Seattle, let’s not pass a soda tax

A while back Mayor Murray proposed a soda tax. I haven’t talked a lot about it because it didn’t seem to be going very far very fast. Just another thing that Murray proposed at the beginning of the year. But today’s Seattle Times had an article about it pushing the health benefits and apparently on Thursday at a parks forum, mayoral candidate Mike McGinn said he’d keep pushing the soda tax to pay for parks.

But few left wing policy ideas make me more angry than the soda tax. The obvious reason to oppose it is that it’s regressive. Less wealthy people drink more sugary beverages and it makes up more of their income. Advocates tinker on the edges — Murray’s now includes diet soda to make it less regressive — but continue to support it despite its regressiveness because of the health benefits. The health benefits are real. We’d all be better off if we consumed less sugar.

But soda taxes have a more insidious problem to me. They are explicitly telling poor and struggling people they are doing life wrong. That the small convenience and pleasure of a soda is hurting them so much the government needs to tax it to prevent “lifestyle” health problems. A soda tax is telling poor people that they are choosing to hurt themselves.

We already tell poor people all the time that it’s their fault they are poor. I grew up listening to it. That if only you are just a little more careful, made better choices and worked a little harder, then you wouldn’t be poor. A soda tax is just one more way we say it’s your fault if you’re poor and society has to pay for your sins. The cognitive and emotional burden of being poor makes it harder to get out of poverty. It’s hard to make good decisions about money when you’re constantly struggling. It’s hard to feel good about anything when you can’t afford to feel nice and those little pleasures you can afford are denigrated. It’s hard to succeed when you don’t feel good. A soda tax is maybe a little paper cut in that system. But it’s still a cut.

In Seattle, this proposed “soda” tax is expected to bring in around $20 million a year, of course rightly earmarked for programs to help with education disparities between white and non-white children. The operating budget of Seattle is over $5.7 BILLION. This tax would maybe bring in 0.3% of our operating budget (or 0.6% of the non-utility budget). We are proposing to create a regressive tax that adds to the emotional burden of being poor for a little bit of revenue.

If we’re going to tax people’s food choices, I propose instead we figure out a way to tax the “small” pleasures of our wealthier residents instead. Beers and sugary cocktails and all those tasty, but extremely caloric, fancy plates are just as bad for us as soda. I’m not sure what this would entail – maybe a luxury restaurant sales tax for restaurants with above average prices. I would be one of those people paying it, as I like my fancy beer and fancy plates. But it seems far less awful message than a soda tax and at least the people buying $7 pints can afford it.