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February 22, 2009

Syntax of Sin Tax and the Goverment-Military-Industrial Complex

This is a rant, way off my normal beat (Bikes, Bytes, Burgh), but and I hope it works. I've been noodling for a while about the current trend of public revenue sources, and a recent post at Pgh is a City prompted me to take up the keyboard.

Once upon a time, some behaviors were recognized as inconsistent with the public good, and at various times we have made them illegal (which is what we do with such things). These activities have included pornography, prostitution, gambling, loan sharking, drinking, and Sunday shopping. Used to be, there were rules against these things.

Funny things happen over time. "New normals" evolve, and when too much strife is going on there's a tendency to "define deviancy down". (I miss DP Moynihan.)

Sunday used to be a different day than the rest of the week. Blue laws closed clothing and liquor stores. No beer at convenience stores. No shooting at the range before noon. Sunday was a day for Church and Family. (This was back before Sunday was a day for Custody and Visitation.)

Stores wanted to open on Sunday. The new shopping centers wanted the money; the malls got waivers, and then the mom-and-pops felt the pinch. The money reached out to the politicians, and the rules were changed. Now if you work in a store, you're working Sundays and you're not in church or with your family. Does anybody believe that the total amount of money spent in the mall increased by 1/6th when they went from six days to seven days? But We've given Sundays away, we'll never put Humpty Dumpty together again, and I'm at a loss to say how we've benefited. If a group advocated closing stores on Sunday, pundits would wag "oh no, can't do that, if we lose the tax receipts we'd have to change seniors more for their prescriptions, and Aunt Mary will be eating catfood and cutting her pills in half". Hoisted on our own petard.

Drinking isn't a total evil; see the famous "If by whiskey" speech for the two sides of that coin. There's a lot of bad things that come from drinking: alcoholics, drunk driving, domestic violence, paychecks spent at the bar. There's money to be made, though; it's rare to see a bar or a distillery go out of business. There's an industry that has a stake in legal drinking, and they're not going to let the law mess with it. Prohibition tried once, but but the industry won in the end. And goverment makes money on it, especially in Allegheny County with the Onorato drink tax; we can't campaign against public drunkedness on the South Side, we need the tax receipts to keep the 35A bus from running out to Century Three Mall, even if they won't let the bus into the parking lot.

Cigarettes. Is there possibly any reason why these are legal, other than the money and the industry's influence? It kills our people, they die nasty extended deaths, the industry takes the profits and society pays for the hospitals and hospices, and we bemoan the tragedy of cancer without looking at root causes. Government taxes cigarettes heavily, which has the initial positive effect of making smoking somewhat more expensive, but while the long term effect is that government is dependent on tax receipts from smoking. We let this industry market death to our children because they let us put tax stamps on the cartons.

Gambling? Look at the state falling all over itself trying to figure out where to place the casinos. No community has benefited from casinos, which leach money out of the local population. But we don't want our people to go to Ohio or West Virginia, we want to abuse them right here because we want the tax receipts. There's a lot of money; casinos don't go out of business. Complete this sentence: The house always __________. The industry touches the politicians, and anybody who objects is a priggish moralist. We permit a once-illegal activity because of the money, justified by the artificial rhetoric of competition and tax receipts.

Prostitution? Too far out? Inconceivable, you say?? Illyrias' recent post describing a future Gov. Rendell legalizing and taxing NorthSide hookers North Shore sex workers is what prompted me to start writing this; it's the inevitable incremental step. Why are Burghers going to Vegas? What can they get there that they can't get here? Can't have them going to Morgantown for cash business, can we?

I thought about this topic, and I said to myself, this is a great evergreen story - I can jot this down on my list of things to blog about, and it's safe to let it sit for a few weeks until I get around to it, it's a timeless story that isn't going to be overcome by events (OBE'd). Then I read about the New York pornography tax crisis, and I realized that Illyrias' prediction was spot on.

New York has a funding crisis, and Governor Patterson proposes a tax on movie downloads - and not just the Sound of Music, mind you, but also Debbie Does Dallas. Porn industry spokesmen (just think about the existence of that phrase) complain that porn is part of the essence of New York, that tourists come to Times Square to buy these DVDs, and that taxing pornography is an attack upon the essence of New York. This unbelievable story makes Illerias' prediction seem all too inevitable.

Here's what I see: we've embraced things that were once unacceptable because of the tax receipts, and now we've got a vested interest in their survival, if not their success.
  • I believe there are funding sources that are always unacceptable. Don't whore your mother.
  • I think Thoreau would agree: what you tax, ends up owning you.
  • If government (ie, us) wasn't paying for the cancer deaths, the blighted neighborhoods, and the corporate bailouts, and if industry wasn't taking huge amounts out of the population, we wouldn't have the expenses we're paying for, and we'd have more money to pursue the right priorities.
  • I don't want to live in Las Vegas, New Orleans, or Amsterdam, and I don't mind missing their tax receipts.
  • Here we go Steelers, here we...

I am reminded of the government-military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about in his swansong speech.

Ike was right that the government-military-industrial complex is a powerful force in the federal system, but I think it's a sign of how far we've gone that the goverment-industry complex is also a persistent force in local government.

I will strive to avoid writing anything moralistic for the next ninety days.


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