The eco-left’s love of eco-taxes

Rory Cooper Comm. Director, The Heritage Foundation
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Earth Day is over, so you don’t have to worry about the special-interest eco-lobby for another 364 days, right? Wrong. If you’ve recently paid a five-cent tax on a plastic bag while living in or visiting our nation’s capital, then you’ve been punitively taxed by the eco-left for a behavior they don’t approve of, and you should be concerned. In fact, the $9.5 million D.C. bag tax is just another step of the eco-left’s plan to nickel and dime you into living an “approved” lifestyle, complete with high unemployment, “skyrocketing“ energy prices, stifled innovation and a sour economy.

The D.C. eco-tax was instituted in 2009 by the City Council at the behest of the Anacostia Watershed Society, who conveniently enough also collects and spends that money…your money. The purpose is reportedly to clean the Anacostia River, but according to D.C. Councilman Jack Evans, it really should be viewed as a “first step toward the long-term goal of severely limiting plastic bags and bottles nationwide.”

Of course, from Councilman Evans perspective, it may also be to stop the Anacostia Watershed Society from continually suing the District of Columbia for the real causes of the Anacostia pollution, which is raw sewage runoff caused by an “antiquated sewer system.”

The bag tax puts D.C. only behind San Francisco in the war against consumer convenience and behavior modification. Even in New York City, a city that is no stranger to regressively taxing your behavior, the Democrat-dominated city council refused to support Mayor Bloomberg’s call for a bag tax noting that “it would hurt consumers in tight times.”

But according to Brent Bolin, the Director of Advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed, any discussion on the tax’s impact on jobs and the economy are “scare tactics.” The poor people who are disproportionately hurt by the tax—by percentage of income, and the less likelihood that they have an expensive and elite hemp shopping bag available to them for their grocery runs—should feel comforted after being condescendingly told “they deserve a clean river.”

But let’s say that the impoverished mother going shopping for her family does have $2-$5 to shell out on each and every eco-fashionable and reusable bag she will need to carry her food items home—is she really cleaning the river?

In fact, “debris” was responsible for less than 1 percent of the leading polluters or stressors on U.S. river water quality in 2005 according to a scorecard by the Green Media Toolshed, an advocacy and organizational group for environmentalists that tracks state and EPA data to push for more government regulation. Much like the left tries to tell you spending taxpayer dollars will create jobs, they also like to create the myth that spending money to “be green” will somehow help the environment, rather than simply pad the pockets of the green movement.

And what about the people who work manufacturing plastic bags? Again, according to Brent Bolin, the bag tax (he cutely calls it a “fee”) cut the number of bags used in D.C. from 22 million to 3 million. If solar panel production fell by over 87 percent, we would have hearings on how to avert this crisis and subsidize the industry for “green jobs.” But the makers of plastic bags? Those jobs are a necessary casualty of eco-war.

And what about the business owners who have to collect this tax on behalf of the Anacostia Watershed and the D.C. government? Because this is a point-of-purchase tax, the disgruntled consumers take it out on small-business owners and operators. Monique Johnson, a lottery agent in Northeast Washington tells the Washington Post: “I get dirty looks all the time.”

But proponents of the law will point to the one cent per bag that businesses get to keep as their kickback for being tax collectors. Of course, that is little solace to the business owners in geographically small Washington, D.C. who see their grocery customers drive an extra five minutes to Maryland or Virginia where the punitive eco-tax does not exist, yet the Anacostia River in fact does.

So what is the solution to Anacostia’s pollution problems? Some of the cleanest rivers in America flow through economically vibrant areas where the plastic bag is not demonized to the point of punitive taxes, so there must be better methods to keep our nation’s rivers, streams, lakes and watersheds clean. Banning plastic bags isn’t a solution, since from an environmental standpoint, even treehugger.com can’t conclude if paper bags are more harmful to the Earth than plastic (although they casually link to an Australian government study that shows paper bags are much worse.)

The solution is economic freedom. Instead of taxing your fellow citizens into submission or relocation, why not give them more freedom to create an environment we can all be proud of? A recent World Bank study even shows that free trade is a “a key factor in helping developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions…” By not stifling innovation with crony capitalism and punitive measures against human behavior, and by allowing Americans to have more control over their earned wealth, we can create economic opportunity which translates into environmental opportunity.

America’s air and water were improving before the passage of the Clean Air and Water Act. Americans don’t need government intervention or special interest tax collections to do what is right for their neighborhood and for their planet, they need natural market incentives. Ask Paige Sharp, who began using reusable bags on her own accord almost three years ago, but told the Washington Post: “I think it’s ridiculous…I don’t think you should force people to pay a tax to go to the grocery store, especially in this economy.”

The eco-left’s next step is to pass an energy bill in Congress that The Heritage Foundation estimates could cost an American family-of-four almost $3,000 per year, cause 2.5 million net job losses by 2035, and produce a cumulative gross domestic product (GDP) loss of $9.4 trillion between 2012 and 2035. The time has come for the eco-left’s ideology to stop crushing the American economy. The time for punitive eco-taxes is over.

Rory Cooper is the Director of Strategic Communications at The Heritage Foundation. You can follow Rory Cooper on Twitter @rorycooper