New York Times: On Death and Taxes

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Original Post

August 4, 2011, 6:55 pm


We’ve come to accept that 10 to 15 percent of ground turkey is contaminated with salmonella. You think that doesn’t have consequences?

Willie Neuman reminds us that they do, in today’s piece about the massive recall by Cargill. (37 million pounds. Are you kidding me? Two ounces for every American, man, woman and child.)

If you cook ground turkey or anything else to 165 degrees Fahrenheit you’ll kill the salmonella. But if you put the tainted food on your cutting board beforehand or you don’t wash your hands immediately after handling it, or if you cross-contaminate in any number of other ways — you can imagine — you can cook the burgers to 165,000 degrees and it won’t matter. Are people supposed to become food safety experts in their own homes? Doesn’t it make more sense to make the food products safe in the first place?

I never thought — not for a moment — that when I began writing opinion pieces for the Times I’d be writing about food safety practically every single week. But I now realize I could. And that’s tragic — at least one person has died from eating this tainted turkey — and disgusting and disappointing because this is fixable. Not, however, if corporations are allowed to make their own rules, as I wrote yesterday.

We need federal money to pay the agencies in charge of protecting us not only from dangers to our food supply — the F.D.A., U.S.D.A., and so on — but from the blind profit motive of corporations. This brings us to the subject of taxes, and while — for the time being at least — I’ll leave the broader topic of the past weeks’ Republican travesties in the capable hands of Krugman, Dowd, and Nocera (you should read each of these columns when you get a chance), I want to paraphrase a mostly one-way conversation between me and a friend of 50 years whom I used to consider a centrist (and he was). Now his common sense, quite constitutional approach makes him sound like a flaming radical.

Mostly, this was in response to a criticism of my tax bad food/subsidize good food story in the Sunday Review, which drew the ire of “libertarians” and others claiming that this was some kind of ridiculous notion, since the government shouldn’t “tell” us what to eat.[1]

My friend’s comments:

“Taxing foods that are proven to hurt society as a whole by raising healthcare costs is not the same as telling people what to eat. No one is saying “you can’t eat McDonald’s fries” — just pay a tax for the privilege of costing your fellow citizens more later.[2]

“Freedom demands responsibility. It’s the oldest cliché. Your freedom to swing your fist stops at the end of my nose.[3]

“All of this is so fundamental it could get missed. But there are three possibilities:

Government gets involved in all areas of choice, legalizing some, outlawing some, and taxing some.

No government involvement. No infringements on my “freedom.” This is the Tea Party position as I understand it. It’s absurd. That’s not society, but the jungle.

The government and the people who elect it decide on a case-by-case basis: Here are the areas where the government should govern for the common good; here are the areas where the government should not govern. One size does not fit all.”

“Some (mostly Republicans) seem to think that unfettered individuals always make the best decisions. Some (mostly Democrats) believe individuals do not always make the best decisions — that some people are not equipped and must to a certain extent be taken care of, and/or that sometimes our joint decisions are more valuable for most of us than when we act as individuals.[4]

“Some (mostly Republicans) seem to feel that less capable people should be left to die in the streets to get their inferior genes out of the survivor pool.[5] But though, yes, we are individuals, we are more importantly also members of the collective citizenry: we curtail our own limitless wants for the good of the whole. [6]

“We can probably agree that individual freedom is sacred and should not be infringed up to the point that my freedom is also your pain. Democrats think there are more necessary times to infringe than do Republicans. It would be nice if citizens were educated enough to make informed decisions and postpone gratification — to serve as adults in society. But we know we are not all well-educated and we know we are mostly weak willed. (Christians even believe man is fallen.)

“This would be O.K. if it did not also hurt others. That’s where individual freedom must be mitigated by some government paternalism.

“So. If people do not make healthy food choices, I can’t see why it’s wrong to have them pay a tax to offset the future cost to their fellow citizens of their decisions.”

It’s said that taxes, like death, are inevitable. Some deaths — those from toxic foods produced industrially — can be eliminated. Some of that elimination will take money; that money must come from taxes: there is no other way.[7]

Taxes, obviously, are not just about food but about everything from health care to roads to education to social security, and so on. Almost everyone, on both the left and the right, agrees that our current tax codes are unfair.

How so? You might glance at this chart from Citizens for Tax Justice, which shows that the United States is one of the least taxed countries in the developed world. So we’re hardly overtaxed, by global standards at least; rather, we’re incorrectly taxed: it’s no news that corporations and the super-rich [8] pay way too little. I’d argue that everyone except for those with really low incomes probably pay about the right amount. The point is that the total isn’t enough, and the question is how is the shortfall made up? Massive cuts hurt everyone but the rich. Tax reform — which should mean higher taxes for some, lower for some, and more fair for all — is a far better road than slashing-and-burning programs that serve us all well, programs that might, for example, keep people from being poisoned by their food.

The Center For American Progress believes that tax reform should be built on four principles: eliminating the bias against labor income and in favor of unearned income (that is, if you make your money because you already have money, you probably pay lower taxes than those who make their money by actually working; that’s not fair); making sure that tax breaks help low-income people as much as they help the rich; simplifying the tax code, which would ultimately raise more money from the rich and eliminate the alternative minimum tax, which burdens the poor and middle class; and raising enough money (which would allow us the pain [9] of the debacle of the last few weeks).

The fact that this kind of discussion is barely happening breaks my heart, just as it breaks my heart that we can’t make a lousy turkey burger safe.