In Ottawa, the going rate for putting 40 plastic flamingos on somebody’s lawn is $45. For that, the lucky stiff also gets a sign carrying 40th-birthday greetings and the phone number of the flamingo company, plus a Polaroid snapshot of the festive scene.
Flamingos are available for subsequent birthdays as well, in case the lucky stiff wants to make a tradition of it, but 40 is the most popular, given the evidence of city lawns and assuming that people are not using flamingos to lie about their age. Fifty and 60, although less common, are also in evidence.
On any given day, the city, like other cities, is a forest of pink flamingos, demonstrating, among other things, that we all have a sense of humor— and it’s the same one.
If alien life-forms are looking at us from outer space, they will note the changes. Large green forests are disappearing, replaced by smaller pink ones. An odd thing, and odder still is that the number of trees in each pink forest is often divisible by 10.
We are having great fun down here, celebrating our birthdays. Turning 40 is a growth industry. Soon entire factories will be devoted to it. Now, only parts of stores are. In book chains, the books on sale still outnumber the greeting cards commemorating turning 40, although the margin is shrinking and many of the books, it must be remembered, are about turning 40.
What with the books, the greeting cards, the flamingos, the T-shirts, sweatshirts, baseball caps and mock sexual aids, the turning-40 industry generates enormous amounts of revenue. Think what good could come out of it if some of that revenue were diverted to useful purposes.
What we are talking about is a tax on dumb spending. Call it the Flamingo Tax. As a concept, the Flamingo Tax goes beyond the old idea of a luxury tax but is not inconsistent with it. The idea behind the luxury tax is that if someone is stupid enough to fork over $20,000 for a diamond or $100,000 for an automobile, some agency should step in, take some of that money off his hands and spend it wisely.
The Flamingo Tax would work the same way. Forty-five dollars spent on Third World development, feeding homeless Canadians or saving the
green forests would be infinitely more useful than $45 spent on covering some unsuspecting soul’s lawn with flamingos. So this agency—ideally a nongovernmental one, for reasons to be mentioned below—would step in and say: “You want to spend $45 putting flamingos on lawns, fine. But first, give us $45 too.” That way, the green forests would expand again and the pink ones might dwindle.
Saving the green forests, fostering Third World development and feeding homeless Canadians will be a slow process $45 at a time. But fortunately, there are bigger bites to be taken. The streets of Toronto are full of gigantic white limousines. The people inside, giggling at the outside world through smoked glass, could easily pay the Flamingo Tax. If they can’t, they have no business being in gigantic white limousines in the first place.
People living in cardboard boxes in
The government has not yet realized that the turning-40 industry, and other human foibles, are prime income producers
other parts of Toronto would thank them for their generosity. And if one day the gigantic white limousines vanished from the streets of the city, many sources of Flamingo Tax revenue would remain. In the same city, corporations exist whose sole purpose is to assist enthusiastic parents to spend $50,000 for birthday parties for their teenage children. A double-barrelled Flamingo Tax could easily be levied there, once on the corporation, once on the parents. Think of the irrigation that would buy in some dry and hungry land.
Once the white limousines and the $50,000 birthday parties have been eliminated, the Flamingo Tax can be imposed on 200-horsepower motorboat engines, car telephones (unless the owner can prove that he is a plumber) and any money at all spent on attracting the Olympic Games to any Canadian city.
Tidy sums can be diverted to good causes by taxing clothing for pets, as well as some of the more exotic snack food purchased for Canada’s growing cat population. The Flamingo Tax, in
fact, may be all that stands between us and cat salad.
Certain occupations are more Flamingo Tax-susceptible than others. Of particular relevance here are consultants who charge money to tell people what colors they should wear or what breed of dog would be ideal for their particular lifestyle.
The Flamingo Tax can also be used to influence television viewing. Say a Canadian is getting ready to buy trinkets and porcelain Elvises on one of the home-shopping networks, or preparing to fork over a few hundred for the home study kit that will enable him to make millions on the real estate market. If he is doing that, he is about to pay lots and lots of Flamingo Tax.
Far from resenting the Flamingo Tax, Canadians show definite signs of being willing to sit still for it. A generous impulse lurks within us. Ask us to bring canned food to the ball game or the school dance and we will do it every time. Even our willingness to put flamingos on other people’s lawns is a sign of generosity. For a good cause, the humblest Canadian will be willing to pay a humble Flamingo Tax.
For example, those little plastic boxes for takeout hamburgers don’t cost very much. So the Flamingo Tax on each hamburger would be negligibleone cent, perhaps. And since plastic boxes are among the things that seem to be causing holes in the ozone layer, increases in world temperatures, the melting of icebergs and the flooding of coastal cities, who would be unhappy if they were replaced by cardboard?
As clearly demonstrated, the Flamingo Tax can feed the hungry, save the atmosphere, make the waterways more peaceable and get white limousines out of the cities. Half the money that we spend on turning 40 could eliminate poverty and disease and make the desert bloom. Yet somehow, governments refuse to adopt this simple measure. The explanation for that can be found in the spending estimates of any government, federal or provincial. In imposing a Flamingo Tax on dumb expenditures, government would be taxing itself.
No government wants to do that. Which is too bad when you consider the projected cost of some of the pink flamingos governments buy. Nuclear submarines, for example. Think how many people $8 billion would feed.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.