The Marin Institute, one of the more blunt and churlish of the anti-alcohol organizations, is mounting an offensive to raise alcohol taxes an incredible “25 cents per drink” in California. Their vision — my nightmare — is to bring about “communities free of the alcohol industry’s negative influence and an alcohol industry that does not harm the public’s health.” But as they naturally see any influence as negative and everything that the alcohol industry does as harmful, what they really want is nothing short of an another Prohibition.
Throughout their rhetoric (and even the sources they’re relying upon) is a call for “fairness” and for alcohol to pay its “fair share,” whatever that really means. But the carrot they’re holding out is that by doing so it would help to alleviate California’s budget deficit that’s been plaguing us for several years now. But I fail to see how raising the taxes of people who drink is in any way fair. Effectively what they’re suggesting is that because our state managed to get itself in a fix, budget-wise, people who drink should be called upon to foot the bill. They just want to punish those of us who choose to drink, and yet they call it fair? The first definition (of 26) for the word “fair” is “free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice.” There’s clearly bias, it’s dishonest in my opinion to claim it’s because of our state’s tax problems, and it hardly seems just to have drinkers pay a disproportionate share to get us out of our budget hole. So it’s really the very opposite of fair.
This is the same nonsense that’s going on with Indian gaming right now, with several state proposals on November’s ballot. We committed genocide against Native Americans and broke every single treaty we ever made. So when Indian gaming successfully exploited one of the few advantages left to them, we still can’t seem to let them be. This is the second time California politicians have tried to get (or more accurately extort) a bigger piece of their gambling revenues, and the exponents of these propositions try to sell them in the same way as the Marin Institute is doing with beer taxes, by twisting the idea of “fairness.”
Of course, the real reason they can say with a straight face that it’s fair to ask drinkers to pay more taxes than teetotalers is this odd notion that, in the words of David Leonhardt, “taxes serve a purpose beyond merely raising general government revenue. Taxes on a given activity are also supposed to pay the costs that activity imposes on society.” I’m not necessarily against this idea entirely, but I don’t understand when it became an unquestionable fait accompli and why people are so quick to believe it. Why is this only ever said of things that some people don’t like? The costs on society for our general obesity and unhealthiness has not brought about taxes on fast food, sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Hummers, SUVs and other similar gas-guzzling vehicles not only are not taxed at a higher rate but actually receive federal and state tax breaks and incentives and have lower standards of fuel efficiency than regular cars. With their poor MPG they do great harm to our society yet are actively subsidized and encouraged by our government over cars that get more miles per gallon and are kinder to the planet. Check out this Slate article for more on this. I’m not saying that’s as it should be, simply that this idea that all products must contain within their profit structure some tax scheme that balances the price with their damage to society caused by them is wholly fallacious.
But even if it wasn’t such a weak argument, we don’t charge a higher percentage of a person’s tax burden for the fire department if they live in a tinderbox house vs. an inflammable brick home. Instead we average the cost to society out and charge everyone the same amount since everyone gets the same potential benefit. That’s a fair arrangement in every sense of the word. It’s good for the whole town, not just for you, if your house does not burn down. So there’s really no reason why we can’t apply that same logic to the whole of society. I realize that will be unpopular with folks who don’t think it’s fair that while they choose to abstain, they may have to pay for problems supposedly caused my decision to drink. But if it’s legal for everyone who pays taxes (except, those 18-20 years old — hey, another reason they should be allowed) to drink then I don’t see why it’s so troubling that we all share the costs of society equally. You may think it’s unfair because you feel you’re not causing the (hypothetical) problem. Well I think you’re being selfish by only wanting to pay for services that that either benefit you or were caused by you. In a sense, it’s like after building your inflammable brick house you refuse to pay to support the fire department any longer under the theory that your house is in order.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to live in a world where everyone is so selfish that they don’t want to help other people. Look at this another way. The vast majority of drinkers do so in moderation and never are any burden to society whatsoever. But a tiny percentage of drinkers do cause problems for themselves and others. There are at least two ways we can shape policy to deal with problem drinkers. We can treat the causes of the problems and make tougher laws to deal with them, and only them. Or we can make it harder on everybody’s ability to drink, thus punishing everybody for the sins of the few. It’s not too difficult to figure out which approach the neo-prohibitionists have chosen. Even if only one in every ten-thousand persons who drink may exact a cost on society they would prefer to punish the other 9,999, too.
Another one of the contentions is that the last time California raised taxes on alcohol was 1992. That increase was apparently one cent on a glass of wine and two pennies for a bottle or can of beer and one shot of hard liquor. So clearly a 25-cent increase seems reasonable?!? Maybe sixteen years is too long without an increase, I’m not going to argue that point. But even if the tax had been raised another penny every year, the tax would still only be 16 cents higher today, so please tell me how 25 cents is a fair suggestion? Or are they just shooting for the moon in the hopes of a negotiation that ends up compromising higher as a result?
And if it’s tax fairness they’re after, taxes of corporations have fallen much more dramatically over the past several decades. They haven’t just stagnated and gone down merely by adjusting for inflation, but have actively been lowered. At the same time, personal taxes on the poor and middle-class have gone up while tax cuts for the rich keep increasing. So if the Marin Institute really cares about California’s budget crisis, I think a more prudent approach might be trying to raise corporate taxes across the board and removing unfair tax cuts and loopholes for the wealthiest among us. It wasn’t alcohol that got us into this mess, so why make it foot the bill.
One of the main sources that the Marin Institute cites for their proposal is Let’s Raise a Glass to Fairness, a polemic about why the author, David Leonhardt, believes federal alcohol taxes should be raised. Some of the supposed alcohol-related costs to society he cites are the following:
- child abuse
- drunken-driving checkpoints
- economic loss caused by death and injury
- hospital bills for alcohol-related accidents
So let’s look at those claims.
