Next month, voters in tiny Telluride and San Miguel County will decide whether a small community should try to do anything to moderate the use of either form of potentially deadly energy by using taxing authority. Question 2A on the Telluride town ballot would impose a tax on sugary beverages, with the revenues, perhaps $200,000 annually, to fund programs to support physical fitness programs in local schools.
Question 1A on the county ballot would impose a one percent tax on county utility bills, with the estimated revenues of between $150,000 and $170,000 per year to go to the county’s Greenhouse gas reduction programs.
This basic strategy – to tax a harmful product and use the revenues to mitigate the damage the product causes to society – is nothing new. There have been federal, state and local taxes on alcohol and tobacco for decades. Philosophically speaking, if society-at-large has to pick up a big part of the tab caused by a product, then surely society has the right to try to regulate the costly behaviors and raise money to help offset the costs, even if doing so infringes on the freedom of individuals.
Libertarians might argue that individual freedom trumps social costs and such regulations are not reasonable. But they’ve lost that argument when it comes to tobacco, for example, and there is no reason to think that taxing sugar and/or carbon because they are harmful will not someday be considered just as reasonable as tobacco taxes. We might wonder where it will end. Will the nanny state someday regulate mountaineering because outdoor adventurers risk injuries that tax all of us when they need to be rescued or end up in an emergency room? In response to that concern about creeping regulation, I would argue that each effort at restricting products or behaviors should be considered on its merits.
So there are, for me, three questions facing voters in Telluride and San Miguel County. First, are sugar and/or carbon so costly to society that they should be regulated even though such regulations will impose some degree of hardship or inconvenience on individuals and businesses? Second, recognizing that overconsumption of sugar and carbon are global problems, does it make sense for a very small community to try to address them? Even knowing that to do so will have trivial impact on the societal problem and is therefore largely a symbolic gesture? And third, are the specific regulations on the ballot, as drafted, workable?
If the answer to all three questions is yes, then why vote no?
The scientific evidence that both sugar and carbon are toxic substances when used in excess is irrefutable. Yes, there are deniers who can cite industry-funded pseudo-scientific studies, but that is what they are: deniers in a state of denial. Up against the self-interest and power of the titanic beverage and energy industries, societies have no choice but to regulate to save themselves from dangerous products. Tax sugar and carbon? Yes.
Of course, to tax sugar and carbon here in the Western San Juans will have only the slightest impact on the global damage being done by excess sugar and carbon consumption. But every social movement has to start somewhere, somehow, and every effort by individuals or a small community to take some measure of control over industrial heedlessness constitutes a step forward. The longest journey starts with the first step, and that is precisely why Telluride has become a battleground on the sugar tax: both proponents and opponents are being supported by outside forces. Would-be sugar regulators are looking for a toehold somewhere and see Telluride as a potential starting point for a campaign that might go national and global. Businesses that profit from sugar are fighting back precisely to nip any such movement in the bud and to avoid the fate of tobacco companies.
Finally, is either the proposed utility tax in San Miguel County or the proposed sugar tax in Telluride so badly drafted that its enforcement would be onerous for individuals or businesses? While the utility tax seems very straightforward, both simple to understand and collect, retailers in Telluride are very concerned that they will be unduly burdened by having to collect and remit the sugar tax.
Therefore, my conclusions: Yes on the utility tax, because every tiny step away from carbon-based fuels is a step in the right direction, and a single step, multiplied by a hundred, and then a thousand, and ultimately millions of small steps is precisely how the world will finally stop burning carbon. San Miguel County can take easily afford to take this small step.
And I’m leaning yes on sugar, too, because Telluride is precisely the right laboratory for a new kind of tax. Telluride is small enough that technical problems in how a tax on sugary beverages is calculated and collected can be worked out quickly, making it understandable why Telluride has become a testing ground for national interests on both sides of the issue.
(Start taxing sugar in a small test market like Telluride to prove it can work? Or stop the movement to tax sugar before it can be proven in a small test market like Telluride?)
I sympathize with Telluride retailers and restaurants who will have a new regulatory burden to manage if the sugar tax is approved and may lose some money from the sale of sugary beverages since consumers can just buy those beverages somewhere else if they find the tax prohibitive. But if excessive sugar consumption is both a burden on society and a life-or-death matter, and I believe it is both, then sooner or later, somehow by someone, the hassles simply must be borne.
Telluride can afford to lead on this one, too.