Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Poll Tax by Any Other Name

Via Julian, I find Ezra Klein and Rachel Maddow making a really good point: long waiting lines at the polls are another kind of poll tax. A time tax instead of a money tax.

And as one of Klein’s commenters points out, this kind of tax may have been used to disenfranchise certain groups – by, for instance, having fewer (and less functional) voting machines in poorer districts.

But given that some amount of waiting is almost inevitable, what, I wonder, would constitute an even playing field for all groups? Equalizing waiting time wouldn’t work, because the opportunity cost of time is generally greater for the rich than for the poor. Think about the relative sacrifice involved in voting for an unemployed person versus a lawyer who earns $600/hour. If equal money taxes are more burdensome for the poor, equal time taxes are more burdensome for the rich.

To get things on absolutely equal footing, you’d need to equalize utility costs, not time or money costs. But the interpersonal comparability of utility is problematic at best, which is why I suspect there’s no objective answer to the question. The truly interesting point is that voting outcomes are sensitive to seemingly unimportant logistical aspects of the voting structure. Yet another reason that we cannot regard democracy as a process of revealing the general will. There is no such thing.


Compounded Thought said...

I think this time tax fairness question is similar to the one with the money tax. You've got 3 broad forms of income tax: a flat dollar amount (we don't tend to think about this one much any more), a flat percentage, and a graduated percentage. People who advocate a graduated percentage say that it's more fair than a flat percentage because the rich should pay more--a bigger percentage, that is. But they ignore the fact that the whole point of a flat percentage is to make the rich pay more dollars.

So that real question is about what we are equalizing. A flat dollar amount obviously equalizes the contribution that each person makes to the government. A graduated percentage is moving in the direction of equalizing the amount of money people have left over after taxes. In fact it would probably clarify the spectrum to make this a fourth broad category on the end next to graduated percentage--government takes your money away until everyone has the same amount left over at the end. So the real question has to do with which type of fairness we're going for and the way it shapes society through the people's incentives.

blog fan said...

who did glenn vote for? and how does he feel about the outcome of the presidential election and Prop.8 in CA

Glen Whitman said...

I voted Libertarian. But between the two major party candidates, I favored Obama (mainly on punishing-the-Republicans grounds).

As for Prop 8, I voted no, and I'm pretty disappointed in my fellow Californians for passing it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know... I think if the time tax is zero, and the money tax is also zero, then we have to agree that things are equal.

Obviously we'll never get them to exactly zero, but a vote-by-mail scheme involving simple ballots and prepaid postage comes pretty close.