If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet. – Beatles
Taxing things makes them less attractive. Soda taxes, for example, are meant to make drinking sugary-chemical-water more painful in the short term.
So, what happens if the tax money is directed to doing good works? Now we have a mixed motive around sodas. Don’t drink them because they are bad for your health, your teeth, your organs and it’s going to cost you more. But wait, do drink them because we want the tax dollars for paying for universal pre-school.
Sound far-fetched? Nope. Philadelphia is contemplating this very thing – using soda taxes to pay for public pre-school. The pre-school’s positive impact would rely upon the continued negative health impact of consuming sodas.
When Mexico began a national soda tax in 2014, Mexicans cut back on root beer floats – in total 12 percent less soda was consumed. Lower-income people gave up more soda than upper income people, which can be taken as a good thing – lower-income people already have lots of health disadvantages, so drinking less sugar-water reduces one of the things working against them. On the bad side, they have less of whatever joy they got from soda and they are proportionately paying more of the soda taxes than rich people, who drink less soda anyway.
If the same thing happened in Philly – poor people drank less soda, but the tax still raised enough for pre-schools – it would still be a net gain for health. Poorer people might be a little bit healthier (from drinking less soda), and get the health and other social benefits of a pre-school for their children. I would argue these health benefits far outweigh the loss of soda-pleasure.
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have opined on the soda-tax/pre-school issue. Clinton is in favor of it, on the basis that funding universal pre-school is the goal, and the means to do so is secondary; Sanders opposes soda taxes since they fall disproportionately to the poor. Maybe he would support taxing kale smoothies or acai berries?
It seems to me that we shouldn’t rely upon soda or similar “sin” taxes to fund things that need a steady stream of money, especially for children. Soda-drinking can change dramatically over time but three-year-olds’ need for pre-school doesn’t. Besides, it puts the pre-school in the “business” of profiting from something that harms health (either by promoting obesity, adding to dental problems, or otherwise). Three-year-olds deserve better than that.