Think Progress, Rural Fire Departments, and Managed Ignorance

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Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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  1. Avatar Tony Comstock
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    says:

    This 1997 Fortune Magazine article may help to explain why municipalities in TN feel the need to take a hardline approach:

    http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1997/08/04/229690/index.htmReport

  2. Avatar ThatPirateGuy
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    says:

    Mark,

    I would absolutely agree with you on this as a case of managed ignorance…but I have heard Glenn Beck’s comments on this(he made fun of the resident for expecting the fire department to put out fires) and I have read so many comments from what I presume are libertarians talking about how this isn’t a problem and that taxes for this would be morally wrong on a starcraft 2 forum.

    Seriously way too many conservatives are OK with this. Ask yourself why this happened in rural TN instead of rural New York. One is a deep red state the other is not.

    Disclaimer: I have not read the think-progress link and I do not intend to. I take Mark’s word that it is as awful as he says and I only want to point out that it isn’t a straw-man when the right says yep, we totally agree this is how it should have happened.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to ThatPirateGuy
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      says:

      @ThatPirateGuy, Here’s the thing, though – there’s a whole host of nuances here that have gotten left out of this story, particularly insofar as it’s been distributed on the left. Those nuances create a completely different understanding of why this occurred, and indeed where it occurred. As Jason points out below, this isn’t even a case of preferring market-based, “on your own” solutions to the free rider problem over government-based solutions to the free rider problem – to the contrary, the fire department almost certainly acted the way it did to garner support for a more government-based solution just days before it was set to come to a vote. That doesn’t in any way affect the question of whether the government-based solution is preferable, but it also says nothing about whether “pay for spray” is an inherently inferior method of dealing with the free rider problem. Indeed, had the fire department followed its historic practices under the “pay for spray” policy, it would have been acting more compassionately than it would have been acting under a straightforward tax-based system since it would have been providing services without a recourse to secure adequate funding. And again, it must be repeatedly emphasized that the fire department at issue was acting outside of its jurisdiction and its tax base.

      As for why this occured in the rural part of a Red State rather than a Blue State, it’s worth remembering that the plural of anecdote is not data (and, of course, this is just one anecdote, not even multiple anecdotes) and that even where there’s a rural area of a Blue State, those rural areas are themselves usually quite Red. There’s just not a lot of truly rural areas in this country that are Blue anymore. Even the ones that are tend to be Blue in the old Southern Democrat mold.Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @Mark Thompson,

        Sure there are nuances that are left out. I don’t dispute that. I am saying that bringing up the free rider problem is silly at best. Of course taxes should be paid for this because if you give people the option to screw this up someone will.

        It is like having a police subscription, a bad idea. Property taxes are not going away, refusing to use them to provision basic services is dumb. Name a single non-ideological conservative that thinks fire services work well with the free market model.

        To even bring up the free rider problem now makes you look ridiculous and is why think progress can get away with skipping all the nuance. Hell do we even know that the guy knowingly didn’t pay? Maybe he forgot to check a box on his mortgage or accidentally checked the wrong one.

        Why give him the chance to screw this up?(No this doesn’t apply to most situations.)Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to ThatPirateGuy
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          says:

          The reason we are bringing up the free rider problem is (I think) that all participants in this discussion hold it to be morally objectionable to withhold firefighting services during an emergency. I certainly don’t think it’s permissible. Does anyone?

          But if these services are always to be provided, then we have the very definition of a free rider problem — it’s a good or service from which people can’t be effectively excluded. Then the only question is — what’s the best way of providing it?Report

  3. Avatar Jason Kuznicki
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    says:

    Several thoughts.

    First, as Tyler Cowen has noted, “It’s odd to claim that government failure reminds you market failure is possible and so let’s damn the market.”

    This is a very straightforward free rider problem. The market and the state each offer a solution to the free rider problem, and both solutions are frankly imperfect.

    The market solution to a free-rider problem will underprovide the good or service. If you ask people to pay on their honor, you will rapidly discover how little honor most people have.

    The state solution involves compulsion. Compulsion is a bad thing, both in itself and also in its knock-on effects. Once you start using compulsion, folks begin wondering about all the other neat things they can compel their neighbors to provide.

