I pose this as a direct challenge to the community: can you persuade me to support the recently vetoed bill to expand S-CHIP? Support for this bill, and for an attempt to override the President’s veto, is nearly universal here. Despite that, I intend to challenge the community to justify this to me.
It is not truly important for you to bother to do this. I am only one person, and few people share my opinion. Further, whether or not you agree with me, this is very advantageous political theater, and undermining it by seriously questioning its foundations has disadvantages. That being said, I’ll make my case, and I’ll even give you reason to believe you can succeed in converting me.
My objection to the S-CHIP expansion has nothing to do with actually expanding S-CHIP. Generally speaking, as most of you know, I oppose government expansion and spending. But in this case, I honestly don’t care. Providing more health care to children, particularly poorer children, is enough of a good that I’m willing to accept the bad of more government for it, under the right circumstances. If the government is going to spend one more dollar, I think this is a good place to spend it. I believe that it genuinely benefits American society.
In this case, I am simply horrified at the way we intend to pay for it. We intend to pay for this expansion of S-CHIP by increasing the federal tax on cigarettes from $0.39 to $1.00, an increase of over 150%.
My first objection is that there is simply no moral case that I can fathom why smokers and smokers alone should bear the costs of our providing more health care to children. I have not yet seen anyone so much as attempt to make one, so I will assume this to be true. Of course, if you want to argue that the moral responsibility for this is solely that of smokers, I’ll listen.
My second objection is that this is something which will cause significant harm to primarily poor Americans, and which will not achieve hoped-for benefits. This case is more detail-specific.
The first contention is that smokers inflict a high financial cost on society, our government, and our health care system. Therefore, increasing their financial costs is deserved. But the data does not support this. Economic studies have shown repeatedly that smoking decreases overall health care costs in the long term. In addition, we also can determine that smokers bear 77% of all smoking-related costs directly, leaving less than one quarter of the costs of smoking to be borne by other entities.
The remaining 23% of smoking-related costs are borne by the public. But those costs are offset by currently enacted cigarette taxes and the Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco producers and state governments, which provides over $206 billion to offset public costs. Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service determined in 1994 that cigarette taxes already offset the public costs of smoking. In 1994, the average pack of cigarettes in America cost an additional $0.50 in state and federal taxes. Today, those taxes are $1.46 for the average pack. Which means it is safe to say that smokers already pay quite a bit more than their actual costs to the public.
Even if that wasn’t true, this much worse fact is: this is a tax on poor people. This data is not in dispute. Nearly one third of Americans below the poverty level are smokers, compared with less than a quarter of those above the poverty level. Over half of all smokers are from households in the bottom two quintiles of income. And this is not only an indicator of current smokers, but of future smokers: children whose families earn less than $20,000 a year are 90% more likely to start smoking than children whose families earn more than $50,000.
Further, tobacco taxes are literally the most regressive form of taxation possible to fund S-CHIP expansion. This led The Tax Foundation to conclude that “no other federal tax hurts the poor more than the cigarette tax.” Their study demonstates that the costs for the poorest 20% of taxpayers of an increase in the tobacco tax would be $249 a year, while for the wealthiest 20% of taxpayers, the costs would be $291. Compare this to an increase in the income tax, which would cost the poorest 20% of Americans $7 a year, and the richest 20% $1,277.
The most often cited reason why increasing tobacco taxes is considered a good thing is because it ostensibly reduces smoking. Yet, that data is deeply suspect. As I diaried here before, cigarette taxes in Washington State, which has the third highest cigarette tax in the nation, resulted in an overall increase in tobacco sales. Doubling the cigarette tax over the last decade has not reduced the overall number of smokers in America – 50 million Americans smoked then and smoke now.
It is hard for me to imagine the argument that can trump this data. Clearly, tobacco tax increases have already exceeded the public costs of smoking. Clearly, there are severe limits to the ability of tobacco tax increases to decrease smoking. And clearly, this is an extraordinarily regressive tax which will mostly affect the poor, and effect the poor a great deal. We are suggesting nothing more than helping more poor children by making millions of poor Americans much poorer. But I have been wrong before.
I was recently persuaded to support hate crimes legislation. I was a lifelong opponent of such laws. It is my belief that there is nothing at all worse about a crime based on bias than a crime based on greed or anger. But it was pointed out to me that many hate crimes are not considered crimes at all. Tucker Carlson can casually state that he beat up a gay man for making a pass at him. If that was an excuse for a beating, then tens of thousands of men in bars across America would be being pummelled as I write. But in too many places, those assaults are not considered “crimes”. And hate crime laws can be an important act of changing that, and bringing justice to those who would otherwise get no justice at all.
So, give it a shot. Explain to me why this bill is something worth fighting for, instead of something that does nothing more than to make me be ashamed to be a Democrat.