I have discovered a secret plan that will bring baseball back to Washington and enable hundreds of loyal Redskins fans to get seats in RFK stadium.
It will simultaneously lower the price of a Mercedes-Benz, make it cheaper to live in Georgetown and permit ordinary people to get a table for lunch at Duke Zeibert's or enjoy dinner at Le Pavillion.
It is called tax reform.
Advocates of simplifying the federal income tax system and darning the loopholes mostly have stressed what it will do to people's tax bills. Any tax reform worthy of the name will mean lower rates and an easier task at 1040 time.
But the complex federal tax system has perverse effects that go far beyond taking money out of your pay check. Taxes discriminate, subsidize and distort, twisting all sorts of economic activity in ways we rarely appreciate.
When the government imposes a high tax on something, the price goes up and people tend to buy less of it. That's why advocates of energy conservation and independence from OPEC want to tax imported oil. Discouraging consumption is the justification for loading up alcohol and cigarettes with stiff excise taxes.
When the government gives tax deductions for certain kinds of spending, people tend to spend more on those tax-favored items. That, too, drives up prices.
One of the reasons houses cost so much is that nobody pays much attention to the total price; what counts is the monthly payment, and most of that is tax-deductible interest. Since the government is picking up 30, 40 or 50 cents of every dollar in mortgage payments, people spend a lot more on houses and that drives up home prices.
Eliminating the tax deduction for mortgage interest would bring down house prices, but in a country where more people own their own homes than not, there is little incentive to do so. Rightly or wrongly, most folks figure they are better off with the tax deduction than with a cheaper house.
The same cannot be said for a Mercedes. Most of us can't afford one; the interest deduction on a $30,000 car does not overcome the hurdle of $600- or $700-a-month car payments. The vast majority of Mercedes drivers, however, are taking a tax deduction not only for the interest, but for the entire cost of the car, because they claim it as a business expense.
The luxury-car market is heavily dependent on business write-offs, as all those ads for leasing luxury cars prove; leasing is a bad deal unless you're able to write it off. Mercedes, Jaguar and their ilk have lobbied aggressively against tax reforms that would eliminate or limit business deductions for cars.
The business-car deductions are nothing but welfare for the rich. Somebody else has to make up for the taxes that Mercedes drivers avoid through business deductions. That means the guy driving a Chevette is subsidizing Mercedes owners.
Besides that, the tax deductions drive up demand for luxury cars and make a Mercedes cost more, enabling Mercedes to charge almost twice as much for their cars as they get in Europe. Without the tax deductions, demand would weaken and elementary economics would dictate lower prices.
Similarly, the folks eating tax-deductible lunches at Duke's crowd out the tourists and enable Le Pavillion and K Street eateries to charge higher prices. Who cares what the confit au canard costs, when the taxpayers are picking up half the tab.
Limiting the deduction for business meals would enable the rest of us to eat better, but the most important benefit we could expect from tax reform would be bringing back baseball.
Vast numbers of sports tickets are sold to businesses, which are able to write them off. The importance of tax-deductible business tickets prompted Peter Ueberroth to plead for congressional protection for his tax breaks when he announced the end of the baseball strike. See, we settled it, just like you asked, he said, so now you owe us something.
If nothing else in the playground fight between the ball babies and their bosses offended you, this shameless raid on the Treasury should have done it. Why should taxpayers who earn $20,000 or $30,000 a year subsidize baseball players who average better than $300,000 a year, or pay more taxes to benefit people whose idea of sports is owning a team? Because they're playing the fans for suckers, trying to con us into believing the tax-deductible tickets are critical for the future of sports. Even if that were true, it would be wrong, but it's not.
The Washington Redskins wouldn't lose a dime if businesses no longer could write off the cost of tickets. Most companies would keep their season tickets anyway, and if they didn't, other fans would snap them up. You and I would have a better chance of getting tickets if they weren't being hogged by businesses. We're already are paying part of the cost of their tickets to make up for the taxes they avoid.
On the other hand, it is certainly true that some of the weaker baseball franchises would fold if they lost the support of business. Would baseball be any worse off without the Cleveland Indians, the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Texas Rangers?
But the crucial question is, what would happen to its franchise if one of those teams threw in the towel? The answer is that the ex-Indians, passed-on-Pirates or rest-in-peace Rangers would be instantly reborn as the Washington Senators.
The free-enterprise fans of Washington don't expect tax-deductible tickets. They want baseball. They're more than willing to pay the price out of their own pockets. The quickest way to bring baseball back to Washington would be to throw out the business tax deduction for tickets.