Lileks: What do other people enjoy the most? Let's slap a tax on it

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2013 - 12:01 AM

The “snack tax” bill may not make it through this session, but like the aftertaste of a bag of pork rinds, it’ll be back. Let’s take a look at what was inside, so we know the arguments pro and con.

You have to salute the bill’s conciseness: It barely fills out two pages. Brevity doesn’t mean it would have a small impact, of course; a bill that simply said, “Resolved: All sellers of rich, fatty foods shall be driven from the state with sharp sticks,” would really have an impact, almost single-handedly revitalizing the struggling sharp-stick industry overnight.

The snack-tax bill did have details. Let’s look at what they wanted to make more costly:

“Chips and similar items.” OK. But why not croutons? They’re delicious, crunchy and come in a range of flavors. There’s no Cheddartastic Loaded Baked Potato with Rind Sprinkles yet, but give them time, and don’t tell me they’re not healthy. There’s green in there. Flakes of desiccated chives, yes, but it’s green.

Note: A big bag of Ruffles is food, and hence exempt from taxes. An 8-ounce bag: a snack, so it should be taxed like candy. This like saying a big box of cereal is part of this balanced breakfast, but a single-serve box is equal to a box of Milk Duds.

(In case you’re curious, Milk Duds are taxed as “unexploded confectionary ordnance.”)

Pretzels. Not the warm, delicious fresh ones, but the ones that resemble lacquered ceramic. Includes the rebar-hard “logs,” which would still be on the shelves six months after society collapsed and people had cleared out the stores for edibles.

“Snack Mixes.” Chex cereal: not taxed. Chex Mix: taxed. Why? Mixing is involved.

“Licorice.” Yes, licorice is in candy. But licorice is a flavor. Strawberry-flavored twists aren’t “red licorice.” You cannot tax a flavor. It’s like bottling a thought.

“Cookies, pies, doughnuts and other pastries.” Good call, almost. Pies are candy when they’re preservative-loaded hand-held slabs of sugared goop that’s a third cousin to actual fruit that was industrially mashed six months ago. Pies are not candy if they’re round. They’re dessert. There’s a difference.

As for the cookies and pastries, surely they belong in the candy group. No one reaches for a frosted doughnut because their doctor says they’re not getting enough maple.

“Ice cream novelties.” This obviously wouldn’t cover Push-Ups, which are sherbet, or Popsicles, which are not ice cream, and ice-cream sandwiches, which have been around for so long the novelty has worn off.

“Nuts and edible seeds.” But as with chips and pretzels, only if it’s under 8 ounces. If it’s a jar, it’s food. Basically, it’s this: Can you open the package with one hand and your teeth while driving? It’s taxable.

Girl Scout cookies were exempt, because coming out against apple pie is bad enough PR.

There are two issues: One is tax streamlining, which attempts to reduce pointless bewildering complexity so the tax code can be full of intentionally bewildering complexity.

But the bill’s author suggested another rationale: “Just to go after the junk food, “ he said. “Especially the Twinkies and that sort of thing.”

Ah, Twinkies. The Devil’s Thumbs. They’re not made anymore, so let’s not go passing any stadium funding bills based on Twinkie revenue, but they’ll be back — and so will the bill. There are people who want to make the fattening stuff more expensive to discourage its consumption, so —

Oh, to heck with it. Insert recycled, familiar “nanny state” discussion here.

We always need new revenue, though. So let’s impose a 32 percent tax on that thing you like that other people don’t understand or approve of. I don’t care if it’s sports memorabilia or postcards of dry ice factories or cheap spumoni or foie gras. You register your Thing with the State, save your receipts and pay your taxes when you file.

If eating a doughnut is everyone’s problem, then everything else will be eventually. Matter of time.

Speaking of which, we tax watches, but not the act of saying “One Mississippi Two Mississippi.” Someone get on that. For the sake of streamlining.

 

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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