A sin tax on junk entertainment

by Thomas Rodham Wells

Unnamed (1)Governments should tax the production and consumption of junk entertainment like Angry Birds and The Bachelor to correct the market failures that encourage their overconsumption. As with tobacco and alcohol, the point of such sin taxes is not to prevent people from consuming things that are bad for them if they really want to. They are not like bans. Rather, such taxes communicate to consumers the real but opaque long-term costs to themselves of consuming such products so that they can better manage their choices about how much of their lives to give up to them.

At the heart of this proposal is the fact that high art – i.e. real art – like Booker prize winning novels and Beethoven is objectively superior to junk entertainment like Candy Crush and most reality TV. (For now, let us abstract from ‘middle-brow' entertainment like our new Golden Age of TV.) Some egalitarians of taste dispute the existence of any objective distinction in quality between pushpin and Pushkin and argue that the value of anything is merely the subjective value people put on it. I will humour them. The case for the objective superiority of art can be made entirely within a narrowly utilitarian -‘economistic' – account of subjective value: in the long run consuming junk entertainment is less pleasurable than consuming art.

At best, junk entertainment passes the time and brings us closer to death in a relatively painless way. At worst, passing a lot of time in this way makes us stupid by atrophying our abilities to appreciate anything more difficult. Hence the pejorative term ‘junk', for there is a strong resemblance between this sort of mental activity and eating cheeseburgers: the more cheeseburgers we eat, the less we enjoy each new one, and the fatter and more unhealthy we become. In contrast, art has the capacity not only to fill up the limited time we have in our lives, but in the process also to educate us in the enjoyment of its intellectual depths so that it produces more delight in us the more of it we consume. In economics terminology, the consumption of junk entertainment exhibits diminishing marginal utility and reduces our human capital while the consumption of art exhibits the opposite. Art is special.

Market Failure

The logic of this is fairly intuitive. So it is puzzling that it is not reflected in the real world, where junk entertainment is consumed in vast quantities and art is associated with upper class snobbery. The best explanation for this is that the prices consumers face in choosing between the two types are extremely misleading about their real costs and value to them.

The money price per unit of junk entertainment is often relatively cheap – indeed it is so cheap to make that dozens of TV channels churn it out non-stop and charge consumers nothing at all, except for the attention they sell on to advertisers. It is also easy to enjoy, requiring little from you in the way of mental engagement – you often have to do little more than sit there and let it happen to you. Yet the full cost of consuming such junk is the opportunity you are giving up to do something better – more enjoyable – with your time, the ultimate scarce resource in life. With every half-hour of junk TV you watch, you drift further along a path that leads to a dead end. You also become less able to appreciate and enjoy more enduringly and deeply satisfying alternatives.

In contrast, the money price of accessing art is often high, as for opera, because art has high production costs that cannot always be defrayed by economies of scale and modern reprographic technologies, as for Penguin editions of Dostoyevsky. Hence the unfortunate association of expensive art with the conspicuous consumption of the upper classes, for it is a useful device for creating exclusive social networks and justifying a sense of moral superiority over poorer ‘less cultured' people. These philistines are actually motivated by the special expense, not the special pleasure of art. (Wherever access to art is made cheap, whether by paperback novels or classical music on the radio or Britain's free national museums one finds that its audience no longer dominated by upper class status chasers but by people who actually enjoy it.)

The reason art is so expensive to produce is that it is characterised by a multi-layered complexity whose construction requires a great deal of skilful attention. That is also what makes it cognitively expensive to enjoy. Understanding art requires the effortful exploration of different modes of appreciation in search of insight, and it is that very search for understanding that generates aesthetic pleasure. But unlike with junk entertainment, our relationship with high art has the potential for upward development – we can get better at appreciating modernist poetry with practice, critical reflection, and conversation with other consumers. That doesn't happen with Minesweeper. (Engaging with art also trains the general life skill of judgement – what Kant called “the free play of the imagination and the understanding” – that is essential wherever we have to work out, as part of the exercise of making sense of something, what the criteria for such an understanding should be.)

Junk entertainment is superficially attractive, like junk food, because its consumption is characterised by an immediate hit of pleasure, a little squirt of dopamine. That is in spite of the fact that this is followed by declining pleasure for each further unit of consumption – each additional game of Minesweeper – as our brains adapt to its essential sameness. In contrast, art is superficially unattractive despite its long term potential to enhance our capability for pleasure. Because of the way art works – because so much is going on in a poem by Emily Dickinson or a painting by René Magritte – the consumption of art is at its most cognitively expensive and unrewarding at the beginning.

The Case for Taxation

A standard rationale for taxation since Arthur Pigou's ‘discovery' of externalities is to correct for the failure of the money (‘market') price to incorporate the real costs of consuming something. For example, coal seems very cheap to mine and turn into electricity only because the full costs to society of its pollution – the unbreathability of the air and global warming – isn't included in the market price. If energy companies had to pay the full social costs of this pollution via a tax, only the genuinely profitable uses of coal that added to society's welfare would continue.

Similarly, it can be argued that long-term costs to one's future self are often excluded from the money price of products, as in the case of tobacco which is very cheap to grow and make into cigarettes but costs its consumers dear in the long run. Sin taxes can be seen as discouraging excessive consumption of tobacco by making transparent its hidden future costs to that person via the money price. They can be seen as a technique for helping consumers to overcome our bounded rationality, the irrational biases in our meat brains that undermine our ability to make good decisions in the moment.

Imposing taxes on junk entertainment, whether through direct sin taxes on consumers or taxes on its production and distribution, should have the effect of making it more expensive to consume them. But this can be justified as a service to consumers. The intention is not to impose some perfectionist set of tastes on people ‘for their own good' but to achieve something more like neutrality than the combination of free markets and human cognitive biases currently produces. By correcting for a failure of prices to reflect genuine costs and benefits, such taxes respect and actually enhance consumers' sovereignty, our capability to make rational decisions about how best to make use of our scarce resources to live a life we find valuable.

Although these taxes would not be intended to raise revenue, any amount they did raise should be used to subsidise the production of and access to art (including better teaching in high-school as well as screening live opera in cinemas). Again, this is to correct a market failure since the high up front costs of accessing art mislead consumers about its value to them and systematically distort their choices away from the maximisation of their utility. When access to art is subsidised – as is public policy to some degree in many countries such as high school literature classes and free art museums – more people invest the effort necessary to experience its delights.

In principle, the case for a sin tax on junk entertainment is strong. In practice, it may appear unfeasible because of the discrimination problem that has bedevilled previous attempts at junk food taxes or the censorship of pornograhy. Even if most people find it easy most of the time to tell literature from pornography or junk food from healthy food, it is hard to set this down in a rule for public policy that perfectly demarcates one from the other. But I am not sure that one needs to pin down exactly where the boundary lies, since most cases will fall quite clearly on one side or the other and moralistic perfection is not necessary for this tax to work. (Consider a real disputed border, between India and China. The fact of the dispute doesn't prevent us from saying with great certainty that Delhi is in India and Beijing is in China.) Deciding which tax category ambiguous items should fall into is an ordinary kind of challenge for tax-inspectors and auditors and one they already know how to cope with (it's one of those tasks that requires judgement, incidentally). In any case, one doesn't have to be able to determine whether Game of Thrones or The Simpsons is art or junk or some other kind of thing (‘middle-brow') in order to say that Jersey Shore is a waste of everyone's time.