Public Health Taxes Poll Pretty Well

I’m an enthusiastic proponent of the idea of public health taxes—raising additional revenue at the margin not by taxing people’s work, but by taxing consumption of public health hazards like sweeteners and booze. And here’s Ezra Klein discovering that such taxes are possibly more popular than he’d imagined. He cites this slide from an NPR/Kaiser poll:


I think part of the reason this gets a relatively good result is that it’s framed in the context of revenue. We’re not talking about taxing soda, we’re talking about providing for health care. But that will cost money. And the money has to come from somewhere. And taxing public health hazards sounds like a reasonable place to get it. I’ve said before that I think this is the right way to think about it. Taxing soda in order to make people skinnier sounds totalitarian and it’s not obvious to people whether or not the health benefits would even be large. But taxing soda in order to pay for health care sounds like a relatively benign way of raising taxes—at the margin, it will do more to promote health than to depress economic activity.

This kind of thing is important, because I think as we move toward raising the volume of revenue that we’ll be needing over the next 10-15 years it’s crucial to think hard about the efficiency of the tax code. That means cracking down on deductions and loopholes and pigouvian consumption taxes, not just higher rates.

As it happens, though, I don’t think paying attention to this kind of polling is that significant. For one thing, as Kevin Drum emphasizes, opinion on unfamiliar issues is extremely malleable. But more important, I just don’t think public opinion on issues is all that important a driver in politics—just look at the fate of mortgage cramdowns or what have you. The important point is that if you’re going to have a more generous welfare state and an aging population and continued advances in medical science you’re going to need more money, and you’re going to need to get it in a way that’s consistent with economic growth. Voters really don’t like recessions. Taxes on public health hazards meet that standard, so they should be appealing.