Of all the problems besetting this country and her people, I would have thought that in 2018 the relative affordability of booze would be among the least urgent. Which is why I was amused to find, before I had even read the first sentence of "The case for raising the alcohol tax," the following caption: "Future Perfect. Finding the best ways to do good. Made possible by The Rockefeller Foundation."
But of course. There is no disreputable cause — from the advisability of sterilizing the working class to fear-mongering about world population growth — that has not been backed by the titular family foundation in the last half century or so. This quaint little notice set the tone for the rest of the piece, which is full of quotes from assistant professors of public policy capable of saying things like "The literature is really overwhelming" with a straight face. These are the sort of people for whom the messy human realities of politics are a nuisance. They prefer a world in which by pulling a few levers here and there bloodless abstractions like "GDP to debt ratio" or "work-life balance" simply increase or decrease by some kind of quasi-mechanical fiat.
This approach to politics is creepy and inhumane. It is also frequently nonsensical even taken on its own terms. Nothing illustrates this better than the bar napkin math presented as "research" by the aptly named Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution. According to Looney, a provision of the 2017 GOP tax bill that decreased federal excise taxes on alcohol "will cause … approximately 1,550 total alcohol-related deaths annually from all causes." Those murderers!
But how does he know this? Let him explain:
To estimate the additional motor vehicle and alcohol-related deaths that would result from the Senate tax cut, we look at Chaloupka et al. 1993; Ruhm 1996; Wagenaar et al. 2011; Cook and Durrance 2011. Wagenaar et al. (2011) show that a doubling of the tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35 percent and traffic crash deaths by 11 percent. Hence, a 16 percent reduction would lead to roughly 659 traffic deaths based on the 37,614 total traffic deaths in 2016 and about 1,550 alcohol-related deaths based on the 88,000 alcohol related deaths per year according to the NIH. Cook and Durrance (2011) found the doubling of the alcohol tax in 1991 led to a 4.7 percent decline in fatalities; therefore, a 16 percent reduction would lead to a 0.75 percent increase in motor vehicle fatalities, or 281 deaths per year based on the 2016 level of motor vehicle fatalities. Ruhm (1996) finds that a 78 percent increase in taxes leads to a 7 percent to 8 percent decline in fatalities. Hence, a 16 percent reduction leads to a 1.4 percent to 1.6 percent increase in motor vehicle fatalities, or 537 to 614 deaths per year based on the 2016 level of motor vehicle fatalities. [Brookings]
Buried beneath this tedious verbiage is one of the most moronic assumptions that any scientist or mathematician could ever embarrass himself by making. Looney quotes a handful of authorities who have projected — on what basis he does not bother to tell us — that a theoretical doubling of alcohol taxes would save a certain number of lives. The professor assumes that that there is some kind of statistical constant at work here whereby the reverse — a lowering of taxes by a certain percent — will ipso facto lead to a certain number of otherwise preventable deaths.
Math does not work that way. Neither does life. Even by the non-exacting standards of the social science industrial complex this is shoddy work.
As it happens, I rather like the idea of suggesting that things of which I do not approve or fail to enjoy should be taxed. If I were given the authority to do so I would happily impose a brunch tax of 100 percent. I would tax all boutique dog accessories and services out of existence.
This idea becomes even more appealing if I can pretend that by limiting access to all the things I dislike I am preventing people from dying. I would, for example, be happy to impose a severe duty — 25 percent or even higher — on Playstation and Xbox games. Given the fact that virtually 100 percent of recent school shooters have been addicted to violent video games, I should expect that if my new gamer tax were to lead to, say, a 15 percent decline in sales of Robot Assassination Manual 5, I would save dozens of lives. Ordinary less socially ostracized gamers would be able to grin and bear the increased cost, but at least a handful of wackos would be forced to take up a cheaper hobby like gardening or shuffleboard instead.
I wonder whether it has ever occurred to the sort of liberal wonks who casually suggest that what for millions of Americans is a harmless and enjoyable way of taking the edge off at the end of the day is a public health crisis. If we were to apply the same level of data-abetted skepticism to other pastimes — smoking marijuana, for example — that liberal journalists approve of, it would at least be understandable. But it never works that way. Besides, if the consumption of alcohol is really so dangerous, why not simply ban it outright? It is difficult to think of anything crueler than to allow someone to engage in behavior that you think will harm him and then make him pay extra for it.
I leave the last words to Mrs. Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit, who, for all her faults, understood many things that are utterly beyond the improvers and pseudo-moralists at Vox: "Leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don't ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what I'm engaged to do, according to the best of my ability."