To Tax the Goose, Goose the Tax

by Martin Harris

It was inevitable, in retrospect, that politicians of Northern blue States, always in desperate-search-mode for more Other Peoples’ Money to extract, live on, and re-distribute (the remainder, that is) to their client-voter base, would look enviously at the pocketbooks of those of their subjects who (oh, the social-injustice of it) can afford an annual pilgrimage to lower-latitude States where, around the Winter Solstice, the sun is higher in the sky and the cost-of-stay is lower in the budget. Up to now, the widely-followed rule has been that anyone absent from his Northern digs (literally) more than six months of the year is a non-resident for income tax purposes; but that’s about to change. Minnesota is poised to tax anyone who is in-State more than 60 days of the 365, and must therefore be (a little Golden Dome higher-level thinking here) unfairly consuming valuable and expensive State services at a rate so high as to require reimbursement to State coffers. Your Humble Scribe would guess that similarly-minded goose-pluckers on Montpelier’s State Street are watching with great interest because, as highly-skilled revenue-seekers, they avidly follow the advice of Jean Colbert, 17th century tax expert to France’s Louis XIV: “the art in taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing.” His papers make no mention of upper-income-quintile tax-avoidance goose mobility, but history records that two more Louis-regnants followed the Colbert tax-and-spend formula which was cut short when the last of the Bourbon Dynasty, King #16, lost his head to a Paris guillotine for directly-related reasons.

That two-part lesson –one, goose flight from high-tax jurisdictions (think the recent French example of the shift to Belgian, and then Russian, citizenship of the wealthiest Frenchman Gerard DePardieu) wasn’t then but is now a wide-spread pluck-avoidance tactic; and two, goose-pluckers have become averse to guillotine-type public reactions, either literal as in the 18th century, or figurative as in recent politician-de-fenestration events—explains why such American plucker-bosses as Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin have re-focussed onto (they hope) low-hiss targets: think his 10% tax on “break-open” betting as a new goose to pluck, or his nickel increase on presently-property-owning geese, from which his voter-for-“stuff” client base will be exempt, of course, thanks to income-sensitivity rules to make the enhanced-pluck “fair”. Perhaps –we don’t know– he and his personal Colbert, Tax Commissioner Mary Peterson, are enviously considering the snow-bird feather-source just targeted by Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton.

We do know of a third lesson-part, which, like the goose-mobility problem, didn’t exist for Colbert: the political imperative to categorize the potential target gaggle into hostiles and friendlies, so as to pluck primarily the former while boasting of pluck-skill to the grateful latter; in the closing centuries of the feudal system, only the Third Estate, commoners, paid forced-monetary or -labor taxes, while the First, the Church, and the Second, the nobility, were, in modern parlance, takers. In contrast, a recent Montpelier target-goose-list includes upper-income hostiles as well as lower-income friendlies (top-earners are the presumed former and tax-credit beneficiaries are the presumed latter) and an odds-player can predict the likely eventual choice outcome. Colbert and the Bourbons saw their entire Third Estate as hostiles; quite correctly, as historical events subsequently illustrated. Montpelier’s whom-to-goose problem is more complicated: examples abound.

Consider, e.g., two such pluck-targets: the soda-pop tax and the heating-fuel tax. Both noble in purpose (ask their authors) and designed around the (unconceded) conservative principle of “whatever you tax more, you get or use less of”, the first has a primarily lower-income-quintile and therefore friendly-goose impact, but it’s being imposed for their own good health, you understand, by us highly-concerned and skilled-in-guidance Progressives, and the latter has a mostly middle- and –upper income-quintile and therefore hostile-goose impact, but it’s being imposed for the good of those home-owning friendlies who wouldn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) install house insulation and reduce window drafts unless it comes as a freebie-service from an in-loco-parentis government. The odds-player would choose the second, because more home-owner votes can be bought with free fiberglass than would be lost from home-owners politically-foolish enough to have insulated by personal initiative without benefit of government assistance.

Three more are unabashedly re-distributionist: one raises the income tax on upper-income residents, one raises the capital-gains tax on upper-wealth residents, and one raises the cost-of-stay for living residents by raising the inheritance tax on dead residents. In this category, one more goose has gone (so far) un-plucked: no mention (yet) of the 1% transaction tax frequently advocated (in Europe, they’re easing into it with .1%, more later, of course) because it’s so unfair that some few folks, not by personal effort but by good fortune, have saved money to move among investment accounts, while so many more haven’t and don’t. And, in the calculus of Progressive politics, size (the count for the beneficiary grateful-voter cohort, compared to the count for the pluck-target hostile-voter cohort) does indeed matter. It matters all the more when, using the Colbert-invented least-hiss measure for effective taxation, the “Vermont Anomaly” offers what Minnesota’s Progressives must indeed envy: a Patrician-Socialist upper-income-and-wealth quintile of voters which, unlike their peers in the North Star State, or any other States, e.g., CA and MD for prime examples of actual pluck-avoidance goose-flight, shows remarkable enthusiasm for such Progressive tax-goosing and goose-taxing. The P-S tax masochism (or maybe their accountants have ways to avoid it) shows up in the measure of their not moving out to escape it, and, indeed, encouraging their socio-economic peers to move in from elsewhere to enjoy(?) it. Whether VT could, without excessive goose-hiss, emulate MN’s reduced-stay snow-bird tax-goose remains unknown. And there’s another, even more interesting, feather-source beginning to be smoked out for a new revenue source: the super-high-value and profit-per-acre inedible ag commodity with five larger and two smaller leaves, where consumer-value seems quite divorced from normal market forces and could therefore be taxed, once legalized, with political impunity. Here the State to watch is Oregon, which now proposes an excise tax the mathematical size of which hasn’t been seen since Vermont pol and skilled goose-plucker Justin Morrill invented one, for primarily Southern targets, in the pre-Civil War years.