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Tax the Rich, Not Unhealthy Products

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Union members protest in opposition to a proposed tax on soda and other sugary beverages in view of City Hall on Tuesday, June 14, 2011, in Philadelphia. Mayor Michael Nutter is pushing a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary beverages to help prevent cuts in the city's cash-strapped school system. A similar plan was scrapped last year. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Progressives should not be supporting regressive sin taxes because they want to punish people for their behaviors. The mayor of Philadelphia has proposed a soda tax. This is not a good thing.

When it comes to politics, we live in very, very strange times. If you think this is the start of another piece about Donald Trump, well…ha, for once you’re actually wrong! It’s about the Philadelphia soda tax brouhaha. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Trump is, by now, just about the only major figure in American life who hasn’t weighed in on Mayor Kenney’s scheme to fund pre-kindergarten, community schools and parks and rec programs by imposing a three-cents-an-ounce tax on sugary drinks, mainly soda pop. (Prediction: Trump would stun the world by saying “I have no problem with the soda tax,” Rush Limbaugh would have a fit, and 45 minutes later there would be a statement: “Mr. Trump has always opposed the Philadelphia grocery tax.”)

Sin taxes to fund basic civic functions are particularly problematic, as you are hoping to dissuade behavior you actually need to continue if you want to fund those schools. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has what seems to be a disastrous clause in the state constitution making progressive taxation hard to enact.

This is wrong, but it’s nothing new, especially not in Pennsylvania. Regrettably, unfair taxation is hard-wired into the state constitution with its so-called “uniformity clause,” which the courts have held means that the commonwealth can’t impose a graduated income tax. That’s played out so Pennsylvania — and Philadelphia in particular — is heavily reliant on the sales tax, which hit poor people the hardest because they pay the largest share of their income on necessary consumer goods. The non-partisan Taxation and Economic Policy says Pennsylvania is the 6th most regressive state for taxes in the U.S., which is a polite term for lower-income people getting screwed. Folks in the bottom fifth pay 12 percent of their income in state and local taxes, but the top 1 Percent (where have I heard this before?) pay just 4.2 percent.

I was thinking of the unfairness the other day when I read that Philadelphia-based Comcast’s new chief financial officer, or CFO — 50-year-old Michael Cavanagh — was compensated last year at annual rate of more than $40 million, the highest paid CFO of any public company in America. I’m sure he’s a good dude who’s very good at making sure the numbers on the left side of the page add up to the column on the right. But is it fair that his state income tax, his Philadelphia wage tax or — maybe in a few months — his can of RC Cola is taxed at the same rate as the janitor who cleans his office? Or that he works in a gleaming skyscraper that got $42.5 million in state grants and other aid and millions more in city tax abatements, all for the nation’s most profitable cable giant.

I know it’s apples and oranges, but it’s hard not to notice that the tax write-offs and grants for just one of the eventually two palatial Comcast digs in Center City is on a par with what City Hall pegs as the annual cost — $60 million — of getting 5,000 more 3- and 4-year-old into quality pre-K programs. Or that Cavanagh’s salary (unless I’m botching the math) could pay the city’s cost of schooling about 3,400 of those kids. Is this really our moral priority system these days? Don’t even bother to answer that.

Progressives should not be supporting taxes where the janitor pays precisely as much as the CEO. That’s why sales taxes are highly sub-optimal in any case. Sin taxes are often more. People often smoke and drink alcohol and drink soda for reasons that have to do with poverty, depression, a lack of hope in life, bad habits picked up in high school or before, etc. Unless we are going to start issuing identity cards you have to run when you pay that tax rich people 50% for their sodas while taxing poor people 2% or something like that, these sorts of taxes are not the way to fund education. That’s especially true given corporate tax write-offs.

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  • We should stop taxing cigarettes as well?

    I don’t see a soda tax as such a bad thing, given soda’s contribution to the unfolding diabetes epidemic. If this motivates people to start drinking (clean) water instead, then this is a good thing, no?

    • tsam

      We should stop taxing cigarettes as well?

      No, but it should all go into treatment programs and offset the costs to society.

      The bigger picture is that sin taxes are ultimately regressive, and education programs work much better, as does avoiding face-palming stupid moves like putting soda vending machines in schools.

      I think sin taxes as a way of recovering the damage things like cigarettes do to an economy are fine. As a way of controlling behavior? Not ok. It doesn’t work, and just serves to beat more of the shit out of poor people. That’s why when progressives call for $5/gallon gas to reduce consumption, they reveal themselves to be rather stupid. Rich people keep on driving, poor people get to make one more choice between one necessity and another.

      • It does work. It’s highly effective. Look it up.

        • tsam

          Socioeconomic Status:
          The Single Greatest Predictor of Tobacco
          Social and economic factors influence a broad array of opportunities, exposures, decisions and behaviors that promote or threaten health. Although there are many factors contributing to predicted tobacco use, socioeconomic status is the single greatest predictor. Tobacco and poverty create a vicious cycle: low income people smoke more, suffer more, spend more, and die more from tobacco use.
          Low social-economic status populations include low-income individuals with less than 12 years of education, the medically underserved, the unemployed, and the working poor. They can also be prisoners, gays and lesbians, blue collar workers, and the mentally ill.

          It works on educated, healthy populations. For those who sin taxes hit the hardest, they do not work.

          • calling all toasters

            Somehow correlation is still not causation.

          • xq

            It works on educated, healthy populations. For those who sin taxes hit the hardest, they do not work.

            Your quote does not support this in any way. That low-income people smoke more does not imply that they are less responsive to sin taxes.

            Are low-income people less responsive to sin taxes? First article I found on google scholar says they are more responsive to them:

            Health publicity was most effective in reducing smoking in younger people and higher socioeconomic groups; cigarette price changes had most effect on lower socioeconomic groups and women

            (http://www.bmj.com/content/309/6959/923?variant=full-text)

            This makes sense: if cigarettes are a higher proportion of your income, then an increase in their cost will be felt more strongly, which should lead to a larger reduction in consumption.

        • tsam

          Abstract
          Smoking prevalence is higher among disadvantaged groups, and disadvantaged smokers may face higher exposure to tobacco’s harms. Uptake may also be higher among those with low socioeconomic status (SES), and quit attempts are less likely to be successful. Studies have suggested that this may be the result of reduced social support for quitting, low motivation to quit, stronger addiction to tobacco, increased likelihood of not completing courses of pharmacotherapy or behavioral support sessions, psychological differences such as lack of self-efficacy, and tobacco industry marketing. Evidence of interventions that work among lower socioeconomic groups is sparse. Raising the price of tobacco products appears to be the tobacco control intervention with the most potential to reduce health inequalities from tobacco. Targeted cessation programs and mass media interventions can also contribute to reducing inequalities. To tackle the high prevalence of smoking among disadvantaged groups, a combination of tobacco control measures is required, and these should be delivered in conjunction with wider attempts to address inequalities in health.

          • ChrisTS

            Raising the price of tobacco products appears to be the tobacco control intervention with the most potential to reduce health inequalities from tobacco.

            Doesn’t this contradict your message?

            • tsam

              The language is pretty clear about being vague in that assertion. My larger point (if I were any good at making points, you’d be able to see it), is that sin taxes become a way to increase revenues to make way for inequitable tax cuts. While a valid argument is made for price increases having a positive effect on reducing consumption, it doesn’t actually get the job done, since the single most reliable predictor for smoking is being part of a disadvantaged group.