    So both state and market approaches to the free rider problem have drawbacks. (The best approach to a free-rider problem is not always available, namely to find ways of effectively excluding the non-payers from the service. This may be done either with laws or with private mechanisms, but much depends on the technologies available to would-be excluders and would-be free riders. These change from time to time and from case to case.)

    Here, no one is getting excluded, owing to widespread moral outrage. In an emergency, the ordinary rules do not and should not apply. That’s actually fine with me, and I can understand that.

    But here is the real key:

    It appears that in this particular instance, the responding fire department decided to make an exception to its historic practices of fighting fires anyway… perhaps in the hopes of garnering support for a county-wide fire tax.

    In other words, the department let someone’s house burn down, not because they were heartless free-marketers, but because they preferred the government solution, and because they were willing to destroy someone’s house to push for it.

    Contemptible. Greedy. Morally repugnant. But not for the reasons everyone thinks.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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      says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, “Contemptible. Greedy. Morally repugnant. But not for the reasons everyone thinks.”

      Exactly.Report

    • Avatar gregiank in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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      says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, “The state solution involves compulsion. Compulsion is a bad thing, both in itself and also in its knock-on effects. Once you start using compulsion, folks begin wondering about all the other neat things they can compel their neighbors to provide.”

      So you are going with the -if we tax people for fire departments we’re on the rocket sled to dictatorship or some such thing” angle??? really???Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to gregiank
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        says:

        @gregiank,

        And that is exactly the angle that makes thinkprogress think they can get away with their awful reporting. They know that One of their readers will encounter a Jason and go ‘Wow thinkprogress got those nasty conservatives/libertarians right, they really are crazy’.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to gregiank
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        says:

        @gregiank, Greg, I think that’s overstating it. Dictatorship no, certainly not, but maybe taxing people so that you can pay a person to harass them about what they eat? That’s more in vogue with the left wing of the party at the moment.Report

        • Avatar gregiank in reply to North
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          says:

          @North, I would have a snarky comment but i’m to busy thinking of whether it want to go to the McD’s, BK, Carls Jr, Arby’s or Wendy’s, all of which are within a five minute drive of my office, to eat in blissful anonimity. Or i suppose i could just eat a box of Krispy Kreme’s that some underage kids have smuggled here as a fund raiser for some dumb school sports team by myself in my office, or even better while driving around town.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to North
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          says:

          @North, Clearly you don’t live in southern LA then. Heh.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to gregiank
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        says:

        @gregiank,

        So you can’t name a single thing that you’re taxed for, from which you derive no benefits, and for which you’d rather not pay? Not one thing? Really? Every single use of your tax money is fine by you?

        I find that position even more extreme than my own. Which, by the way, is most certainly not that all taxation makes us totalitarian. I’d spell it out for you, but I actually just did, above.Report

        • Avatar gregiank in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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          says:

          @Jason Kuznicki, My guess is 100% people who are taxed object to some things their money goes to. I don’t think there is any formulation of a democracy where 100% of people don’t object to something their money is spent on. Its not a bug, its a feature.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to gregiank
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            says:

            Well, no. It is a bug. It’s just a bug that you happen to like.

            Look, I never dreamed when I wrote this comment that people would think I was going all wild-eyed radical on them. Still less did I imagine that they’d accuse me of trotting out the vulgar road to serfdom thesis — which only last week I’d heaped scorn upon, at this very blog.

            I honestly thought I was being reasonable here — when it comes to public goods problems, both the market and the state have their pitfalls. Sometimes one, sometimes the other is preferable. It’s a hard call. Or it should be, anyway.

            On the state side, I thought I was only pointing out a very simple and undeniable truth: Taxation requires coercion. It may be justified coercion, but in order for it to be justified, you have to do some justifying. You can’t just glance at the free market (or the ghost of a free market, like here), frown at what you see, and then declare that any and all public provisions are great.

