Fun With Numbers (and Economic Incentives)! Hooray!
There are all kinds of fun number-crunching stories to talk about today. But I’ll concentrate on just one.
Chicago currently has the dubious honor of having the highest consumer gasoline prices in the country. In large part, this is because of its very high gas taxes. People are up in arms. In fact, the local CBS-affiliate of “Chicagoland” reports today that long lines await Indiana suburban commuters hoping to fill up before the Illinois border. One commuter summarizes the current tax incentive best:
"It was $4.20 [in Illinois]. I can come over here and get it for $3.93," said Tikvah Wadley, one of the many fleeing Illinois taxes.
What does this tell us? It tells us that economic incentives matter, particularly when they are distortionary taxes. When consumers feel the effects of high taxes, they vote with their feet and flee to lower tax areas (in this case, choosing to fill up their gas tanks on the Indiana side of the Chicago metropolitan area).
But how does this relate to Missouri? Well, we have our own equally pernicious tax in the Kansas City and St. Louis metropolitan areas. The earnings tax is a 1 percent income tax on gross earnings levied on those who live and/or work in Missouri’s two largest cities. But if you happen to live and work in the metro areas outside of the city limits, you don’t have to pay it. We’ve written about this topic extensively.
If Chicago’s high gas taxes are having an impact on consumer behavior in Illinois, then imagine what the earnings tax might be doing to consumer behavior in Missouri Think of it this way: Combined federal and state gasoline taxes are 57.9 cents per gallon in Illinois (compared to 36 cents in Missouri). Chicago levies an additional 12.75 cents per gallon on top of that, for a whopping total of 70.7 cents per gallon. Indiana’s gas tax is 50.1 cents per gallon.
Ok, so here’s where the numbers get fun (and exciting!). Say that you live in Chicago and decide you’re fed up with high gas taxes, and want to fill up your car in Indiana instead. If you drive 12,000 miles per year and get about 25 miles per gallon on average (which seems reasonable), then you’d pay only $240.48 in gas taxes in Indiana this year instead of $338.88 in Chicago, for a total annual savings of $98.40. This $100 savings has been enough to promote long gas lines and impact Illinois gas stations. Apparently small incentives matter. I mean, think how hard it is to drive out of your way just to save a few cents.
OK, back to Missouri. Imagine you’re working in Clayton but that you live in St. Louis. If you make $35,000 year (the current per-capita Missouri household income), then you can save an extra $350 per year just by living a couple of blocks down the road. This is 3.5 times more in tax savings than the Chicago drivers are saving by filling up in Indiana! Wouldn’t you think this might be having an effect on urban growth?
Let’s take it a step further. The marginal income tax rate in Missouri is 5.91 percent. In Illinois, it’s only 3 percent. Do you think that might have an impact, also? Perhaps we can provide a pretty good answer to the question David Nicklaus poses in today’s Post-Dispatch as to why the St. Louis-area lost 5,000 jobs over the past year. Maybe taxes matter.