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Sin Tax

By "Guido Veloce"
In a Tuscan hill town there is a lovely medieval church with violent, graphic frescoes illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins. Postcards are available for each, and it would be possible for vindictive people to spend a beautiful autumn afternoon sipping wine and debating which sin ought to be sent to whom. As a cathartic experience, it doesn't come close to Dante deciding where to place his enemies in Hell, but the exercise has its pleasures. It also has its frustrations. There are no frescoes for the postcards we most want to send. Where, for example, are "Gross Incompetence" or "Impenetrable Jargon"? In medieval times they didn't even make the list of venial sins.

For that matter, how deadly do the deadly sins look in the modern world? Is gluttony a mortal sin? If so, in the Age of Super Size, everyone without an eating disorder is headed straight to Hell. Hubris a deadly sin? There goes Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and a significant fraction of Manhattan. Sloth? That's it for the guys with baseball caps on backward. Anger? Goodbye talk radio. Lust? Pharmaceutical stocks plunge. Greed? Envy? Without them the consumer economy goes belly up. Even in the glow of a Tuscan afternoon, the Seven Deadly Sins show their age.

That leads to imagining a few pages from a history book of the future, looking back on what might happen if humankind were to think outside of the frescoes. Might there be some way to come up with a list better tuned to a modern world, a way to imagine Hell and damnation for the things that really appall us?

In 2042, in an unprecedented ecumenical move, leaders of the world's major religious groups expressed their deep sorrow over humankind's ingenuity in devising new forms of bad behavior. They declared their own inability to continue to define, identify, and rank the severity of sins. Given the rate of sin inflation, the job exceeded their resources. Henceforth sin-enforcement would be outsourced.

The result was a new agency charged with the job. It would take prior best practices into account while formulating a complex, ever-changing sin code with which it would conduct yearly audits. Its name was the Infernal Referral Service, or IRS.

From the beginning there were three important groups of critics. One consisted of traditionalists who insisted that sins good enough for their grandparents were good enough for them.

The second group was the Flat Sin Movement. Its proponents argued that there was no need for complicated categories and different sin brackets. From their perspective, there should be only two brackets: saints and really rotten people. The latter, they insisted, tended to be poor, not like us, and to live elsewhere.

The third group of opponents had no problem with the concept of sin but believed that it shouldn't apply to them. They tended to concentrate in business, politics, professional sports, and the entertainment industry, or to be in-laws. Their objections to the IRS waned over time as morality accountants learned to manipulate its elaborate code of deductions, exemptions, and sin credits.

Almost immediately lobbyists and special interest groups besieged the IRS, seeking to have this-or-that bit of behavior declared a sin. Although many of these efforts succeeded, they had little practical effect on such things as cell phone use or male bathroom etiquette....

[There follow several pages detailing the IRS' code. They make sin boring.]

In the end, what brought the IRS down was its own complexity and vulnerability to corruption. Those who were able to manipulate the system did so shamelessly. Particularly shocking were revelations that the IRS had granted sainthood to high-ranking executives of several defunct corporations, both houses of Congress, and the entire National Basketball Association.

The problem the IRS sought to address — the question of what is sinful and what is not — remains with us. But following those scandals many concluded that perhaps the IRS was itself an instrument of Satan.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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