THE GREATEST PLEASURE OF RUNNING a country (although no politician will admit it) is getting to tax people. We Republicans decry exactions and imposts and espouse minimal outlay by the sovereign power. But we control all three branches of government. This won't last forever. Let's have some fun while we can. Moreover, the federal deficit is--contrary to all Republican principles--huge. Even the most spending-averse among us wouldn't mind additional revenue.
America's media and entertainment industry has a gross (as it were) revenue of $316.8 billion a year. If we subtract the income derived from worthy journalism and the publishing of serious books, that leaves $316.8 billion. Surely this money can be put to a more socially useful purpose than reportage on the going forth and multiplying of Britney Spears.
What is the least damaging way to tax the media and entertainment industry? The first response that comes to mind is "Who cares?" Everybody in this business hates us except Rupert Murdoch, the Wall Street Journal editorial page editors, and Bruce Willis. Private bills in Congress having to do with Bermuda incorporation can take care of that. Still, we don't want to tax profits. After all we're Republicans. And as that great Republican think tank, the Bible, puts it, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose" . . . the next election. An indirect tax is best, being proportional in its effects and producing "flat tax" outcomes. I propose a tax on raw materials.
The raw material of the media and entertainment industry is fame. Of course we wouldn't want to tax the well-earned and justly deserved fame of a Jonas Salk or a Ronald Reagan. However, now that Reagan and Salk have gone to their reward and America has recovered from its 9/11 adulation of New York City firemen, there are no such famous people extant in the United States. I did a Lexis/Nexis search.
Actually the resource upon which the media and entertainment industry depends is not fame but its toxic run-off, celebrity. America has vast proven reserves. I bought the May 23 issue of a magazine devoted to vulgar public notice. Its contents suggest that Sartre was ever so slightly misquoted on the nature of perdition: Hell is People. What have I ever done to deserve being exposed to Paris Hilton's Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, wearing four designer outfits? This was in a photo spread titled "Dogs Are Children Too!" Also featured was Tori Spelling's pug dressed as Little Orphan Annie and a quote from Oprah Winfrey about her cocker spaniel, Sophie: "I have a daughter." (Named, no doubt, with an eye to using the William Styron novel in a forthcoming Oprah's Book Club segment.)
I suggest, therefore, a Celebrity Tax with a low-end base rate of, mmm, 100 percent. Furthermore, let's make the tax progressive to get some Democrats on board. (Probably not including Hillary, Ted, and Barney Frank. They'll be working nights and weekends to pay up.) Given the modest talent of current celebrities and the immodest example they set for impressionable youth, we'll call it a "Value Subtracted Tax," or, better, a "Family Value Subtracted Tax." And it will be calculated on the celebrity's net worth.
We can quit worrying about the federal deficit, at least for this year. Forbes estimates that Oprah alone has assets of $1 billion. True, we need another $411 billion to close the budget gap. But optimism is kindled by a flip through People. I had no idea there were so many notoriety nuisances. Among the boldface names in the "Insider" gossip column I find Kimberly Stewart, Scarlett Johansson, and Michelle Trachtenberg--all, I'm given to understand, possessed of anonymity manqué. And who on earth is Wilmer Valderrama? Why am I being informed that she (or, as far as I know, he) was dancing with someone called Ryan Seacrest at the Spider Club in West Hollywood? The Spider Club is not, I am guessing, exactly Chasen's or the Brown Derby.
There will be difficulties levying the Celebrity Tax. People and its print and broadcast ilk treat certain better types of human beings as at least nominal celebrities. For example, in my May 23 issue there is an article about a young man who is blind and severely crippled but an accomplished pianist. Another article concerns a 78-year-old nun doing good works in a Tijuana jail (although, rather tabloidishly for a nun, she has been divorced twice and has seven children). We can't tax handicapped piano players and elderly, contrite sisters of mercy. An expanded IRS will be needed to determine who is rightly acclaimed and who is merely egregiously overexposed.
Republicans aren't supposed to grow the bureaucracy. But, being honest with ourselves as Republicans, creating more patronage jobs isn't always a bad thing. The GOP includes large numbers of earnest, morally committed social conservatives, not to say cranks. We need their fundraising and get-out-the-vote skills. Here is a perfect place for them between elections, with civil service benefits and plenty to keep them busy.
A second problem with an excise on infamy is the possible economic effect. The media and entertainment industry is an important factor in America's GDP. Our best economists tell us that increasing the taxes on any enterprise decreases the enterprise's productivity. But in this case--and this case only--I'll argue against Milton Friedman. Everything (by "everything" I mean Reality TV) indicates that the business of being a celebrity does not respond to the usual positive and negative economic stimuli.
People (and by "people" I mean contestants on American Idol) are willing to invest all that they have in the faint hope they'll receive a fleeting and worthless moment as the center of attention for an audience of bored idiots. (If you doubt me, compel yourself to watch an episode, regrettably available on DVD and video, of Jackass.) Tax the media and entertainment industry at a million percent and it will continue to produce a surplus of celebrities with Stakhanovite labor heroism.
Of course it's possible that I'm wrong. My proposed Celebrity Tax might create wide-ranging economic dislocations. The media and entertainment industry could be bankrupted. This would result in the demise of Top 40 radio, blockbuster movies, hit television shows, and People. If I am wrong, send the bottles of Veuve Clicquot in care of this magazine.
P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of Peace Kills (Atlantic Monthly Press).