            The endemic problems of the state solution are still there. One of them is on display in this very case — the power of the state to withhold even emergency services, the better to compel citizens’ obedience, and to vote for higher taxes.Report

            • Avatar Ryan N. in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              says:

              @Jason Kuznicki, You can’t have a society where everyone gets to pick whatever they want. That’s not a democracy, that’s anarchy. The very basis of democracy practically demands that some people be unhappy with some things some of the time (unless all votes are unanimous). You’re telling me it’s a “bug” in democracy that 100% of the people do not support 100% of the things their tax money goes to 100% of the time? Come on.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Ryan N.
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                says:

                @Ryan N.,

                I’m aware that we can’t all pick whatever we want. But I would prefer not to make a virtue of this particular and rather sad necessity. I’d much rather not just shrug and say “well, whatever.” I’d prefer that we actively interrogate the problem and ask how, despite it all, we can offer possibly a bit more of what each person would sincerely prefer. In short, how can we make things more voluntary?Report

    • Avatar Ryan N. in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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      says:

      But Think Progress does have a very good point, I find. When this is the philosophy on public services you subscribe to (not saying the family in the fire did — that can’t be known, but they didn’t pay the fee), these are the sorts of problems you can expect. Taking fire, police, or — in my opinion — healthcare as pay-as-you-go services does not make any sense. Anyone could, at any time, need fire, police, or medical assistance. It is not wise or good for society to allow people to opt out of services they cannot control their need for. People who opt out will inevitably have a problem (unless they are extremely lucky) and the whole system has to decide what to do with these people. I really feel for them if they’re in a place where they A) would have supported taxes in place of this fee or B) genuinely didn’t know/forgot/etc. to pay the fee, as they may have avoided it. However, if they did inentionally opt out, I think it truly is an example of how this model makes our society a worse place to live. Think Progress is absolutely right that this is a conservative idea — “Don’t charge me for anything I don’t use or am not actively using right now.” I’m sorry for this family, but I’m glad for this opportunity to express how shortsighted it is.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Ryan N.
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        says:

        Whether or not that is true more broadly (and obviously I have my share of disputes with it), a reasonable description of the facts in this case would pretty quickly demonstrate that the problem in this specific case was not a question of “pay-as-you-go”: the fire department indeed had a well-established practice of fighting the fires anyhow, the subscription service was in general at least a modest improvement over the status quo ante, which was essentially free service with unenforceable post-response billing (but TP doesn’t even mention the status quo ante), and the fire department in question found the level of funding provided by the subscription program to be insufficient even if it were an improvement over the status quo ante. TP also failed to mention that this was a particularly rural area outside the jurisdiction of any municipality, and misleadingly implies that the cost of doing things its preferred way would be miniscule even compared with the status quo ante.

        If any of these facts are different, you simply do not get this situation. If post-response billing is enforceable, the department fights the fire; if the fire department follows its longstanding practice, it fights the fire; if the fire department provides adequate warning that it is changing its practices (as it would be required to do under any reasonable schematic), the homeowner is at least far more aware of the risks involved and quite likely pays the $75, and there is also no free rider problem to discuss; and if the homeowner lives in a municipality rather than a sparsely populated rural outlying area, he has fire protection. And so on.

        Now, perhaps TP could still come to the same conclusions knowing all those facts. But the fact is that many, many of those who grabbed a hold of the story would have found it quite mundane had those pertinent facts been disclosed. At a minimum, you can’t responsibly report about this case without some sort of reference to the very real problems the county was facing under the status quo ante, which involved completely inadequate funding, undercoverage, etc. To the contrary, TP’s reporting seems to imply that the status quo ante was pretty decent and was changed only due to the County’s bizarre fetish with “pay-for-spray.”

        Again, that’s not to say that “pay-for-spray” was the best solution to the problem, just that it’s rather misleading to ignore that it was an attempt to solve a very real and longstanding problem and that, on the whole, it seems to be at least a modest improvement over that problem.

        To acknowledge that fact would mean changing the argument from “look how Republicans are okay with the homes of the poor and ignorant burning down merely for the sake of ideology” to “Republican solutions to problems are inadequate to the task.”Report

        • Avatar Ryan N. in reply to Mark Thompson
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          says:

          @Mark Thompson, I think in order to come away with the understanding of the article that you say Think Progress was portraying, you had to read the headline or just the blurb, not the article. The article was pretty clear on the facts to anyone that read the whole thing, in my opinion. I read that article first and I had the same understanding as I did after reading this one.Report

  4. Avatar Lyle
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    says:

    It is suprising that TN can not pass an emergency services district law, Tx has one, and they impose taxes in the range of 20-30 dollars per 100,000 in value. In fact I would expect in the future in TN the insurance companies to require payment of the fees or cancel the insurance. (Or raise the premiums to assume no fire protection).Report

  5. Avatar Lyle
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    says:

    Let me add an additional point the emergency services district requires a public vote to create, so in Tx the people of the area have voted to tax themselves for fire services, in some counties. Much west of where I am it would not make much difference as it may be 30 miles to the nearest fire engine, so you still have no protection. (Sprinklers in the house might be a good idea, as well as an outside sprinker set up)Report

  6. Avatar Tony Comstock
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    says:

    “Contemptible. Greedy. Morally repugnant. But not for the reasons everyone thinks.

