I would say it's political satire, but in the Lone Star State, really, what's the difference?

03 August 2012

The Ramifications of Fiscal Fallacy

Dear Team America~

Listen up! This is an important announcement brought to you by the (semi-)public broadcasting crew here at Capitol Punishment. Red Alert. This is not a test. I repeat, this is NOT a test. . .

Yet many people seem to think it's a test, don't they? As if Mother Earth is nothing more than an understudy filling in for our collective dress rehearsal, with the real starlet waiting somewhere in the wings, ready to dive in at a moment's notice and switch out with our ill-equipped amateur once her modest talents have been thoroughly exhausted. . .  Aaaaaaand SCENE. That's a wrap, folks.  

Plastic wrap to be exact...

Blogging over at Texas Politics 2012, writer Shashank Desai offered his take this week on Austin's upcoming implementation of a new citywide ordinance, set to be in full effect by March 2013, which will ban the use of certain types of disposable shopping bags by retailers and customers alike. Though he misstates a few small details, it would seem he is correct in the general premise of the ordinance:
"Austin would be the first large city to enact such a ban. Millions plastic bags are used by the residents of Austin every year. These bags have to be cleaned up as litter and put in landfills by the city which costs lots of money to the city."
 (Note: Cited by Desai as a ban solely on plastic bags, the Austin City Council, NYT and multiple local news affiliates report the ordinance will include restriction of single-use paper bags as well.)

He then goes on to challenge the environmentally conscious motivations that inspired this proposal, and raises the possibility that this is perhaps not a wise move for Austin, with economic justification forming the basis of his argument.

While I do believe that Desai was genuinely sincere and perfectly justified in offering his criticisms that follow—indeed, all good citizens ought to look to public policy with a critical eye; for it is this type of inquiry that facilitates a functional, efficient democracy—I am also of the opinion that the particular criticisms offered are quite misguided.   
"Although the decision is taken towards the environmental issues, we should consider that there are many people involved in producing, recycling and transporting the bags though out the city. So, they would be unemployed since there would be no plastic bags in Austin."
And here we have our first logical leap. Though this isn't attributable only to Desai; he is merely restating the same argument presented to the Austin City Council by Mark Daniels, VP of Hilex, your friendly neighborhood plastic mogul. A loss of 9,000 jobs would surely be worthy of consideration, provided that it were true, but I've been unable to locate a single reference to back up any of his claims as presented. As a matter of fact, I found innumerable sources that seem to refute Daniels' claims at every stop.

First of all, this isn't a complete ban; it does carry exemptions. Among those excluded are all dry cleaners, meat markets, fresh produce suppliers, restaurants, and newspapers. These alone make up a sizable share of potential plastic revenues in Austin, so to say that the ordinance would lead to no bags is factually incorrect.

Second of all, this company, Hilex, that desperately plead their case to the Council—it's not even in Austin; Hell, it's not even in Texas... It's based out of South Carolina with 9 locations spread out across 7 states, one of which is in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Yet, losing little ol' Austin is enough to "potentially bankrupt" these people? What they apparently fail to realize is that they're square in the center of a Catch-22: the harder they lobby and the more desperately they portray their dependence on our city's trash production, the bigger it seems our problem must actually be for them to need us that much, and the stronger the argument thus becomes for making necessary changes, whatever the costs.

It is also worth noting here two other claims Mr. Daniels made to the City Council:
"[T]he bags pose no environmental threat because they are fully reusable and recyclable.
"There is also no evidence that plastic bags kill wildlife or are an exceptionally large source of litter."
One need not be an ecologist nor rocket scientist to easily see the absurdity of these claims, thus discrediting any and all other statements he might've made. But enough about this guy.

Back to Mr. Desai.

