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Spin Control: Taxing opportunities are literally endless

The supercommittee charged with cutting the federal deficit got off to a raucous start last week, as protesters cut off one GOP member’s opening remarks with chants that Congress should “tax the rich.”

As enticing as that may sound to those who do not consider themselves rich – that is, practically everyone below Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – Congress might be more amenable, and the nation better off, should protesters take up the chant of “tax the obnoxious.”

Tax policy has long been a way of discouraging bad behavior, like smoking and drinking. Cigarettes and alcohol cost relatively little to make compared to the taxes and fees the various governments impose, trying to save us from ourselves.

Under that precedent, Congress should levy a tax on television newscasters who misuse the word “literally.” The word has become a staple on both national and local news programs, where reporters seem to believe it is interchangeable with really or truly – which it literally is not. For the sake of the children, tax it hard, tax it now.

A source close to the supercommittee said there’s a problem, because many politicians misuse literally, too. But Congress could exempt itself, as it does from most laws, citing the Supreme Court doctrine that political speech is the freest speech of all. Everyone knows you can’t tax something that’s free.

The supercommittee might also suggest a surtax on the use of air quotes, that annoying habit some people have of raising their hands with two fingers slightly bent, and framing a few words in a way that suggests that what they are saying is not what they mean. A small portion of the tax might be set aside to provide aid to those unable to recognize irony without visual clues.

The panel might hold hearings on a progressive tax on excessive verbiage used to describe certain consumables. The practice of over-describing was first employed by the wine industry as a way of assuring customers that the $25 bottle of merlot they were holding was much better than the $5 bottle on the shelf below. Perhaps it is possible to squeeze and ferment grapes in such a way that everyone catches the hints of ripe peaches wrapped in lilies and crisp undertones of citrus zest, or some such nonsense. But it’s doubtful.

Worse, the trend toward over-describing has spread to coffee and beer, two drinks that until recently were good working-class beverages best described as “hot” for the former and “cold” for the latter. To overcome the howls of those behind the “no new taxes” pledges, Congress can give every vintner, brewer and grinder a free noun, verb and adjective of their choice, but after that there must be a progressive fee for piling on those parts of speech, with a doubling for adverbs and complete confiscation of all assets for more than one exclamation point.

The Congressional Budget Office might be asked to score revenue from fees to proclaim a day in honor of any cause, product or person who has not rendered a service to God and country that cost at least a limb. Multiply the fee by seven to proclaim National (fill in the blank) Week, and by 30 to set aside a month. Limit one cause per day, week or month; let the law of supply and demand bid up the fee, much like the naming rights to a stadium.

The federal government should find a way to charge people who flood email boxes with versions of the Nigerian banking scam. You know, the one where the officer claims to be trying to move $20 million from a dead prince into the safety of a U.S. account, and will give you $2 million just for your assistance, if you’ll only send $1,000 and your bank account number. The tracking could be difficult, but based on my inbox a $1 fee per email would shore up Social Security.

A new version of the scam involves a soldier in Iraq who claims to need a place to stash some of Saddam Hussein’s gold. In honor of our military, double the penalty for that one. Anyone who objects is not supporting the troops.

Congress could charge a fee to any company that turns its phone number into a word. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to figure out what tiny number goes with which minuscule letter on a cellphone. Charge it every month, right on the bill, like about two dozen other phone fees.

Along with raising much-needed cash, taxing the obnoxious has an additional appeal the protesters should consider. Many of us aspire to be rich someday and worry about how taxes tied to wealth might ding us in the future. Relatively few of us aim to be obnoxious. Even those of us who are.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at spincontrol.

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