A Penny Here, A Penny There
By Patrick F. Cannon
On October 16 of last year, I appeared on WTTWs “Chicago Tonight” to plug my book, The Space Within: Inside Great Chicago Buildings. Coincidentally, that was the very day that Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle had proposed her penny an ounce tax on sweetened drinks. Although my book has proven more popular in the long run, I have to admit she was the main guest.
Let me explain briefly how the program works. It airs from 7 to 8 pm, but they want you there by 6:15 so one of the producers can brief you and get you made up (with pancake makeup that’s a pain to get off afterwards). Then you are taken to the “green” room to await the summons to take your place at one of the interview tables. While all these rooms are generically called “green,” in this case it was a conference room overlooking the production stage.
Lacking my usual entourage, I was alone in the room when President Preckwinkle swept in with four staff member in tow. The only man seemed to be her PR guy. Being a politician, Preckwinkle did say hello and asked why I was there. With the niceties out of the way, she and her staff began a kind of rehearsal of what kind of questions she might be asked by host Phil Ponce, much like the ones done before presidential election debates.
While I didn’t make notes, I can tell you that she decided on the tax primarily as a sure fire way to raise some cash, without regard for any health benefits. Indeed, it was one of her staff members who mentioned that she had recently seen a report on the harm that excessive consumption of soft drinks caused. It was clear that everyone in the room considered this heaven sent, as now they had a legitimate cover for the cash grab. I made a glib comment to that effect, which was not considered helpful.
If you live in the Chicago area, you now know that the county board president caught holy hell over the tax once it became effective recently. The obvious fallacy of tying it to health benefits is that, like tobacco taxes, it might drive down consumption and become a revenue source of diminishing returns. But Preckwinkle, like her counterparts at all levels of Illinois government, is a proponent of our classic political philosophy: get ours today and to hell with tomorrow.
Actually, I don’t think she went far enough. If sweetened drinks are bad for you, how about sweetened anything? Near me as I write this is a bag of cookies. They are covered with chocolate and bits of salty pretzel. Addictive? You bet. Each contains 45 calories, much of it obviously from sweeteners. To be fair, should we not tax cookies, candy and other sweets? If sugar in drinks is bad for you, is not all sugar bad for you?
To compute such a tax, it would only be necessary to add some kind of sugar value to all packaged foods. We already have onerous labeling laws – why not one more? My guess is that my bag of cookies, which contains 675 total calories, probably has half that total in sweeteners. Not to be too greedy, you could charge a tax of a tenth of a cent for each sugary calorie. My math is a bit shaky, but I think that would yield about 33.75 cents from my bag of cookies.
Being Cook County, the courts would be unlikely to find the new tax unconstitutional. After all, most of the local judges owe their seats to the Democratic Party, as do the Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court, who predictably have struck down every effort at pension or other reforms, including redistricting and term limits.
Oh, and while we’re at it, didn’t I just read something about the dire health effects of red meat?
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon