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Go ahead, tax the tanners

In Washington, people get paid to sit around and think up creative ways to shake people down.

February 28, 2010|By Chris Ayres

Being of pale skin and Celtic blood -- and thus unable to turn any color other than bright red after exposure to ultraviolet radiation -- I wholeheartedly applaud the provision in the Senate's healthcare bill to tax indoor sunbed treatments at 10%. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best and most effective kind of tax, i.e., the kind that someone else will have to pay. (And the orange-hued among us will pay dearly -- to the tune of about $2.7 billion over the next decade, according to projections.)

Given the opportunity, I'd be happy to suggest some other money-raising initiatives to the Senate along the same lines. Like a tax on people who don't live in my house. Or a tax on everyone whose name isn't Chris. Or a special, one-off levy for those who weren't dumped by a girl named Katy (if only I'd had a tan) circa 1994.

And with the federal deficit projected at $1.6 trillion, the Senate is unlikely to stop at sunbeds. In fact, it has already attempted to impose a "Botax" on the cosmetic surgery industry, which would have added 5% to the cost of attending a dinner party in Orange County. The initiative failed only after industry groups lobbied hard to kill it. The American Academy of Dermatology alone spent $1 million on lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The campaign convinced lawmakers that Botox -- unlike the ridiculous frivolity of tanning treatments -- is a marvel of modern medicine, right up there, presumably, with buttock implants.

I suppose you can't blame the senators for having a go. I mean, someone has to do something about reducing the deficit, not to mention the cost of healthcare. Spending cuts would be the obvious solution, of course, but the federal government, like Oprah Winfrey, seems capable only of getting bigger these days.

As for old-fashioned income tax hikes, the "tea party" movement, combined with the Democratic thrashing in Massachusetts' election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, has made them all but impossible. Which leaves only one other kind of taxation -- the kind you can get away with because the people being shaken down are even less popular than the people doing the shaking. Thus we get the tanning tax, which ingeniously targets the second-most-reviled people after Wall Street bankers. And by that, of course, I mean the cast of "Jersey Shore."

But what happens if, at some point in the future, lawmakers decide that your indulgences are unpopular enough to be taxed? Imagine that you walk into a Starbucks one day and all of a sudden there's a double-shot mochaccino tax, or a poppy-seed bagel tax. And what about the broader question of whether tax laws should really be so micro-specific -- sparing one industry while obliterating another? "But sunbeds have been linked to skin cancer!" squeal the tanning tax advocates. Fine. Prove it -- then ban them. Otherwise, everything that's bad for you should be legal but "discouraged" through taxation.

This will never happen, of course, because in congressional offices throughout the capital there are too many Ivy League grads whose task it is to sit around all day, chugging energy drinks and saying things like, "Beagles! We haven't taxed beagles! No one likes beagles!"

Yes, it's these creative nerds, along with their lobbyist counterparts, who are primarily to blame for the federal tax code being 17,000 pages long and such an assault on the human brain that even Douglas H. Shulman -- a.k.a. the commissioner of the IRS -- has to use a tax preparer. ("I find the tax code complex," he explained, rather sheepishly, to C-SPAN.)

But how can the Little Man (or Woman) fight back? Well, you could always take your cue from Rhiannon O'Donnabhain, a 65-year-old transsexual from Boston, and adopt the nerds' strategy as your own -- by coming up with deductions as creative as the federal government's new taxes. And if you're challenged, sue. That's what O'Donnabhain did when an auditor questioned her $5,000 deduction for "gender reassignment surgery." As she later pointed out in court, no one is going to amputate their genitalia just for the sake of sticking it to the IRS.

Caution is advised, however. While O'Donnabhain won her case, you don't want to end up like the Pittsburgh businessman of CPA folklore -- his name has been lost to history -- who attempted to deduct the $10,000 he gave an arsonist to burn down his store (with scrupulous honesty, he also declared the $500,000 he received from the insurance policy).

Having said that, such a ruse might at least get you out of paying the tanning tax for a while. They don't have sunbeds in prison.

Chris Ayres writes for the Times of London and is the author of "Death by Leisure: A Cautionary Tale."

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