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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Five Reasons Conservatives and Progressives Should Have Gardens

For Conservatives:

1)  Most of the time, the plants just grow by themselves without a lot of help, but sometimes you need to interfere to make sure that one or two of them thrive.  The plants don’t get to choose their soil, how much light they get, or if they get enough water.  Sometimes you need to get in there and give them a hand

2)  It’s easy to look at some plants and say “Grow faster!” and “Do better!” and “Why can’t you produce as much as the other guy next to you!”, but that isn’t going to help.

3)  In gardening, when you’ve grown enough for yourself, you give the rest away to friends and neighbors or else it just rots and stinks everything up.

4)  Every garden requires at least some planning beforehand.  Every garden requires at least some guidance.  The flowers are no less free to thrive because someone made sure they all had food and water.

5)  If all the plants in one part of the garden die, chances are pretty good that there’s a deeper reason than just “those are lazy plants.”

For Progressives:

1)  You have to get rid of the weeds.  Yes, technically they are still plants, but if you don’t get rid of them, nothing else can thrive.  If you want roses, you have to get rid of the weeds.  You can’t just try to convince the weeds to transform into roses.

2)  Gardening is the purest example of why Capitalism works.  You yourself pick which things to grow and invest the effort in growing them.  Useless raw material (dirt, sun, filthy water, and some little baby seeds) turn into finished goods and services.  Nobody wants someone telling them what they can and cannot do with their time and effort.

3)  Sometimes things need to be pruned.  Just because you have an established plant doesn’t mean that you just let it grow forever without further consideration.  Sometimes being in charge means you have to get rid of the useless parts of a plant to make sure the parts you really want stay healthy.

4) Some plants give you very predictable results.  Others have unintended consequences.  Don’t forget the thorns when you’re planting the roses.  If you put too much fertilizer on a plant, it dies.  Giving something too much help is just as bad as not giving it enough sometimes.

5)  If you get rid of the seeds, you are, in essence, getting rid of the plants.  The seeds are the plants.