If there’s one thing even most Republicans and Democrats agree on, it’s that the tax system should be “fair,” if for no other reason than people then feel better about paying their due, and theoretically, at least, cheat less.
Unfortunately that taxes should be “fair” is one of those inch-deep accords, since as soon as you ask how that manifests, fissures appear. Fair is rich people paying proportionately more; fair is everyone paying the same rate; fair is taxing corporations heavily; fair is lowering corporate tax rates so they can compete on the world stage, etc.
Which might explain the endless popularity of lists of seemingly inexplicable, contradictory, and/or bewildering distinctions in what is considered “taxable” and what’s not. In a confounded, head-shaking “that durned gub’mint” sort of way, they unite us all on the other side—that there is no logical rhyme or reason to the system—and all we can do is laugh.
State by state
And since I recognize cheap, easy entertainment value when I see it, let’s warm up with a handful of examples from several states*:
*These are listed for recreational purposes only, and should not be considered by politicians desperately trying to balance a budget as sound fiscal policy.
In New York, uncut bagels are not taxable. But “cut” bagels (there’s a joke in there somewhere) toasted, or with cream cheese? Taxed. And roasted chickens sold hot are taxed, but their cold counterparts sold from a refrigerated compartment? Untaxed! Go figure.
The great state of Washington is one of several that taxes candy bars containing flour, but not flour-free bars. If you’ve been desperately searching for a reason to hop on the “gluten-free” locomotive, you have found your ticket.
In New Jersey, pumpkins that are sold cut or decorated for a holiday, such as Halloween, are taxed. But an untarnished pumpkin sold for, say, making a pie or other edible is not. I’m not certain Governor Chris Christie had a say in excluding pumpkins sold for eatin’ from being taxed. I’m just raising the question.
And in Connecticut, babies’ disposable and reusable diapers are taxed. But adult diapers are exempt. Maybe they figure wearing the latter is degrading enough. Or the adult diaper-wearers vote, and the infants don’t. Regardless, this tax distinction also explains the large number of Connecticut babies outfitted in diapers big enough to hold two babies!
The current state
Then there are the “social engineering” taxes—basically the government saying that if you want to be a nimrod, it’s a free country, except that it’s going to cost you. These include taxes on things you use (tobacco) and things you don’t (as eligible folks who didn’t sign up for the Affordable Care Act are now discovering).
There is the small and highly subjective category of things that aren’t taxed but should be, like tweets. If every tweet carried a tariff of, say, 1/8 of a penny for every recipient, I daresay the number of tweets detailing what someone ate for breakfast and the like would plummet, and the world would be better off.
The best things in life are tax-free
But let’s wind-up our “tax” blog mini-series on a positive note. Namely, with a “best things in life are tax-free” round-up. Taxes may be inevitable, but they’re not ubiquitous.
Because it remains true that some of life’s greatest pleasures—the smell of the forest after a rain, flowers in a field, sunsets, cat videos—are tax free.
But I want to give a special shout out to the “free music festival” season, now upon us.
Depending on where you live, there is an astounding number of them. I daresay, in New York City you can find a free outdoor concert of some kind every summer night of the week. Most of these are corporate-sponsored, meaning that it’s probably a tax write-off, but let’s face it: if they weren’t sponsoring these, the companies would find a far less rhythmic way to avoid paying the IRS. And even though the entertainment value of these shows could run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars if you paid market value for tickets, somehow the government hasn’t figured out a way to count attending these freebies as “income.”
San Francisco has Stern Grove: free concerts by world-class musicians every Sunday in a gorgeous grove setting. And my favorite free festival in the world, coming up in a mere two weeks, is the New Orleans French Quarter Festival: four days of local old- and new-style New Orleans jazz & funk musicians taking over the Big Easy’s historic French Quarter, as well as several stages along the banks of the Mississippi River, from morning till night. There’s something special about seeing jazz in the place where it was born.
I’m sure you can come up with your own list of life’s pleasures that exists independent of taxpayers’ footing the bill. And somehow, that makes it, whatever it is, even better!
Happy April 15.