Again, you can read his piece in full here, but in the interest of brevity (if I can still call it that) let me try to break it down here with a hybrid of quotes and paraphrasing so I can get to the point:
  • Paper is more difficult and costly to produce and transport than plastic, so retailers overhead will increase. 
  • Plastic bags are more convenient to grocery store cashiers, and taking them away can only result in decreased productivity. 
  • Given loss of productivity and higher overhead, retailers will inevitably hike prices to offset losses, thus resulting in a two-fold expense incurred by the citizen consumers in the form of both money and time (due to to decreased cashier efficiency).
  • It is inconvenient for people to have to remember to bring their reusable bags with them to the store. 
  • So, yes, it's better for the environment, but it's costly, inconvenient and only creates more problems, and should therefore be reconsidered. 
Hopefully that's a fair representation. I trust Mr. Desai will correct me if I'm too far off there. Now, the problems with this are many. For starters, paper disposable bags are getting the kaibash, too, so that hardly seems relevant. We are talking about a switch to reusable bags, presumably paid for by the customer directly—but only once. Not the continual recurring costs under our current model. I see no way that works out to anything but net savings across the board.

And while cashiers are undoubtedly hard workers, ringing someone up slightly more slowly hardly constitutes "decreased productivity." But even if it did, what does that amount to? An extra minute or two in line? Is that not worth the million dollars we'll ultimately save—minimum—every year on litter control and landfill costs?

Which brings me now to the most glaringly obvious problem with this entire argument, that you might've noticed I have so far skirted around. The primary reason this argument fails to hold water, I think, isn't so much what it says as what it doesn't say. And I don't mean to pick on Mr. Desai here because he is by no means alone in making this type of argument; but it turns out there is no correlation between frequency of use and quality of content. In virtually every economy-based model I see used to perform such cost-benefit analyses as this, time and time and time again I find that by far the most valuable, irreplaceable, precious commodity in the entire schema has been all but forgotten: OUR PLANET. 


If we were to all wake up tomorrow and suddenly find ourselves in a life-or-death situation in which we had to literally bankrupt each and every country on the face of the Earth in order to rectify a dangerously unsustainable problem of our own creation immediately so that we may survive as a species, I somehow believe that Americans would still find a way to turn it into some sort of knock-down, drag-out, ridiculous partisan warfare with roughly half of the population arguing vehemently in favor of the "conservative" position, declaring that we just can't afford it. Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy??

We simply CANNOT continue this irrational compartmentalization of separating economy from environment as if they are mutually exclusive concepts; as if they are nothing more than separate line items on a budget which we have the luxury of choosing one or the other as the most important item of the day. The day that we poison the last living plankton is the day that we run out of oxygen to breathe and water to drink and that's a FACT. If and when we finally destroy this planet beyond repair—and believe me, we are well on our way—no amount of praying or politicking or pontificating is going to fix it. They are called "finite resources" for a reason, and the operative word there is "finite." And the day we run out of air to breathe or water to drink, it isn't going to make a DAMN bit of difference whether the DOW is up or down or what our unemployment rate happens to be.

So when I hear people say we can't afford to do x, y, or z for the good of the environment because we have P, Q, and R economic issues that are more pressing at the moment, I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT.

Contrary to popular belief, fiscal responsibility entails a great deal more than finances and monetary policy alone—or at least it ought to ... because the buying and selling of such insidious fiscal fallacy carries grave ramifications we best hope we never see.

So please forgive me for feeling painfully underwhelmed and, frankly, somewhat infuriated when I read something like,  
"Most people in Austin would prefer using plastic bags over reusable bags. Yes, we are saving the environment and expenses . . . but . . . [it's] really inconvenient."  
News flash: A planet with no oxygen is pretty DAMN inconvenient, too. 

If you aren't sure why I keep talking about oxygen, have you ever wondered where all that plastic ends up? 

Though the next clip isn't about plastic, this is exactly what I had in mind when I suggested we expand our definition of "fiscal responsibility." Here is one way we can do that.

Last but certainly not least, I full realize that very few will, through sheer laziness, lack of interest, or impatience due to length, but should you ever find yourself with a little free time, read this. It is perhaps the single greatest explanation of how the oceanic ecosystem impacts absolutely everything, and it also happens to be my favorite article of all time - on any subject. It's definitely worth the read. To pique your curiosity a bit to further entice you to check it out, a riddle: 
Ever wonder why the ocean appears to be so many different and beautiful shades of blue from space?
Here's a hint: It isn't trash! . . . . (yet)

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