BOSTON - I came back from my last trip to Seattle with a travel mug bearing the motto: "Life Is Short, Stay Awake For It." That pretty much sums up my coffee attitude and addiction.
Now you see why Seattle is my kind of town. This city doesn't just wake up and smell the coffee. It goes to work and smells the cappuccino. It goes to the gas station and smells the latte.
There are 200,000 shots of espresso sold every day in the city that somehow sleeps anyway. If there is something in the water, as conservatives like to say about liberal burgs, it's caffeine.
So when I heard about the latte tax my ears perked up - although perk is probably the wrong verb when you're talking espresso. Tomorrow, the good people of Seattle are going to decide whether they'll add a dime on every espresso, cappuccino, frappuccino, macchiato, and double-tall skim latte to support day care and preschool for low-income children.
This is called doing good through drinking good. What's happened to kids in a time of state budget crises and program crunches would make anyone foam at the mouth, even without a latte.
In Seattle, there's no city income tax or sales tax, but you can isolate a product and put a levy on it. John Burbank, the director of the Economic Opportunity Institute who came up with the idea of the ballot initiative, says he decided to link kids and espresso because "this is the mecca of high-price coffee. People are willing to plunk down three dollars for a double vanilla latte. Ten cents is less than people throw into the tip jar."
The latte tax not only targets Seattle's socially conscious caffeine heads, it collects from tourists and commuters as well. You can't go out of town and stock up on cartons of hot doppios as if they were Marlboros. But if you don't like the tax on espresso, you can drink the drip.
Proponents say that Initiative 77 would add $7 million to the daily grind of paying for kids. Others pick a lower figure.
Nevertheless, the proposal has provoked a tempest in a coffeepot, or in a La Marzocco espresso machine. One small protest came complete with folks in colonial garb chanting, "No taxation on my caffeination."
Some purveyors and some purveyed just don't like being targeted. It's one thing to have our vices taxed, but espresso is supposed to be a virtue. If coffee can help prevent colon cancer and Alzheimer's, kill slugs and promote a better sex life - yes, you stay awake for it - why discriminate against one kind of bean?
Others are asking a darker question: Is this any way to fund a social service? Espresso for preschool? What's next, fresh O.J. for elder care? Smoked salmon for the EPA? Back in the '70s, protesters used to ask what would happen if you had to fund the Pentagon with a bake sale. Now, in the new millennium, as we slash taxes for the rich, are we gonna collect them for the poor at 10 cents a drink?
And while the latte tax is a generational transfer of wealth from the coffee crowd to the juice-box set, it's pretty small change. The repeal of the estate tax is due to take $162 billion out of the public coffers and hand it over to private and rich heirs.
No, this isn't any way to fund a social service. As public policy, the latte tax is a nutty tax. But as Mr. Burbank says, "Anybody who thinks George Bush is going to fund the kids programs or take back the tax cuts for the rich is living on another planet. The really bad public policy is that you have little kids at home doing nothing but watching TV. We can't wait around for a perfect solution."
So there we are. In schools all over America, parents are being asked to pay for athletics and even Kleenex. The promise to leave no child behind is as empty as the coffers. Alabamans just turned down a tax hike offered by a conservative Republican. Indeed, the only time people are willing to tax themselves is when it's linked directly to something they believe in.
In this atmosphere, Seattle now faces the kind of choice that's going to be common. They can stay with high-minded public policy that fails kids or vote for a ditzy tax that helps them.
Brother, Sister, can you spare a dime on a $3 latte? Of course you can. There's an espresso shop in Seattle called the Messiah with a neon sign that says "Coffee Saves." I'll drink to that.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.