Monday, August 09, 2010

A market solution for graffiti costs?

I noticed this editorial out of Montreal, Canada titled "Make graffiti 'artists' pay for their hobby," which makes the predictable and uninteresting argument that the justice system should require graff writers convicted of the offense to pay for cleaning up the damage they caused. That's a pointless stance because police solve far less than 1% of graff incidents so most crime victims wouldn't benefit. Montreal reportedly spends a whopping $6 million per year (Canadian) cleaning up wall writing.

But the headline made me think about the economics of the problem: Viewed in aggregate, graff on private property in economic jargon would be considered an "externality" -  a cost to a third party (not the seller or buyer of spray paint) that is not included in the price of the product. An (admittedly imperfect) analogy may be a manufacturer pumping out air pollution or even your own personal vehicle emitting greenhouse gases. Without external government intervention by regulators or courts, the costs from pollution aren't included in the price of the products. In effect, products are subsidized by not including costs to people who are harmed but not party to the transaction.

What would it look like if graff writers truly paid for their hobby? How about a tax on spray paint with revenues dedicated to paying for graffiti cleanup? Just raise the price until it pays for the costs of the externality. Some state and local governments have tried banning sale of spray paint to minors or limiting how much individuals can purchase, but in theory you could accomplish the task more efficiently by increasing the price point until it covers the externalities. And if it means a can of spray paint will cost $50-$75, who besides Krylon and the graff writers would really care?

Every "command and control" mechanism imaginable has been tried and failed to limit graff writing on private property. Perhaps simple market economics might succeed in reducing graffiti where bans and criminal prosecution have miserably failed?


Anonymous said...

I use spray paint for purposes intended...and will resist any attempt to extract from me the cost to clean up after bad actors. Brings to mind the 3rd grade charade: ' Who shot that spitball? OK, no one admits it, you're all staying after school!'

We'll discuss cities that penalize property owners for not cleaning up quickly enough another time. Cheers.

MailDeadDrop said...

Witness cigarettes. Taxed heavily, with some of the taxes used to offset the "externality" of increased indigent health care costs. Success? Maybe. But also realize that the increased costs caused a new problem: black market trade in cigarettes.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

First, 11:12, do you use spray paint in so great a volume that a higher price would deter you from using it altogether? And is there a reason you couldn't just use a brush and avoid the tax?

Also IMO taggers are using spray paint for the purpose it's intended. The manufacturers know their product is being used for tagging and even make all sorts of special paints and spray heads for different artistic effects. Wikipedia notes that "Many now recognize graffiti and street art as a unique art form and specifically manufactured aerosol paints are made for the graffiti artist."

Cities penalizing property owners is a blame the victim strategy that I've criticized on this blog, but the truth is nobody's found solutions that work to reduce graff in the long-term. I think this idea might.

MailDeadDrop, I suspect black market spray paint may be harder to come by. Cigarettes have a MASSIVE aggregate market. By comparison, there aren't nearly that many taggers out there. Also, I know MANY people who gave up smoking because it became too expensive when the health arguments hadn't persuaded them. Taxing cigarettes did reduce demand, and so would taxing spray paint.

Robert Boyd said...

My first reaction is similar to Anonymous, in that such a tax penalizes people who use spray paint for strictly legal purposes (including, it should be said, graffiti artists who only paint on canvas or on buildings where they have received permission or commissions to paint). That said, the current cost of cleanup is born by all taxpayers, which can hardly said to be fair either. Financing the cleanup with a dedicated spray paint tax at least gets closer to making the actual illegal graffiti writers pay a larger share of the costs they impose on society.

Anonymous said...

I like the approach used by Morgan Freeman in "Lean on Me" or was it Belushi in the "Principal". Either way. If were lucky enough to catch them give them a paintbrush and put them to work. No need to fines they can't pay, police records etc. And if they refuse to do the work, ok then we get go the official route.

