Friday, November 6, 2015

The Window Tax: A Tale of Excess Burden

For economists, the "excess burden" of a tax refers to the idea that the cost of a tax isn't just the amount of money collected--it's also the ways in which taxpayers alter their behavior because the tax has changed their incentives. A moderately well-known classroom and textbook example is the "window tax," first imposed in England in 1696 by King William III, and not definitively repealed until 1851. The excess burden of the window tax was that lower-income people ended up living in rooms with few or no windows.

Wallace E. Oates and Robert M. Schwab review the history of the window tax and provide actual estimates of how it affected the number of windows per house in their article, "The Window Tax: A Case Study in Excess Burden," which appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (where I have toiled in the fields as Managing Editor since 1987). The article popped back into my mind earlier this week when I learned that Oates, a highly distinguished economist based at the University of Maryland since 1979, died last week.  One of Oates's specialties was the area of local public finance, and his 1972 book on Fiscal Federalism,  is a classic of that subfield.

Here are some facts about the historical window tax, courtesy of Oates and Schwab.

  • William III intended it as a temporary tax, just to help out with the overhang of costs from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the most recent war with France. But it ended up lasting 150 years. 
  • "An important feature of the tax was that it was levied on the occupant, not the owner of the dwelling. Thus, the renter, not the landlord, paid the tax. However, large tenement buildings in the cities, each with several apartments, were an exception. They were charged as single residences with the tax liability resting on the landlord. This led to especially wretched conditions for the poor in the cities, as landlords blocked up windows and constructed tenements without adequate light and ventilation ..."
  • The window tax was thought of as improvement on the "hearth tax," that Charles II had imposed in 1662. "The tax was very unpopular in part because of the intrusive character of the assessment process. The `chimney-men' (as the assessors and tax collectors were called) had to enter the house to count the number of hearths and stoves, and there was great resentment against this invasion of the sanctity of the home. The window tax, in contrast, did not require access to the interior of the dwelling: the “window peepers” could count windows from the outside, thus simplifying the assessment procedure and obviating the need for an invasion of the interior."
  • The window tax was intended as a visible measure of ability to pay: that is, a high-income person would live in a place with more windows than a low-income person. But at the time, it was widely recognized that windows were a very imperfect proxy for wealth. Adam Smith wrote about this problem of window tax in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations: “A house of ten pounds rent in the country may have more windows than a house of five hundred pounds rent in London; and though the inhabitant of the former is likely to be a much poorer man than that of the latter, yet so far as his contribution is regulated by the window-tax, he must contribute more to the support of the state.”
  • When the rates on the window tax went up, it was common for owners of homes and apartments to block or build over many or all of their windows. The results on human well-being were severe. "A series of studies by physicians and others found that the unsanitary conditions resulting from the lack of proper ventilation and fresh air encouraged the propagation of numerous diseases such as dysentery, gangrene, and typhus. ... A series of petitions to Parliament resulted in the designation of commissioners and committees to study the problems of the window tax in the first half of the 19th century. In 1846, medical officers petitioned Parliament for the abolition of the window tax, pronouncing it to be `most injurious to the health, welfare, property, and industry of the poor, and of the community at large'."
  • Here's Charles Dickens writing in 1850 about the window tax in Household Words, a magazine that he published for a number of years: “The adage ‘free as air’ has become obsolete by Act of Parliament. Neither air nor light have been free since the imposition of the window-tax. We are obliged to pay for what nature lavishly supplies to all, at so much per window per year; and the poor who cannot afford the expense are stinted in two of the most urgent necessities of life.” 

Oates and Schwab work with a mix of data on the number of windows in a sample of houses in Shropshire and economic theory about household behavior when confronted with taxes to generate an admittedly rough estimate that on average, collecting a certain amount of money through the window tax created an excess burden--in terms of the costs of living in a place with fewer windows--equal to an additional 62% of the value of the tax.

Oates and Schwab ask why the window tax lasted so long, give its many problems, and offer an appropriately cynical answer: "Perhaps the lesson here is that when governments need to raise significant revenue, even a very bad tax can survive for a very long time."

I didn't know Oates personally, but I had one other job-related interaction with him back. Along with his work in local public finance, Oates was also well-known as an environmental economist. His 1975 book, The Theory of Environmental Policy (written with William Baumol) was highly influential in setting the direction of what at the time was a fairly new and growing field. In 1995, Oates was a co-author in one of the most downloaded and cited exchanges the JEP has ever published on the subject of what is sometimes called the "Porter hypothesis."

Michael Porter made the argument--bolstered by a large number of case studies, that when environmental goals are set in a strict way, but firms are allowed flexibility in how to achieve those goals in the context of a competitive market environment, firms often become quite innovative in meeting those environmental goals. Indeed, Porter argued that in a substantial number of cases, the innovations induced by the tough new environmental rules save enough money so that the rules end up imposing no economic costs at all. In the Fall 1995 Journal of Economic Perspectives, Michael E. Porter and Claas van der Linde make their case in "Toward a New Conception of the Environment-Competitiveness Relationship," (9:4, 97-118). The authorial team of Karen Palmer, Wallace E. Oates, and Paul R. Portney respond in "Tightening Environmental Standards: The Benefit-Cost or the No-Cost Paradigm?" (9:4, 119-132). Oates and his co-authors took the position that while the costs of complying with environmental regulations do often turn out to be lower than industry predictions that were made when the rule was under discussion, it goes too far to say that environmental rules usually or generally don't impose costs. I wrote about some more recent evidence on this dispute in "Environmental Protection and Productivity Growth: Seeking the Tradeoff" (January 8, 2015).