Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tax the Pigs

With a pigovian tax, argues Wired.UK:

To create a low-carbon economy we need to become a nation of city dwellers. We tax cigarettes to reflect the harm they do to our health: we need to tax lifestyles that are damaging the health of the planet - and that means targeting people who choose to live in the countryside. We need a Rural Living Tax. Agricultural workers and others whose jobs require them to live outside cities would be exempt. The revenue raised could be used to build new, well-planned cities and to radically upgrade the infrastructure of existing cities.

We have an opportunity to create an urban renaissance, to make cities attractive places to live again - not just for young adults, but for families and retired people, the groups most likely to leave the city. Turning our old cities into "smart cities" won't be easy or cheap, but in a recession this investment in infrastructure will boost the economy. We need to learn to love our cities again, because they will help us to save the planet.

An article with this thesis really needs about 10,000 more words minimum, but we'll expand on it a touch.

What the article is essentially asking for is to tax citizens of bedroom communities which is a really over-simplified or abstract way of looking at it. There are a number of ways to apply the kind of bowling alley bumpers to steer people into the right places. These can include:
  • Health Impact assessments on new development,
  • heavy development impact fees for new infrastructure and impact on greenfield,
  • limits on the extension of public infrastructure based on densities and design,
  • urban growth boundaries (which are not much different but sound like a big boogieman),
  • toll roads
  • carbon taxes
  • VMT taxes as some cities are contemplating,
  • congestion taxes
  • etc...fill-in similar punitive measures for wasteful suburban development/living here.
I'm not advocating all, any, or even some of these. What makes any of these financial mechanisms so difficult is (despite what any economist will tell you), it is virtually impossible to accurately value-assess every impact of city and suburb, thus making any formula or libertarian idea for cities null and void.

What is certain, is that with so many people in all the wrong places, any new measures such as these will have serious impacts, particularly on the poor considering real estate policies like, "drive til you qualify," and will have to be implemented in a sort of feedback loop program with new housing incentives from the generated revenue to provide the adequate housing for all market segments where it is needed.
"build new, well-planned cities..."
Gawd, no. We've seen what happens when we try to build pop-up book style cities. As I've said before, clustered populations like cities are the fractal arrangement of humans based on positive and negative "magnetic places," ie factors that make places attractive or repulsive.

For example, cities are the built form representing the economy within, the phenotype and the genotype, if you will (if you factor in laws and coding into the genotype). Things that are magnetic can be part of economies (like natural resources, transportation hubs, means of production, etc) or they can be social (good schools, quality of life, safe).

Point being that there has to be an economy in place and cities have proven remarkably resilient to adapting to the current needs of its people. Why? Because we adapt them over time to meet those needs, with the inherent understanding that despite the fifty year hiccup (or cholera-induced bowel movement if a more apt visual is necessary).

What we need to do is actually reposition our current cities to handle greater densities in an economic, ecological, equitable, and elegant manner. Some cities like those of the SunBelt have the most work to do, but fortunately, were built the most ephemeral and as such, are the most malleable. YAY, we have an advantage!!