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Appetites

Sin taxes, nanny politics, and the illogic of trying to govern by what’s best for us.

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Illustration by P.J. Loughran  

Among the mysteries of the economic crisis is what constitutes a necessity to New Yorkers these days. Where is the line between what we want and what we need? What will we keep buying right up to the moment our bank accounts empty and our credit cards get shut off? Groceries, obviously. The cell-phone bill, surely. Also, apparently, Uggs.

But sin is as much as staple of life in New York as anything, and government understands this—that’s why we pay hefty taxes to smoke, drink, and gamble. If tax collectors could figure out a way to charge us for having sex, they surely would. And recently, Governor Paterson proposed the closest viable alternative: a 4 percent tax on downloads that include music and video.

For what was widely termed a “pornography tax,” the governor was subjected to the ridicule to which he has grown well accustomed. He obviously didn’t know that a truly startling volume of lewdness is available on the web without charge, and, try as it might, government cannot tax that which is free. Besides, this is not the climate in which to pile extra tax on people’s legal pleasures, whatever they might be. Paterson should have learned that when he floated the idea of big levies on soda.

The great danger of this moment—besides, you know, a great depression—is that government, which is needed more than ever in so many areas, is going to push its way into areas where it can’t really help. It’s a momentum thing. Government wants to save us not just from crime, joblessness, and poverty but from ourselves. The Obama administration’s anti-foreclosure plan coddles in-over-their-heads homeowners with the short-term fix of lower monthly payments. It deals only glancingly with the core problem of too much debt and doesn’t account at all for the possibility that giving the keys back to the bank is the best decision for a lot of people. Never mind Rick Santelli’s right-wing rant on CNBC; this is no cause for revolt. It’s just that even with federal aid, many homeowners are still going to struggle to stay in homes they can’t afford. They will not be better off, and neither will the overall housing market, until they move into more affordable situations.

Mayor Bloomberg is, of course, the original megananny, and his program to “retrain” laid-off Wall Street workers and seed new entrepreneurial ventures smacks of it. Now maybe the negligible amount of money ($45 million) is worth spending as a symbolic gesture that the city cares about its “human capital” and does not wish to see it flee. But it might console the mayor to know that none of the laid-off bankers we’ve met seem at all eager to take a job at the FDIC in Washington. Like the 45 percent of Americans under 34 who say they’d like to live in New York City (according to the Pew Research Center), the people who might be eligible for “retraining” or small-business subsidies are precisely the ones who don’t need convincing that this is where they want to be. People don’t come here to be taken care of within an inch of their lives. They come here for their own adult reasons. Nanny seldom knows best.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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