Just Deserts Follow Attempted Pasty Tax

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Sometimes, politicians eat their words. This week, the British government reversed course on a plan to place a 20 percent tax on all foods sold hot — with no exemption for pasties.

Pasties are hand food, baked for Cornish miners to eat when they could put aside their pickaxes. People eat pasties today as they sit on a bench for a few minutes' respite or walk along the street between chores. They have become comfort, convenience, pub-crawling and football-watching food.

James Bond might split a sole meuniere and dry Sancerre with Vesper Lynd, but when he's at home between Double 0 missions, I'll wager he sits around in his skivvies, watching Man U on the telly as he snacks on pasties.

The classic Cornish pastie contains chopped meat, potato and a crust made with so much lard Mayor Bloomberg might not let it into New York.

It's a kind of underseasoned empanada, although in modern, glam, multicultural, foodie Britain, you can now find Senegalese fish, Jamaican curried mince, and mushroom, chard and ricotta pasties, too.

In fact, here's a link to Jamie Oliver's "Cowboy Pasties."

The proposed tax would have made a £2.50 pasty cost £3, or $4.65. People complained it seemed the kind of tax that posh politicians, who consider the pasty a cultural emblem but not quite their lunch, levy on the midday meal of people who don't have the means or time for multifork repasts at one of Gordon Ramsey's restaurants.

Half a million people signed a petition. People warned that if fewer people bought pasties, it would cost the jobs of butchers, bakers and pasty-makers.

So this week, the British government announced they will tax only foods that are kept warm — like rotisserie chicken under a lamp — not those warm from the oven but cooling, i.e., sausage rolls and pasties.

The whole pasty tax debate may remind us of a truism about taxes. Most taxes aren't popular. You might easily pass a tax on rusty razor blades and thin gruel, but it won't raise much revenue, which is why governments wind up taxing popular commodities like beer. A cigarette tax may help discourage consumption, but if the goal is to raise revenue, popular items will earn more.

The government may have reversed course on taxing pasties, but if it has to raise money, something almost as popular may be next.

Since they wrote the Magna Carta in 1215, British politicians have seemed slightly tone-deaf about taxes. Parliament thought putting a new tax on tea in the American colonies in 1773 was a fine idea. How did that turn out?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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