Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Conservation Psychology, or, "What's it gonna take?"

A useful roundup of twenty years of research into what makes people want to conserve natural resources can be found here.

As someone who tends to believe that a free-market based solution to our worst environmental problems is highly desirable, I found this article very interesting. The article leaves a pretty big question in its wake however: People either have to get emotionally excited about conservation, or someone has to assign a monetary value to the externalities of pollution (nothing gets heads to turn faster than a nickel dropping on a concrete floor). We all love the carbon tax here, so let me go the other way for a second. How could we create a system that would make people visceral about conservation?

One of the worst systems of financial robbery the average worker experiences is income tax collection. The money gets taken out of your check every month, and if the government takes too much, well, you get it back an average of six months later, sans interest. Sorry, our bad!

People grumble about this, but it has an interesting side effect: you sure do race to fill out that form in January, don't you? Because you're going to get a big fat check once you're done. That's your money, and it always has been, but that fact gets lost in the psychology of collecting free money that you'd long ago written off as lost.

Why don't we treat energy the same way? What if, instead of a monthly per kw/h bill, we paid a per-year fee for energy, like rent, due in advance. And what if that fee were clearly exorbitant? Bear with me.

Instead of motorized meters that nobody ever sees or is able to read, you'd get a very colorful, pleasant digital display that went -inside- your front door; you'd see it every day as you left the house. That meter wouldn't display your energy use. It would calculate and display the amount you were presently on course to get sent back to you, at the end of the year.

I bet people would perk up in a hurry.


heidi heilig said...

Interesting idea but you'd have to have the rebates come back at a different time than tax rebates do, because what do people tend to do with tax rebates?

Buy air conditioners.

Bret said...

This is demonstrably true, and unfortunately, raises ugly points about rebates, private property, and universal suffrage in general.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I read about a similar scheme to implement a carbon-tax plus rebate (at the end of the year) that would end up favoring those who used less gas in their income bracket/area.

And of course, I'll have to note that the income tax isn't any kind of thievery. Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.

Bret said...

-Excess- taxes are thievery. If I post a price of $5, then charge you six, then get the extra dollar back to you after a year, you're probably a little irritated by that point, no?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

The government is up front about the fact that it's withholding. Everybody knows about it and it's not a surprise. It's part of the price.

You and I are responsible with our money and can make sure that we have enough at the end of the year to pay our taxes. For many Americans this is not the case. For many Americans the most onerous thing about taxes is filling out the forms and the surprise of finding out how much you owe at the end. Withholding makes the job of planning ahead much easier for these people. That's why nearly every state in the nation has adopted withholding systems.

Bret said...

Tom, go back and reread my post, and my comments. I have nothing against withholding. I do think it is unfair when -too much- is withheld, and interest is not paid on the difference.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I see. Well, if they're withholding too much you can always have them change it to withhold less (that's what I did once). I see where you're coming form though. That the government would punish you for failing to keep them informed of how much you expect to have due in taxes seems less fair than a system where they compensate you for interest on the extra money withheld. Then again, there's lots of things about our tax system that I would rather have done differently. It doesn't mean thievery is going on.

I guess we're just arguing over whether it's immoral or just sub-optimal. Let's drop the point.

It's always been interesting to me that the thing people find most annoying about taxes isn't paying the money, but filling out the paperwork. This is especially interesting considering that the government has enough info from various companies to do most people's taxes for them. There's been a bunch of plans to have to government send out pre-filled out tax forms to people (who would have the choice to use it or fill out their own) but Grover Norquist and the anti-tax jihadis always stop it. They argue that if we made paying taxes too easy people would stop complaining about them!