Don't Tax Me!

RICHARD REEVES

June 03, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Palm Springs, California. -- If there was enough money in America, we might all be living on streets named for Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. The whole country would be like Palm Springs: bright, sunny, secure, irrigated and air-conditioned.

Air conditioning is the key. Like a lot of American places, Houston the biggest of them, Palm Springs could not exist without air conditioning. God made the place a desert. Messrs. Hope and Sinatra and a lot of other rich people made the desert bloom with golf courses and swimming pools, all of them reachable in air-conditioned Cadillacs.

You would not know the American automobile industry was in decline by flipping through the local newspaper, the Desert Sun. Forget Toyotas. There are Caddy ads across the tops of pages -- Sedan De Ville ($27,892), Fleetwood ($29,959), Eldorado ($31,986), Seville ($31,994).

The Sun seemed to project a fair reflection of the area's politics, rich and proud of it. The lead headline Sunday was worded this way: ''Energy Tax Load Lifted Off Industry.'' A letter from a resident named Richard Conrad ran under the headline: ''Save Money: Execute all of state's murderers.'' It was an economic argument against life imprisonment.

The lead editorial was on ''Health Danger.'' It was a danger of which I was not aware. The full headline read: ''Increasing cost of coolant poses health danger.''

I quote: ''Thanks to stringent new environmental rules and increased federal taxes on Freon, the cost of servicing and maintaining auto air conditioners is rising. . . . That's bad news TC here in the Coachella Valley, where triple-digit summer temperatures make air conditioning a necessity. Braving the hot weather without it could pose real health problems for many.''

Reading a half-dozen Sun articles that day on the issue, I discovered a fine example of how U.S. politics works, the tension between great issues and self-interests. This is the story:

Freon, the gas in many automobile air conditioners built before 1992, contains chlorofluorocarbons, which are being banned all over the world because scientists have concluded they are burning a hole in the ozone layer that protects life on earth from such sun-related dangers as cancer, cataracts and crop failure. Production cuts and a federal excise tax designed to discourage Freon use have raised the price of the gas from $1.50 to $16 a pound, according to the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute in Washington.

Because of that, the price for a Freon recharge at a local service station, Smoke Tree Unocal, has gone from $48 to $58 during the past year. With recycling instead of new production after 1995, that cost will certainly rise -- unless owners of pre-1992 cars spend a couple of hundred dollars to convert to different gases.

''Instead of forcing valley motorists to sweat it out,'' says the Desert Sun, ''the federal government should withdraw the hefty excise tax aimed at discouraging the use of the ozone-depleting Freon. . . . A tax won't do any more to cut the need for Freon; it will only raise the price beyond the reach of many residents who can ill afford it.''

Without judging the merits of any side, that is the same argument that is nibbling to death both government and the capacity to govern in the United States. Somebody always gets hurt some by government intervention and somebody always pays more than someone else.

In this case, people with air-conditioned cars are being singled out. They organize around their best argument: The government is killing impoverished old people in Palm Springs in the desert heat. And they turn to an organized special interest, in this case the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, financed by corporations that might suffer losses or profit declines if prices or taxes reduced the air-conditioner market.

Multiply that action and reaction by about a million, and write a letter to President Clinton and tell him you may or may not agree with his ideas on taxes and deficit reduction, but you do understand his frustrations.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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