BTW Spray paint has uses where it is better than brushed Paint. That said, i don't know anyone other than my grandmother who ever used gold spray paint. And she only painted flower pots.

Soronel Haetir said...

I guess one question I would ask, for the average person engaging in graffiti is that the high or low end of their criminality? Are they even paying for the paint to begin with or is even that stolen? If they are using stolen paint then jacking up the price is pretty pointless. And if tagging is at the low end of their criminal activity (territorial marking, for instance to ward off gang threats) then catching them doing something else may well be more productive, even if not as satisfying in relation to this particular issue.

I recall one of your other posts pointing out how few arrests (convictions? anyway the number was very low in relation to the suspected population) of these folks are caught. That being the case I would have to think we don't know a great deal about who is actually involved, even in general terms.

grannygoodfood said...

Respect for private property is the crux of the issue. Taxing the paint is a non-solution because it punishes the innocent, and violates the very purpose of govt., which is to punish the wicked and protect the righteous.

How can we teach young people to respect what does not belong to them? I think this is where our conversation will find solutions.

Our children learn by example. Perhaps if our own govt restrained itself from seizing property for Drug Companies in the name of "eminent domain", that would be a good start.

Anonymous said...

Yes, punish the manufacturer and non-criminal users of a product to pay for the mess created by an expensive few. Makes perfect sense. Why don't you pay $50 per six-pack, then, to pay for externalities caused by drunk drivers?

jdgalt said...

Anonymous has it right. If graffiti really is the intended (and only significant) use of spray paint, then why not just ban spray paint?

I like the idea of making graffiti "artists" pay the costs of their crime, but I would do it another way. Sentence them to community service, consisting of spending every weekend for the next year on "chain gangs" scrubbing graffiti off every tagged property their city or county can find, while wearing distinctive clothing that lets all bystanders know they are convicts paying the price of their actions.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good comments. Let's run through a few of these.

JDG, I never said that graffiti is the "only" use for spray paint, just that the price point doesn't take into account the cost of externalities. Entirely different argument.

Also, your false equation of "sentencing" with prices mistakes punishment by the criminal justice system for a pricing mechanism. IMO that's a particularly useless analogy when you take into account the extremely low rate at which graff writers are caught. Retribution might make you feel good and satisfies the need for society to express its moral superiority to the offender - which many argue is in and of itself worthwhile - but it doesn't do anything as a practical matter to reduce the amount of graff or deter others.

That said, Soronel I do think we've at least got a sample to work from based on who's arrested. Also many police departments meticulously document graff so they can try to match old offense to perps when they catch them, so a lot of data gets generated. It's different in every town, but FWIW estimates from Austin are that 15-20% of graff is gang related and most of the rest is either juveniles or young adults for whom graff is on the high end of their criminality.

I've never heard of stolen spray paint being a big problem, since in TX they're required to keep it under lock and key in the stores.

6:48, and granny, IMO the manufacturers who make special spray paint and accouterments for graff writers are complicit, so why shouldn't they pay as well? Otherwise, there are other types of paint available for the innocents if they find the cost too dear. It's also not fair that taxpayers pay to clean up graff, but we do.

And since 6:48 mentioned taxing alcohol to mitigate harms, I should add that there's pretty strong evidence doing so reduces alcohol-related deaths of all types, if you care about that sort of thing.

PirateFriedman said...

It is good to see people calling Grits out. His "market solution" is more taxes.

At it's heart, a true market solution must involve reducing taxes. A market solution would involve spending less money on cleanup and enforcement of graf laws. Furthermore, a market solution would involve less government expenditures on targets such as streets, street signs, public parks etc.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Pirate, right now taxpayers pay to clean up graffiti, so the only way to "reduce taxes" is to reduce services, i.e., NOT clean up the graff.

You may be fine with that but most of the public wants graffiti cleaned up in public spaces.

I'm just suggesting that taxation be more tightly aimed at those causing the problem - taggers and the manufacturers who cater to them - instead of burdening the general public.