Posted on December 26, 2001
The Cigarette Stick-Up
Punitive taxes are pure cruelty
Amidst the heated class warfare rhetoric of the 1992 Democrat primary campaign, Rush Limbaugh facetiously launched his "tax the poor" campaign, in which he parodied diatribes against "the rich" by describing "the poor" in equally dehumanizing terms. The idea, in part, was to show how the Democrats draw a grotesque caricature of "the rich" in order to encourage resentment among the vast majority of Americans who consider themselves to be neither rich nor poor, and then present themselves as the people's allies against a common, albeit mythical, enemy.
Despite the fact that Limbaugh delivered his monologue on April Fool's Day, alleged satirist Al Franken didn't get the joke. The former Saturday Night Live producer took Limbaugh's "tax the poor" speech to be the smoking gun that revealed the unadulterated cruelty of American conservatives for all the world to see. The misunderstood sarcastic skit was excerpted prominently in a book written by Franken, that leached off Limbaugh's success by including his name in its title.
If Franken had studied The Rush Limbaugh Show half as much as he claimed he did, he surely would have heard the host chastise callers who had taken his suggestion seriously, and explain to them that he was against raising any taxes on anybody, and that the government couldn't get much revenue by taxing the poor anyway, because ... well ... they're poor!
Of course, anybody who's anywhere near as vicious as liberals give Limbaugh credit for being would realize that there actually is a way to take a significant amount of money from the poor. All you need to do is to give them practically no choice but to pay it. This concept is well understood by the Democrats -- the Party of Franken -- as they demonstrate every time they propose an increase in the federal cigarette tax.
According to a 1998 issue brief from the National Health Policy Forum, people below the poverty line are more than 25 percent more likely to be smokers than those above it. This has been corroborated by a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, that found a much higher percentage of smokers in the Rust Belt states than on either the East or West Coast. Democrats often use the word "fairness" as a euphemism for redistributing wealth by taxing the rich at disproportionately high rates. If they were at all consistent, this same concept of "fairness" would preclude any member of that party from voting for any tax increase that hits people at the lowest income levels hardest.
Obviously, it does not. Not only are the Democrats willing to support cigarette tax increases, but they're always the ones to propose them in the first place. In exchange for cutting the capital gains tax in 1997, President Clinton demanded, and got, an incremental 20 cent per pack cigarette tax increase: raising the federal tax from 24 to 34 cents in '97, then to 39 cents effective Jan. 1st, 2002, and then to 44 cents in 2007. In 2000, Clinton proposed an additional tax of 55 cents per pack, which was defeated in the House of Representatives. Senate Democrats have kicked around a number of other proposals, some of them far more severe. One bill introduced by Sen. Kent Conrad (D, N.D.) would have slammed smokers for an additional $1.50, upping the federal tax to $1.94 for every pack of twenty cigarettes, or $19.40 per carton.
The ostensible goal of these tax hikes is to deter people, primarily teenagers, from taking up smoking. They undoubtedly succeed, to some degree, in accomplishing that. If you believe it's the government's job to save people from themselves, which most Democrats do, that facet of the policy makes perfect sense. But what about all the people who smoke already?
During the 1996 presidential campaign, Bob Dole told NBC Today show host Katie Couric that he thought that cigarettes aren't addictive in all cases, and that lots of people can simply stop if they want to. He was savaged. The Clinton-Gore team made smoking a central issue in their campaign, accusing Dole of being a puppet of "Big Tobacco." They even sent some twit in a cigarette costume out to follow him on all his campaign stops.
The Democrats can't now use Dole's argument by saying that if you don't want to pay the cigarette tax, just stop smoking. The position they staked out in '96 was that cigarettes are a drug more addictive than many of those that are now illegal. Once you start smoking, you're hooked, just like the giggling overactors from the Fifties film Reefer Madness. Seen from this viewpoint, the cigarette tax can do nothing to make smokers stop smoking; all it can do is take their money.
When somebody has an addiction, he'll feed it at the expense of everything else, including necessities like food and utilities. If the price of liquor rises sharply, an alcoholic might spend less on groceries, he might turn down his thermostat, and he might go long periods of time without buying any new clothes -- but he'll always manage to get his hands on a bottle of gin. Likewise, high cigarette taxes will only lower the standard of living of a smoking addict, by depriving him of other things.
