Taxation on carbonation
Government | Politicians successfully sell Philadelphia’s soft drink tax
by Andrée Seu Peterson
Posted on Tuesday, July 5, 2016, at 4:38 pm
I like a soda pop every now and then, especially with greasy food. I hope my habit doesn’t offend any of you. It offends some people. That’s why the city of Berkeley, Calif., enacted the first-ever tax on sweetened soft drinks two years ago. The city leaders believe you ought to be punished if you drink too much sugar, so that you will learn your lesson and stop it. They also believe they can really use the money your continuing self-indulgence rakes in. So there is understandably some schizophrenia involved here.
It would be as if a woman of dubious character bought her husband a Nordic Track treadmill to improve his health, and at the same time took out a million-dollar life insurance policy on him. After a while, wouldn’t she start thinking about whether she really wants him to use the exercise equipment and get healthier?
Philadelphia’s former mayor had pitched a soda tax on health grounds but was unsuccessful. The current Mayor Jim Kenney dropped the pretense of caring about health and went straight to promoting the tax for financial reasons: to fund education programs. So instead of the original 3-cents-per-ounce proposal on sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages, which was stalling in committee, they switched to a 1.5-cent tax on the whole lot, whether made from evil sugar or from “healthy” artificial sweeteners.
Free-market types like to say that government is not creative, that it never invents anything, only people who tinker in their garages do that. This is so untrue. The soda tax is twice creative, like “the quality of mercy” in The Merchant of Venice is twice blessed: “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” OK, it mostly “blesseth him that takes.”
England is ahead of us in taxation creativity. The Brits used to tax windows in the 18th and 19th century. If you travel abroad you will see old buildings with bricked up rectangles where homeowners covered their own windows to avoid the tax. Yet even in England you will find at least one politician who is against a soda tax. Member of Parliament Will Quince called it “patrimony, regressive, and the nanny state at its worst.”
By the way, I measured an ounce. It’s 2 tablespoons or 5 teaspoons of liquid. In the 30-ounce Big Gulp size Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried unsuccessfully to ban in the Big Apple, that’s almost a buck a Gulp for the New York City government. I have as much faith the projected $400 million soda windfall will singlehandedly save Philadelphia’s schools as the 14 billion years claimed for genetic mutations will save the tattered theory of evolution.
I strongly believe I should not be punished for an occasional soda because I mostly drink fruit juice and water. Other people must feel that way too, because the innovative tax has ignited controversy in the City of Brotherly Love, reminding me of yet another oft-quoted bit of Shakespeare about severely punished faults. I refer to Mark Antony’s funeral oration: “The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it.” Roman senators killed Caesar with 23 stabs. The citizens of Philadelphia will endure tax death of a thousand cuts by City Council.
To be fair, this may not be so much about punishing soda drinkers as soda sellers, whose sin is making too much money. Mayor Kenney will take some of their obscene profit and “put it back into the neighborhoods,” he said. This is called wealth redistribution, which used to be considered socialism in the old days when socialism was a bad word. We were told the proceeds would go toward education, which is how the measure was passed. You can get away with anything if you say it’s for the good of the children.
Funnily, it turns out when the dust settles, much of the revenues won’t be going for education after all but for City Council pensions, which is a little-known rider you can find in the last six lines of the tax revenue breakdown spreadsheet that was distributed to City Council members. Some members, upon discovering the alteration, expressed disapproval, but the measure somehow passed nevertheless.
Hold onto your apple juice. They’ll be coming for that next.
Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her commentary has been compiled into three books including Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides in Philadelphia, Penn.