              • delazeur

                No, you’re still committing a fallacy. You are comparing consumption among the rich and the poor with sin taxes in place when you should be comparing consumption among the rich with and without sin taxes (or with high and low sin taxes) against consumption among the poor with and without sin taxes. It is possible for sin taxes to be more effective at curbing use among the poor while consumption is still higher among the poor with sin taxes in place. This is the finding that the paper you cite is tentatively making.

                For example, say sin taxes cut tobacco use among the rich from 10% to 9%, but among the poor from 15% to 10%. Socioeconomic status is still a predictor of tobacco use, but the health inequality has decreased.

      • GFW

        Every time anyone says “a carbon tax is regressive”, they need to be told, forcefully, “All taxes and transfers are one big system that we can choose to make as progressive or regressive as we want.”

        (I originally wrote the above in a Federal context, and I suppose the PA constitution is a bit of a stumbling block, but the general sentiment is still true.)

        • delazeur

          IIRC the last IPCC Assessment Report found that carbon taxes were not as regressive as people expected them to be.

      • djw

        I think sin taxes as a way of recovering the damage things like cigarettes do to an economy are fine. As a way of controlling behavior? Not ok. It doesn’t work, and just serves to beat more of the shit out of poor people.

        But sin taxes to recover costs for damage also function to discourage behavior. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to say that a policy that does A and B is justified if the policymakers are motivated by A and isn’t justified if they’re motivated by B.

        On the subject of whether they work, they certainly don’t always work or work reliably or work equally well with all social groups, and there are tricky correlation-causation issues to sort out. But those flaws are almost certainly going to be the case with any tool to decease use of a highly addictive product. There does seem to be pretty good evidence that higher prices decease tobacco use.

        • tsam

          They do, however the numerous studies that essentially prove that smoking is most prevalent among disadvantaged groups gives us a reason to look further than price hikes to get the problem under control.

          a policy that does A and B is justified if the policymakers are motivated by A and isn’t justified if they’re motivated by B.

          Where B is a way of shifting tax burdens to an underclass rather than practicing effective governance and ensuring equitable revenue collection and distribution, then I think B does become a problem, even if outcome A is a positive one for the underclass.

          I know I’m arguing a perhaps tangential point here. But I don’t think it can be argued that many sin taxes have become (at least in some cases) a way of balancing budgets in an inequitable manner. There’s a much larger problem that can’t be solved by getting rid of sin taxes, but I don’t feel like it’s a good way of doing anything other than what they were initially designed to do–help mitigate the effects of consumption of dangerous products.

        • jam

          It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to say that a policy that does A and B is justified if the policymakers are motivated by A and isn’t justified if they’re motivated by B.

          Empowering policymakers whose motivations run counter to your interests is a bad idea. IMO, political exchanges with ideological opponents are purely transactional.

          If you don’t have the influence to prevent the policymakers in question from turning those changes against you, you should be very cautious.

          IOW, when you sup with the devil, use a long spoon.

    • lunaticllama

      Certainly, the poor are more affected by taxes on gasoline as well.

      • djw

        Insofar as the poor are close to the economic edge and every marginal dollar counts for more, this is probably true. But unlike tobacco (and I presume probably soda as well), low income households drive considerably fewer miles per year than high income households.

      • Marek

        Certainly, many poor people do not have cars, which are expensive.

    • I agree. That purpose is not to “punish” bad behavior, it is to discourage people from killing themselves (not to mention getting sick, and getting poorer than they already are as a result, plus costing even more tax money for their health care). The high taxes on tobacco have been an immense benefit to public health. Yes, these taxes are regressive, but they benefit the people who can choose to stop paying them by stopping smoking or drinking poison. The solution is to provide more benefits — most logically in this case more generous SNAP. Agree, that isn’t happening in this case, but the policy could be made right in principle.

      • LeeEsq

        Sin taxes work better from a public health standpoint than outright prohibition, which fails spectacularly.

      • DrDick

        I would like to see any evidence that the taxes have had any significant effects, as opposed to other non-punitive measures. Given that, as Tsam points out, the poor are more likely to smoke, I am highly skeptical.

        • Victor Matheson

          Ok, here you go. This is decent literature review comparing the effects on different groups from raising the price of cigarettes.

          https://www.tobaccofreekids.org/research/factsheets/pdf/0146.pdf

          The evidence is clear. Sin taxes work. This is another example of Erik’s reflexive anti-economics bias.

          (BTW, I agree that it would be highly preferable to pair increases in sin taxes with a progressive tax cut elsewhere in order to alleviate the burden on the poor.)

          • This is another example of Erik’s reflexive anti-economics bias.

            Hilarious.

            I never said that sin taxes don’t get people to stop buying tobacco. I said they were an unjust imposition on the poor.

            • I never said that sin taxes don’t get people to stop buying tobacco. I said they were an unjust imposition on the poor.

              If you are talking about something necessary, like the ability to buy gasoline to get to work or taxes on, say, milk then I agree. This is burdensome on the poor. But cigarettes and soda aren’t necessary, and both have demonstrably negative consequences for both the poor and society due to increased health care costs, early death, and so on.

              We can debate all day about how these taxes should be spent, but if a tax on soda leads to a parent giving her child a glass of water instead of a Big Gulp, then isn’t this a good thing?

              • Bruce B.

                Is it a better thing than declining to grant the tax exemptions and payouts that encourage corporate directors to think of themselves as the best and most deserving? Should we be sure that restoring that quantity of property tax wouldn’t be better for poor people’s health than that amount collected in sin taxes? Maybe a system of government which couldn’t grant such exemptions would end up saving enough on complications like lawsuits for the harm done by the corporate recipients would have money to spend more systematically on better health outcomes.

                I mean, I genuinely don’t know how these things stack up. If I did, I’d be citing data rather than asking questions. But I certainly can’t feel at liberty to just assume that the sin taxes are the best way to go about it.

          • tsam

            This doesn’t address the fact that the single most reliable predictor of smoking addiction is being part of a disadvantaged group. That reality has to be taken into consideration when judging the efficacy of sin taxes.

            It’s fine to say that higher prices reduce consumption–I don’t think that could be argued. But there is an underclass that bears the largest burden of these behavior control taxes, and that, IMO, makes them a far less than ideal way reduce smoking. My cost/benefit analysis has a variable that includes disadvantaged populations being thrown into a downward spiral from paying more for something they’re already prone to do anyway, for reasons that are caused by an already unjust system that leaves them behind.

            • DrDick

              My thought as well and none of that actually disaggregates the effects of tobacco taxes from other factors like ad campaigns, smoking bans, and the like.

            • Ahuitzotl

              But there is an underclass that bears the largest burden of these behavior control taxes, and that, IMO, makes them a far less than ideal way reduce smoking.

              I strongly disagree. Cost is the single most effective way of reducing consumption of tobacco. The fact that this oppressively increases the taxes on the poorest isn’t an indicator to not use them, it’s an indicator that some countervailing fiscal/tax move should be used to alleviate the additional tax burden on the poor.

          • nixnutz

            The evidence is clear. Sin taxes work.

            That’s so reductive. How well does they work relative to other programs? What other negative effects do they have? Forced sterilization would probably show some positive effects if we tried that. That’s like 10% of an argument and when it comes to fucking the poor it seems that’s all anybody needs.

            • Marek

              The other plans aren’t on the table, though. And unless the PA legislature flips, they’re not likely to be.

    • jam

      We should not support using those taxes to fund unrelated programs.

      I do support cigarette taxes, they helped encourage me to quit my habit. I do support using revenue from cigarette taxes to fund anti-smoking programs and subsidize smoking-cessation programs.

      I do not support using cigarette tax revenue to fund roads, police, education, and other public services that are completely unrelated to smoking.

