The Wages of Sin is Taxes
We’re currently caught up in the election season, with the actual voting day tomorrow, but everyone with the intelligence of a gerbil has already voted by mail several days or a few weeks ago. You might therefore presume that the 20 pounds of campaign literature I’ve been dragging out of my mailbox for the last week would be a waste of time and money but whomever, but you would be wrong. It is a truism that elections are, as a rule, decided by voters with less intelligence than a gerbil, so the last gasp collection of felled and re-purposed trees will actually sway the vote on most issues. Which is why my vote ends up on the losing side such a depressing percentage of the time.
Let me not assume I can bend your vote here, since if you are reading this you clearly have intelligence far beyond the ken of a gerbil, and have thus already voted. Let’s look at an issue or two intellectually, confident in the knowledge that nothing contained herein will change anything – but it might at least aspire to be of interest.
There’s an issue on the ballot dealing with getting the state out of the liquor business. For those in other climes, Washington controls the distribution and sale of “hard” alcohol, and state liquor stores sell the hard stuff as well as an ample selection of wines. This campaign is of interest because of the massive sums of money being spent by both sides – well past 30 million dollars, I believe. In addition, reports in the newspapers state that both sides are at least distorting reality, and by many accounts out and out fibbing. If Costco is willing to spend over 20 million bucks on an issue that might fail in order you sell you tons of tuns, you begin to get an idea of the profits available in the selling of booze.
First issue – should the state regulate what I can purchase and consume? Must I be beholden to a monopoly which determines where I can buy my hooch and at what time? Er – no. On the other hand, do I want a 10 year old to be able to purchase heroin at a Safeway? Er – no. The logical course for the greater societal good lies somewhere between those extremes. And therein lies the rub – neither of the extremes is palatable and there is a wasteland in between made up too often of the – wasted.
Second issue – one of the arguments posited against increased access to alcohol is that it would lead to an increase in teen-age drinking and “senseless” deaths. First of all – would it? For my three decades of teaching school, alcohol consumption by teens was always a problem. And yet, in all that time, I can never remember a single one of the 10,000 students (at least) the system flushed through my classroom ever making any statement that alcohol was difficult to come by. Whether or not to consume it, and in what amounts – those were valid concerns, but actually getting your hands on it was evidently not a problem.
Caveat – I came from a family that did not drink alcohol. It was not a religious thing or a taboo – it just was not done in my family and the people I knew, so I did not drink until I was 21, and still do not consume alcohol in great quantities.
In any case, it would not appear from my experiences that teens have trouble getting alcohol now, so greater access to something you can already access is a moot issue.
Third issue – senseless deaths from teen drinking. My vocabulary background raises a “Harrumph” of objection here. “Teen years,” is a recent invention. Not that many centuries ago, about 1 ½, there were no teens. People came to physical maturation and immediately turned to the tasks of labor, procreation, and dying – usually in short order. The teen years are an artificial construct that is one result of an increasingly wealthy and technological society. We do not need teens to labor in sweatshops or the fields all that much, (in this country, although we do not mind all that much if children in other countries do – says so right here in the owner’s manual of my I-Pad) so we grant them several years to devote to angst, bad haircuts, and bands with loony names singing songs about how unfair is life. These years are marked by rebellion and a sense of experimentation, and have been for a long time. They are rife with rash enthusiasms coupled with bad decisions leading to unfortunate results. Thus explaineth the plot of “Romeo and Juliet.” That is also why we fight our wars with, usually, teens, because they are sure they cannot be killed. One small corner of that rebellion is experimentation with alcohol and drugs, with tragic results. The results are, however, not “senseless” at all – they make perfect sense. In fact, it should be possible to calculate the percentage of the teen population lost to the inevitable excesses of breaking away from childhood. There’s a Master thesis topic for sure – wonder if anyone has done that?
Fourth issue – timing. The proponents of the measure want the state out of the liquor business. I agree with that, but what is omitted from the ad blitz is how that would be done. The infrastructure of the state alcohol business is decades old, and includes hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of real estate, thousands and thousands of employees, and a law firm closet full of purchase and lease and who knows what all contracts which cannot be broken but would have to expire – over many years. At this time, the state of Washington is lurching toward bankruptcy, always caused by “them.” “Them” refers to the people who have consistently voted to lower their own taxes while raising a clamor for more services. It is never “us.” So should a state which is awash in red ink choose to cut off a lot of revenue for the potential of increased revenue – maybe – at some point in the future? Perhaps not.
The real issue is regulating that catchall category of “sin.” Sin is any behavior or enthusiasm or habit which I think is wrong. What I do is perfectly fine, but your choices may or may not be OK. Our record in this regard is not stellar. Centuries of attempting to regulate sexual behavior, and even orientation, have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and many, many lives. At last we seem to be rushing toward a group mentality of “who cares what you do as long as I do not have to join you?” About time.
With alcohol and drugs it gets murky. Was the Prohibition Era a failure? Not necessarily. History shows that, prior to the “failed experiment” that was Prohibition, America did have an enormous problem with alcohol. Some of the attempted solutions seem a little odd now, but were interesting. Henry Ford did not invent mass production, but he refined the concept and made it work. One of the many innovations he came up with was paying workers $1 a day –an excellent wage (as in unheard of) at the time. However, there was a cost attached to the (relative) wealth. Employees of the company would drop by in the evening to make sure that man of the house was home, and not out drinking. As the cars began to sell in the thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, Ford repeatedly lowered the price of the product, keeping demand and production high. His squadron of home inspectors was not the only requirement put on the workers, nor was Ford the only company to invest in ways to control alcohol excess, but they were probably the most organized.
Speaking of organize, in time, the workers used their prosperity to seek more prosperity, and their attempts to form a union revealed less pleasant aspects of Mr. Ford’s personality, such as the hiring of felons to go out and beat, sometimes to death, union representatives. And then there was his virulent anti-Semitism…
Anyway, once Prohibition was repealed a large and legal manufacturing system grew and grew and became what we have today, an industry spending millions to keep the status quo. That tells you that the current state liquor system is certainly working well for the suppliers.
If we are not certain of how we want to regulate “sin,” can we at least agree on the function of the state liquor stores? Well sure – in addition to making alcohol with some assurance of quality standards readily available, they raise funds for the operation of government. A lot of funds. The state lottery commission also earns impressive amounts, so the state is already in the sin business. If selling alcohol should not be a legitimate function of the state, what about urging citizens to purchase tickets for a bewildering sea of lottery games where their expected return usually hovers around zero? At least with alcohol, you get as much inebriation as you pay for,
For now, my choice is to wait for a warmer economic climate before we tinker with the liquor business, even though I can see benefits to getting out of it.
But actually, I would urge us to go the other way, and legalize the elephant standing in the middle of the room.
Marijuana, which I have never used, has probably wasted more government time and money that any other substance in history. It is now one of the leading cash crops in the world by most accounts. I read an estimate last week that marijuana production uses 1% of the total electrical power generated in our country. Like alcohol and teens, I have never heard anyone complain that marijuana is hard to get.
Not only would I favor the legalization of marijuana so it could be sold (and taxed) in stores, and by golly we already have the stores – hmmm! – I would go further and have the state get into the growing business. Washington has millions of acres of land currently not used for much that could be used for marijuana production, and there are experts (evidently) everywhere in its cultivation. I doubt that usage would increase all that much, as it is already easy to come by and not that expensive, but profits and tax revenue? Wow!
Costco would want in on that of course.
True, a possible result would be more people voting with the intelligence of gerbil, but you have to accept the good with the less than ideal.
Copyright 2011 David Preston