Crops and Taxes and Incentives

Planting stuff is hard work, especially for an urban gardener like me.  There are dozens and dozens of containers of dirt that my wife and I plant in each year.  There’s mulching, there’s watering (sigh…so much watering), there’s picking and drying and canning and, well, there’s a lot of work in trying to grow food for yourself.

But the upside is that once you’ve put in some work, it gets easier on the margins.  That is to say, if I have 6 tomato plants growing on a trellis and there’s room for one more, it’s pretty easy for me to put a 7th on there.  If I take the time to put in a raised bed one year, I have freed myself, to a great degree, of having to do the same work again.

Gardening is a great thing because the more you do it, the more rewarded you get.  Getting ready to plant your eight pea plants is much more financially rewarding than putting in the effort to plant pea number 1.

In fact, lots and lots of stuff is like this.  Most hobbies fall into this realm.  The better you get at crocheting, the more cost-effective and time-effective your crocheting is; you can create more, with better patters, with more reward for your investment.

Exercise and sports are good examples of this.  Getting in shape takes some steep initial investment, but once you’re in shape, you get to do some pretty impressive things with your body.

Now, it’s important to note that the return you get on these things isn’t infinitely increasing.  When I run out of good sunny area in back yard, it becomes really, really tough to find ways to grow more plants.  It’s pretty easy to get yourself into shape, but getting yourself into Olympic-athlete-shape takes levels of commitment almost nobody would think of (If a fat guy like me spends a year running and walking, I can probably halve my mile-run time.  Olympic Athletes spend a year trying to shave off a second from their time).

And so, when I run out of places easy for me to grow food, I might try to be a little inventive, but I’m not going to break my back going from pea #9 to pea #10 if pea#10 is going to be twice as much work as pea#9.

Similarly, I’m going to be happy putting in 30 to 60 minutes at the gym each night to get in shape, but I’m not going to shoot for Olympic athlete if it means I have to be in the gym 8 hours a day.

The return on investment just isn’t that good in these scenarios at the margins (i.e, once you’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit), and so it becomes really hard to convince oneself to do it.

I mention this as tax day is fast approaching.  This year my wife and I, both professionals, saw ourselves with an awful lot of our taxes in the 25% bracket from our jobs (she’s a manager, I’m a mathematician working in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy).

That’s not why I’m writing this though.

For the last two years, I’ve been teaching math at a local community college.  Now, I’m not the world’s greatest teacher, but I’m competent, and I try to approach teaching math from a “hey I use this every day in a real job, and here’s how you could use this in a real job, too” perspective, which I think serves the students better than “I’m a math teacher and you have to learn this because it’s in the book.”

I think my students generally benefit from having me in the class, and I know the college is happy they have someone competent and reliable in the classroom offering real-life examples of when math is useful.

I make about $1850 this semester, for teaching 16 3-hour classes.  Besides that, I spend about 3 hours the night before prepping for class, and about another 2 hours the night of the class making copies, grading, entering grades, helping students, or whatever.  This means I put in about 8 hours of work each week into the class.

My paycheck is about 230 every two weeks. About 27 comes out in non-tax deductions.  At 25%, I lose another $57.5, and so it ends up being right about 145 dollars that I clear every two weeks.  Or, at 16 hours of work, a little over 9 dollars an hour.

Now, in order to get into the 25% tax bracket, I’ll tell you that my wife and I aren’t working for 9 dollars an hour at our regular job, and me being tired two days a week because of my 9-dollar an hour job isn’t going over so well at my regular, lots-more-than-9-dollar job.

Now, I don’t mind that I don’t make a lot of money as an adjunct professor at a community college (It’s the motto on the business cards they pass out).  What I mind is that 25% of the little I do make gets taken in taxes.

And so, I think, this is going to be my last semester teaching at community college.  The tax disincentives for me working there are so discouraging that it outweighs the happiness I get from teaching.  In a lot of ways, I’d much rather be doing the whole thing for free than for 9 dollars an hour…

So here’s my question: would we intentionally disincentivize a gardener from growing more food?*  Does it benefit the gardener or her community to have less food around?

Does it benefit my community to have one less good-quality math professor around?

And does it ever think about the lost opportunities from the other people just like me realizing that the marginal costs of them working a second job are too high for them to bother doing that second job?

Or does it only think “Boo hoo, another rich guy complaining about his taxes” and never see the class that doesn’t get taught because there’re note enough teachers, or the engineer who has to delay graduation for a year waiting for the class to get run, or the bridge that doesn’t get built because that engineer is a year behind schedule?

Sadly, we both know the answer to that one.

[*Sigh.  Don’t get me started on the gross immorality of food subsidies.  One day God is going to be very angry at us and say something to the effect of “What?  I gave you all this great farmland and you just let it go to waste?  And then you burned some of the food as bad alternatives to the plentiful supplies of fossil fuels I provided you with? Argh! Smite! Smite!”]

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