      If and when cigarette taxes, smoking cessation programs, and anti-smoking campaigns work as they’re intended to, then the revenue from cigarette taxes will disappear, but education, roads, fire services, parks, etc… will need funding forever.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        How about using cigarette taxes to help fund national health care?

        • jam

          National health care will need funding forever. I’d personally prefer to eliminate smoking within a span of decades.

          It’s a poor plan to match short-term funding with an expenditure that will last essentially forever.

      • DrDick

        Agreed.

      • shah8

        cigarette taxes (and legal awards) have had a nasty tendency, like lotto money, to go into general revenue through various means these days.

        • jam

          Yes, and when used that way, the state gains an interest in facilitating and encouraging the unhealthy, self-destructive, and addictive behaviors it should be discouraging.

          It’s bad when state revenue depends on habitual gamblers and addicted smokers indulging in those self-destructive behaviors.

          • shah8

            That revenue for poor people’s education and child care, I think, will get looted. Of course, all the resources for the upper middle class will be fine.

            • jam

              Yes, the instructive national models would involve Social Security Tax.

              First came Reagan/Greenspan actions to cut high-income tax while accelerating FICA increases.

              Second was GWB’s justification of more tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited high-income households due to the Social Security Tax surplus.

              Third was GWB’s attempt to privatize Social Security funds and allow Wall Street to care for them on the eve of a financial crisis (as opposed to funding an eventual shortfall in Social Security revenue with general revenue).

              Securing revenue for projects you prefer is an ongoing task and requires constant involvement. Assume your ideological opponents will undermine any beneficial changes you can make at any and all opportunities.

      • Victor Matheson

        One problem with this idea is that the taxes you will collect if you raise them high enough to actually get jam to quit smoking (congratulations, btw) will result in you collecting way, way more money than you can efficiently spend on anti-smoking programs.

        Thus, you either set taxes high enough to work, and you get a lot of leftover money that you need to spend elsewhere.

        Or you set taxes high enough to work, and you spend hugely excessive and wasteful amounts on anti-smoking programs.

        Or you set taxes too low to be useful to curb smoking just so you don’t accidentally end up funding schools with tobacco money.

        BTW, this is the same problem with carbon taxes. Any carbon tax high enough to solve climate change will result in literally hundreds of billions of revenue that needs to go somewhere (besides subsidizing electric cars.)

        • jam

          One problem with this idea is that the taxes you will collect if you raise them high enough to actually get jam to quit smoking (congratulations, btw) will result in you collecting way, way more money than you can efficiently spend on anti-smoking programs.

          Thank you, I managed to quit about 8 years ago after perhaps 10 years of regular use.

          The price increase that led me to quit was not especially high, I believe it was about $1 per pack. At the time, that raised the cost of 20 cigarettes from maybe $3.50 to $4.50.

          For each smoker smoking 20 cigarettes per day, that would have produced $365 in revenue per year, which is not enough to fully-subsidize even generic nicotine replacment treatment for one quitter, much less to pay for clinic appointments for marginal populations most likely to be addicted to nicotine or most likely to use it as a tool for managing anxiety or depression.

          I don’t think the problem you’re alluding to with respect to cigarette taxes actually exists. I funded most of my own smoking cessation, and that cost would have been a significant burden for a person living at the margins. There’s plenty of room to productively spend money on smoking prevention & cessation.

    • Norrin Radd

      I’d sooner vote for Satan himself than the politician who supports a soda tax. I drink 4 Cokes a day. I enjoy every last drop . These self-appointed do-gooders can GO FUCK THEMSELVES. I’m not your goddamned special help project.

      • el_cucuy

        It seems really strange to expect the government to guarantee your healthcare (funded with significant taxes), but to get upset when the government tries to make you less fat by raising the price of sugar water by a dime.

        • Rob in CT

          Indeed, libertarians use this argument to oppose government-funded/subsidized healthcare.

          • Norrin Radd

            If you want to be good to people be good to people. But don’t be good to them and then demand something in return. Millions of people didn’t–and don’t–want Obamacare. You don’t tell them, “Hey because we foisted something on you you didn’t want we’re now going to turn around and tax you some more on it.”

      • Marek

        I’d sooner vote for Satan himself than the politician who supports a soda tax.

        Wait, who do you think it was who invented soda?

        • Norrin Radd

          Jesus Christ.

          • Marek

            Then give unto Caesar, yadda yadda yadda…

  • pzerzan

    Why don’t we tax both? I didn’t realize progressives can’t walk and chew gum at the same time…

    • tsam

      I’d respond to this, but I’m chewing gum and cannot type.

      • Ahuitzotl

        assumes skills not in evidence

    • Brien Jackson

      Yeah, this. Not only is the premise here wrong on the merits (we absolutely should be taxing products with negative externalities) it’s ultimately counterproductive. Building a strong Western-European-esque welfare state is going to require higher taxes on the middle and working classes eventually. The important thing is keeping the overall distributive impact progressive.

      • pzerzan

        What he said…

      • DocAmazing

        we absolutely should be taxing products with negative externalities

        This cannot be repeated often enough.

    • Marek

      Harrumph.

  • Ahenobarbus

    Three-cents-an-ounce? Yikes. Is that really the optimal level from a tax revenue standpoint?

    The linked article says it excludes diet soda, which we know isn’t good for you either. Does the tax it exclude sugar-laden Snapple?

    • Norrin Radd

      What the fuck is wrong with goddamned diet soda??? Hell, pop is no worse for you than orange juice. Not everyone wants to subsist on quinoa salad, rabbit turds, and organic spring water.

      • jam

        What the fuck is wrong with goddamned diet soda???

        From memory, actually-existing studies show it isn’t measurably healthier to consume than regular sugared soda. Example

        • Norrin Radd

          In reality what matters is controlling your urge to eat along with the diet soda. While aspartame may not have any calories as a sweetener it can make you as hungry as eating anything else that tastes sweet. So the trick is just to ignore the effect, or to have your diet drink at the same time as you would normally eat. Its not complicated.

      • DrS

        I’ve not seen this level of rage about soda outside of a Sarah Palin event.

        • so-in-so

          Yeah, it seems to cause anger management issues as well as diabetes.

          • Norrin Radd

            No diabetes.

        • Hogan

          Hey, he drinks four cans of Coke a day and he’s fine! Except for being dumb as a barrel of hair.

      • tsam

        You might consider switching to a caffeine free product.

        • ChrisTS

          +1

    • Ahuitzotl

      The linked article says it excludes diet soda, which we know isn’t good for you either.

      cites?

  • efc

    Will this fund universal pre-k or just pre-k for lower income children? I couldn’t find the answer in the linked articles.

    If it is universal then this is stunningly regressive. It is literally the situation Clinton (unfortunately) described in regards to Sanders’ universal college plan. Except here it would actually be poor people subsidizing the rich.

    Even if the tax is used for pre-k for low income kids it is still less than optimal. I think, like smoking, soda is consumed mostly by the poor so the tax is not made less regressive by the way the money is spent. The tax also seems to be only on sodas. Will LeCroix be covered? What about super sugary fruit juices? There are plenty of high sugar drinks that seem like they won’t be covered by this tax that are consumed more heavily by wealthy people than the poor.

    • ChrisTS

      At this point, I believe:

      1) Yes, it will help the poorest kids – primarily because they live in Philly and need free pre-K. Wealthier parents will send their kids to pricey pre-K or get nannies. I do not know if there is an indexed scale yet, which brings us to

      2) The plan is very vague at the moment. Whether Snapple is included remains to be seen. It might not be, as the intention is to both raise revenue and help decrease obesity and diabetes rates among the poor; I can imagine some Council members thinking the poor don’t drink much Snapple.

