Friday, July 18, 2008
California utilities reported hundreds of balloon-related outages last year: 211 for northern California's PG&E and 478 for southern California's Edison. California Senate Bill 1499 proposes to deal with the problem by banning foil balloons and fining violators. Though foil balloons can be a problem, a bit of economic analysis suggests that the heavy-handed ban may not be the best remedy.
By increasing the odds of costly power outages, helium balloon consumption imposes external costs on society. The vast majority of electricity consumers outside of the helium balloon market may nonetheless end up incurring some costs when errant balloons make their way into nearby power lines. Since helium balloon consumption imposes external costs, the social benefit of helium balloon consumption is considerably less than the private benefit. When the social value of a good is lower than the private value, there will be an inefficiently high level of consumption in the private market.
So rather than banning the balloons altogether, the California legislature may want to consider a corrective tax. Taxing the consumption of helium balloons would force buyers to internalize the heretofore external costs that the balloons impose on everyone else. The tax would reduce both foil balloons purchased and balloon-related power outages while giving buyers and sellers an incentive to shift toward less disruptive party favors.