Tax your television

Republished in time to coincide with the OECD meeting to discuss climate change policy (and, not unrelated, food prices), an article in the latest issue of Ecological Economics makes the following Singapore-style obesity-and-greenhouse-gas-fighting policy recommendation:

While it is extremely difficult to influence leisure time allocation by policy measures, the following policy would in principle be possible: ï Taxation of TV and domestic internet providers according to connection time of user. Taxing the acquisition of the leisure equipment would not make sense as it would increase the use frequency. […] Sedentary leisure activities are usually linked to use of television and computers. According to U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (2006), the wattage of a typical television set is 120Wwhile a PC with monitor uses 250W. If we now assume that average daily television/PC use is reduced by 1 h per day throughout the OECD, annual greenhouse gas reductions of up to 25 million tCO2 for the OECD can be achieved…

I’m trying to understand how the television tax would work in households with more than one person, or to catch would-be tax evaders who go to a friend’s house to watch a sports game. Perhaps a retina scanner could be mounted at the top of each television set, and the aggregate hours of television that each individual watches could be charged to their respective carbon ration cards? In a more reflective moment, the authors conclude:

Government interference in daily routines is not accepted by most citizens in democratic countries. The Singaporean anti-obesity policy has been commented by many Western observers as strange and unacceptable “micromanagement” of daily lives of individuals. However, anti-smoking policy has shown that tough fiscal and regulatory activities against individual behaviour can be acceptable if a majority feels that the behaviour is generating unacceptable negative societal impacts. Greenhouse gas benefits of anti-obesity policies can accelerate a “tipping point” at which food and sedentary leisure taxation as well as measures to promote non-motorized transport becomes democratically palatable.

Jacob Sullum’s classic article, “Lighten Up, America! Do fat people belong in public parks?” should be republished (or at least re-read) every time draconian anti-smoking policies are cited as an example of how to deal with obesity–or greenhouse gas emissions. For an extended rant on obesity-climate-change policy, click below.

Skaidra Smith-Heisters is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

Her research is part of Reason's New Environmentalism program, launched by Lynn Scarlett, which develops innovative solutions to environmental problems and emphasizes the benefits of local decisions over Washington's command-and-control regulations.

Smith-Heisters is a graduate of the University of California at Davis program in Nature and Culture. Prior to joining Reason, she worked in habitat restoration, endangered species management and natural resources planning with the California State Parks system.

She has been extensively involved in grassroots journalism and political organizing in San Francisco's North Bay area, where she currently lives.