      I don’t know if it is a bad plan, or not, but we have to keep in mind that the state of PA is not going to raise taxes to fund pre-K for poor black and Latino kids in Philly. The tax base in Philly probably cannot be taxed much more to raise the funds for this purpose, either.

      • Yankee

        You seem to be assuming that the free schools will naturally be bad such that no parent who can afford otherwise would send their chidren there. Possibly so but this is not a point in favor.

        • ChrisTS

          No, I’m assuming they won’t want to send Little Precious to pre-k with those people’s kids.

  • LeeEsq

    I really don’t think its anti-progressive to expect everybody including the poor to pay some taxes as a form of civil responsibility. Historical experience reveals that welfare programs are most popular when they are universal and society has an everybody is in it together attitude. This requires that everybody pitch in and taxation is one way to do this. As long as the tax system isn’t too regressive or harsh than some light taxation that lower income people have to pay isn’t immoral.

    Arguing that people bellow a certain income level shouldn’t have to pay any taxes comes to close to acknowledging the rightist argument that taxation is a form of theft. Its arguing that at least for a certain class of people it is. If taxes are theft for the lower income groups than it naturally follows that they are theft for middle and upper income earners. The only way that taxation isn’t theft is if everybody is subject to taxation in one form or another.

    • I really don’t think its anti-progressive to expect everybody including the poor to pay some taxes as a form of civil responsibility

      Clearly the poor don’t hold their fair share of burdens in American society….

      • L2P

        It’s not clear that the poor are bearing more than their fair share of sin taxes, either. Sin taxes are about 1.6% of income for the poor, .8% for the middle class, and .07% for the rich. That’s actually pretty flat for an excise tax based on consumable products, even based on percentage of income.

        Also, overall taxes (income, sales, excise, etc. in total) on cigarettes and alcohol are the lowest they’ve been since the 50’s. There’s a very good argument that we should raise our cigarette taxes simply to bring them back in line with our historic averages. Soda’s another story…

        More broadly, in theory the whole point of sin taxes is that they’re voluntary. They don’t apply to necessities, even taken broadly as “things that most people need to live a comfortable life.” And so in theory they’re very progressive – the rich will gladly pay the tax, and the poor will pay it only if the “sin” is so important to them that they will sacrifice for it.

        Sin taxes look much less progressive as a percentage of income but that’s the nature of the product, not the tax. The poor would blow a similar percentage of their income on soda and beer with or without the sin tax.

        Or put another way, the sin tax isn’t the problem. Our inequality is the problem. The fact that a rich smoker spends .05% of his income on cigarettes while a poor smoker spends 5% of his income on cigarettes doesn’t change much based on the taxes.

        • so-in-so

          Yet it appears that it doesn’t really work, and Democrats are supposed to be the party that looks at evidence and data for their policy, not “this HAS to work, try harder””.

        • Joe_JP

          are you getting those percentages from a certain place?

          • DrDick

            His ass, I suspect.

        • jam

          More broadly, in theory the whole point of sin taxes is that they’re voluntary.

          Nicotine is an addictive substance, the heaviest consumers of alcohol have developed tolerance to and dependence on its effects, and compulsive gamblers contribute a disproportionate share of gambling tax revenue.

          They’re a horrible way to raise general revenue and if treated as a source of general revenue almost certainly a way to fund society disproportionately on the backs of the unfortunate.

          • Ahuitzotl

            worse than that, if used for general revenue, they will execute the law of perverse incentives, and cause government to try to sustain if not increase their use:

            Jim Hacker: We’re talking of 100,000 deaths a year.
            Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes, but cigarette taxes pay for a third of the cost of the National Health service. We’re saving many more lives than we otherwise could, because of those smokers who voluntary lay down their lives for their friends. Smokers are national benefactors.
            Jim Hacker: So long as they live.

    • Hogan

      Thank you for that view from three light years away.

    • Linnaeus

      Arguing that people bellow a certain income level shouldn’t have to pay any taxes

      I don’t know if this is a position that Erik holds, but it’s not what he argued in the post.

    • jam

      Arguing that people bellow a certain income level shouldn’t have to pay any taxes

      Who has advanced this argument?

      • J. Otto Pohl

        I will advance it. If you are making poverty wages you shouldn’t have to pay any taxes. I think this makes sense morally. Granting exemptions to poor people for sales and exise taxes presents some practical problems. But, the moral argument for exempting the poor from taxes I think is pretty solid.

        • jam

          Feel free to engage with LeeEsq on the subject. Despite his strawman argument which responded to nobody but yourself, he actually has a good point about the political reality of buy-in and the political power of accusing the poor of not contributing to society.

          I don’t accept those arguments and forcefully argue against them in all contexts, but they exist and are effective in U.S. political rhetoric.

          • DrDick

            There is, however, a very strong argument against reliance on taxes which disproportionately impact the poor, which sin and sales taxes do.

            • jam

              I absolutely agree.

              The political rhetoric that accuses the poor of being leeches or burdens on society is doubly or triply pernicious.

              Every person has a stake in society, regardless of income.

              In proportion to income, the bottom quintile doesn’t pay a much different total tax rate than the top quintile. Conservative “analysts” have a number of rhetorical tricks that disguise this basic fact. A useful analysis must include all taxes paid (local/state/federal and property/income/consumption/FICA/etc…).

              Political power is already concentrated in the hands of the wealthy and high income.

              • DrDick

                Frankly, controlling for basic costs of living, I suspect that the poor pay far more of their “disposable” income (that not required to keep them fed, housed, clothed, and in modest health) is far greater, since they generally have little or none that is actually disposable.

              • DrDick

                Frankly, controlling for basic costs of living, I suspect that the poor pay far more of their “disposable” income (that not required to keep them fed, housed, clothed, and in modest health), since they generally have little or none that is actually disposable.

  • vic rattlehead

    I agree to a certain extent. I am not a fan of sin taxes. Sales taxes in general are regressive.

    However! I think it is perfectly valid to ask people to pay for their own negative externalities. To the extent that sugary soda consumption leads to, say, type 2 diabetes, tax it to help defray the costs associated with it! What the hell is wrong with that? It costs money to treat people for the preventable diseases they develop because of their shitty diets. Now, poverty is part of this obviously, so it’s not that simple, but I think this is a valid use of taxation.

    Smoking results in ENORMOUS healthcare costs. I think it’s perfectly valid to tax tobacco on this basis, provided that it goes towards cancer research or some public health organization (fat chance) instead of general revenue.

    • Ahenobarbus

      One problem is, in practice, we do not equally enforce paying for negative externalities. Heck, we always know what they are. Nutrition science changes.

      Two of us have mentioned other sugary drinks that aren’t taxed. Diet soda has externalities…apparently not taxed. Philly Cheesesteaks have them too. Foie gras at Bibou (ok, I just googled the place).

      In practice, we usually become moralistic about the ‘downscale’ stuff, not the ‘upscale’ stuff.

      • vic rattlehead

        Not wrong, but we are never going to achieve perfect consistency. We can’t be 100% consistent, therefore we should do nothing?

      • Manny Kant

        Of course, we do pay (state sales) tax on Cheesesteaks and foie gras at Bibou. I don’t believe we pay any tax on soda (groceries are excluded from the PA state sales tax).

      • Bruce B.

        Right. Does a soda tax, the costs of enforcing it, and the gains from reduction in soda consumption compare favorably or poorly to some restrictions on schedule shifting that would give working people more stable schedules? Several friends and I have had measured A1C (long-term blood sugar level) reductions in the wake of stabilized work schedules and other major stress reductions, without any dietary change at all in several cases. (Also, it’s a lot easier to want a healthy diet when you’re not overworked, scared about looming calamities, and angry and tired all the time.)

