Saturday, June 21, 1997 — Your Body is a Federal Asset

Another day at the Pet Palace. A rumor that the vicious German shepherd is being peddled to the county prison. Let him do his berserk act on any criminals who get loose in the yard. How appropriate.

Dinner at Patrick’s house. We discussed the tobacco deal, $360 billion over 25 years to keep the states from filing lawsuits for the purpose of recovering the costs of medical care for smokers.

‘What about all those excise taxes?’ Patrick asked. ‘What were they for?’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘they weren’t for anything. They were discouragement from smoking. Sin taxes aren’t about money; they’re a sign of government disapproval of naughty behavior.’

‘You’re saying they just spent it.’

‘Of course.’

Patrick laughed. ‘God. The states have to have made more money from cigarettes than the tobacco companies have. A company makes money on its own products. The state gets to profit from all of them. And now they want another $360 billion. It’s amazing.’
‘And they’re sanctimonious about it to boot. It’s ‘for the kids’.’

‘Right.’

‘The excise taxes are going up again too. A lot.’

‘Man,’ said Patrick. ‘The tobacco lobby is the most powerful of all. They’ve got money, lawyers – ‘

‘ – and politicians,’ I interjected.

‘Bunches of them, ‘ Patrick agreed. ‘So if they have to take this deal, then there’s nobody who can stand up to government extortion. I mean, that’s what it is, just a giant holdup.’

‘What I can’t figure, ‘ I said, ‘is why nobody seems concerned about the implications. This isn’t just about cigarettes.’

‘It’s about cigars, too,’ said Elizabeth, pointing at the one Patrick was smoking.

‘And what about the day when your medical insurance goes up because you bought a pound of bacon at the supermarket?’

‘Yes,’ said Patrick, ‘we can hit up the red meat pushers for a few hundred billion, I’ll bet. All that colon cancer. Somebody has to pay.’

‘Who would ever have thought that the government’s desire to help people with their medical bills would lead to state ownership of your body? Because that’s the truth of it. The motorcyclists who oppose helmet laws can’t use the argument that it’s their own business whether they get a head injury or not. Not anymore. Now it’s ‘the people’s’ business because it’s ‘the people’ who are paying the hospital bill. And they’ve been making the same kind of argument about smokers, suggesting that anyone who smokes shouldn’t get insurance coverage for smoking-related diseases. Think about that. The government takes over the health care business. Then they set about denying coverage to everyone for exactly the ailments they’re most prone to get. So maybe fat people won’t get coverage for heart disease. Drinkers can’t be allowed coverage for liver disease. Women who won’t drink their milk can’t be covered for osteoporosis. They have the right to tell you how to live.’

‘Your body is a federal asset,’ Patrick said. ‘It has to be maintained so that it can keep working, which is to say generating the tax revenues that are needed to pay off that $15 trillion national debt. If you get sick and die of something like lung cancer, you’ve cheated them out of their money. What chance does the Fourth Amendment have when the government’s got to come up with $15 trillion? Sorry, we own your lungs just like we own your house and your children.’

‘So the only part of the human body anyone owns anymore is the uterus, which just happens to be the only part on which somebody else might have a legitimate claim.’
Patrick laughed. ‘Right. The last and only corner of the world still protected by the Fourth Amendment.’
We discussed the irony, as we had before, but I have been developing for some time a perspective that might explain or even eliminate the irony. I didn’t get into it tonight, though, because it’s a big subject and will take hours, maybe days, to explore.

Thursday, June 19, 1997 — Nothing He Can Do

Today, an extended business conversation in Patrick’s office. We’re planning the opening of a new business office in Newport, DE, and we’re very much in need of a sign out front to alert passersby of its existence and hours. Our associate in the venture explains that the township has harsh regulations concerning signs. The owner of the building we’re leasing was fined for putting a ‘For Rent’ sign on his own property. Permits are required, no sign can be within 40 feet of the street – although our building front is less than 20 feet from the street – without an exception that involves an architectural study and other rigmarole. All this in what looks like a lower-middle class neighborhood. Townships in Pennsylvania, it turns out, are just as difficult. A new Italian restaurant on Rte 202 – one probably containing every dollar of its owner’s savings – had to replace the attractive awning displaying the name across the front of the building because the owner had already exceeded the maximum signage allowed in the zoning code. I protested that all this was restraint of trade. Patrick smiled and brandished his well-worn copy of the Constitution.

‘It’s also in violation of the first amendment,’ he pointed out.

‘Yeah, it’s nuts,’ our associate said. ‘You’ve heard about the underground oil tank thing?’
We told him no. He explained that the Pennsylvania EPA had issued a regulation making it illegal to sell a house with an underground fuel oil tank. Acquaintances of his had been trying to sell a house for $180,000. They had a buyer and were ready to close when a real estate agent who didn’t like the commission split informed the EPA that the sellers had an underground oil tank, put in maybe 40 years ago, long before they bought the house. To date, they’re out more than $12,000 for four different ground studies at $3,000 apiece, with no end in sight. They still can’t sell the house, the buyer’s gone, and their equity has basically been consumed by the EPA requirements. Patrick read the part from the Constitution about no seizure of private property without just compensation.

‘If they are destroying the property value of a place on behalf of the public good,’ he said, ‘then they have an obligation to compensate the owners for it.’

‘Owners!’ our friend exclaimed. ‘If they can take away a half million-dollar house for nonpayment of $4,000 in property taxes, then there isn’t any ownership. You’re just renting it from the state.’

I thought of the unpaid $4,800 annual tax bill on my own house in New Jersey, which had languished on the market last year at a giveaway price of $135,000 with no takers. Taxes.

Our friend was getting heated. ‘Did I tell you about my friend John Gridley?’ he asked. This was a guy, he told us, who had a nice small business of his own, paid his taxes, broke no laws. Then he hired an employee who proceeded to embezzle $150,000. He trusted her to deposit the company’s receipts, and so she took her power of attorney to the bank and proceeded, over the course of a year’s time, to cash every large check that came in. The bank never asked any questions, had no legal liability. When Gridley belatedly discovered her crime, he still couldn’t believe she had done it.

‘This was the most innocent-looking girl in the world, apparently, ‘ our friend said, ‘and come to find out, she’d done this at least a couple of times before.’

While Gridley was struggling to recover from the loss, the IRS arrived to hand him a tax bill for the embezzled money. He explained what had happened, but they didn’t want to hear it, and they padlocked the business.

‘Now,’ our associate concluded, ‘every cent he earns from his new job goes into an account controlled by the IRS. There’s nothing he can do about it.’

Nothing he can do. Is he one of the ones who insistently repeats the two-part national mantra? America is still the greatest nation in the world. At least it’s still a free country…

Patrick was responding to the Gridley story. ‘The IRS has been exporting its methods to other parts of the government, too. Did you know that in this country, the feds can seize all your assets if you are suspected of engaging in drug trafficking? And it’s illegal to use money you are suspected of having earned from drug trafficking to pay for your legal defense against drug charges. Where’s the ‘due process’ in that?’

‘Or the presumption of innocence,’ I put in.

And then, of course, we wound up talking about the police. I hadn’t heard that thanks to Clinton’s new law enforcement bill, there were no longer any meaningful boundaries between townships. The cops could set a speed trap and pursue suspects as far as they wanted.

‘A cop is a cop?’ Patrick inquired.

‘A cop is a cop.’

And America is America. Whatever that means anymore.