Imagine what the tax that Sen. Conrad proposed would mean to a two pack a day smoker. Those compassionate Democrats, who see almost any federal budget cut as a national hardship, have no compunction about telling smokers, many of whom already have trouble making ends meet, to find someplace to cut $21 a week out of the family budget. Over the course of a year, that would be an additional tax of $1,092.
Say you're trying to raise a family on a salary of about $30,000. You're not in poverty, so you're paying federal, state and local income taxes, as well as the payroll tax, property tax, and excise taxes. You're also making mortgage and car payments, and buying diapers and formula by the armload. ...And you smoke, which wasn't that expensive a habit when you started a decade ago, but now it is, and your numerous attempts at quitting have been unsuccessful. Because you're a smoker, a Democrat senator proposes that the government should be allowed to take an additional 3 percent of your gross income.
Is that fair? Is that compassionate? Would you thank the Democrats for "fighting for the people against the powerful," by sticking it to those Big Tobacco executives? Only the most inveterate party loyalist would answer yes.
If Clinton, Conrad and associates are correct in assessing the degree to which cigarettes are addictive, then penalizing the addicts, who have broken no law, is utterly sadistic. It is a punishment in the absence of an offense. The Democrats don't see it that way, though. To them, smoking is one of the very few stark, black-and-white moral issues in existence. They've determined that cigarette smoking is evil, therefore people who smoke cigarettes must be evildoers. Hence, any deprivations they suffer as a result of punitive taxation are richly deserved.
Such treatment of smokers is justified by the argument that smoking kills people. The HIV virus kills people too, but Democrats are loath to punish intravenous drug users, who are actually breaking the law. To the contrary, many in that party favor needle exchange programs, meant to allow heroin addicts to us their illegal drugs more safely. Moreover, anyone who suggested a way to penalize homosexuality and sexual promiscuity as part of an AIDS prevention program would be pilloried. There must, then, be some motive for the War On Tobacco other than public health concerns.
Demographics might give us a clue. The recent CDCP report shows that the metropolitan area with the highest per capita smoking rate is Toledo, Ohio: not New York, Seattle or San Francisco. That makes a pack of cigarettes quite an unfashionable accessory.
Not only is the prevalence of smoking higher among those at the low end of the economic ladder, but also among those with the least education. According to figures cited by the Oral Cancer Foundation, high school dropouts are more than three times as likely to smoke cigarettes as college graduates are.
What if the reverse were true? What if lighting up a Lucky were the surest way to identify oneself as a Yale man? What if cigarettes were the vice of choice for celebrity junkies like Robert Downey Jr.? Does anybody seriously believe that the Clintons and their party would target the elites of the cultural Left for punishment, just for puffing on a few leaves?
They may be eager to raise income taxes on "the super rich," which encompasses Hollywood and much of academia, but that's different. Progressive income taxes are designed to punish the rich for being rich, which rich liberals pretend not to be. If the government instead taxed cappuccino, or Ben and Jerry's ice cream, then that would be taken more personally, because it would signal a disapproval of their lifestyle. That's the kind of rebuke that's been dealt to cigarette smokers, for committing the unforgivable transgression of being gauche.
To anyone who believes the Democratic Party's stereotype of itself, this must seem completely implausible. After all, it's the Democrats who promise to stand up for "the little guy." It is they who are always devising new entitlement programs, through which they offer to provide for the American people as they would their own pets (Remember that instructive "feeding the pigeons" remark from Joe Lieberman's 2000 convention speech).
That's exactly the problem. When the Democrats isolate a segment of the population as needing to be kept and cared for, they are telling those people that they are incapable of surviving on their own. They demean them by calling them "little people," and by representing them with fictitious characters named "Joe Six Pack" and "Joe Bagadonuts," who are helpless to do anything but sit on the couch, and wait for the government to come along and help them. It's only natural that they should hold a certain amount of contempt for such people, having demoted them to the status of useless eaters.
When people allow themselves to be dehumanized in this way, they trust that their masters in Washington will treat them kindly, but there's no guarantee. The possibility always exists that the Democrats will decide that their pets aren't cute anymore. That's when the real cruelty begins.
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