Less than a month after my rare downing of a beer in an English pub, I was at it again – this time in New York. Served an ice-cold bottle of lager, I looked around furtively for the glass. Then I remembered: John Wayne didn’t do glasses. Swigging from the bottle – a practice I have rarely resorted to since being weaned off formula milk in the winter of 1959 – I leaned back in my seat and drank in the glorious jazz performance at the world-famous Blue Note Club in Greenwich Village.
This was no ordinary night. 75 years to the day after Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall and, with that groundbreaking event, brought jazz into the American mainstream, we were treated to a selection of the music played that evening. The glassless beer and the gently syncopated version of my personal favourite of the night – Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” – brought home to me what I love about America.
It is the syncopation. America is always offbeat, playing to an unexpected rhythm. The American way is rarely anybody else’s way (unless that anybody is copying American culture). Americans are unencumbered by European or Japanese mores. They derive conclusions from first principles. For better or for worse.
Only in America could a college dropout, along with others of his ilk, conduct an Information Technology Revolution from his garage. But what was truly amazing was that Steve Jobs managed it using medieval 110 volt electrical circuits. As recently as last week, I held my breath as I inserted the adapted two-pin plug of my laptop into the miniscule wall socket of my Manhattan hotel room, fully expecting the whole caboodle to blow up in my face. In the event, all passed peacefully although, when I later tried to remove the plug, the entire socket launched out of the wall .
Then, in the country that leads the world in financial innovation, there are those one-size-fits–all dollar bills. Convinced that, if a thief could not estimate how much cash his potential prey was holding, he would not make a grab for it, the Americans decided – in contrast to just about every other country in the world – not to distinguish between the sizes of the various denominations of their banknotes. While there is no apparent evidence that America is less into aggravated theft than the rest of the world (this sarcasm is going to kill me one day), this lunacy drove me out of my mind the night following the jazz concert. Desperate to make an exit from a Comedy Club where I had been exposed to the cream of New York Stand-up (the sarcasm just killed me), including a famous comedian’s daughter (unfortunately for her, and us, she inherited his looks rather than his sense of humour), I fumbled in the dark for at least ten minutes looking for the right cash to pay for my colleague’s and my FOUR bottles of beer (no glasses) that had been, in addition to the tickets, a condition of entry. Mind you, I have to be thankful that it at least took my mind off the show.
However, for me the daddy of them all is the insidious Sales Tax. Upward of 140 countries in the world have adopted a form of Value Added Tax, a highly efficient indirect tax that is charged and refunded throughout the supply chain until finally being imposed on the poor consumer. Not in America. Over the years, I have listened to CPA’s, businessmen, politicians and other otherwise intelligent Americans, literally rant against a VAT. In a country that considers Socialism a word only fit for New York Comedy Clubs (where alcohol filled audiences inexplicably guffaw with laughter each time an expletive is uttered), they scream that, as a regressive tax, it would discriminate against the weaker elements of society who tend to consume a higher proportion of their income. Yeh, right. Their real reason is that it would make it easier for Washington to raise more taxes.
In the meantime, the majority of the States and their subdivisions charge Sales Tax, which is normally only charged at the point of supply to the consumer. At each stage of the supply chain recipients of goods have to produce a government exemption certificate to avoid being charged the tax. There are a myriad of exemptions and, to make things more complicated, in the case of supplies made interstate, a seller without a nexus in the recipient State does not need to account for the tax at all. There is enormous risk of Sales Tax fraud (VAT frauds tend to be restricted to international transactions) as well as “cascading” – the possibility that sales tax will be charged twice (as, say, the sale and resale of a second hand car – though, I suppose, there the risk is not greater than it being paid once).
But none of that is what bothers me about Sales Tax. What bothers me about Sales Tax is that, in New York at least, they NEVER tell you what the full price of anything is. I get caught off balance on every single trip. I see something advertised for fifty bucks. I use my mental calculator to compare it to the price back home and then when I get to the point of no return at the till, they slap tax on top. Then I see shirts advertised 3 for $99. By now I am wise to these Americans’ tricks and I work out the tax in my head concluding it is still worthwhile. Arriving at the till, I am charged $99. Like a moron, as I fumble with the dollar bills stuffed in my wallet trying to piece together the required amount, I ask why the price is not higher. There is no sales tax on individual items of clothing under $110, dummy.
I have a theory that the reason for Sales Tax not being included in the price of things is because, when people go out to restaurants, they can avoid complicated calculations of how much tip to leave by giving “twice the tax”. My proof is that when they go into supermarkets, because they do not need to tip, there is no Sales Tax on the same uncooked food sold there. Simple, really.
I was in New York last week for 4 days. I stayed in the same hotel room throughout (despite fears that electricity was going to jump out and kill me in my bed). I did not use the mini-bar or room service. My only “luxury” was 4 days of access to the internet so that, following the demise of my already geriatric Blackberry on Day 1 of my trip, I could stay in contact with my office. The bill ran to an incredible two pages. While every day was charged separately, as is the custom in many places, it was the 4 types of tax charged on each item that did it. The good news was that they only charged me for 2 days of internet use (despite my very honest protestations). It seems that it is all a matter of priorities. It doesn’t matter if they screw up the billing– just as long as the sales tax is right. God bless America.