1. Child Abuse: This one’s a head-scratcher for me. Sure it sounds bad, but what does it really mean? I was terrorized as a child by an alcoholic, psychotic step-father but even as a kid I knew it wasn’t the alcohol that caused him to be that way. There were myriad things in his life that made my step-father such a mess, and alcohol was the least of them. At its worst it was merely a convenient catalyst. If alcohol had been removed from the situation, something else would have filled the void. I can’t see how alcohol causes child abuse any more than cake is directly responsible for obesity.
2. Drunken-Driving Checkpoints: If these are such a burden to our nation’s purse strings, then by all means stop them. They’re already an invasion of civil liberties because they randomly presume guilt of everyone behind the wheel of a vehicle. But saying these are a cost of alcohol seems weird to me. The fact is that police forces choose to do them, they aren’t mandatory, and they’re more often done because of politics or pressure from local neo-prohibitionist groups. So they aren’t caused by alcohol, they’re caused by people against alcohol. There are plenty of legitimate ways for the police to do their job in keeping potentially dangerous drivers off the road that don’t involve these checkpoints.
3. Economic Loss Caused by Death and Injury: Now I certainly don’t want to downplay or make light of anyone’s loss or injury, but the alcohol didn’t cause either. The idiot person who drank too much or otherwise couldn’t control himself is responsible for a death or injury that resulted from his actions. And he should be punished to the full extent of the law. But don’t punish me or my right to drink moderately because some yahoo couldn’t act responsibly.
4. Hospital Bills for Alcohol-related Accidents: This is the same as the last one, it’s economic harm inflicted by a person and we should be blaming the individual person. People scoff at the Twinkie defense, saying it’s ridiculous that too much sugar might cause a person to commit a crime, but here Leonhardt is saying effectively the same thing.
He also throws around a lot of statistics about how many people die each year in “alcohol-related car accidents” along with “other accidents, assaults or illnesses in which alcohol plays a major role.” But as we learn time and time again, the way “alcohol-related” is defined is usually pretty deceptive. Many such studies have considered an accident “alcohol-related” if one of the passengers had earlier been drinking so it’s pretty hard to take such stats very seriously. Do people die from causes related to alcohol? I’m sure they do. But the number one cause of death: living. What I mean by that is every single thing we do every single moment has some risk associated with it. It’s a fool’s errand to dissect every thing we humans do and determine which ones to tax more heavily.
Leonhardt likens his strategy to the same argument for higher tobacco taxes, saying for alcohol the impetus “is even stronger” with this gem. “Tobacco kills many more people than alcohol, but it mainly kills those who use the product.” Did I miss a meeting? Isn’t one of the strongest reasons for all the recent tobacco bans that second-hand smoke is far more dangerous to people around smokers than previously believed?
He then goes on to say. “Many alcohol victims are simply driving on the wrong road at the wrong time.” And that may be true, and it is certainly tragic, but why then is it fair that I should pay more for my beer because of other drunk drivers, especially if I and millions of other responsible drinkers don’t place anyone else at risk. If the argument for fairness is that all alcohol drinkers should pay more for their beer because of the costs that alcohol exacts on society, how then does that same logic explain why this burden is so unfairly placed on all drinkers and not just the problem drinkers? Isn’t that just a teensy-weensy bit hypocritical?
Leonhardt later admits, or at least accepts, that there are plenty of responsible drinkers around and even quotes Jeff Becker, President of the Beer Institute. “Most people — the vast majority of consumers — don’t impose any additional costs on anyone.” But in the end he concludes that since he can’t figure out a way to “tax only those people who were going to drive drunk in the future” then it’s somehow fairer to just tax everybody who drinks. Yeah, that makes sense. No wonder the Marin Institute loves this guy.
But another flaw in this theory is that raising taxes on alcohol will raise an additional $3 billion in tax revenue to help with California’s $14 billion current deficit. One of the major prongs of the Marin Institutes’s plan is that by raising the price of beer, drinking will be curtailed once again. If people are drinking less, then how will that result in more tax revenues? If this proposal was really about solving California’s budget crisis, wouldn’t it make more sense to raise alcohol taxes and then actively encourage drinking to help raise more money to apply to the deficit? But this never really was about taxes or California’s budget crisis. It was always about keeping people from drinking or at least making it harder for them to do so. But not enough people were apparently getting their message and were — gasp — still enjoying a drink now and again. So instead they dressed this proposal up as a panacea for our state’s budget crisis hoping that people might respond more favorably to that gambit. Don’t you believe it.
Look, we have the highest federal budget deficit in history and many states, including my own, have similarly terrible fiscal situations that they’re facing. But no matter how much junk science you throw at this problem, alcohol did not cause our current situation. As a result, trying to raise more taxes by arguing that it would be fairer for the nation’s alcohol drinkers to help pick up the tab is just ludicrous. Perhaps taxes should be higher across the board to get us out of this deficit and that might include alcohol taxes, too. But politicians don’t like to raise taxes generally because people tend to vote out of office any politician who tries to do so, no matter how vital they might be in paying for our infrastructure and making our society work for everyone. So we keep electing fiscal conservatives who slash and burn social programs. And then we wonder why there’s no unemployment available when we get laid off so that the factory we used to work for can relocate overseas and chain ten-year old girls to a sewing machine to slave away for twelve-hour days, seven days-a-week for peanuts just so we can be spared the injustice of paying a few cents more for some crap we don’t really need at Wal-Mart. Let’s not change that situation, let’s blame alcohol instead. Raise a glass to fairness, indeed. I’ll buy the first round.