Smile Politely

No new booze tax

If you’ve always lived in the same place, you’ll have no idea how differently things can be done elsewhere. When I moved to DC, my phone bill dropped from $22 to $5 per month. I’ve lived in towns where trash collection was part of your water bill. In C-U, water and trash are both private rather than municipal services.

A few of years ago, I was living in the Loz Feliz/Silverlake area of Los Angeles. Rent is astounding, but there was little need to heat the house, and rare occasions when air-conditioning was needed. So that’s a cost trade-off. Groceries (especially fresh, local produce) and booze were cheap.

In Montreal, you cannot get good whisky. (Yes, it’s Canada. But I mean you can’t get good non-Canadian whisky.) Spirits sales are strictly limited to government-run shops. And the government decided that anything over 80º is just crazy. No Maker’s Mark, no Boodles gin, no panoply of interesting single malt scotches. In fact, you find only the majorest of major labels. I don’t need to tell you how boring that is, right?


Also, it’s price-controlled, so that mediocre booze fetches premium loonie. If you find Bombay or Beefeater in a restaurant bar, ask the bartender to show you the bottle up close. It’s been watered down to 80º for Canadian purposes. It also costs more. Worst of all, a bottle of “cheap” wine at the grocery store starts around $9.

Traveling through time gives perspective, too. Most things get cheaper as we move from the present into the future. You’d have to pay a month’s salary for a wooden chair in 1750. Now, you can collect entire living room sets for free, curbside.

But booze prices keep going up.

For all you kids who keep asking where the house shows went, I will continue to argue that the death knell was the federal alcohol tax, passed in the early moments of George H.W. Bush. (It was one of those “no new taxes” he promised.) The Revenue Reconciliation Act of 1990 had an innocuous name. Certainly “reconciliation” sounds nicer than “we’re about to fuck you.”

In 1990 you could buy a keg of the cheap stuff for $26.95 plus deposit. I vividly remember watching Ricky Meyer and Larry Thompson pulling rumpled bills from their pockets one night after a shift at the Virginia Theatre. It was so easy to decide to have party back then. You only had to find three guys who could count to 9. In 1990 you could find a house party, usually with a band, any night of the week. Over the next few years, that got trimmed back to weekends only. Now … do bands even play in basements anymore?


According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, nearly 60 percent of the purchase price for a typical bottle of spirits in Illinois already goes toward taxes. Chicago consumers pay eight different direct taxes for each bottle of alcohol they buy: Federal excise tax ($13.50/proof gallon), state excise tax ($4.50/gallon), Cook County excise tax ($2/gallon), city excise tax ($2.68/gallon), state sales tax (6.25 percent), Cook County sales tax (1.75 percent), transport tax (1 percent) and city sales tax (1.25 percent).

Illinois taxes beer at $0.185 per gallon and wine at $0.73 per gallon. That’s right at the median of the 50 states. But some of those states are Utah. Others belong to the Southern Baptist Convention (dry counties/wet stills). It’s $4.50 per gallon of spirits, much higher than the national average. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Springfield bureau has a little more on what this all could mean:

The plan is being touted as a “nickel-a-drink” proposal. What that means in real figures, according to the bill language, is more than doubling the current alcohol tax rates, bumping up beer by about 53 cents a gallon (it’s currently taxed at about 18 cents); wine up from the current 73 cents a gallon to $2.01; and spirits up from $4.50 a gallon to $8.77.

So the liter-seven-five glass bottle of delicious Evan Williams 86º bourbon (currently the best quality-for-dollars booze deal in Illinois) will include another $4 surcharge? That’s steep. What’s more, it will then be taxed at about 9% here, now that we’ve decided to raise sales taxes again. And invent new taxes.


This illogical conclusion is trumpeted by State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz and Americans For No Fun Anymore, proponents of the new tax. Like the demand for ever-increasing profit margins, it’s unsustainable. But “sustainability” is not a conceptual matter for some people in government. The term is applied to things they like (trees, infill) and dismissed, forgotten or ignored in conversation about Evil Alcohol (or anything else they don’t like).

Sustainability, theoretically, would suggest finding the appropriate level of taxation and then never raising it again. If you want to kill something, by all means tax it. The power to tax is the power to kill. Legislators want to end cigarette smoking. So they keep raising taxes. Maybe they should just ban liquor sales altogether. Then everyone would quit drinking, right?

No, sustainability is about realism. Realistically, people are going to drink. The idea that you should raise taxes simply because you haven’t raised taxes in a while: that’s crazy.

I simply adore their propaganda, though. And I encourage you to follow that link. You’ll find that “a tax increase on alcoholic beverages will not unduly burden low-income people, who drink at lower rates than those with higher incomes.” I’m sure you can cleverly rejoin that assertion.

But whether the tax puts booze finally, and completely out of the reach of the people who need it most, whether it emphatically exaggerates the contrast between the comfy haves and the desperate have-nots, it will definitely hurt the poor more than it will hurt the rich. A pitying patriarchy thinks it wise to take the poison away from the impoverished, but you have to be pretty damned arrogant to think that poor people use drugs and alcohol only because they do not understand the joys of sobriety.

No, they use drugs and alcohol because it makes their lives different, presumably better. Lots of people have lives that just are not that interesting, or fun.

And how will those wretched souls become great philosophers if they have no wine? We know that great philosophers from Plato to Parker (Mrs.) loved to tipple. Maybe Jesus turned water into wine. Certainly Christopher Hitchens turned whisky into wonderful criticism. Who are the great teetotalers of the world?

Well, let me tell you:

Watch out Democrats, this is where your agenda hits a major snag. (cf. William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic Presidential nominee and possibly the worst ever American. Our First Fundamentalist, he also represented Jesus in the Scopes-Monkey trial). People of various political stripes like the idea of user fees. Democrats, traditionally, hate that idea (National Parks for example). They prefer to tax everybody, and then give free access to everybody. That’s the National Parks ideal. That’s presumably the theory behind Universal Healthcare.

So far you haven’t alienated everybody. They like parks and health care. But where’s my free booze?

You may recall that I ran for mayor recently. I think I even mentioned it on Smile Politely. In that campaign, I suggested that Urbana lower its liquor license fees, at least to Champaign rates. It’s sort of a no-brainer in the small business world. The incumbent also campaigned with a promise of lowering fees. And this month, sure enough, Urbana raised its liquor license fees.

So it’s not just the state. It’s the locals, too. And maybe the feds will pile on next.


Drinking impairs a person’s ability to drive. It also impairs a person’s ability to worry about things. It increases an adult’s likelihood to come out of his shell, or to tell you what she’s really thinking. It’s truth serum. It feels good. It gets shy persons and ugly people laid.

Increase the penalties on drinking and driving. Amputate their limbs or something. Increase the license fees for bar owners whose frequent incidents cost police time and tax dollars. Increase the penalties on eating a lot of twinkies and then shooting someone. But don’t punish everyone. Punish only the perps.

Alcohol crimes are crimes, even if you remove the alcohol. Alcohol costs are costs. But drinking is good for you. Yes, beer too. And the Water of Life.

But even if alcohol were inherently bad; you are going to die some day. You might as well be fun and interesting before you go.


Related Articles