Montana considers poor tax—er, cigarette tax

Cool teens

Did you know that smoking correlates directly to income? Thirty-four percent of Americans making between $6,000 and $12,000 a year smoke, compared to only 13% of those making $120,000 or more. The rate of tobacco use is also five times higher among people with GEDs than it is among college graduates. It’s almost like smoking is perfect for shift work, where you get 15-minute breaks every two hours to stand around with your coworkers. Or it’s like cigarettes are a treat, an indulgence for people whose pleasures are otherwise strictly limited. Whatever the reason, you see a lot more people smoking at the bus stop than you do standing around outside the opera.

I mention this phenomenon because the Montana legislature is thinking about raising taxes on tobacco products. Senate Bill 354, sponsored by Mary Caferro (D–Helena), would more than double the state tax on cigarettes, from $1.50 a pack to $3.20. It would also raise taxes on cigars and smokeless tobacco, plus introduce a tax on the liquid used in e-cigarettes. Caferro has described her proposal as “a tax you never have to pay,” which captures the popular attitude toward taxing cigarettes. It’s a great way for the government to get money without any of us having to pay it. And if you’re not one of us, it’s your fault, because you shouldn’t be smoking anyway.

Both of these arguments are probably true. Smoking sucks. Everyone knows it gives you cancer, and in the meantime it annoys people around you. But it is also true that poor people do it more than rich people. Maybe it’s because nicotine is addictive and their lives are hard, or maybe it’s because they’re lazy and dumb. But why people with less money smoke doesn’t matter so much as the simple fact that they do. When we propose a cigarette tax, we are operatively proposing a poor tax.

Maybe that’s a measure we’re willing to take. But let’s not pretend that it’s some high-minded project to get people to stop smoking. The legislature is looking for revenue and found it in poor people’s pockets.  From a political standpoint, the appeal of a cigarette tax is that most people don’t smoke. In a state famously averse to taxation of all kinds, SB 354 is a way to raise revenue without asking 78% of the population to pay anything for it. All you have to do is make life a little harder for people with less money and less education.

When you put it that way, cigarette taxes don’t sound like such a hot deal after all. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Ways to lose to Trump: Call him poor

The 2016 presidential candidates and their spouses hang out at a wedding.

The 2016 presidential candidates and their spouses at a wedding in 2005.

Who says Hillary Clinton isn’t the best candidate to address wealth inequality? Racists and bros, mostly—the rest of us know better. Here’s the presumptive Democratic nominee telling the New York Times that she’s open to considering Mark Cuban or another successful businessperson as her vice president:

“Businesspeople, especially successful businesspeople, who are really successful — as opposed to pretend successful — I think, have a lot to offer,” said Mrs. Clinton, whose campaign has begun taunting Mr. Trump with a #PoorDonald hashtag on Twitter, suggesting that he is not nearly as wealthy as he claims. Mr. Trump has cited an audit by the Internal Revenue Service as his reason for keeping his tax returns private.

Clinton supporters on Twitter have begun circulating the claim that Donald Trump is not a multi-billionaire, as he says, and that his net worth is actually less than $100 million. That would put him below the Clintons’ estimated worth of $110 million, nearly all of which they made after Bill became president. Surely, voters will flock to Hillary once they start thinking of her as the richer candidate.

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Facebook News Feed shows you 29% of friends’ posts

Facebook's sorting algorithm

Facebook’s sorting algorithm

Before you freak out, that 29% figure is not scientific. It’s from research conducted by the Washington Post’s Tom Herrera, who last summer counted all the posts his Facebook friends produced in a 24-hour period and cross-referenced them with what appeared in his News Feed. No one outside Facebook knows how the News Feed algorithm actually works, since gaming it is a multimillion-dollar industry. But the old Facebook, where you friended people and then saw everything they shared on a homepage, has been defunct since 2008. The new Facebook tracks your behavior on the site and customizes your News Feed to show you only what you really care about—in my case, baby pictures and articles about catcalling.

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Gingrich finally allowed to explain everything

Bat Boy (right) and Newt Gingrich (farther right)

The best thing about the Republican Party’s sad attempt to get over Mitt Romney through a series of superficial relationships with new candidates is that we all knew, sooner or later, they would get around to Newt Gingrich. I personally could not wait. The oddly childish former House Majority Leader has said and done so many weird things that no one who knows his career would vote for him, yet his demeanor is so smug and off-putting that he repels anyone who sees him for the first time. As Ben al-Fowlkes pointed out to me, Gingrich would stand a chance in 1840. In 2011, he seems to have staked his campaign on the twin propositions that A) he has name recognition and B) people won’t remember what he’s like. That’s a recipe for fun, right there. As if to reward us for somehow making him the Republican front-runner, Gingrich has compiled all the likely complaints against him and refuted them, point-by-point, in a 5,000-word defense on his website. The only thing he forgets to mention is that that’s not crazy at all.

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