September 05, 2003

News From Seattle Even More Depressing Than Usual

WE HAVE LOOKED ON with bemusement at the brewing—ha!—controversy in Seattle over that miserable city’s proposed espresso tax. It seems, according to The New York Times, that certain folks there have decided that a ten-cent tax on each cup of that powerful stimulant would be a good thing. This is because the tax would help children. Or, to be more precise, it would create more municipally-funded slots for poor families with young children at child-care centers.

We are not sure whether this would help the children or the parents, but never mind. The dime’s really and truly and honestly going to go for the kids, supporters say. Or, to be more precise, services for the kids; but in the minds of those behind a municipal referendum on the matter, that is all the same thing. So if voters approve Initiative 77, the ballot measure that would enact the levy, supporters say the kids would get $6.5 million per annum. That’s 65 million cups of espresso per annum, or 115 cups annually for every man, woman and child in Seattle proper.

Now, whether Seattle’s municipal taxes should be increased is a matter for the good people of that city. They’re the ones going to vote on the matter, of course, and we shall reserve our opinion on the general issues of taxation and sin taxes in particular. However, we here at The Rant do feel we can say this. If Seattle voters do approve the measure, they’re even weirder than we thought they were.

Gad. We don’t know about the rest of you, but to us the idea of regularly paying $2.50 for a single cup of coffee is anathema. We do not care if it has sprinkles or caramel or yak’s milk in it: it’s a cup of coffee. Hence, while we admire Seattle’s capable businessmen for conning the American people into regularly spending such sums on the beverage, we have a dim view of the people living in that city. After all, they were the first to succumb to the overpriced-coffee trend; and, if they succumb to this ballot initiative, we think they’ll get what they deserve. And again, this isn’t a question about whether to raise taxes—we avoid that here. Fundamentally, this is a question about whether a municipality should try an untested and potentially burdensome taxation scheme in an attempt to raise a very small amount of revenue.

For it to work, a few things would have to happen. First, people would have to keep drinking espresso as opposed to any other chi-chi fou-fou coffee drink. Second, firms would have to agree to take on the burden of accounting for each dime on one specific product. Given the labor-intensive and high-rent nature of coffee sales, we suppose that could cost more than the profit each cup of espresso generates. Third, Point Two would not occur, and hence the city’s revenues would not be further reduced due to lower overall coffee sales, business failures, job losses, and so on. Fourth, people and businesses would not find ways to avoid or evade the tax, such as going to Tacoma or finding a way to make an espresso substitute. Fifth, people would have to actually give a … bean … about their coffee money going to the kids. We just think they’ll want their coffee.

However, the people behind Initiative 77 believe Items One through Five will take place:

"Seattleites love our coffee and we also love our children," said John R. Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonprofit organization that came up with the idea for the ballot initiative. "We believe that we should have a kid-friendly community in which we actually don't leave children behind. Unfortunately, with current funding, we are leaving a lot of children behind."

Mr. Burbank said the tax was a fairer way to raise money at a time when the economy was weak because it would affect people with higher incomes more than it would affect the poor.

"Lower-income people drink less espresso than upper-middle-class people," he said. "I've already had two tall double lattes, and I'll probably get another today."

He added: "If you don't want to pay it, you can buy drip coffee or tea. But I believe people are more likely to want to consume espresso if their morning purchase doesn't just go to giving them a buzz but goes to children.”

This is no different than saying that people are more likely to buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because part of the profits are given to various charitable causes. And we here at The Rant don't buy that a bit. That’s because during one “Free Scoop Day” at a Ben & Jerry’s retail operation in west Los Angeles a few years back, we were encouraged to donate to one of their hippy-trippy causes in return for a free scoop of ice cream. We vocally refused, and others in a crowd of ice-cream fans voiced their agreement with our refusal. Or they at least found it funny. Hence, we do not see how this would be any different. Furthermore, since coffeehouse workers are not exactly affluent, we fail to see how the potential of putting those adults out of work is deemed acceptable.

We would also add that we see this proposed tax as potentially dangerous. We mean, this is coffee. If coffee houses stop selling espresso or even move away because of the levy, then coffee-drinkers might get upset. If the espresso tax, because it is a tax, was ever increased, then the situation might get worse. And then the coffee-drinkers might get VERY upset. They might even get this upset:

SEATTLE, 2006. HEROIC CIVIL AUTHORITIES lead a charge against a crazed horde of coffee-drinkers in downtown. Meanwhile, in the city’s famed International District (inset top), riot police launch tear gas against the maddened crowd. But the riots, caused by sudden and severe withdrawal symptoms among coffee-drinkers, caused millions in damage (inset bottom).

OK, so the chances that would happen are pretty much zero. But maybe a series of tip jars would work better.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at September 5, 2003 12:03 AM | TrackBack