Microeconomic Policy and Applications of Elasticity Review for AP Economics (page 3)
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Main Topics: Excise Taxes, Government Subsidies, Price Floors, Price Ceilings
Government occasionally imposes an excise tax on the production of a good or service. Because it is a per unit tax on production, the firm responds as if the marginal cost of producing each unit has risen by the amount of the tax. Graphically this results in a vertical shift in the supply curve by the amount of the tax. The reasons for this tax are usually twofold: (1) to increase revenue collected by the government and/or (2) to decrease consumption of a good that might be harmful to some members of society. For these reasons, tobacco is a good example of an excise tax. Can an excise tax on tobacco raise money for government? Can it deter people from smoking? Let's use our two extreme demand curves to see where these goals might, or might not, be achieved, and how the price elasticity of demand plays a critical role on where the burden, or incidence, of the tax rests. Economists commonly express the incidence of the tax as the percentage of the tax paid by consumers, in he form of a higher price.
Demand is Perfectly Inelastic
If the demand for cigarettes is perfectly inelastic (Ed = 0) then the demand curve (D0) is vertical. With an untaxed supply (S0) of cigarettes, the initial price of a pack of cigarettes is P0 and Q0 packs of cigarettes are consumed every day. If a per unit tax of T is imposed on the producers of cigarettes, the supply curve shifts upward by T. Be careful! This is not an "increase in supply"! Because the demand is perfectly inelastic, the equilibrium quantity remains at Q0, but the new price rises to P0 +T. Total dollars spent on cigarettes increases from P0 * Q0 to (P0+T) * Q0. The revenue collected by the government is equal to the area of the rectangle T * Q0.
Did our excise tax accomplish our goals? Since quantity remained constant, the tax did nothing to decrease the harmful effects of smoking in society and only increased tax revenues for the government. In fact, because the quantity demanded did not fall, this scenario creates the largest revenue rectangle collected by the government. Who paid the burden of the tax? In Figure 7.7, you can see that the entire tax was paid by consumers in the form of a new price exactly equal to the old price plus the tax.
Demand is Perfectly Elastic
Figure 7.8 shows that if the demand for cigarettes is perfectly elastic (Ed = ∞), then the demand curve (D0) is horizontal. With an untaxed supply (S0) of cigarettes, the initial price of a pack of cigarettes is P0 and Q0 packs of cigarettes are consumed daily. The per unit tax of T shifts the supply curve upward by T, but with a perfectly elastic demand curve, the equilibrium price of cigarettes does not change, while equilibrium quantity demanded falls to Q1. Total spending by consumers falls to the area P0 * Q1. Tax revenue for the government is a much smaller rectangle T * Q1.
Who paid for the tax in this case? Because the price of a pack of cigarettes did not increase after the tax, it was not the consumers. Each producer receives a price of P0 but must then pay T to the government so the net price received from each pack of cigarettes is (P0 – T). So the producer pays the entire share of the tax when demand is perfectly elastic. Compared to the perfectly inelastic scenario, the government collected much fewer tax revenue dollars, but the maximum decrease in harmful cigarette consumption is a definite plus.
With these two extreme cases as benchmarks, we can conclude that as demand is more inelastic, consumers pay a higher share of an excise tax. Government revenues from the excise tax increase with inelastic demand, but the goal of decreasing consumption sees only minimal success. Table 7.3 summarizes the effects of a higher excise tax and how these depend upon the price elasticity of demand.
Since cigarette demand is usually inelastic, significant improvements in the health of consumers is probably not the primary outcome of higher excise taxes, although they would seem to be effective revenue generating devices. Ironically, although the tax is actually imposed on suppliers of cigarettes, most of the burden of the tax falls upon consumers. Figure 7.9 illustrates an inelastic demand for cigarettes, before and after an excise tax.
The Role the Supply Curve Plays in the Impact of an Excise Tax
We have seen that the greater the price elasticity of demand, the smaller the portion of the tax paid by consumers. It is also true that the price elasticity of supply plays a role in determining how much a tax will cause the price to increase and therefore helps to determine which group, consumers or producers, pay a higher burden of a tax.
It again helps to see if we look at two extremes: a perfectly elastic supply curve and a perfectly inelastic supply curve.
A perfectly elastic, or horizontal, supply curve tells us that even a very small change in the price will cause an infinitely large change in the quantity supplied. A per unit tax T imposed on suppliers causes this horizontal supply curve to shift upward by the amount of the tax. In Figure 7.10, you can see that the new equilibrium price is exactly T higher than the old price P0 so consumers pay the entire burden of the tax. The equilibrium quantity decreases from Q0 to Q1 and the government collects tax revenue equal to T*Q1.
A perfectly inelastic, or vertical, supply curve illustrates the special case where any change in the price creates absolutely no change in quantity supplied. Figure 7.11 shows that in this case, the supply curve cannot vertically shift. At the equilibrium quantity Q0, suppliers would like to charge a higher price than P0, but any price above P0 creates a surplus, and this surplus will clear only at the equilibrium price P0. Therefore the firms must pay T to the government for each of the Q0 units that are sold and consumers continue to pay the original price of P0. In this special case, producers pay the entire burden of the tax because, after paying the tax, they receive only (P0 – T) on each unit. The government collects total revenue equal to T*Q0.
Table 7.4 summarizes the effects of a higher excise tax and how these depend upon the price elasticity of supply.
By now you are probably wondering: "How can I keep all of this straight?" If we consider the extreme cases of perfectly elastic and perfectly inelastic demand and supply curves, we can draw some general conclusions.
