Monday Magazine, Victoria, BC, Canada, April 5, 2001:

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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
      Phone: 804 358 0417

                          Tax Status, Not People
                             Travis Charbeneau
                              slug "statustx"
                                 841 words
     PULL QUOTE: "People [might] actually strive to pay higher taxes,
provided they get official bragging rights."
     The scene is a fine restaurant in the near future. Mr. Big pulls out
his gold card to pay for dinner. His three companions raise eyebrows
appreciatively. Two have red cards. One has a mere blue. Mr. Big has
clearly come up in a world where the "gold card" has status far beyond what
it signifies today.
     Mr. Big's gold card proclaims that ten percent of everything he
consumes goes for taxes, as opposed to seven percent for red card folks,
five percent for blues, and a mere three percent for whites. In an
all-but-cashless society, the color of your card is literally the color of
your money _and_ the quality of your social standing.
     Like dinner, Mr. Big's other traditional indicators of wealth -- the
big house, the luxury car, the Rolex watch -- likewise acquire gold status.
Mr. Big has attained official certification of success: an ability to
sustain consumption in the highest tax bracket, formerly a "fate" smart
people tried to avoid in the bad old days.
     Meaning today. No one likes current tax schemes, not even in America,
with the lightest tax burden of any industrialized nation. The federal
income tax alone suffers shortcomings and injustices too numerous and
familiar to bear repeating. We hear many alternatives -- reform packages,
the flat tax, a national sales tax -- and endless tax cut schemes
purporting to redress the mess. The "status tax" scenario outlined here is
probably some variation on a consumption tax that targets discretionary
spending rather than outlays for life's necessities.
     Although the status tax is not a luxury tax, which seems mainly to hurt
workers who make luxury items, it is still pegged to income in the sense
that you need a big one to support a gold card. Status remains paramount,
and tax justice has suffered greatly in this age of affluence from our
failure to recognize how status has been sovereign in every age.
     Any poll of the rich will return a majority opinion that, after "X"
amount of dollars, money is no longer the object of endeavor. Very quickly,
status becomes preeminent, measured in the particular status coin of the
day. In our own time, as ever, status is superficially measured by the
things money can buy, but social indicators immediately follow and quickly
predominate. Power, reputation and connections are among the typical status
accouterments for which the rich have always and ferociously competed.
     Consider British society not so long ago. The wealthy spared nothing in
pursuit of a scrap of ribbon signaling membership in special orders;
perhaps some medieval prefix or suffix one became entitled to use with
one's name. Such intrinsically-worthless emblems of social standing were
invaluable. More than one mercantile fortune was spent on a dowry enabling
marriage into a titled-but-penniless family. "What's in a name?" Lots.
     The wealthy in our more egalitarian times are nonetheless in a similar
quest for more modern forms of status validation, perhaps a sleep-over in
the Lincoln Bedroom, appointment to the board of a particular museum, or
simply reliable invitations to the right dinner tables. Past and present,
civilized and primitive, wealth without status is poverty. For the
majority, if you can't flaunt it, you may as well not have it. And, again,
the only acceptable flaunt must come by whatever coin of status is
officially minted. Any attempt at counterfeit earns ridicule as nouveau
rich vulgarity.
     In this lasting sense, we will never have a classless society. But the
emerging _cashless_ society may enable us to contrive a more useful and
constructive status system. Today's nominal gold or platinum cards already
reach embryonically for status with their implied high credit lines. We
also see status cards affiliated with environmental groups, charities, rock
stars, etc. One reason the American Express card survives is due to
residual status derived from the days when only the select had any credit
card at all.
     We may be able to use the perennial quest for status to get people to
actually strive to pay higher consumption taxes, provided they get official
bragging rights. Further, such a system could prove critical for a future
that cannot possibly sustain current levels of consumption. Imagine six
billion two-SUV families. Converting significant fractions of consumption
into eco-friendly status might help save the planet even as public coffers
     In a system where taxes paid equals status accrued, our growing numbers
of millionaires may find themselves competing to out-consume/out-contribute
each other, easing the burden on the rest of us. The would-be rich can look
to the Great Day when the color of their card elevates them into grander
company. Tax dodges will come off shabbily: "I'll pay for this with my
white card -- but, um, rest assured, I do have some money somewhere."
     With growing numbers of wealthy, a widening gulf between rich and poor,
universally-despised tax systems, and unsustainable levels of consumption,
going after the one prize forever sought more avidly than wealth itself
might ease the general tax burden, redistribute income, moderate
consumption, and actually get people excited about throwing their money