Thursday, April 09, 2009

Taxing Times

A professor from Yale and a professional politician, New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Friedan, have got together in the New England Journal of Medicine and decided that sugar sweeteners in beverages are not good for kids.

This is not a shocking surprise. New York is broke and much in need of tax money these days.

The two have proposed taxing sugary sweet things out of existence, using the tax on smelly cigarettes as their template. Just as tobacco is bad for kids and grow-ups, so are sugar substitutes bad for kids.

These pathological behaviors must be abolished.

As soon as kids, the last refuge of scoundrels, are mentioned in any political connection, one may be certain that there will be tax-Hell to pay, and so it is in this case.

It would be pointless to argue that sugary sweet things are good for kids. They aren’t; never were, never will be. We all know this because when we were kids and reached for the candy, kept out of hand usually in some inaccessible cabinet, daddy – still the best prophylactic preventative for errant behavior – shoved a piece of fruit in our hands and said something like, “Why don’t you kids go out and play?”

We knew from his tone that daddy was not soliciting our opinion on the question.

But that was in the good old days when there were daddies. In certain urban human landscapes, daddies are as rare as Yale professor Kelly Brownell and Mr. Friedan -- the New York politician now hungry for tax dollars, as are most of his brethren politicians -- hope sugary snacks may someday be, assuming the New York state legislature is current in its subscription to the New England Journal of Medicine.

I do not seek here to challenge any of these presuppositions: candy, taken immoderately, is bad for kids; tobacco, taken immoderately, is bad for grown-ups.

Putting aside our cynicism – What these pull-a-rabbit-from-the-hat magicians really want is more tax money to spend recklessly on programs that produce unintended social pathologies -- let’s pause over the proposition, unchallenged by Mr. Brownell and Mr. Friedan, that confiscatory taxation may be used to adjust errant behavior.
"Taxes on tobacco products have been highly effective in reducing consumption, and data indicate that higher prices also reduce soda consumption. A review conducted by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity suggested that for every 10% increase in price, consumption decreases by 7.8%. An industry trade publication reported even larger reductions: as prices of carbonated soft drinks increased by 6.8%, sales dropped by 7.8%, and as Coca-Cola prices increased by 12%, sales dropped by 14.6%.5 Such studies — and the economic principles that support their findings — suggest that a tax on sugared beverages would encourage consumers to switch to more healthful beverages, which would lead to reduced caloric intake and less weight gain."

Revenue generation, the two authors note, "can further increase the societal benefits of a tax on soft drinks. A penny-per-ounce excise tax would raise an estimated $1.2 billion in New York State alone. In times of economic hardship, taxes that both generate this much revenue and promote health are better options than revenue initiatives that may have adverse effects."

We operate on this principle all the time. The inordinately high tobacco tax reduces consumption and leads to an excess of entrepreneurial activity among the criminal class, whom we hope to catch and shove in jail. If we are successful, the tax dollars we have collected will flow from smokers to prison wardens. And let us cross our fingers and hope that our legislation is not too successful: A tax that abolished smoking would also abolish the tax on smoking.

When the decriminalists among us argue that pot, shall we say, should be decriminalized, they are averting to the same principle. Legalize pot and control its distribution through taxes, they say, and in this way you will deprive the criminal element of its product and reap tax rewards that might be better spent on procuring daddies for inner city young boys teetering on the edge of criminality.

The principal involved is simple: Whatever you tax or regulate, for regulation is nothing but a hidden tax, tends to disappear. The corollary of the proposition is this: Tax receipts from errant behavior then may be used to rectify social pathologies -- fat kids or fatherless urban landscapes.

Of course, precisely what social pathologies will be eradicated, once our fists are full of tax dollars, and by whom, are political matters.

Some of us in the twilight of our years, remembering our vanishing whole and healthy families, are beginning to think that social pathologies in the cities are not likely to be settled by separating kids from sugar – when they have been caused by social engineers and their abettors in the media and helping professions who have succeeded in separating young boys from their daddies.

The solution is at hand: Tax what you wish to eradicate, the social pathologies associated with broken families, and use the money to support really supportive social structures -- intact families.

How about a confiscatory tax on divorce lawyers, mischievous social engineers, legislators who abolish what we wish to preserve – jobs, a little jingle in the pocket at the end of the workday, daddies – and, if you insist, sugary sweet things for the kids?

Now, let’s go out and play.

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