    Or fire department realizes if, in these hard economic times, they keep indulging their better angels and expending resources fighting fires outside their tax base, they’ll soon not be able to adequately protect the homes and people they’re mandated to protect, and finally decide to take a stand and take the heat.

    It’s all in teh framing, isn’t it?Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Tony Comstock
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      says:

      @Tony Comstock, I’d agree with this if the fire department had made an effort to make citizens in the neighboring areas aware that the department would be changing its policy and would not be responding to calls where the homeowner was not paid up. But that’s not what they did – they just decided to ad hoc change their policy, unannounced. To relate this to long-established and understood common law princples of debt collection, a creditor that repeatedly fails to exercise its contractual rights where a debtor has become delinquent in its payments waives the right to suddenly enforce those contractual rights unless it first provides notice that it will act to enforce its rights in the future for any further delinquencies. That legal principle carries an added moral dimension when you’re talking about an emergency situation where someone’s home, person, pets, and livestock are at risk.Report

  7. Avatar Tony Comstock
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    says:

    “But that’s not what they did – they just decided to ad hoc change their policy, unannounced.”

    I’ve seen this asserted, but haven’t seen a citation.

    Watching the video clip from the local NBC affiliate, it seems this is not first time this happened. Apparently the policy goes back to 1990 the same thing happened in 2008, with a public airing of the issue.

    Can you provide a citation that this incident is a sudden change in policy or practice? Or that the city/FD has not made the policy clear? (Apparently it was clear enough to the neighbor who had paid the $75 and was provided with service when the flames encroached on his property.)Report

  8. Avatar Andy Smith
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    says:

    Maybe I missed it, but has anyone noted that the homeowner allegedly offered to pay “whatever it costs” to have the fire put out? And they still wouldn’t do it? As several conservatives have pointed out, not putting out the fire in these circumstances becomes a moral issue, not a political one.Report

    • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to Andy Smith
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      says:

      @Andy Smith,

      The economics of providing fire protection don’t work very well with a “I’ll pay for it when/if I need it business model”. Even with a volunteer force (like we have here in Montauk) trucks have to be purchased, maintained, fueled before the need arises.Report

      • Avatar Andy Smith in reply to Tony Comstock
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        says:

        @Tony Comstock, As one conservative commentator put it, the situation is then like someone with no health insurance who goes to the E.R., and offers to pay the entire cost of the operation needed. Is the hospital supposed to refuse him because “I’ll pay for it when I need it” is not an adequate business model for covering maintenance of the hospital?Report

    • Avatar Ryan N. in reply to Andy Smith
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      says:

      @Andy Smith, The time for the moral argument was back before this model went into place. If this is the kind of thing one is going to support, one should argue about the morality of dangling the carrot of saving $75, hoping that fire protection will never be needed (I’ve never been involved in a situation where the fire department was needed and I’m nearly 30 years old). This is the same gamble we ask people to take all of the time by not having universal health care.Report

  9. Avatar Diana McGinness
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    says:

    Mark – are you really any better than Think Progress? You fail to mention in your article that there were various revenue proposals included in the document you linked “recovered only half the time” beyond the .13% increase – one of which was simply paying the cost of services from existing funds.

    There are other issues you fail to address as well – I’ll be including them in my blog post later today at http://www.politicsunspun.com.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Diana McGinness
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      says:

      @Diana McGinness, I don’t see how those other proposals are relevant to the point I’m making here, in a post that’s already 1700 words, particularly given that I’m responding specifically to TP’s posts which themselves suggest that the only alternatives are a .13 percent tax and “pay-for-spray.” The point of this post is explicitly not to argue that one particular funding mechanism is superior for this county than another – I have, quite literally, no idea which mechanism would work best for this county; instead, this post is simply to say that any kind of objective understanding of what happened here quickly reveals that this is not remotely an issue of “on your own” versus “government services are important” philosophies of governance.

