Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dirty Money

Okay, maybe I'm obsessing about this cigarette tax debate, but it does somehow keep pullulating up whenever discussion turns to budgets and Republicans get all sanctimonius about their ideology, which is all the time now. (Republicans feel they are not only entitled to their own opinion but to their own facts--their numbers always seem to add up in a way which says we have to spend less and they aruge the tax-and-spend Democrats really are tax-and-spend because they are afflicted with spendng mania disorder.)

But I digress.

So, the basic Republican argument is, we cannot invent new taxes (e.g. a state income tax as a rider to the federal income tax) because taxes are BAD, and we cannot raise taxes, even on the undertaxed rich, because raising taxes is BAD, but what we can do is look at things like the cigarette tax and figure out how we can generate more money from it.

So the obvious way is to help sell cigarettes and to promulgate more profit from cigarettes.  The purpose of the tax is to raise money. No discussion of the good or ill done by cigarettes is relevant.

I have argued, this is Dirty Money. It is money made on the inevitable suffering induced by cigarette addiction.

But in the nascent years of the twentieth century this concept of "Dirty Money" was examined by George Bernard Shaw in his wonderful play, Major Barbara. Shaw's argument was in a capitalist society, which is highly integrated there can be no such thing as "Clean Money."  The man who makes his living selling bombs and bullets spends his money at the local baker, the local theatre, the local political group--everyone is supported by the income from the bullets and bombs.  The bomb maker, Undershaft, has a strong willed, independent daughter who is an officer in the Salvation Army and she is appalled the Salvation Army would accept money from her father, from the sale of weapons which kill and maim. Shaw argues she should be happy to get the money out of the Devil's hands in into the hands of God.

This argument has been a keystone of terrorists, like the 9/11 terrorists who flew the airplanes into the World Trade Center: There are no innocents in America. The entire nation is making money by exploiting the poorer nations and using that money to support Israel over the Palestinian's. It is America's economic power which is the head of the snake--which was the symbolism of choosing the center of world trade in New York as the primary target. The money buys political power, and that's why the Capitol, the White House and the Pentagon were also on the target list, presumably.

Nobody can know, of course, what the terrorists' thinking was. We don't even know who "They" are. But, you certainly hear this line of thinking in the Osama Bin Laden tapes and elsewhere.

But back to cigarettes in New Hampshire.  If there is no such thing as Clean Money, then there is no such thing as Dirty Money. We are all swimming in the same water.

But cigarette taxes are a little different, because there is also the principle the power to tax is the power to destroy. And there is the principle that people make calculations based on cost. And if we make cigarettes expensive enough, we will see some people give up smoking and this, empirically seems to be true. So if you use a tax to influence behavior, not primarily to raise money--and, in fact, the profits from that tax were supposed to be delivered to programs to end smoking--then that is a little different from simply profiting from making bombs, and doing nothing by taxing the bomb maker into making or selling fewer bombs.

On the other hand, I would argue that this Republican line of utilitarian, practical approach to the use of harmful products is actually a very interesting idea and the Republican delegates by arguing against the idea of Dirty Money, have done a very real service to the idea of what the government can and ought to do in governance.

If there is no Dirty Money and no Clean Money, what then is the argument against legalizing and taxing heroin, cocaine and marajuana?  We could sell it at prices which would undercut what any street hopper could offer--which is easy because the street price is several multiples of the price of production, put it in package stores where buyer could be registered, monitored and given clean non HIV infected needles and turn a crime into a public health problem and save real money on policing and on health expenditures and make a little money for the treasury in the process?

We might apply the same thing to legalizing, regulating, taxing prostitution, and we could be sure these professional ladies are licensed, HIV tested, given health care and turned into tax paying citizens, hopefully unionized.

So, all in all, I think the Republicans, by arguing we ought not be worried about the moral costs of a cigarette tax have opened up a really wonderful opportunity to think anew about separating government from the world of ought to be.

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