Thursday, February 12, 2009

Beer Tax

Sin taxes, taxes on things like alcohol and tobacco, are often justified economically as Pigovian because of the adverse health effects that create costly demands on the state-supported medical system. There is a mountain of evidence suggesting that cigarette smoking has severe adverse health effects and these smoking-induced maladies create large costs for the state, so taxes on cigarettes appear to be pretty well-founded (the appropriate level is still a matter of much debate - especially since the effects of secondhand smoke may be much larger than was once thought).

But can beer taxes be justified along the same lines? There is a lot of evidence suggesting moderate consumption of beer is actually good for your health. But there are also negative health benefits from alcohol dependency and both the health effects and the behavioral effects impose costs on the state. But I would argue that beer is not the main culprit (I would at least like to see evidence that it is) for alcohol dependency. Furthermore a selective tax on beer would simply shift alcohol consumption to other forms of alcohol (potentially more potent ones) which would not solve the problem. So I don't find much of a convincing economic rationale for a beer tax.

So the news that the Oregon Legislature is considering, once again, a bill to raise the tax on beer is disheartening. Just because it is politically expedient does not make it right. The justification of the bill is appalling: alcohol and drug addicts create huge costs for Oregon, yes, but just because you can't tax illegal drug use doesn't justify harming one of the few bright spots in the Oregon economy by placing the burden of drug and alcohol rehabilitation on beer consumers and producers. Beer brewing in Oregon is still a relatively small part of the economy, but it is growing and, according to the Oregon Brewer's Guild, represents about 5000 jobs.

At a time when we are trying to stimulate the economy, raising taxes is counterproductive and this one particularly so.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Beer Prices and Signalling

The discussion about beer pricing strategy continues at the Beervana blog with an interesting comment from one of the pre-eminent beer retailers in the nation: Belmont Station (no longer on Belmont, but why quibble?). Here is an interesting tidbit:
Some breweries (like Rogue) are quite proud of their beer, and regardless of
whether or not Dead Guy cost significantly more than Inversion they want to
project an image high quality, expensive beer, so they price it higher.

Nobel prize winner Michael Spence won his prize for developing the theory of signalling. The idea is this: if you are a high productivity person (because perhaps you are especially smart), how to you credibly convey this to a prospective employer. You can't just say "I'm very smart" because if this increased the likelihood of you being hired or getting a higher wage, everyone would say it even if it were not true. So you have to find other ways to let them know, or 'signal' your type. One way to do this is to obtain more education. This works because acquiring this education is easier for those that are smarter. Less smart individuals will decide not to invest in education, because it is costly and, after employed, employers learn your true type. So in equilibrium there is a natural sorting, smart people get educated and less smart people don't and, here is the punchline, employers can use education as a real measure of smarts.

[By the way I tested this model (with Mike Conlin now at Michigan State) using new players in the NFL and found that players with some private information about their ability can signal this through holding out and delaying agreement on a contract. The idea is that missing some training camp is more costly for less able players than for more able players.]

This basic model has been translated into advertising. Why do some manufacturers spend a lot of money on ads that tout the superior cleaning ability of their laundry detergent? Any manufacturer can claim this but consumers figure out whether this is true. Since what manufacturers of laundry detergent want is to get customers to become loyal to their brand, if spending a lot on ads does not get consumers to keep coming back, it is pretty wasteful relative to those brands that do get consumers to become repeat customers. Thus, again, there is a natural equilibrium, high quality brands will do a lot of advertising and lower quality bands will not and, again, the punchline is that the ads themselves are credible signals of the true quality.

What does this have to do with beer? Well, if Chris of Belmont Station is right, high price is itself a signal of true quality. Since consumers figure out beer quality by trying it once, price itself may be a reliable signal of the quality of the beer. To put it another way, if consumers didn't think Rogue was exceptional beer, they could not get away with their high prices, so the fact that they can is a signal that they do indeed make exceptional beer.

So it is not necessarily just a matter of projecting high quality, but informing consumers about quality as well...