      The issue here is instead quite clearly a question of how best to deal with a classic free rider problem -an important question, albeit not a terribly “sexy” question. Not only does TP fail to provide any context to suggest that this is a free rider problem, but it then goes on to demonize anyone who attempts to discuss that problem. One who accepted TP’s reports as the full story, or a reasonable approximation thereof, would naturally be inclined to find discussion by conservatives of the free rider problem to be inherently bizarre since they have not been provided sufficient facts to know that the free rider problem exists in a fairly severe fashion.Report

  10. Avatar Three-nineteen
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    says:

    The fire service didn’t work very well for the neighbor who actually paid for it. His yard started burning and the fire dept put it out. If the fire dept had put out his neighbor’s fire, his yard wouldn’t have been on fire in the first place. Now, because his neighbor didn’t follow the rules, he’s got property damage and possibly a higher insurance bill depending on if he contacts his insurance company — or maybe his insurance co will just up his premiums anyway, for living next to an idiot.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Three-nineteen
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      says:

      @Three-nineteen,

      Not to mention his property value just dropped by a huge amount. A burned out wreck does not help sell a house.Report

      • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to ThatPirateGuy
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        says:

        @ThatPirateGuy,

        The village where I live is too small to support a full-time professional fire department. When houses catch fire it is not uncommon for the our volunteer force to be able to respond in time to prevent house from being destroyed.

        It is also not unheard for some of these houses to be uninsured, which in most cases means the burned hulk remains until the property is sold to someone with the cash to buy the property plus pay for the removal of the debris.

        No doubt you have ideas on how our village could better run its affairs, starting with raising taxes to a high enough level to stop fires sooner, and perhaps mandating insurance for those instances when the house needs to be razed.Report

        • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Tony Comstock
          Ignored
          says:

          @Tony Comstock,

          “The village where I live is too small to support a full-time professional fire department. When houses catch fire it is not uncommon for the our volunteer force to be able to respond in time to prevent house from being destroyed.”

          Either you have the issue under control, or you have mistyped something here.Report

          • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to ThatPirateGuy
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            says:

            @ThatPirateGuy,

            Mistyped. I’m lisdexic and don’t always type out the words I’m thinking.

            What I meant to say is that although we have theoretical universal coverage, the economic reality is that it’s not uncommon for houses out here that catch fire to be total losses, and it’s not uncommon for the ruins to remain standing.

            That’s not as dramatic as watching fire-fighters stand by while something burns, but it’s the same result stemming from teh same simple fact, it’s expensive to provide effective fire protection in rural areas, and it’s not especially important, because the speed/risk of the fire spreading to other houses is low.

            That’s what’s missing in all these arguments. Fire protection isn’t about protection for individual home owners. It’s about protecting communities, and any protection that flows back to the individual home owner is a bonus.

            If a home owner want the benefit of fire protection, then they should live somewhere where the community benefit from providing it is high enough that the community will fund it.

            Otherwise, the answer is insurance, which comes in many forms.Report

            • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Tony Comstock
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              says:

              @Tony Comstock,

              If the cost to the person to get the fire insurence would be 75 dollars per year then yes it should be added to the taxes. If it is 7500 per year then we start talking about cost benefit ratios.

              The issue isn’t that hard.Report

            • Avatar Tony Comstock in reply to Tony Comstock
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              says:

              @ThatPirateGuy,

              “If the cost to the person to get the fire insurence would be 75 dollars per year then yes it should be added to the taxes.”

              This just doesn’t even make any sense. The municipality providing the $75/year service doesn’t have any taxation authority over the country, and if I’m reading the record correctly, the county residents have repeatedly voted for a voluntary opt-in.

              So what do you want to do? Send in the National Guard Little Rock style to make the country voters vote for the policy you think is best?

              What evs, dude.Report

            • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Tony Comstock
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              says:

              @Tony Comstock,

              Nah, if the counties voters are too dumb to vote the right way they get situations like this. That is plenty of punishment enough.Report

    • Avatar Joe in reply to Three-nineteen
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      says:

      In short, we have an externality problem as well as a free-rider problem. I’m not sure how a free-market approach helps with the former. I suppose the neighbor could lodge suit against the owner for losses associated with the fire.Report

  11. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    It’s funny — I was thinking of writing a parody comment about how a tax-supported fire department was the pathway to Bolsheivism, but Jason beast me to it. (Of course, he wasn’t joking.).Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Mike Schilling
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      says:

      @Mike Schilling, C’mon Mike. Jason was pretty explicit that “The market and the state each offer a solution to the free rider problem, and both solutions are frankly imperfect.”

