If you wonder about the cause of the resurgent anti-elite, anti-government, anti-establishment populism now loose in Europe and the United States, look no further than the stunning variety of taxes and user fees associated with air travel. Admittedly, the sums are relatively modest, but the cumulative effect suggests "death by a thousand" cuts, or being nibbled on by a hungry school of piranhas.
Recently I flew to Europe using frequent-flyer miles. The ticket cost me nothing, but it came with twelve separate charges that totaled $135.56:
- U.S. Customs User Fee --5.50
- U.S. Immigration User Fee --7.00
- U.S. APHIS User Fee --3.96
- September 11th Security Fee --5.60
- Germany Airport Security Charge --20.40
- Germany Passenger Service Charge --47.80
- Italy Security Bag Charge --1.30
- Italy Council City Tax --10.10
- Italy Embarkation Tax --11.70
- Italy Passenger Service Charge --1.10
- Italy Security Charge --1.80
- Belgium Embarkation Tax --19.30.
The U.S. APHIS User Fee, by the way, pays for the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services. Why does the Agriculture Department get its own special treatment? What about the Commerce Department and the Coast Guard, or even the Justice Department and/or Homeland Security Department, that could surely benefit from an Illegal Alien Deportation and Re-entry Fee?
And what about Donald's Trump Mexican Wall? If the Mexicans refuse to pay for it, will yet another user fee make America great?
With a little more imagination (which governments never seem to lack when it comes to thinking up new taxes and user fees), one can anticipate future airport-security fees for: Canine Sniffing Services, Canine Training Services, Canine Grooming Services, Canine Food Services, Canine Flea and Pest Prevention Services, and Canine Waste Disposal Services. Airports everywhere could impose fees for air traffic controllers, garbage removal, background checks for TSA employees, water fountains (which are rare in European airports), and the costs associated with displaying arrival and departure notices.
The situation is similar when it comes to hotel accommodations. When I paid my hotel bill after a recent visit to New York City, I found a sales tax, a New York City tax, an occupancy tax, and a Javits tax. The Javits tax caught my attention. Javits was a liberal Republican who represented New York from 1957 to 1981 in the U.S. Senate. The Javits Tax supports the New York City Convention Center that bears his name and generates some $70 million in annual revenue for the city. There are probably very few American taxes that bear the name of former Republican elected officials.
And then, of course, there are the infamous opacities associated with monthly telephone charges. This month's Verizon bill came with the following "Taxes, Governmental Fees & Surcharges":
- VA Communications Sales Tax
- VA State Sales Tax
- E-911 Tax
- VA Public Rights-of-Way Use Fee
- Federal Universal Service Fee
- PEG Grant Fee
- Regulatory Recovery Fee - Federal
- Regional Sports Network Fee
- FDV Administrative charge.
Of these charges, the lowest was $.08 and the highest was $4.69. The total came to $16.67 - slightly more than one-fifth of the underlying service "bundle price." Again, with a little imagination, we could see future taxes and fees along the following lines: a Fairfax County tax, an Old Town Alexandria Historical District Tax, a Regional Business Network Fee, a Regional Cooking Channel Network Fee, and on and on and on.
Let me be clear: I am not opposed to paying taxes and user fees. User fees make sense for services such as entry to our splendid national parks. There are lots of extremists, however, who want to abolish the Internal Revenue Service on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, and this plethora of taxes and fees offers more ammunition to today's anti-government forces.
Taxes must - and should -- be levied to pay for critical government services, and the political process enables citizens to decide whether the elected officials who impose these taxes are exercising sound judgment. What we have now, however, as represented by the growing morass of taxes and fees listed above, is a taxation mindset that says, "What the hell. Let's just impose whatever charges we think we can get away with. Most people won't notice or care." Taxing authority seems available to every government bureaucracy, division, subdivision, and public service provider.
The taxes and fees listed above are non-negotiable and help spark distrust of government and a low opinion of elected officials. Moreover, this situation makes it much harder to make the case for really important government services, especially in areas that will require additional spending for investments, such as critical infrastructure and basic research.
Americans tend to be both practical and generous. At the same time, they do not like being taken advantage of or played for fools. These taxes and fees may be chump change for the authorities that impose them, but there are growing indications that the chumps may soon have had enough.
Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.