Friday, November 12, 2010

Trash and tradeoffs: or the feral Tea Partier of Fountain Hills

Once again a post certain to annoy or offend some of the readers. But if you wanted someone to stroke your prejudices, you'd be reading Blog for Arizona, Sonoran Alliance, or whatever Ernie Hancock is promoting these days.

Arizona policy has once again caught national attention, and not because Russell Pearce--the man more responsible for getting Arizona thought of as the new capitol of bigotry than any other-- was elected to preside over the state Senate. No, it is because the "Tea Party", formerly reserving its vaguely paleoconservative populism for Federal and State concerns, has taken a stand on a local matter.

As reported in the Arizona Republic, on Thursday 4 November the Fountain Hills town council voted to amend the town code to allow selection of a single trash hauler. Previously, individual residents contracted individually with one of several haulers. Now all will receive weekly trash pickup services plus curbside recycling for $11.44 per month.

The local Tea Party group announced a 16 November "town hall meeting"--despite nearly 5 hours of public comment at the meeting at which the vote--announcing it as follows on their(amusingly Geocities-esque) website:
"Talkin' Trash"

On Thursday, November 4 the Fountain Hills Town Council decided, by a 4-3 vote, to take away your ability to choose your own trash hauler.

Councilmembers Brown, Dickey, and Leger, along with Mayor Schlum, voted for this action. Councilmembers Contino, Elkie, and Hansen voted to preserve your freedom.

Once more, government is trying to interfere with free market economics.

Our goal: let the people decide!

What the Tea Partiers are not discussing is price. I made a few phone calls to get a sense of what the private haulers charge. Waste Management service costs $19.50 per month plus a few dollars extra for fuel and environmental (dump) fees. Allied Waste (formerly Red Mountain) charges $55 every three months, which works out to $18.34. Due likely to economies of scale, Fountain Hills's new service will save residents $7 per month.

And those savings do not take into account the externalities. The Arizona Republic reports claims of a savings of nearly $100,000/year in street maintenance. In addition to that, there'll be less air pollution--start-and-stop driving of high-torque diesel engines like those in garbage trucks is very dirty--and less early morning vibration and noise.

The loss to the individual? Nothing. As long as it's equally clean and equally quiet trash pickup is trash pickup. Unless we somehow price into things the mental anguish a right-winger or right-wing "libertarian" must feel, given the reaction, when forced to re-evaluate very simple heuristics, everybody benefits and nobody loses. This looks like a clear example of one of those win-win transactions of which--pace Richard Epstein--coercion is an ethical and practical no-brainer. Worries about a "monopoly" are misplaced, as the area's various waste haulers can still compete when the contract is up for renewal.

Waste hauling is not health care, nor is it health insurance. There's no third-party payments problem, no moral hazard problem (except in clever hypothetical scenaria) and no price:utility tradeoffs with extreme implication for quality of life or even life-and-death. One's life, livelihood, and liberty are at stake when a "single-payer" or "single-payer"-like plan (such as the one passed by the Democrats early this year, which forbids insurance companies from competing on product) drives up costs and then reins them in with rationing. They at best only trivially at stake when trash-hauling contracts are made at the municipal level, bringing savings, reduced externalities, and extra benefits such as recycling. "But I want pickup on Wednesday." "But I want the company with the pretty purple trucks." "But I want a more expensive service without recycling because recycling is only for non-jerks and I am a jerk."

If I were a Tea Partier, and I'm not, I'd be wary of calling this "socialism" as people interviewed in the Republic--and commenting in the 'blogosphere--are doing. Socialism (euphemistically called "progressivism") and leftism more generally involves win-lose transactions, sacrificing some for the short-term benefit of others and the long-term detriment of all. Remember that poll that had 33% of Americans--who are these people--having a positive impression of "socialism"? Don't start associating "socialism" with common-sense, and still free-market, changes for the better.

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