      The point wasn’t “taxation=compulsion=Bolshevism.” It was that this issue presents a tradeoff (just like most issues) between a known degree of compulsion and some unknown degree of underprovision of fire service. Not mentioned by Jason, but perhaps implicit, is that the taxation route can also result in overprovision of fire service, which can reduce resources dedicated to some other public good. The extent of those tradeoffs, moreover, can vary from locale to locale.

      No one is saying that taxation is never justified, just that it’s not without costs, one of which is that it is inherently coercive.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @Mark Thompson,

        Precisely. Anyone who doubts that the tax solution sometimes produces an oversupply of a public good should just consider another, closely related public good — national security.

        And then take a look at our defense budget.

        The solution is not to privatize national defense, but at the very least we shouldn’t be cutting the blank checks that we are. And we shouldn’t assume that because it comes from tax money, it must have been a wise decision and always in the public interest.Report

        • Avatar Ryan N. in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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          says:

          @Jason Kuznicki, That is true — there is tax money given away for stupid purposes (while I argued with you in another post that 100%/100%/100% is not a proper metric, a strong majority against funding something does need to be taken seriously). Oddly enough, in general, conservatives are not against throwing money away to companies like KBR, etc., that they just happen to be connected to. They just hate it when people might get provided a public service they don’t feel like paying for (for example, Amtrak, which costs the taxpayer ~$2 a year, and which could not be funded any other way and exist as it currently does). War is also not a basic public service. Defense is, but we haven’t defended ourselves against anything in quite some time.Report

  12. Avatar rj
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    says:

    Your assumption that the average house in Obion County is $100,000 (and thus that there would be a tax increase for areas outside the city) is unfounded. The County Joint Economic Council says houses are $75-$100k new, but $40-$80k for the average older home (and the average home is over 40 years old). This figure is almost certainly lower for houses outside the eight municipalities. So the fee would probably be closer to $75 than not. Making up numbers to create a tax increase where there is none is very NRO.

    http://www.obioncounty.org/living_in_obion/cost_of_living.html

    Regardless, anyone who would let a person’s house burn down to prove a point about free riders, market failure or anything else does not deserve to be anywhere near the levers of government or the ears of those in power.Report

    • Avatar Three-nineteen in reply to rj
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      says:

      @rj, You mean the voters? The voters were the ones who said no to the county imposing taxes to help pay for the fire department (IIRC). They are the ones who created this situation. If there are no consequences for this choice, how will they know if they made the correct decision?Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to rj
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      says:

      @rj,
      1. I was going off of this data: http://www.city-data.com/county/Obion_County-TN.html
      FWIW, detached homes have significantly higher property values than the average. Also, even if we use your numbers, you still wind up with a tax increase for the overwhelming majority, albeit a more modest one. Since TP is trying to suggest that this homeowner simply couldn’t afford the $75, even a modest hike above that amount would be even more of a problem for the homeowner.

      2. “Regardless, anyone who would let a person’s house burn down to prove a point about free riders, market failure or anything else does not deserve to be anywhere near the levers of government or the ears of those in power.” No real disagreement here, and I’ve been pretty unequivocal in my condemnation of how the FD acted. But that doesn’t change the fact that the free rider problem existed and was unsustainable, requiring a solution.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @Mark Thompson, One other thing worth mentioning – the 2008 report indicates that the amount to be raised by the tax is $546,000 per annum and that there were 4734 households in the county, amounting to a tax of $115.34 per household, on average, or about 150% of the $75.00 subscription fee.Report

        • Avatar rj in reply to Mark Thompson
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          says:

          @Mark Thompson, The assumption there is that the median home price is the mean home price. If there are a few huge plantation homes or some such, Joe Average may not see that kind of fee increase.Report

          • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to rj
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            says:

            @rj, The 101,000 figure from city-data is a median, not a mean and uses 2008 estimates, which is the same year as the report; a 0.13 percent tax on that would equate to a hair over $130, which is more than the $115 average per household estimated by the report, so there’s even room to build in a fudge factor for differences in assessed vs. market value. Additionally, the top and bottom quartile market value range is from $60,000 to $150,000, which is consistent with a median around $101,000. Importantly, the data I’m referencing denotes a specific year; the data you cite from the County’s webpage (which is explicitly a webpage to entice people to move to the County) is undated and in fact appears to be quite out of date (if it’s reliable at all), showing an appreciation rate on real estate of 38%. That kind of appreciation rate would have been incredibly high even during the height of the real estate bubble, but once that bubble started to deflate in 2006 and then completely pop in 2007, it’s completely unimaginable.Report

      • Avatar rj in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @Mark Thompson,

        “But that doesn’t change the fact that the free rider problem existed and was unsustainable, requiring a solution.”

