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MAN BITES TOWN

YOU BET YOUR TAXES : As Long as the Government's Going to Take Our Money, We Should Have Fun Giving It

February 23, 1992|Harry Shearer

The discovery that Southern California is not, contrary to myth, recession-proof does have its good side: There's one less reason for people elsewhere to hate us.

Aside from this newfound vulnerability (which simply adds to our charm), the fact that hard times have made it across the Colorado River has brought L.A. city officials face to face with the same problem that's bedeviling normal cities: While expenses stay up, sales taxes are down, business taxes are down and, City Controller Rick Tuttle reported recently with a hint of melancholy, the Police Department is writing fewer tickets--perhaps because of the Rodney King matter, perhaps because we're driving better and overparking less.

Buried in Tuttle's dour report is the suggestion that, to city officials hungry for bucks, an increase in lawful behavior by the citizens is bad news. Of course, serious criminality costs the community big money. We all know by now that it's cheaper to send someone to college than to jail. But the petty offenses that most of us at some point stumble into are a gold mine for City Hall. If it seems paradoxical that city officials might be rooting for us to commit more misdemeanors, it is.

That paradox--our leaders having a vested interest in our being bad boys and girls--comes to mind because there's growing disenchantment with government-run gambling such as the California Lottery. Some of the grumbling comes from management problems with the game, but we are told that it's immoral for a government to encourage its citizens to be suckers--the odds on the lottery making the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes look like a piece of Bundt cake.

It's alleged to be particularly immoral for the state to push gambling, since a Lotto, a Decco, a Scratcher supposedly appeals primarily to poor citizens. We are left to conclude that it's fairer, nicer, more moral to depend on a tax system that, oddly enough, takes most of its money from poor citizens.

Like anybody else, government can get money from people in only two ways: in exchange for something useful or amusing, or at the point of a gun. Even more than Bloods or Crips, government likes the gun option. Most of the time, the weapon is concealed, implied. But the suggestion of force is why, despite a certain document that promises property won't be taken except by "due process of law," the government can boot or tow your car for leaving parking tickets unpaid until, come car-registration renewal time, you'd have to pay them anyway.

On the other hand, as the Postal Service and Amtrak continue to prove, our government is not great at providing something useful at a reasonable price. But it can provide amusement in exchange for your money. Hence, the Big Spin. Personally, I don't understand the enjoyment provided by a lottery ticket, but I don't understand the enjoyment provided by the World Wrestling Federation either. The point is, plenty of people do.

So why is it more moral for the state to get money by threatening to put you in jail than to take your money while dangling before you the dim prospect that you will get filthy rich?

I'd rather have my tax money coaxed from me by some dumb, larcenous bingo game than have it scared out of me. Hey, let the state run poker clubs and roulette wheels, too, if only to reduce bureaucratic arrogance: Instead of being able to slap both interest charges and penalties on you for late payment, government personnel would be busy making sure the drinks are big enough and the showgirls sufficiently leggy. Financing the state totally by gambling also might impose on government a certain objective standard of competence. As some hotels in Vegas have proved, even a license to steal can be revoked by excessive stupidity. Would more government-run gambling lead to more corruption? Could things be any more corrupt?

Obviously, I'm dreaming. The odds against the state hiring an ad agency to handle the California Craps account are mighty long. But a baby step is better than nothing. How about raising some serious money for the schools with state-run wrestling?

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