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Category: Tax

Vanity Taxes vs. Worthless Competitions

vanity.jpgNew Jersey adopted a “vanity tax” in 2004, levied on “any medical procedure performed on [an] individual which is directed at improving [his/her] appearance and which does not meaningfully promote the proper function of the body or prevent or treat illness or disease.” In a critique of the tax, Michael Duel argues that it is sexist and such surgery is frequently nondiscretionary:

Women can either feel inferior, enjoy a lower quality of life, and be rejected by mainstream society, or else suffer the pain and toil of cosmetic surgery to achieve the exact same ideals society uses to reject them.

Cosmetic surgeons have also railed against the tax, unctuously declaiming that it “discriminates against women” because they buy about 86% of the procedures.

NOW President Kim Gandy has a nice response to that canard:

In general, I’m opposed to most things that impact women disproportionately, but disproportionate use isn’t a good measure if a tax is unfair or not. I can’t imagine someone arguing against having a luxury tax on yachts because more of them are bought by men.

State Senator Karen Keiser is uppping the redistributive ante in Washington state, with a plan to earmark vanity tax revenue for health insurance for poor children. As one tax policy analyst claims, “In this anti-tax climate, these user-based, selective tax proposals are more palatable than broader ones.”

Duel also attacks the vanity tax as a matter of tax policy, but I have a feeling he misses its point. . .

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Ten Smiles Per Hour: Tax on the Dour?

happyface.jpgTaking a break from weighty topics like world hunger, Peter Singer reflects on an Australian City’s decision to encourage cheer among residents:

[T]he city of Port Phillip . . . has been using volunteers to find out how often people smile at those who pass them in the street. It then put up signs that look like speed limits, but tell pedestrians that they are in, for example, a “10 Smiles Per Hour Zone.” . . . . Mayor Janet Bolitho says that [smiling] . . . . encourages people to feel more connected with each other and safer, so it reduces fear of crime – an important element in the quality of life of many neighborhoods.

Singer backs the effort, based on some “happiness research” mentioned in my last post: “promoting friendship is often easy, cheap, and can have big payoffs in making people happier. So why shouldn’t that be a focus of public policy?”

I was reminded of Quentin Crisp’s classic comparison of England and America: the former combines a generous welfare state with icy social mores, while the latter has sunny individuals and comparatively stingy social provision. But we shouldn’t discount the role of happy cultures in creating happy people; as Barbara Ehrenreich has noted, perhaps the rise in rates of depression “can be connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnival and other traditional festivities.”

Some theorists of discrimination might argue that government intervention to change a sticky norm of unfriendliness amounts to a tax on the dour. Why are they being forced to affect sentiments they don’t authentically feel? But I think the problem has less to do with “faking it” than with the systematic substitution of, say, well-founded dread with carefree bonhomie. Consider U.S. teens’ expectations of future earning power:

American teens believe … that when they get older they will be earning an average annual salary of $145,500. Interestingly, boys expect to earn an average $173,000 a year and girls $114,200 … The fact is, only about 14 percent of U.S. households have incomes between $100,000 and $200,000, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income in the United States is actually $46,326.

Perhaps the boys’ keen understanding of current fiscal policy has led them to anticipate a hyperinflation.

Admittedly, the optimal level of cheer (or optimism) in a society is impossible to assess in the abstract. But I think Port Philip’s strategy may ultimately backfire. It threatens to set in motion a Gresham’s law of public gladness, whereby bad smiles drive out (or at least devalue) the good. Perhaps a certain seigniorage of cheer will increase gross happiness in the short run. But in the end, it may well set us on the road to a situation like that described in Vaclav Havel’s essay on the grocer in Power of the Powerless. Grinning done as public duty may be indistinguishable from a grimace.

Photo Credit: Flickr/TobyLeah.

Mankiw’s Fractured Fairy Tales

mr_peabody_and_sherman.jpgCome tax time, econoblogger Greg Mankiw is peddling parables about distributive justice designed to reconcile us to inequality. You see, if we tax high earners too much, they may just all flee to….well….another bar. Redistributive policies are ridiculed as gliding us down a slippery slope toward Harrison Bergeron-style taxation of height.

How to respond? Well, if there were thousands of people around who were, say, hundreds of times taller than the average person, and whose ability to consume resources were accordingly disparate, perhaps we’d try to find some way of rectifying the situation. As for “bar stool tax policy;” well, if the top guy also happened to be drinking 40% of the beer, er, income, perhaps we’d like to see him paying accordingly.

I suppose that Mankiw might say that the height paper is only an attack on “utilitarian social planner[s who] would like to transfer resources from high-ability individuals to low-ability individuals.” Only such a planner is attributed the desire to “levy a sizeable tax on height [such that a] tall person making $75,000 should pay about $4,500 more in taxes than a short person making the same income.” And perhaps he has dented “the theory of optimal taxation [according to which] any exogenous variable correlated with productivity should be a useful indicator for the government to use in determining the optimal tax liability.” But what relevance does this battle of ideal theories have for our world? Is any political party advancing the “theory of optimal taxation” Mankiw is trying to discredit?

It is easy enough to score debating points about the “impossibility” of perfect distributive justice, just as one can always dredge up Arrow’s impossibility theorem to discredit democratic procedures. But in a nation where an ever-growing number of people lack basic health insurance, and a world where tens of millions live on a dollar a day and a substantial proportion of the affluent do nothing to relieve their plight, it’s really difficult to see how reductiones ad absurda contribute to the practical decisions we have to make about distributing resources. Parlor games don’t lead to good policy.

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Costs of Inequality

As tax day approaches, Sheryl Sandberg of the Google Foundation has some sobering insights on the “charity gap”–how small a percentage of donations actually help the disadvantaged. “[O]nly 8% of donations provide food, shelter or other basic necessities. At most, an additional 23% is directed to the poor.” International deprivation is not a major concern of most donors; “The most generous estimate shows that only 8% of U.S. individual donations supports international causes of any kind.”

Another article, on the prevalence of organ markets, shows how this persistent inequality affects the global supply of and demand for body parts. It pleads for another type of giving:

Fewer than 40 percent of Americans have signed organ-donor cards, and only about half of their families consent to the donation of a loved one’s organs. . . . Many assume that if they don’t supply the organs, somebody else will. But [even if that is the case,] that somebody won’t be a corpse. It’ll be a fisherman or an out-of-work laborer who needs cash and can’t find another way to get it. The surest way to stop him from selling his kidney is to make it worthless, by flooding the market with free organs. If you haven’t filled out a donor card, do it now.

Both quotes bring to mind a recent quote I’d read, reportedly from an upcoming book by Pope Benedict XVI:

Confronted with the abuse of economic power, with the cruelty of capitalism that degrades man into merchandise, we have begun to see more clearly the dangers of wealth and we understand in a new way what Jesus intended in warning us about wealth.

As Thomas Berg has blogged, “great disparity seems likely to make it harder for people to practice the value of solidarity, that is, ‘see[ing] the “other”. . . not just as some kind of instrument, . . . but as our “neighbor,” . . . to be made a sharer on a par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.’” (citing Solicitudo Rei Socialis, para. 39).

I look forward to seeing what the distinguished legal scholars attending the upcoming Class Crits Workshop (hat tip: Feminist Law Profs) at the SUNY Buffalo Law School have to say on these and related topics. (Note–they are still accepting proposals until April 23).