        No quibble there. Of course, I’d much prefer Randian moral midgetry as a demonstrative lobbying technique on display at a council meeting rather than in front of someone’s burning home.Report

        • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to rj
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          says:

          @rj, As would I. But given the additional facts I’ve presented here, wouldn’t it seem that the cause of the fire department’s “moral midgetry” was something other than simply an “own your own” philosophy of government? If the underlying cause of this was, as you seem to acknowledge, the free rider problem, isn’t it wrong to only publish facts that elide this problem, demonize anyone who feigns to discuss the implications of that free rider problem, and indeed claim that the cause of this incident was the fact that conservatives are concerned with free rider problems”?Report

    • Avatar Ryan N. in reply to rj
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      says:

      @rj, Go ahead and explain how hearing from your constituency “we won’t fund the service, but we expect you to continue to put out fires” is supposed to lead to anything else? You cut hospital funding, they provide less adequate service. Average ignoramus then blames the hospital rather than blaming themselves to prefer to “take home more of that money.”Report

  13. Avatar Plinko
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    says:

    I am not sure what the interpretive issues are with the ‘.13 percent’ tax increase are. It’s not particularly clear in the linked document, probably something that a county commissioner would know right away.

    To TP it’s clearly unjust that a resident should be put in a spot to pay $75 a year for the opportunity to pay $500 to have a fire put out when there had been a plan on the table where at a cost of $0.13 per household. I think that would be a solid case, if the facts were so.
    You’re reading it as a 0.13 percent increase, I assume that in reality, it’s an increase of $1.30 per $1000 in assessed value which would be of course variable based on the assessed taxable value of the property (which will be considerably less than it’s ‘market value’). In that case the fee would be higher for some and lower for many but it would eliminate the ‘free rider’ issue.

    I think it’s important to call out that Yglesias did post on this subject:
    http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2010/10/optimal-pricing-of-fee-for-service-firefighting-services/ and I mostly agree with his perspective – that moralizing aside, there is no reason they couldn’t have put in a policy where the price for a fire response to a non-subscriber cannot be set. Collection issues should be a non-starter, they are a part of a local government and there are plenty of tools to collect I doubt they’re using to recover the $500 fees.

    That said, I am sincerely opposed to the growing ‘fee for service’ model of emergency response. It’s ripe for abuse and has holes – not only this kind of one but also issues of ‘free riders’ in the form of visitors who happen to get into an emergency situation while visting to traveling through. Fire, police and emergency responses ought to be considered basic mandatory services that should not be subject to any whim or ability to pay. Local governments should have wide leeway to determine what systems to use and how to cover the costs, but any system where a person could be denied such services is unjust.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Plinko
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      says:

      @Plinko,
      1. See above – according to the report, the tax on the average household would amount to $115.33, or 150% of the $75.00.
      2. On the collection issues, you’re right that there’s no reason it shouldn’t be an enforceable fee. The report insists that the fee is unenforceable but I don’t know how much of that is spin, though. Then again, it’s always worth remembering that the fire departments are based in jurisdictions with no authority over the people in the outlying areas who are asked to pay for the service.
      3. I would tend to agree with your skepticism about fee-for-service fire departments, but it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s an inherent injustice in just about every conceivable plan, and that the tradeoffs are going to be different in every situation: $115 in rural Tennessee will have a much different value from $115 in Manhattan; a tax paid directly to one’s own municipality will involve a different tradeoff than a tax paid to a neighboring municipality; even the best fire coverage provided by the neighboring municipality may be inadequate to the task of responding to a fire in a remote area; etc.Report

