Let Them Eat Cake!

By Doug DeFilipps

Imagine your government laid a tax on the entire population, one in which in the same amount is paid by virtually everyone. And people are not simply taxed the same percentage of income, but the same dollar amount. Now imagine the money raised from this tax is spent on entertainment for the upper classes. You might think this sort of thing only happened in ages past, under rulers like Marie Antoinette; but it is happening today, here in Portland, Oregon. An annual head tax of $35 per resident over the age of 18 is being levied―the only exception granted is for those living under the poverty line.


The funds will go first to Portland-area schools, with the goal of hiring one art teacher to every 500 students. The remainder will fund various art endeavors in the city. These endeavors include the Oregon Symphony, as well as other organizations and museums. I am by no means trying to diminish the cultural importance of any of these artistic organizations. I myself thoroughly enjoy visiting museums around the city.


However, I also know that many of these are patronized primarily by middle- and upper-class Portlanders―not low-income Portlanders. Nonetheless, lower-wage earners will be forced to pay for these artistic endeavors through the new tax in spite of the fact that they enjoy them far less. Though the tax is only on those making above the poverty line ($23,681 for a family of four), I think it is safe to say that not everyone making above that amount is exactly rich.


Equally appalling is that, as mentioned above, people with low incomes will pay the exact same amount as people with high incomes, in spite of the fact that $35 means a great deal more to them. Why should those who have the least sacrifice the most for something that will benefit them the least? Furthermore, the Portland art community is already generously supported voluntarily. If the wealthy are already willing to open their wallets, why should the poorest be forced to open theirs?


The City of Portland is imitating Marie Antoinette’s follies. Most of the tax dollars that went to pay her expenses were raised through highly regressive taxation mostly imposed on poor peasants. These included the Gabelle, a tax on salt that fell most heavily on the poor. Those same poor peasants, for the most part, would never see or enjoy what their money had paid for (the Palace at Versailles was open to the public but well out of traveling distance for most). They would never see Marie Antoinette’s lavish jewels or gowns or walk through the lovely gardens outside her Petit Trianon.


It is also worth pointing out that this kind of tax is forbidden by the Oregon Constitution. The constitution, which supersedes any laws passed by the city, specifically forbids a head tax. The Arts Tax obviously would fall under the category of a head tax, demanding an equal amount from all adult citizens regardless of means.


The Portland Arts Tax is unnecessary and unfair. It taxes those who are least able to pay for something they will rarely, if ever, use. And since many Oregonians already subsidize the artistic institutions the tax will benefit of their own free will, why should everyone else be forced to?

Doug DeFilipps is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute. He is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University.

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