        And so forth and so on.

    • tsam

      As soon as the rich and vulture capitalists can’t dodge taxes and outsource everyone’s jobs, we’ll talk about squeezing the poor for the impacts of their smoking and drinking and other drug use. Deal?

      • so-in-so

        Sometime after that we can begin research for establishing a “like” button here.

        Meanwhile, + 47%

        • DrDick

          Yep!

      • vic rattlehead

        Well, I thought I was a bit more ambivalent than you’re giving me credit for. But you seem to be a bitter shell of a human being so I’ll let it slide.

        And I don’t think taxing cigarettes is “squeezing” the poor. Cigarette smoking is fucking horrendous from a public health standpoint.

        • tsam

          But you seem to be a bitter shell of a human being so I’ll let it slide.

          Arguably true.

          And I don’t think taxing cigarettes is “squeezing” the poor. Cigarette smoking is fucking horrendous from a public health standpoint.

          No argument there.
          My point is that when new sin taxes are proposed, they are done to raise revenue in a manner that doesn’t cause upper crust constituents to cry about it. I don’t have a problem with taxes from alcohol and tobacco going toward cessation treatment and to offset the costs they invariably impose on society. But let’s prioritize here. We have much larger problems with income inequality and a system that favors the affluent. Seems like every time these taxes come up, there’s a budget shortfall that needs a quick fix, rather than demonstration of the effect of the consumption of these products on the economy.

          • DrDick

            Excellent!

      • UserGoogol

        That seems like a pretty flagrant example of making the perfect the enemy of the good. We should try to make the world a better place in the areas where we have the power to do so. If the rich have the political capital and financial skills to avoid paying taxes, we have to focus our attention elsewhere.

        • tsam

          Well, I think the net effect of focusing our energy elsewhere is using these types of taxes to fill budget holes that are caused by tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy.

          I know we can’t just fix the the income inequality problem overnight, but we don’t have to let these kinds of taxes put more undue strain on the poor. It seems like bad policy to me.

          • UserGoogol

            Perhaps, but it’s not like tax cuts that benefit the wealth are only happening because of soda taxes. So if tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy are going to happen either way, then we should fill those holes as best we can.

      • Hogan

        The thing about a city is that it’s really easy to move out if you’re rich.

    • NonyNony

      I mean, I agree with this in theory (negative externalities should be paid for) but in practice that’s not what sin taxes do. The one here, for example, uses the revenue from the sin tax to pay for schools. If it were going into the Medicaid fund then it would be a lot closer to what you’re describing. What we get with sin taxes is generally more like a luxury tax for a very loose definition of luxury.

      The better way to deal with that would probably be to tax the soda companies directly and use that to supplement Medicaid. They’re making their profits off of people’s health, so there’s no reason that they can’t pay that back. And if it results in higher soda prices then that’s just the market adjusting the price of soda to what it should be to account for the externalities that the companies previously weren’t paying for. (Of course, that isn’t as politically viable as a soda tax, so we get the soda tax instead).

      • Moondog

        Yes. If we’re going to do “sin” taxes let’s tax the real sinners.

        • so-in-so

          A more progressive income or a wealth tax would be attacking “greed”. Inheritance tax for “sloth”?

      • UserGoogol

        Money is fungible. The point of sin taxes is to discourage that thing, who benefits from the corresponding spending doesn’t really matter. Of course as tsam notes, directing towards related things has the benefit that as the sin in question decreases, so does the need for the spending. But that may not be the optimal place to spend the money.

    • Norrin Radd

      I drink 4 Cokes a day and I don’t have type 2 diabetes. So go fuck yourself.

      • ChrisTS

        Jesus. Settle down. Of course not everyone who drinks lots of soda will get diabetes or even become obese. Nonetheless, such a habit is more likely to lead to those outcomes than, say, drinking clean water.

      • Rob in CT

        “I smoke a pack a day and I don’t have lung cancer. So go fuck yourself” in response to cig taxes work too then, yes?

      • MdeVoltaire

        You may not have type 2 diabetes, but all that sugar or aspartame or splenda trash that you’re guzzling down in whatever your soda of choice is has clearly made you a whiny, rage-filled troll. Go take your Big Gulp and hunt something from a helicopter with Mama Grifty.

        • Origami Isopod

          Delightful. Why don’t you throw in a few jabs about missing teeth or inbreeding while you’re at it?

      • Eli Rabett

        Not yet you don’t

      • DocAmazing

        My mom’s in her 70s and smokes a pack a day. Does that mean that tobacco is not a major contributor to lung cancer?

        Luck plays a role in many things. You’ve been lucky. Have a Coke and a smile and a low hemoglobin A1c.

  • Rob in CT

    I really don’t think the fact that such taxes are regressive is an argument-ender.

    That’s an important downside that has to been taken into account, but there is real upside here as well (me, I’d tax added sugar, not just sodas).

    Ideally, I think this sort of policy nudge would come complete with some kind of offset. Basically make it revenue neutral – at the end of the year rebate every household $X (amount of revenue raised minus enforcement costs, divided by population…).

    • Norrin Radd

      Are you fucking crazy??? Democrats who want to regulate People’s Kitchen are as bad as Republicans who want to regulate people’s bathrooms and bedrooms. Liberals need to get back to leaving people alone.

      • jam

        People’s Kitchen

        Is this a new reality TV show about a communist restaurant? I’m intrigued.

        And as a regulatory matter, this is about taxing purchases made at retailers which are already subject to regulation and tax. Your comparison makes no sense.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          In Bishkek there is a chain of Soviet themed cafeterias aimed at cashing in on nostalgia from the 1970s and 1980s that has pretty good food.

          • calling all toasters

            has pretty good food.

            So much for authenticity.

        • Norrin Radd

          If you want to be a nanny then go be one, don’t be a regulator.

      • UserGoogol

        The personal is political. The line to draw isn’t whether it takes place inside/outside a person’s house, but whether the act is harmful. We don’t want to ban sodomy, but we do want to ban rape.

        And anyway, soda taxes apply in the store, not the home, which is an important distinction. In so far as the marketplace allocates goods and services, we’d like for it to allocate a bit less soda to people. An untaxed marketplace is not in any reasonable sense neutral.

  • Rob in CT

    By the way, speaking of this:

    Unless we are going to start issuing identity cards you have to run when you pay that tax rich people 50% for their sodas while taxing poor people 2% or something like that

    My friend currently in Finland tells me this is basically how their speeding ticket system works. You pay based on income. Some rich dude got an absolutely spectacular speeding ticket over there fairly recently…

    ETA: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/03/finland-home-of-the-103000-speeding-ticket/387484/

    $54,000 Euros.

    • yet_another_lawyer

      This is feasible for speeding tickets, because the cops can confirm who is driving. While stores could in principle confirm who is buying, they can’t confirm who is actually consuming.

      If we tried this for sales tax, it would quickly develop that people at the lowest tax brackets would go into business for themselves, buy out items at the grocery store, resell to people at higher brackets, etc. The enforcement of this would be a nightmare. If the goal is to tax the rich at higher rates, then it would be best to just do it directly with income (including capital gains) or put the “sin taxes” on non-addictive things disproportionately consumed by the rich. Restaurant meals, maybe?

      • so-in-so

        The business opportunity might be worth it.

        • DAS

          Progressive sin taxes as a jobs program? Hmmm … I find this idea intriguing. Is there a newsletter to which I could subscribe?

          • so-in-so

            Maybe I should pitch the idea to Salon?

