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Sex and taxes: a musing on relationships and correlations

“Let’s say you and your spouse haven’t had sex in so long that you can’t remember the last time you did. Not the day. Not the month. Maybe not even the season. Would you look for gratification elsewhere? Would you file for divorce?

“Let’s say you and your spouse haven’t had sex in so long that you can’t remember the last time you did. Not the day. Not the month. Maybe not even the season. Would you look for gratification elsewhere? Would you file for divorce? Or would you turn to your mate and say, ‘Honey, you know, I’ve been thinking. Why don’t we do it for the next 365 days in a row?’ “

Naturally, when I read this New York Times story over the weekend, my mind drifted immediately to … taxes.

Work with me here.

” ‘There’s a strong relationship between rating your marriage as happy and frequency of intercourse,’ ” said Tom W. Smith, who conducted the ‘American Sexual Behavior’ study. “What we can’t tell you is what the causal relationship is between the two. We don’t know whether people who are happy in their marriage have sex more, or whether people who have sex more become happy in their marriages, or a combination of those two.’ “

Which comes first?

OK, maybe tax policy isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you read that paragraph. But the researchers’ conundrum — which comes first, sex or happiness? — mirrors the difficulty establishing whether more public investment helps grow prosperity or whether a prosperous state is more disposed to public investment.

Jeff Van Wychen, who wrote the recent Minnesota 2020 study on declining public investment in Minnesota, comes close to saying “no new taxes” leads to unhappiness.

Simply because deterioration in Minnesota’s economic performance relative to other states has corresponded with a relative decline in public investment does not prove that one caused the other. However, predictions from proponents of the “no new tax” agenda that shrinking the size of government would boost Minnesota’s economic performance have certainly not come to pass. In fact, the opposite has occurred.

Conservative economist King Banaian still thinks Van Wychen is reaching.

Trends and correlations

The organization of the report is to draw two trends and then claim a correlation. The first trend is the decline in government expenditures as a share of economic activity in the state – 20 pages of that stuff, either as a share of population or share of income. The second trend is a set of measures of economic activity, poverty, education, etc. (even “percentage of deficient bridges” — that’s a new metric!) that are meant to show that Minnesota is slipping relative to other states.

Now “relative to other states” is important. 

Banaian goes on to say differing growth rates for rich and poor states complicate the correlation. He doesn’t explain why 140 years of low taxes in poorer southern states would only now start showing Minnesota in a bad light, so I’m not sure growth rates account for the state’s apparent slippage.

Typical. One side tries to make taxes to conform to their fantasies, and then someone else points out their shortcomings. Do sex researchers know something the economists don’t?

“Charla Muller and Annie Brown both talk about how mandated physical intimacy created more emotional intimacy. ‘It required a daily kindness and forgiveness, and not being cranky or snarky, that I don’t think either of us had experienced before,’ Charla said.

“Annie said that she and her husband reached a place in their relationship that they have seldom approached since. ‘It was just this intense closeness,’ she said. “We were so aware of wherever the other person was mentally and emotionally and physically.”

If I see sex and taxes as purely transactional, then I am more likely to define what’s “good” by whether “I got mine.” But if I see them as being an expression of a committed relationship with other people, I am likely to look for ways to “make it good for you, too.”

I can just hear someone saying, taxation doesn’t encourage greater community intimacy — it’s just a legalized form of fiscal rape. The sex and taxes analogy has its limits, but I think there’s a principle worth exploring in there somewhere.

Maybe if I did some research …

Charlie Quimby writes the Across the Great Divide blog, where this piece originally appeared. He is also a communications fellow with the Growth & Justice think tank, where he researches and writes about taxation and other public-policy issues. 

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