Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Quitting Cigarettes No Help For State Budget Woes

Orignally published in the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, March 15,2009


Do you find your wallet depressingly light compared to a year ago? If so, take heart in knowing it’s not just you; the whole state’s broke these days. Connecticut’s facing a budget deficit of $8.7 billion over the next two years, and that deficit will only grow deeper after what I did last week.

Before discussing my responsibility for the state’s budget woes, I’ll point out that the human brain has a hard time grasping such abstractly huge numbers as “eight point seven billion.” Maybe this will help you picture it: If you made a million dollars a day, weekends and holidays included, amassing $8.7 billion would take almost 24 years.

How did a rich state like Connecticut wind up in such a fiscal mess? Charles Dickens figured it out over a century ago, when he had Mr. Micawber tell David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

In other words, don’t spend more than you have. But if you change pounds to dollars and make the numbers exponentially bigger, you’ll describe what happened to us. During the go-go bubble years, when property values and the tax assessments on them reached the stratosphere, not one local government — neither the guys running my town, nor the guys running yours — thought “Hey! Let’s take this opportunity to pay down some debt and build up savings.” Instead, they spent every dollar they had and borrowed even more, with the vague idea of paying off this debt sometime in the future.

Which would’ve been a fine plan, if not for the future’s nasty habit of eventually becoming the present. In Connecticut’s case, this happened at the exact moment the bubble popped. Now the state faces bills much higher than the twenty-ought-six Mr. Micawber warned against, and these revenue problems are compounded by my decision, last week, to stop paying state cigarette taxes.

There’s multiple ways to do this. You can buy tax-free smokes on New York State Indian reservations (disclaimer: this is extremely illegal if you get caught), or you can buy tobacco and roll your own, but I took the simpler method known as “Buy nicotine patches and quit smoking altogether.”

Naturally, this made my non-smoking friends turn Supportive with a capital S. “Congratulations!” they gushed. “Statistically speaking, you’ve just increased your lifespan by seven years!”

Which, in turn, only intensifies the government’s budget woes. The problem with increasing your lifespan by seven years is that those years are added to the wrong end of your life. I won’t get to spend seven extra years in my 30s; instead, I’ll spend additional time in the “retired old person collecting checks from the government” phase of my existence. I did a quick calculation on the back of an envelope: assuming Social Security and Medicaid still exist, then between lost cigarette tax revenues and increased old-age payouts, my decision to quit smoking will cost the state and federal government over 600,000 dollars, not counting inflation.

So, to all you people suffering in the wake of severe state budget cuts: I sincerely apologize for making your troubles worse. I was tempted to keep smoking, for the sake of The Children, but ultimately I’m just too selfish.