            • ChrisTS

              Do it! But, be sure to point out that this will win Bernie the election.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          Yes, the stimulus to the economy and creation of businesses by poor people makes this sound like a good idea. My grandfather served in WWII so got huge discounts on buying military surplus in the 1950s. He partnered with a guy named Jack that had not served in the war but had capital. I am not sure where he got the money. At anyrate my grandfather managed to become a successful small businessman using the scenerio described above. He used his government granted discount of buying US government (military) goods to acquire cheap inventory to sell. The actual start up money came from Jack and they split the profits.

        • shah8

          Part of the problem with subsidies in Venezuela is that process, and yeah, people claim that the business opportunities are worth it for all those people who have the time… But generally it indicates some serious problems with distribution.

      • Rob in CT

        Oh, I wasn’t actually proposing it! I just remembered it and thought it was pretty amazing.

  • ajay

    How regressive is it overall, when you consider that it’s going to be funding

    pre-kindergarten, community schools and parks and rec programs

    ?

    Those all sound like services that the poor are going to benefit from more than the rich.

    Certainly that makes it less regressive than tobacco taxation, which (I think) just goes into general revenue. Would Loomis support cutting or abolishing taxes on tobacco products, on the grounds that those are also highly regressive?

    • How about you tax the rich to fund pre-kindergarten, community schools and parks and rec programs? Shocking, I know.

      • ajay

        That’s a great idea!

        But what I’m curious to know is: Would you support cutting or abolishing taxes on tobacco products, on the grounds that those are also highly regressive? I’m assuming the answer is “yes” because you just wrote an article that says “tax the rich, not unhealthy products” but I want to be sure.

        • Rob in CT

          Gas tax too.

          • ajay

            Gas tax is only regressive in the top half of the income distribution. Poor people don’t own as many cars, they certainly don’t own as many big cars, and they make more use of public transport.

            http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2008/04/15/202512/is-the-gasoline-tax-regressive/

            Also it’s tricky to judge its secondary effects: if you’re buying something in a store, it’s been brought in by truck, so some of the retail price is the gas tax, but how much? And how regressive is that impact?

            • DrDick

              You assume everybody lives in a large urban center. Here in the hinterlands, you have to have a car and all the poor can afford to by are big gas guzzlers. Gas taxes are extremely regressive.

              • ajay

                No, I don’t assume that at all. I’m just going by the studies that article cites, which show that, overall, the poor are less likely to own cars, less likely to own big cars, and less likely to drive.

                Things I didn’t write and don’t believe:
                “All poor people live in cities”
                “No poor people own cars”
                “No poor people own big cars”

                (I am a bit puzzled by “all the poor can afford to buy are big gas guzzlers”. Are there really areas where the only cars on sale are small, efficient, expensive cars and huge, cheap gas guzzlers? No second-hand Toyota beaters? No brand-new Escalades?)

                • ChrisTS

                  The problem is that the ancient gas guzzlers are cheaper to buy. (they are not cheaper to run, of course.)

                • DrDick

                  What ChrisTS said. Around here, a huge portion of the poor people drive 10-20 year old big, gas guzzlers, because that is all they can afford. There are now enough of the smaller, more economical cars entering the low end market that they are beginning to make inroads, but they are still 10-20 years old and in bad shape.

                • ajay

                  OK. But overall? Poor people are less likely to own cars; they own smaller cars; they drive less. The fact that it’s different in your particular area does not make any of that wrong. Just means that your area is unusual.

      • LeeEsq

        The answer as to so many things is politics. The Atlantic had an article about research into what it takes to get the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxation. Recent research from the United States and Europe suggests that you need war conditions to get the wealthy to pay more. The Nordic countries are global outliers in this regard. Unless you have lots of lower and middle income people sacrificing themselves or potentially sacrificing themselves for the nation, World War II, Cold War, Vietnam, etc., than the wealthy are going to do what they can to pay fewer taxes.

      • Manny Kant

        Well, okay, in the abstract. But Mayor Kenney is living in the actual real world where he needs to find ways to fund government services. You’re presenting an abstract objection to a program designed to solve a concrete program. Unless you can show me a proposal that could replace that revenue that could actually be plausibly enacted into policy, this is bullshit perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good sniping.

        • Marek

          +3¢/ounce

    • ema

      At least this tax is going to fund community programs. The funds from the upcoming 5 – whatever-the-store-wants-to-charge-cent tax on plastic bags in the city are kept by the stores.

  • Joe_JP

    Progressives should not be supporting taxes where the janitor pays precisely as much as the CEO.

    To be clear, is the point here that ANY sort of taxes (also are fees “taxes” here? fees for a range of services do more than cover costs; they are in effect also general taxes) that are evenly applied a problem? Seems a bit extreme.

    For instance, if a nickel out of each two liter soda is taxed and used for let’s say fluoridation of the water or whatever, is that a problem? Trying to itemize each tax based on wealth/income seems unnecessary. At some point, yes, regressive taxes are problematic, including sin taxes or things like gasoline (which I guess for some — going beyond basic needs and those who use it for employment and such — might be “sinful” in some sense).

    The deterrence function is more complicated. It is used, e.g., for certain types of guns. Both poor and rich. The argument is made that taxing the poor for “sins” is just petty in part since it amounts to one the few pleasures they might have. Okay. OTOH, at a certain low level it really doesn’t amount to much even there. Again, if it’s like a nickel a bottle or something. The value as deterrence is fact based. I’m agnostic to that here.

  • Bruce Vail

    Teamsters are opposed to soda taxes in Philadelphia, Baltimore and elsewhere.

    You’ve probably already guessed the opposition isn’t related to public health policy or fair taxation debates….

  • ajay

    DANGER: wild guesstimates ahead.

    Also the argument that the impact the tax will have on behaviour will be greater for the poor because they’re more price-sensitive. And that’s another benefit. 36% of sugars in the US diet come from sweetened drinks, and a three-cent-per-ounce tax could cut consumption by 20%. Unless people expand their sugar intake elsewhere to compensate, that’s a 7% drop in total sugar intake. How that translates into a drop in diabetes is anyone’s guess, but say it translates right across – 7% fewer Type 2 diabetes cases per year. In terms of QALYs that is a massive payoff. An extra QALY is worth about $50,000. If preventing someone getting diabetes is worth ten QALYs (seems reasonable) then a policy that stops ten poor people a year getting diabetes is equivalent to spending $5 million a year on the welfare of poor people.

  • FrankI

    The first best scenario is a reliable progressive revenue stream to pay for a progressive program. The PA Constitution doesn’t allow non-flat taxes. At the municipal level, the expectation is that property taxes will be used for future school district funding, because our Republican state legislature has given us the most local-dependent funding system in the nation. On top of which, the City has raised that every year for the last four years mostly due to the needs of the District. Other taxes either encourage flight of businesses and/or residents to the suburbs – we are already too reliant on wage, receipts, and other business taxes compared to other large cities – or are otherwise off the table (ex. parking taxes were raised last year). Much as I would prefer a progressive revenue stream on some on something with negative externalities, there are not many of those that Philadelphia can tax. As a third best scenario, a regressive tax on something with negative externalities to pay for progressive programs is not a bad deal, which is why most progressives I know in Philadelphia ultimately do not oppose the mayor’s proposal.

    • tonycpsu

      This. I would normally prefer a progressive tax, but when none is available, and kids are suffering right now, you take the funds where you can get them.

    • Gwen

      Why not change the Commonwealth’s constitution?

      I mean, I get it. The GOP has entrenched itself into more-or-less a permanent majority in Harrisburg due to gerrymandering.

      But sooner or later, you’d think the other foot might finally drop.