      • Avatar Plinko in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        @Mark Thompson,
        1. Actually, according to document authors present 4 funding options, The 0.13 number in the third option as a potential property tax assesment.
        The $115 number is the 4th option in front of them as a county fee assesed on all structures which, depending on definition of eligible structure could mean some pretty different things. I assume it would fall out quite differently because the ‘number of structures’ in the county would likely distribute very differently than a mill rate change in the property tax and could be levied on structures that may be exempt from taxation, plus there might be a $3 million industrial building and a $20,000 hunting shack – under one scenario they incur the same fee and under the other one would be charged several times as much.
        In the end, they are all looking at ways to assess $550,000 among all the taxpayers of the county, so the question is likely only distributional.
        However, on top of that, I don’t see an answer on whether or not with their own fire service if residents would also be charged $500 per response – certainly that would weigh heavily in any analysis of costs of proposed systems vs. the status quo of subscription service from a nearby municipality.
        On point 3 – That is true of all local government services – schools, roads, police, fire protection, etc, yet somehow we manage to provide them in pretty much every jurisdiction in the nation. I have lived in relatively rural counties that managed to find ways to make it work better than Obion, TN is doing now.
        This issue crops up because politicians are loathe to ‘raise taxes’ and prefer to ‘cut taxes’ and thus are all-too-willing to convert property taxes to fees and thus ‘hide’ the cost of providing essential government services, even if it creates some form of injustice. An especially big problem is the creation of an incentive for over-response in order to collect more fees – such as sending fire trucks to minor traffic issues in order to collect a fee for fire response.Report

    • Avatar Diana McGinness in reply to Plinko
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      says:

      @Plinko, Most insurance polices for rural properties (I used to have one) include language that the will cover up to $500 for a fire service fee (usually charged by volunteer fire departments). If the fire department was skilled in collection, I can assure you the city/county attorney would know how to collect (but a simple bill to the insurance carrier would provide a return payment).

      For those uninsured, a lien against the property normally works.Report

  14. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    The posts take issue with the county policy of allowing these residents not in municipalities to go without fire protection. That is their explicit beef. They don’t describe the free rider problem with respect to the munlicipalities explicitly, because that is the obvious context of the story. The issue is the county not employing a policy of compulsion for all its residents to subscribe to fire protection. Jason can say comulsion has its problems (we live in a fallen world), but it’s entirely fair to use this as an example of the need for mandates, and of the flaw in the conservative vision as exemplified by the policy approach of Obion County in not mndating fire protection subscription. I saw very little demonization of the local fire departments in the posts, though some is clearly warranted, as a sudden unnannounced change in policy on provision of servi e to nonsubscribers is not defensible as you point out. But the previous policy of providing the service served only to prop up a faulty policy approach: namely lack of a county-wide fire protection mandate. You’re right that the fire departments were wrong to use this tactic to promote a mandate, but they were driven to that point (again, not justified in choosing to take that approach, but driven to it) by bad policy. That is the clear thrust of the TP posts, and it is justified.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Michael Drew
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      says:

      @Michael Drew, The trouble with this is that it:
      1. Assumes the status quo ante was superior, but doesn’t tell us what the status quo ante was and is…kind of important given that TP is also criticizing the decision to expand the subscription service at the expense of the status quo ante.
      2. There’s no consideration of the realities of a county-wide mandate in this case.
      3. The repeated emphasis in each of TP’s pieces is that this case demonstrates the difference between a vision that “primarily serves the well off and privileged sectors of the country” and a vision that “believes in an American Dream that works for all people, regardless of their racial, religious, or economic background.” TP also implies that the homeowner here simply couldn’t afford the subscription, and that’s why the fire department stood and watched rather than helping out. But the full facts don’t support that, even if the cherry-picked facts do.

      Look – if TP was simply using this story to make the point that this is a suboptimal policy for this county, I don’t write this post. But that’s not what they’re doing or implying – they’re instead explicitly using it to demonstrate how conservative policies (and, frankly, the “pay-for-spray” policy in this context is neither conservative nor liberal in nature due to all of the local nuances and peculiarities involved) “primarily serve the privileged and well off sectors of the country,” as opposed to TP’s preferred policies, which “believe[] in an American Dream that works for all people, regardless of their racial, religious, or economic background.” Whether or not that is true more broadly, a non-cherry-picked description of the facts in this case quickly reveals that this case has nothing whatsoever to do with those competing visions as described in the posts by TP.Report

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