What is the optimal tax rate on restaurants?

bhauth asks me:

What do you think the optimal tax rate on restaurants would be? The current rates seem high to me:

1) The marginal substitution rate between restaurants and cooking at home is high.

2) Cooking at home uses untaxed labor. Cooking in restaurants uses taxed labor, and then customers pay sales taxes on that taxed labor. Those sales taxes are often *higher* than normal sales taxes, because food from restaurants is a “luxury good”.

Putting aside general fiscal considerations (e.g., to which other taxes are we comparing it?), I see a few main questions here:

a. Yes, eating in restaurants contributes to weight gain, but how much is that a self-control problem vs. an internalized decision of cost vs. benefit?

b. How much do cheap restaurants encourage families to have more children, a social positive in my view?

c. How much do cheap restaurants take away the bonding that arises from the family dinner table experience? And how often is that bonding a net negative with lots of fights and screaming?

d. Will taxing restaurant meals — as opposed to specific taxes on meat — on net lower beef-eating and carbon/methane problems?

e. Do restaurant food suppliers treat farm animals better or worse than do suppliers of home-cooked meals?

I say a-e are mostly hard to measure, so this gives us a common problem in economics: you have one clear, and significant, effect, and a bunch of hard to measure effects which are hard to assign a net value to. Should you be willing to recommend policy on the basis of the one effect you can clearly see, and then widen the confidence bands? Or should you just keep your mouth shut altogether?

What if your audience finds a blog post like this one too complicated or too annoying?

Originally posted on Marginal Revolution – click to see comments and suggestions.

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