City to Citizens: Please Smoke and Drink More

The city of Philadelphia has a revenue problem – or, to be more precise, a not-enough-revenue problem.  Its school district faces a deficit of more than $300 million, and while city officials hope to get most of that money from their state government – which, technically, runs the city’s schools and, in withholding money, is failing to fulfill a responsibility it strong-armed away from the city more than a decade ago – they understand that before the state will help them, they’ll first need to demonstrate that the city is prepared to do its part, too.

Enter sin taxes – you know, extra taxes governments levy on things that are supposed to be bad for us.

Just a few years ago, Philadelphia’s mayor, facing a budget shortfall of his own – the city and school district are separate – proposed a tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.  He said such beverages harm people and that the tax could both discourage their use and help pay for programs to encourage people to cut down on their, well, on their sinning.  He failed:  people saw right through his silly attempt at gimmicky governing.

Now the mayor is targeting a whole new set of sins, proposing a new tax of two dollars on every pack of cigarettes sold in the city, with all of the new tax revenue going directly to the school district.  He also wants to increase from ten to fifteen percent the current tax on every glass of alcohol sold at local bars and restaurants.

Let us set aside, for the sake of discussion, the very real possibility that the sinners, faced with these new taxes, will simply choose to make their sinful purchases outside the city limits.  Let us also set aside the problem of labeling as “sins” products that are legal.  If they were that bad, wouldn’t their use be against the law?  (The Curmudgeon would love to argue that they should, in fact, be against the law, but that’s an entirely different subject.)

Part of the dubious premise of sin taxes is that there’s no proof they work – no proof, that is, that making people pay an extra fee to engage in their dubious consumption will actually curb that dubious consumption.

But an even bigger part of the dubious premise is the possibility that one day, a sin tax might actually work – and work well.

Work too well.

Consider this:  Philadelphia city officials estimate that their cigarette and booze tax would raise about $65 million for city schools.  But what if it doesn’t?  What if people who drink at bars and restaurants and smoke cigarettes find the taxes so onerous – remember, Philadelphia has a pretty large population of low-income residents – that they curb their evil ways and reduce their consumption of these sinful products?

That would be a humdinger of a problem for city officials, wouldn’t it?  After all, they’re betting on their new sin taxes raising $65 million a year, and if the taxes work and reduce consumption, they won’t raise what’s needed and city officials will be back at square one, looking up at a big school budget deficit.

So where does that leave the city today?  it leaves the city of Philadelphia in the business of depending on its residents’ smoking and drinking habits for its financial health.  It is, in fact, now in the ridiculous position of needing to encourage people to smoke and drink – and maybe, even smoke and drink more than they ever have.

Ultimately, this is about bad government – really, about government with neither courage nor vision.  It’s about politicians for whom the end goal is gaining (and retaining) office, not achieving something once they do.  Philadelphia, for example, has an infrastructure that was essentially designed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the city’s population was a half-million greater than it is today.  As a result, it has too many schools, too many playgrounds, too many libraries, too many swimming pools, and too many city employees for such a scaled-down population, but the easiest way to turn a politician into a frightened demagogue is to threaten to close a facility in a favored neighborhood.  Somewhere in the depths of city government is the money to run the schools, but it would take someone with real intestinal fortitude to go get it.  Today, the city’s government is led mostly by people sadly lacking in such fortitude.

And that leaves governing with gimmicks – gimmicks that make the city’s government the equivalent of Joe Camel, the Dos Equis guy, and the National Football League:  pimps for the tobacco industry and pimps for the beer and wine and hard liquor industries.

So what are these, pardon the expression, leaders telling the people they are supposed to be leading?    The are telling them to become chain-smoking, beer-drinking, wine-gulping idiots so the extra taxes they pay will help prop up the city’s financially beleaguered schools and benefit the 150,000 children who attend those schools.

That’s right:  drink more, smoke more.

Do it – for the kids!

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  • harleyrider1978  On June 26, 2013 at 6:53 am

    “The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation.”
    (Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler; 1943)

    Something along the lines of the Hitler Youf:
    Proctor (1997) continues that “throughout this period, magazines like Genussgifte (Poisons of taste or habit), Auf der Wacht (On Guard), and Reine Luft (Pure air) published a regular drumbeat against this ‘insidious poison’ [tobacco], along with articles charting the unhealthful effects of alcohol, teenage dancing, cocaine, and other vices. Dozens of books and pamphlets denounced the ‘smoking slavery’ or ‘cultural degeneration’ feared from the growth of tobacco use. Tobacco was branded ‘the enemy of world peace’, and there was even talk of ‘tobacco terror’ and ‘tobacco capitalism’ …. The Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls both published antismoking propaganda, and the Association for the Struggle against the Tobacco Danger organized counseling centers where the ‘tobacco ill’ could seek help” (p.456-457); “Hitler Youth had anti-smoking patrols all over Germany, outside movie houses and in entertainment areas, sports fields etc., and smoking was strictly forbidden to these millions of German youth growing up under Hitler.” (www.zundelsite – January 27, 1998.htm)

    The Führer thanks the Philly Mayor from the grave:

    Hitler was a Leftist
    Hitler’s Anti-Tobacco Campaign

    One particularly vile individual, Karl Astel — upstanding president of Jena University, poisonous anti-Semite, euthanasia fanatic, SS officer, war criminal and tobacco-free Germany enthusiast — liked to walk up to smokers and tear cigarettes from their unsuspecting mouths. (He committed suicide when the war ended, more through disappointment than fear of hanging.) It comes as little surprise to discover that the phrase “passive smoking” (Passivrauchen) was coined not by contemporary American admen, but by Fritz Lickint, the author of the magisterial 1100-page Tabak und Organismus (“Tobacco and the Organism”), which was produced in collaboration with the German AntiTobacco League.

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