      • Hogan

        Later. Definitely later. Some time after we convince people in the T that Philadelphia wasn’t created when Babylon annexed Sodom and Gomorrah in 1855.

        • ChrisTS

          They would probably insist that Philly be permanently closed down or, possibly, moved to some nasty liberal state.

      • UserGoogol

        Massachusetts has a similar constitutional issue and Democrats have pretty much permanent control of the legislature and a progressive tax constitutional amendment still remains illusory. Part of it is the mediocre quality of some of those Democrats, but also the constitutional amendment procedure is just an extended process that gives lots of different players the opportunity to shut it down.

        • tonycpsu

          Right, and in the mean time, while we’re waiting for the planets to align for the perfect solution, our failure to put band-aids on the problem is harming people. We elect Democrats to listen to the people and provide them services, and if that means we have to get creative about how we raise the revenue, so be it.

        • Marek

          There is a strong coalition pushing a Millionaire’s tax referendum in Massachusetts right now. It’s a long process, but if it succeeds it will permit taxing the rich at a higher rate, with the funds generated dedicated to education and transportation.

          • Hogan

            MA has a citizen initiative process, which PA does not have. [a bunch of angry bitter stuff deleted because it’s not your fault and best of luck but FUCKING FUCKING MOTHERFUCKING MOTHERFUCK sometimes I really hate it here.]

            • Malaclypse

              As I’ve said for nigh on three decades now, Pennsylvania is a fine place to be from.

              • Hogan

                All roads lead from Harrisburg.

            • Marek

              Right, wasn’t suggesting that the referendum would be the thing to do now in PA, just giving information about MA.

      • Manny Kant

        Obviously a long term goal, but this is certainly not something Kenney can do right now. Being in government should mean dealing with the realities before you to achieve the best policy results possible, and no amount of abstract criticism of sin taxes is going to convince me that that’s not what he’s doing.

        Left wing criticism of this proposal is just playing into the hands of businesses and anti-tax wackos.

    • Manny Kant

      So much this. The criticism seems to ignore the actual political situation here, which is basically that this is the only game in town as far as additional sources of revenue go. It’s this or nothing.

  • Bitter Scribe

    The regressive aspects of consumption taxes are exactly why I tend not to support high motor-fuel taxes. Anyone can do without soda, but a lot of people are stuck depending on cars.

  • leftwingfox

    I’ve always considered the ideal use of sin taxes would be to offset externalities caused by those vices.

    Hospitals, insurance companies and epidemiological studies regularly estimate the cost of, say smoking, or alcohol, or sports injuries on the healthcare system. Estimate the cost paid by the government on harm reduction and healthcare, and set tax rates accordingly.

    That would also help portion out healthcare costs by responsibility in a more equitable way.

    Of course, that relies on governments actually providing healthcare and harm reduction strategies, rather than relying on those vices to bring in income for general revenue (i.e. with gambling)

  • NewishLawyer

    The Philadelphia tax seems too high but I am not opposed to the idea of taxing sugary drinks like I am not opposed to taxing people who want bags from stores. I small tax can increase revenues for relevant programs and also lead to a drop in soda consumption.

    The whole tax to “nudge” decision making thing is something I am torn on. I’ve been watching Cooked on Netflix. On a certain level, I think people like Pollan are blind to their own affluence and don’t realize that when you are wealthy it is easier to spend a long time cooking a meal. Pollan has a big kitchen that allows two or three people to cook side by side and not be cramped. There is also some patently false mythologizing on food and lot of “shoulding.” Why should people spend four to seven hours cooking a meal because some fancy hippie-cook has a mythologized view of the past?

    On the other hand, the public health dangers of sodas (and I am a Coke Zero addict) and other mass-produced foods are often very real.

  • manual

    The author does realize that many countries rely on regressive taxes to fund really progressive transfers, right?

    This argument just seems emotive. Go to Scandinavia. There are a variety of taxes that are regressive taxes. It’s how you do the transfers that matter.

    There is a limit to how much revenue you can get from rich people. Im happy to take more, but it’s not enough to finance a true left-liberal state. Thats why most countries rely on income and regressive VATs.

    • Ronan

      This is precisely the point. If you want all the nice things they have in Scandinavia then you have to tax people a lot, at all income levels, in multiple ways. There isn’t enough to be got from the rich alone. It seems to be another example of the Anglosphere left channelling libertarians “government big enough to provide top quality public services, but not big enough to get into my snacks cabinet”

  • addicted44

    If you’re against taxes intend to promote better health then don’t ever suggest single player healthcare again.

    The Philadelphia situation might be slightly problematic in that the money goes towards something unrelated but since it goes towards something that disproportionately benefits the poor its not that big of a problem either.

  • wengler

    Tax caffeine. It’d be a lot more class-neutral.

    • tsam

      NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!

    • addicted44

      Is there any reason to believe caffeine is close to being as bad for you as sugar water?

      The reality is that this situation isn’t as bad as Erik paints it. You add a dollar to the price of soda, people won’t simply just start paying more. Most likely they will shift to an alternative product. This is an area where there are tons of options and the vast majority are far healthier than soda and equally cheap.

  • Atrios

    The problem is that we can’t “tax the rich” in Philadelphia (or Pennsylvania). You have to charge the same rates to everyone. Raising income taxes or similar only on high income people is not an option. The constitution forbids it.

    Sure the city shovels lots of money to rich people and businesses and in an ideal world that wouldn’t happen, but it isn’t as simple as adding a progressive tax structure. It isn’t allowed.

    • Right–it certainly seems to me that changing the state constitution to end this should be the top priority for PA progressives.

      • tonycpsu

        You’ve spent enough time visiting PA to get a sense of how far-fetched that is, haven’t you? I feel like you’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good here. While we’re waiting for the constitutional amendment pony, the Philly schools are burning. We can put out the fire as we also try to bring about the political changes necessary to fix the broken state constitution.

        • Manny Kant

          Yeah, it’s crazy to expect that the Mayor of Philadelphia should put any attempt to fund necessary city programs (that disproportionately benefit poor people) on hold in the hopes of changing laws in Harrisburg that are almost certainly never going to change.

      • manual

        So dont do anything until the State House has sufficient votes to change the constitution?

        • Atrios

          even if were in the cards it takes upwards of 5 years to make happen

          • Brien Jackson

            And as a practical matter it’s not possible to alone based on the differening layers of government administration in the U.S. Federal, state, and local governments can’t ALL take 50% of Donald Trump’s money.

  • Hallen

    1. I live here, and I’ve discovered that Pennsylvania is terrible by pretty much every metric possible other than “Democrats are more electorally competitive here than elsewhere” and “Pennsylvania will still be a territory habitable by humans when global warming really kicks in.” I hate it so much.

    2. Sin taxes are problematic, for the reasons Erik said, and it’s not often I find myself almost totally agreeing with a post by Erik, so yay. I mean that sincerely.

    3. Proponents of sin taxes are almost always people who would not be affected by those sin taxes. In that magnanimous spirit, and as a vegetarian, please, let me suggest a 10% sin tax on meat. It can be used to fight obesity and heart disease. Hopefully, it will also reduce meat consumption–the negative externalities of which (greenhouse gases, environmental contamination, suboptimal distribution of agricultural resources) surely dwarf those even of perfidious soda. If you, as a proponent of taxes on cigarettes and cokes, think this is a shitty idea, please explain why–but only using the reasoning you’ve brought to bear upon this proposed soda tax.

    • Brien Jackson

      A tax on red meat is actually a really wonderful idea, for basically the same exact reasons (including the artificial cheapness of the product to begin with!) that a soda tax is a good idea. This is like the worst gotcha ever.

