Yesterday New York City held their mayoral primary elections. This was an exciting event for election system nerds (political scientists and public choice economists) because NYC is now using a form of ranked choice voting to determine the winner.
While this is not the first place in the US to use RCV (Maine, Alaska, and a handful of cities use it), it is still notable for a few reasons. First, this is America’s largest city. Second, there are a lot of viable candidates, which makes RCV especially interesting and useful.
Specifically, NYC is using a form of voting called instant runoff. There are currently 13 candidates, and voters indicate their top 5 in order. If no one has a majority (>50%) of the votes, then the rankings entered by voters come into play. And indeed that is what happened yesterday.
On the first round, only counting first place votes, Andrew Yang came in 4th with just under 12% of the votes. So last night he conceded.
But should Yang have conceded? Maybe not! Let’s explore how instant runoff works.
In a previous post, I contrasted the income and property taxes, but I left out the other important tax: the retail sales tax. So let’s rectify that omission.
The retail sales tax is like the “Little Engine that Could,” delivering a steady stream of revenue to governments, while mostly staying out of the passionate debates surrounding the income and sales taxes. About 23% of state and local tax revenue comes from general sales taxes in the US, roughly equal to income taxes, and if you include selective sales taxes it’s slightly larger than the property tax share.
But there’s a problem with sales tax. The sales tax “base,” basically the extent of economic activity that the base covers, has been shrinking. A lot. As Jared Walczak has recently written, in just the past 20 years the “breadth” of the sales tax (how much of the potential base it covers) has fallen from about 50% to 30%.
As Walczak also notes, there are seven or so broadly agreed on principles of sales taxes, but I would say there are two primary ones (the first two on his list):
- An ideal sales tax is imposed on all final consumption, both goods and services.
- An ideal sales tax exempts all intermediate transactions (business inputs) to avoid tax pyramiding.
But US states violate these two principles in various ways, leading to (oddly enough) a tax base that is simultaneously too narrow and too wide. Why is this?