Why Can’t Philly Strippers Get The Comcast Treatment?

City Hall wants to tax lap dances while curing poverty. It may not be able to do both.

Let’s call Philadelphia’s tax on lap dances what it really is: A tax on work.

Now, you can argue that the work is gross, and I probably wouldn’t offer a counter-argument. I’ve got all the desires of a healthy red-blooded American heterosexual male, but ask me if I’d like to see one of my sisters earn their livelihood grinding away on strangers, and, well, the answer is obvious.

So Mayor Nutter’s effort to tax lap dances—which reached its, er, climax last week in a Philadelphia courtroom — might be somewhat sympathetic if it had been cast as a way to crack down on the general level of skeeviness in the city. After all, it’s a fairly common rule of economics that if you want less of something, just tax it. That’s the logic behind Nutter’s anti-obesity effort to put a tax on sugary drinks, after all.

But nobody’s making that argument. (To be fair, City Hall hasn’t made much of a public argument of any sort, with officials saying they can’t comment on pending litigation.) So we’re forced to assume that the city, always desperate for revenue, is simply finding new ways of taxing its citizens — going after strippers the way you and I might check the folds of the couch for loose change.

And since strip club attendees already pay the city’s amusement tax just to enter the strip club, it seems reasonable to conclude that asking them to pay again when they witness actual stripping is thus a direct tax on stripping itself. It’s a tax on work.

That much should be obvious from Karen Heller’s description of the job in Sunday’s Inquirer:

The hearing is a primer in strip economics. Dancers are independent contractors, who earn 75 percent of the charge on lap dances — excuse me, “semiprivate performances.” Each shift, dancers pay the club a $15 performance fee, as well as a $1 pole tax. I am not making this up.

It was the “independent contractors” phrase that caught my attention. After all, I’m a freelance writer — as are many of my friends in Philadelphia, and all of us are also classified as “independent contractors” in this town. As my colleague Brian Howard explained last month, there’s nothing City Hall seems to love more than to tax freelance writers coming and going. It’s the reason there was briefly a controversy, a couple of years back, about the city’s so-called “blogger’s tax.”

The business privilege tax at the center of that controversy is being phased out. The lap dance tax, though, suggests that City Hall still has a more-than-healthy instinct to start immediately collecting fees from everybody and anybody who tries to make a buck for themselves in this town.

That’s a problem for Philadelphia’s long-term viability. “Independent contractors” — let’s call them freelancers — are going to make up an increasing portion of the economy going forward. That’s apparent in the rise of places like Indy Hall, a co-working collective in town, as well as similar efforts in outlying parts of the city and the suburbs. In Philadelphia, though, hanging out a shingle (even if that shingle’s located on a laptop on a table at a coffee shop) or starting a small business requires navigating a maze of bureaucracy and taxes that can make somebody want to leave the city. Or at least not do business here. If you tax something, you get less of it. In Philadelphia, the “it” is initiative itself.

Which means a move to tax strippers, yes, feels very much like a move against all of us who make a living by freelancing in the city.

And that furthermore seems like a bad message to send when City Hall is increasingly moving to address Philadelphia’s astounding poverty rate, creating the new “Shared Prosperity” program to connect poor residents with public assistance that can lift them out of poverty and training programs that can help them find jobs.

At the risk of sounding like a (shudder) Republican, it sure seems that Philadelphia’s poverty rate might benefit from City Hall simply getting out of the way of freelancers and small-business entrepreneurs. Certainly, the city bends over backwards for big businesses — witness the giant tax abatement Comcast received for its headquarters here. Freelancers (and, yes, strippers) might thrive here, too, if they were given similar treatment.