Regulars and Shorts, Slightly Off Center

Slightly Off Center: Death and-or Taxes

By Dennis Hinkamp

What do body piercings, pet grooming and gutter cleaning have in common?

Taxes are both the carrot and the stick in a passive-aggressive whack-a-mole arcade game government carnival designed to make us better people whether we like it or not. They are the lubricant that keeps the country moving. If there ever was a flat tax across all states and towns, politicking could be cut by two-thirds. Of course the electorate would still have to spend some time yelling at each other about how to spend the flat tax revenue, but an efficient, motivated legislature could do that in about two weeks.

I don’t know why death and taxes are always lumped together as sure things. I’m starting to come to grips with death, but I’ll never live enough lives to understand the tax code. Depending on your point of view, our system is either brilliant or stupid. Maybe its intent has always been to keep people confused serfs of the government while simultaneously employing an army of accountants, lawyers and politicians to keep the house of cards from being crushed by all the juggled balls they are trying to keep in the air.

However, that metaphor-laden theory would imply that there was premeditated intelligence involved. It is probably more likely that the tax code is the result of hundreds of years of accumulated well-intentioned bad ideas mixed with mean-spirited political pandering that no amount of gravitational force can ever bring back down to earth.

I especially like the syntax of sin taxes because we can only seem to agree on alcohol and cigarettes as the two major revenue-generating sins. Every time someone goes after sugary soda, cupcakes, bacon or private jets, people cry governmental oppression. Sin taxes are a way for government to claim they are doing something for your health while secretly hoping you don’t quit sinning because then they would have to tax nice things.

The nice things that are the opposite of sin taxes are tax deductions for grace-worthy institutions such as charities, churches and home mortgage interest. Apparently it is much easier to feel good about something if you know it keeps the government from getting its paws on a few more dollars.

Taxes really get goofy when you look at some of those specific to states or even cities. These are just a few of the more unusual ones I skimmed from the Magic 8-Ball of information we call the Internet—so you know they are real.

In Colorado essential food items are tax-free, but straws and cup lids are subject to sales tax because they are considered to be nonessential food items.

In Kansas, untethered hot air balloon rides are exempt from sales tax because they are considered a legitimate form of air transportation. Tethered hot air balloon rides, on the other hand, are considered to be an amusement ride and therefore are subject to sales tax.

In Arkansas, body piercings, pet grooming and gutter cleaning are all subject to the same 6% sales tax.

Pittsburgh has a 5% amusement tax on anything that offers entertainment or allows people to engage in entertainment. The Pittsburgh Pirates were given an exemption (my addendum).

Texas has a tax-free weekend where cowboy boots are tax-exempt, but rubber work boots are not.

In Ohio, a corpse in a mortuary gets makeup applied on it without getting taxed, but a living person is taxed for the makeup that gets applied in a beauty salon.

The history of taxes is actually interesting reading if you are stuck between football and baseball season. For instance, I always thought there was special meaning to the number 1040 since the 1040 federal tax form has been around since 1913. But turns out the form was named that only because form number 1039 was already taken and form 1041 was yet to be printed.

Dennis Hinkamp swears to the IRS that he really did give $1,500 worth of sweaters to Deseret Industries.

This article was originally published on March 30, 2012.