- As the price elasticity of demand falls, and the price elasticity of supply rises, the greater the consumer's share of a per unit excise tax. Why? Because this describes a situation where the consumer response to a higher price is negligible and the producer's response is sizeable. The group that has the best ability to respond to the higher post-tax price is going to make out better.
- Conversely, as the price elasticity of demand rises, and the price elasticity of supply falls, the greater the producer's share of a per unit excise tax.
Loss to Society
There is also a cost to society when an excise tax is imposed on a competitive market. In the hypothetical soda market depicted in Figure 7.12, the equilibrium quantity is 100 and the equilibrium price is $1. At this point, the marginal benefit to society exactly equals the marginal cost and net benefit; total welfare (combined consumer and producer surplus) is the greatest. When a $l excise tax is imposed, the price of sodas increases to $1.80 and the amount of sodas consumed decreases to 80. The government collects $80 = $1 * 80 in tax revenue. With the tax, consumers and producers demand and supply 20 fewer units than without the tax. For these 20 units that go unproduced, the marginal benefit to consumers exceeds the marginal costs to producers. The fact that these 20 units go unproduced and unconsumed results in an inefficient outcome. The triangle labeled DWL used to be earned by society in the form of consumer and producer surplus. With the excise tax, society loses this area; it goes to no one. Economists call this area dead weight loss (DWL) or the net benefit sacrificed by society when such a per unit tax is imposed. Since the key to dead weight loss is a large decrease in quantity below the untaxed outcome, the area of dead weight loss to society increases as the demand or supply curves get more elastic.
Note: Taxes such as these are not the only sources of distortions away from market efficiency. For example, production often generates pollution (a negative externality), which creates a situation where harmful spillover costs are incurred by third parties. Left unregulated, these costs are not captured by the market price and the market will not produce the "correct" amount of a good. These sources of inefficiency, or market failures, are addressed in Chapter 11.
- Taxes create lost efficiency by moving away from the equilibrium market quantity where MB = MC to society.
- The area of dead weight loss (triangle DWL) increases as the quantity moves further from the competitive market equilibrium quantity.
A per unit subsidy on good X has the opposite effect of an excise tax, because firms respond as if the subsidy has lowered the marginal cost of production, therefore resulting in a downward vertical shift in the supply curve for good X. Be careful here! This is not a "decrease in supply"! Since subsidies come from the government, they are certainly not designed as revenue-generating devices. Ideally, their primary goal is to support producers of a good or service that has significant benefit to society so that it can be produced in greater quantities and at lower prices to consumers. This form of positive externality is also explored in Chapter 11. Public university education is a common example of this type of subsidy.
Figure 7.13 illustrates the market for public university education where the demand (D0) and unsubsidized supply (S0) curves produce an equilibrium price P0 (tuition) and quantity Q0 (degrees earned). If government decides that provision of bachelor's degrees is a beneficial service to society, a per student subsidy U is given to the public university system. The subsidy decreases tuition and increases the number of undergraduate degrees received.
How does the price elasticity of demand factor into this outcome? If the demand for public university education is elastic, then a relatively small percentage decrease in the price of tuition creates a sizeable percentage increase in the number of degrees earned by members of society. If demand is price inelastic, it takes a much larger percentage decrease in the price to achieve the same percentage increase in degrees earned.
"Taxes and subsidies are usually tested in both the multiple-choice section and as part of a free-response question."
In some cases, the market-determined equilibrium price P0 is deemed "too low" by some members of society. Typically, suppliers who feel that the market price is not high enough to cover production costs and earn a decent living make this argument. If the government agrees with this argument, a price floor may be installed at some level above the equilibrium price. A price floor is a legal minimum price below which the product cannot be sold. Another example is a minimum wage in a market for labor. A price floor in the market for milk is seen in Figure 7.14.
The resulting surplus of milk is not eliminated through the market and the government usually agrees, as part of the price floor arrangement, to purchase the surplus milk. For consumers, the result of the policy is a higher price of milk (and other dairy products) at grocery stores, a decrease in milk consumption and an increase in taxpayer-supported government spending. The amount of government spending to purchase the surplus is equal to (PF) * surplus. If the price elasticities of demand or supply are large, the surplus, and resulting government spending, rises.
By providing an incentive for producers to produce beyond where the MB = MC, efficiency is lost with the price floor. For gallons of milk above Q0, MC > MB; there is an overallocation of resources to milk production. Quite simply, the policy produces a situation where "too much" milk is produced.
For some goods and services, the market equilibrium price is judged to be "too high." Consumers who feel that the price is so high that it prevents a significant fraction of citizens from being able to consume a good, usually express this sentiment. If the government agrees with this argument, a price ceiling may be installed at a level below the equilibrium price. A price ceiling is a legal maximum price above which the product cannot be bought and sold. A price ceiling in the market for rental apartments (rent control) is seen in Figure 7.15.
The resulting shortage of rent-controlled apartments is not eliminated through the market and this creates a sticky situation for low-income households, the group for which the policy was intended. Many suppliers completely remove their rental units from the market, converting them into office space or condominiums. Others attempt to increase profits by lowering levels of health and safety maintenance, or by charging exorbitant fees for a key to the apartment. For families lucky enough to find rent-controlled space, the result of this policy is certainly lower rents, but the shortage also tends to create an underground or "black" market for apartments where a vacant apartment might go to the highest bidder, regardless of financial need. If the price elasticities of demand or supply are large, the shortage, and the negative consequences of it, increase.
Again, this form of price control results in lost efficiency for society. When suppliers reduce their quantity supplied below the competitive equilibrium quantity, there is a situation where the MB > MC, and we see an underallocation of resources in the rental apartment market. This policy, intended to help low-income families, creates a situation where "too little" of the good is produced.
Review questions for this study guide can be found at:
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