    • addicted44

      1) Meat has very important and necessary benefits. Cigarettes have none, and soda has a few, but those can easily, cheaply and better satisfied by alternatives.
      2) There are no cheap and easy alternatives to eating meat. There are many alternatives to drinking soda, which are far easier. You start charging a meat tax, people are unlikely to stop eating meat. Soda taxes will almost certainly shift consumption patterns towards other more healthy choices, because of the plethora of options available.
      3) Sin taxes don’t prevent secondary consequences. If you want to prevent those secondary consequences you tackle them directly. A blanket tax on meat will not lead to any attempts by huge farms to reduce their pollution. If that is your goal, then regulations on pollution will be how you achieve it. In fact, the soda industry itself has huge environmental problems. But this tax will do nothing to resolve those issues.

      I also want to distinguish between cigarette taxes and soda taxes. Cigarette taxes, in my opinion (even as a strong supporter) are far more problematic than soda taxes because there are no alternatives to switch to. Soda taxes are really a pretty slam dunk case, as long as you accept the premise that soda is bad with minimal benefits that can easily be satisfied by alternatives in a better way.

      I do want to add, however, that a tax on meat in line with the health issues eating it causes, is a good idea. I’m just not sure if the science against meat is all that strong at the moment.

      • Hallen

        First, I think there’s a solid case for distinguishing between soda taxes and cigarette taxes, absolutely. Though I dunno if it’s correct to say there are zero benefits to nicotine. If that’s the case, then we’re on the verge of saying there are zero benefits to alcohol or any other psychoactive substance. (Though in this case I suppose that the benefits are demonstrably outweighed by the drawbacks.)

        Basically, I’m just not a big fan of trying to smash bad habits with tax policy. Social stigma does a better job; at the end of the day you have addicts, and addicts’ demand is practically inelastic in terms of price sensitivity, even if they can be reached by emotional appeals (including and perhaps especially by shame). But, of course, since addicts are not rational actors, you have an exploited minority paying more than their fair share for public goods.

        You have a point about the soda tax, in that there are clear alternatives to soda in terms of hydrating your body with some palatable liquid. Still, it’s a good thing that the tax is limited to sugar sodas–since my suspicion is that people use soda as an alternative to coffee or tea as a caffeine delivery mechanism. (It’s why I drink diet sodas, anyway.) And if they aren’t drinking coffee or tea already, it’s because they don’t like those drinks in the first place; or they need to put so much sugar in those beverages that whatever health benefits wind up lost.

        As for the meat thing, sure, I agree that regs, etc., are a much better way to reduce environmental problems inhering to meat farming. (I mean, the best ways would be so unpopular they’d have to be backed up by a god-king armed with unlimited Hellfire equipped drones, so I won’t even float any of those ideas.) Nevertheless, as much Brien Jackson was right about my tone–it was super-snotty, indeed even slightly snottier than I intended–my point remains that is pretty much always a terrible idea to make the poor poorer, which is all that would ever truly accomplish.

        • Hallen

          Oh, and P.S., as a nicotine addict myself, I would necessarily add myself into my “not a rational economic actor” pile, in case anyone thought I was being a jerk about that.

    • Rob in CT

      I eat meat and a meat tax (or better yet a carbon tax that hits meat b/c meat production emits a lot of carbon) is ok with me.

      That said, meat isn’t as clearly negative as sugar. From a health standpoint, meat, even red meat >>> sugar. Meat has positives as well as negatives, whereas soda is pure negative. Environmentally… there meat loses, I’m sure. Add in something for animal cruelty too and meat takes another hit.

      So yeah, a meat tax is justifiable.

      Alternatively, we could subsidize veggies.

  • Origami Isopod

    Holy shit, is this one smug, oblivious, classist discussion.

    How many people here other than Loomis, Tsam, and Dr. Dick realize that a lot of poor people rely on those cigarettes, soft drinks, and junk foods to get them through their damn day (or night)? They’re not going to be doing “mindfulness” exercises on the production line or between calls at the call center during their 12-hour shifts.

    Fix the labor problems with this country that leave people in the kinds of economic straits that cause serious stress, and then we can talk about sin taxes.

    • Brien Jackson

      This is incredibly un-self aware.

      • jam

        Taxing poor-people’s-stuff, especially when it’s addictive, is problematic.

        It’s less so if coupled with a useful attempt to make better alternatives more available or affordable.

        It’s moreso when those taxes are proposed and used as a politically-expedient alternative to taxing activities associated with wealthy or high income folks.

        Cigarettes, soda, lottery tickets, and alcohol are available at basically every convenience store and gas station in my state (I know some states control gambling & alcohol more strictly). Those are also the businesses most likely to be open 24 hours (along with unhealthy fast food restaurants that offer enormous sugared sodas).

        Smoking cessation products, affordable bulk fruit juices, and fresh ingredients are available at grocery stores which are mostly found in more affluent neighborhoods and are less likely to be open 24 hours per day. There’s a clear class bias that makes it easier to access healthy alternatives for those earning middle incomes or better.

        For somebody living at the margins of society, maybe without much of a kitchen, and coping with stress, depression, and anxiety, these things matter.

        That liter of soda, packet of cigarettes, and bag of doritos are all terribly unhealthy — but they don’t need refrigeration or preparation and don’t generate dirty dishes. The cigarettes are more accessible and possibly cheaper (absent health insurance) than Ativan, an SSRI, and talk therapy.

        Taking a 3 mile (each way) walk to the grocery store or wal-mart would allow access to better choices, but in bad weather or at the end of a long shift it’s pretty miserable to do.

        • Manny Kant

          In this case, it’s a “politically expedient alternative” to not having a bunch of genuinely beneficial city programs that will help a lot of lower income people.

          • jam

            It’s a choice of funding that mostly insulates the well-to-do from paying for those programs.

            • Manny Kant

              The choice isn’t between funding it this way or funding it progressively. It’s this or nothing. It literally cannot be funded progressively, and even neutral options are wildly impractical given the status quo.

      • Origami Isopod

        Such an insightful reply.

      • SamInMpls

        Yes.

        delazeur called out tsam on the impact of Tobacco taxes and CRICKETS.

        I am ambivalent on the idea of sin taxes in general but not when it comes to tobacco. In this Northern backwater, higher prices and other measures have reduced the number of adults and teenagers who use tobacco to record lows. Uh… sorry?

        There are 480,000 deaths from tobacco per year in the United States according to the CDC but you want us to fix our labor problems before we can even discuss this? Please.

        They’re not going to be doing “mindfulness” exercises on the production line or between calls at the call center during their 12-hour shifts.

        There’s the tell.

        They may not call them “mindfulness” exercises but plenty of my coworkers, past and present, do bible study. A lot of religious books get passed around. Matthew Kelly’s “Rediscover Jesus: An Invitation” was very popular this Easter.

    • Snuff curry

      +1

    • Manny Kant

      [oops, meant to reply to jam]

    • DocAmazing

      As someone who treats poor people’s illnesses, I’m no more a fan of using cigarettes, soft drinks, and junk foods to get them through their days than I am of their use of crack or heroin. This is doubly true of children, who are often fed sodas and other unhealthy stuff in large quantities by parents, grandparents and other caregivers. It is spectacularly unhealthy, and there are any number of less-damaging stress-reducers–let’s get some harm-reduction strategies going on. If adults want to smoke or give themselves diabetes, that’s one thing (though we all end up paying for it), but we’re talking about unhealthy crap that’s being shovelled at kids at a high rate of speed.

      • Brien Jackson

        I’d exclude junk food, if only because there largely aren’t actually alternatives for them that are anything approaching available.

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