Sunday, February 14, 2010

Now that we know Harold Ford pays sales tax, have I ever told you the story of the Hotel Tax Lady in San Francisco?


by Ken

I'm still chuckling over the update Howie added to his post earlier today on our senator-to-be (if Wall Street has its way, apparently), Harold Ford Jr., and his unexpected link to the ghost of onetime NYC Comptroller Mario "The Hanging Judge" Procaccino.

Heck, it was a kick just to see the old thug's name again after all these years. He was a character, was our Mario, though I'm not sure he was really as close as Richard Reeves is quoted as believing he was to being elected mayor in 1969, when John Lindsay was standing for reelection.

This is embarrassing, coming as it does just days after I myself paid tribute to Reeves. I just question one of his premises here. He called Procaccino's "the worst political campaign in American history," and charged the judge with "snatch[ing] defeat from the jaws of victory." Now it's certainly true that in the 1969 mayoral race, with New York City's limited Republican voter base split between conservative State Sen. John Marchi, the official Republican candidate, and maverick Republican Lindsay running on the Liberal line, pretty much any Democrat should have been able to walk right on through the goal posts. The thing is, our Mario wasn't "any" Democrat. He was a hack who had no reason to exist except for his famous tough-on-crime "law 'n' order" posture. So yeah, he ran a feeble campaign, but that campaign was who he was. What else did he have to run on?

But I digress. Howie's point was that it was Judge Mario who, during that race, coined the phrase "limousine liberals" to cover people like the hated John Lindsay, and now, all these decades letter, the phrase is available to cover Senator-to-be Ford, who dumped his home state of Tennessee after the voters there dumped him, and moved to New York to lead the lifestyle of the rich and famous. In my own mind, I keep doubting that he'll make the Senate run because I don't think he's willing to take the pay cut.

Howie's new point about our Harold is that he appears to be using his old home state as a tax haven, paying its lower income tax rates instead of the higher ones of the state he's contemplating representing in the U.S. Senate. And then some defender or defenders of Harold's piped in to say that it's a cruel calumny to accuse him of not paying taxes in New York. Why, he pays sales tax! This is so pathetic that I think we really need more information about who actually thought this was an answer. Sales tax???

But now that we've descended to this level of preposterousness, I'm wondering, did I ever tell you my story about the infamous Hotel Tax Lady?

It all happened in 1985, when the San Francisco Opera was undertaking a staging of Wagner's Ring cycle, something that back then represented quite a substantial financial gamble, considering the staggering cost involved and the uncertain prospect for ticket sales. The ever-alert weasels of the Music Critics Association sensed an opportunity here, knowing that San Francisco's Ring could be a great draw for the association's annual meeting, since the prospect of free tickets to the event around which the meeting is organized is normally part of the deal. (Heck, it got me there.) Provided, of course, they could get Terry McEwen, who was running the San Francisco Opera then, to cough up the necessary tickets.

It probably killed Terry. Why, he as much as told us so himself in his "welcoming" speech. He was one of the better-known figures in the American classical music business, and he already had a lifetime dislike of critics from his years as manager of the classical division of Decca Records' U.S. company, London Records. And in his charming, chuckling way, he expressed pretty open regret that he had committed himself to giving away all those Ring tickets. He'd agreed, he explained, back when he was losing sleep over whether he'd be able to sell enough Ring tickets to avoid financial disaster. In the interim he'd discovered that the demand for tickets was enormous. He could have sold as many tickets as he had available, and here he'd gone and given all those freebies -- to critics!

It so happened that at that year's meeting there was a working session devoted to ethics. "So happened" indeed -- there's always a session on ethics. For people who don't have any, it's amazing how much they like to talk about them. You don't suppose they think it's the same thing, do you?

One obvious topic of discussion was the ethics of all of us accepting all those free tickets from the San Francisco Opera and then turning around and reviewing the show. Or even not reviewing it -- just the general propriety of taking free stuff. It's a perennial issue, because it can't be solved. Only the really rich people who could afford to buy all their tickets and records and books and whatever would be available to review stuff if reviewers were to pay for all that stuff. But that means, inescapably, that in some measure you become part of the publicity machine. As I say, it's a perennial problem, and the only solution I see, which isn't even a solution, is just to be aware of it. Like I said, it doesn't solve anything; I just feel better about the critics who at least remain aware of the conflict.

Of course at these sessions there will always be people who stand up and righteously insist that they're not affected by the gift, no sir! As if the very act of making that indignant denial isn't part of the effect that taking the gifts has. (These would be the people I'm least inclined to trust.) But the Hotel Tax Lady came at the problem from an angle of her own, God bless her.

You have to follow her chain of reasoning carefully. It rested on a series of premises.

(1) The city of San Francisco was kicking in a certain amount of subsidy to the Opera to help mount the Ring production. (True.)

(2) The city of San Francisco, pressed for revenue, had instituted a tax on all hotel stays, a hotel tax. (True.)

(3) We're all staying in hotels, right? (Not entirely true, but close enough.)

(4) And so we're paying the hotel tax, right? (Um, with the above stipulation, but, uh . . .)

(5) And so our tax money is going to the San Francisco Opera, and we've really paid for our tickets!

[In the absence of a rimshot, let's take a dramatic pause to let this sink in.]

I learned something that day. Where there's a will to obfuscate, obfuscation probably isn't far behind.

After all, Senator Ford pays sales tax.

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At 10:07 PM, Anonymous Ida Jurie said...

Gee, this really opens up a big can of worms. I mean, OK, pay for our tickets by paying a tax. In this case, a hotel tax. But, we get to see the event of our choosing. I would like to hereby propose that, since my taxes also pay for bullets, that I get to use those bullets in the manner I see fit, or, maybe I just get to determine who gets shot. This, would not apply to everyone. Can't have that. No, it would just apply to me. In fact, I think that any Republican would support me. You know, it's MY money!

At 1:53 AM, Anonymous Term Paper said...

I would like to hereby propose that,since my taxes also pay for bullets. I mean, OK, pay for out tickets by paying a tax.


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