should probably have the first say $20,000 for a single adult $28,000 for a couple and x% more for each kid would be tax exempt and then a small income tax would kick in above that level. I'm just pulling those numbers out with a SWAG but they could be adjusted based on the state poverty level somehow to make sure the poor aren't burdened more then they are now.

King County Executive Ron Sims had a plan to introduce a state income tax back in 2004 when he was running in the primary for Governor but his plan would have abolished the state sales tax all together and replaced it with a graduated income tax that would have been the highest in the country.

I thinks a combined approach of the sales tax and a small income tax focussed mainly on the upper middle and upper class would be the best way to go.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What the Hell?

I got a full color glossy 9"x20" (roughly) folded advertisement in the mail today from the Washington State Democratic Central Committee. The front page is a heart rending photo of a little girl in a field of boots, rifles and helmet representing soldiers killed in Iraq and the text, "Five Years, 4,000 lives lost." Open to the middle and it says in a bold headline" Can we end the endless war?" over a two page photo of two people dressed in fatigues holding their children (again a heart rending photo.) So far so good, I'm thinking this is some kind of ad for Obama or some national group that is against the occupation. Inside the photo, however, is "Vote Democratic in the August 19th Primary" and under the photo is "Don't wait until November. Send a powerful message right now from Washington State that can be heard loud and clear in the other Washington." the back of the ad list the candidates for Governor, AG, State Treasurer and Lands Commissioner that are supported by the Democratic party.

What the hell? They are playing the "War Card" to push people in Washington State to vote for Democrats? Look, I think the Iraq Occupation has been a debacle, but I want to know what the hell that has to do with voting Democratic in the Washington State Primary. With the possible exception of the Governor how the hell does voting Democratic in the Washington State Primary:
(1) send ANY kind of message to the "Other Washington" and (2) have anything to do with the Iraq Occupation - at all.

The candidates that the Washington State Democratic Central Committee is pushing in the mailer are important in the state. They set policy and have a lot to do with keeping the state one of the most progressive in the country. But, if the WSDCC had the money to send out a four page glossy full color advertisement why did they waste it on Iraq Occupation Mongering instead of tackling important STATE issues like Transportation, the projected Budget Deficit, Forest Conservation, problems with our Voting System, or expanding the use of Alternative Energy in the state. You know issues that these elected officials can do something about. What the Hell?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Intellectual Dishonesty or Just Dumb

I've seen a lot of conservative blog posts about how stupid Obama is because he said that keeping our tires inflated would save us "all the oil that they're talking about getting off drilling?" Most of them seem to be based on this Powerlineblog post.

This post says:

Just for fun, I did the math. Properly inflating your tires can improve gas mileage by 3%. Of course, many people already keep their tires properly inflated, and many more are at least close to being properly inflated. Let's be generous and assume that one-half of the total possible savings would be realized if we all inflated our tires properly; that's a net gain of 1.5% fuel efficiency.

Americans drive approximately 2,880 billion miles per year. If we average 24 mpg, we use around 120 billion gallons of gasoline in our vehicles. If, through perfect tire inflation, we improved our collective fuel efficiency by 1.5%, that would be 1.8 billion gallons. A barrel of oil produces around 20 gallons of gasoline, so the total savings available through tire inflation is approximately 90,000,000 barrels of oil annually.

How does this stack up against "all the oil that they're talking about getting off drilling?"

ANWR: 10 billion barrels
Outer Continental Shelf: 18 billion barrels (estimated; the actual total is undoubtedly much higher, since exploration has been banned)
Oil shale: 1 trillion barrels

So, on the above assumptions, it would take only 11,308 years of proper tire inflation to equal "all the oil that they're talking about getting off drilling."

Here is a list of inaccuracies and problems I found with the post:

(1) The largest problem I see is that the author threw Oil Shale into his calculations. You don't DRILL for oil shale, you MINE it. Am I being nit-picky? I don't think so, Obama clearly states that he is talking about drilling for oil NOT all possible oil reserves. It seems to me that the author is just adding the oil shale numbers in to exaggerate his number for the years that it would take for proper tire inflation to equal "all the oil that they're talking about getting off drilling?"

(2) The second problem I see is in his assumptions. He says blithely that half of all people probably keep their tires inflated properly. Well, in 10 seconds worth of Googling I found this story on MSNBC which says:
A RMA survey found that each month three out of four drivers wash their car, but only about one in five correctly checks tire pressure, while more than 80 percent of drivers do not know how to properly check tire pressure.

With the amount of research the author did on other numbers maybe he could have spent 10 seconds researching a number which would significantly change his results. (80% vs 50%)

(3) If you listen to Obama you will actually hear him say:
Making sure your tires are properly inflated – simple thing. But we could save all the oil that they’re talking about getting off drilling – if everybody was just inflating their tires? And getting regular tune-ups? You’d actually save just as much!

Note that he said "regular tune-ups." If we go to the Federal government's Fuel Economy website we find that regular tune-ups improve gas mileage an average of 4%. We also find that regular car maintenance items like using the correct oil could improve mileage up to 2% and keeping your air filter clean could help up to 10%.

Lets do a little math now that we have cleared up some...lets call them overlooked items or mistakes. Pulling the numbers from the blog to keep things consistent we have:

Annual miles driven by Americans 2,880 billion
Average fuel efficiency 24 mpg
Give us a usage of 120 billion gallons of gas a year.
One barrel of oil = 20 gallons of gas
120 billion gallons of gas = 6 billion barrels of oil a year
Fuel savings for tire inflation 3% x .8 = 2.4% added to savings for keeping your engine tuned 4% x .8 = 3.2% for a total savings of 5.7%

6 billion x 5.7% = 342,000,000 barrels of oil a year.

That's quite a bit more than the 90 million the author of the post came up with. Now if we add the oil we can DRILL out of ANWR and the Outer Continental Shelf we have a total of 28 billion barrels of oil.

28 billion / 342 million = about 82 years NOT 11,308

To put this into further perspective we should look at how fast we can access ANWR and Outer Continental Shelf oil.

According to this article on MSNBC if we gave the oil companies the go ahead to drill in ANWR now oil would start pumping by 2013 and peak at 876,000 barrels of oil a day in 2025. Let me guess that if we will average pumping 500,000 barrels a day over the life of the ANWR oil reserves to that means we will be pumping oil for about 55 years until it is tapped out. If we assume a similar time line for the Outer Continental Shelf oil then the 82 year I calculated above doesn't seem like a crazy number especially since I didn't include any savings for using the right oil and clean air filters.


Look, I'm no energy expert or petroleum engineer but I do have a mechanical engineering background and a pretty decent BS detector. You can take numbers, make grand assumptions and get any result you want especially if you selectively quote your source and then throw in "facts" that don't apply. I laid out my case and I think you will come to the same conclusion that I did. The Blogline poster is either intellectually dishonest or just plain dumb.