I saw something most peculiar today on my way back from the post office. A man on a bike, cycling along Üllői út, wearing a helmet. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, I hear you say. But bear with me. Pinned beneath the straps of his helmet was his mobile phone. The phone itself – not a hands-free device or a sophisticated ear piece, but the actual mobile phone. How inventive!
I can hear a collective sigh (or even two) at the thoughts of where this might be leading but relax! I’m not going to get on my soapbox about cyclists and the dangers that their inconsiderate behaviour poses to pedestrians. Neither am I going to get on my soapbox about social media and our increasingly dangerous need to be connected to the world 24/7. Instead, I want to talk about creativity. In particular, the creative ways in which governments attempt to extract money from the masses. I’d have thought that in a country with an average monthly take-home wage that varies between HUF 180.000 (€660) and HUF 250.000 (€880) depending on what you read, and a retirement pension of about HUF 50.000 (€175; again depending on what you read) this would be akin to extracting blood from a particularly insipid turnip, but the creativity employed never ceases to amaze me.
It’s a dog’s life
Take for instance the dog tax that local municipalities may impose tax on dog owners. The tax (ebrendeszeti hozzajarulas) is HUF 6.000 per annum for ‘normal’ dogs and HUF 20.000 per annum for ‘dangerous’ dogs. I have a surreal vision of a dog psychiatrist showing ink blots to a Dalmatian and charting the barks. Neutered dogs and those with electronic identification chips implanted are exempt from tax. And, the one-dog-per-household rule means that one dog can be kept tax-free. And dogs adopted from shelters are exempt from the tax. So by that logic I can keep ten dogs tax-free if they came from the shelter. I wonder how long it will be before dogs are left at the shelter on Monday and then ‘rescued’ on Tuesday. I also heard a rumour that the nine traditional Hungarian breeds are exempt as well but surely that sort of racial discrimination is against some EU rule or other?
The fat-free road
Then there’s the chips tax – HUF 200 (EUR 0.65) per kilogram for
products with salt content of over one per cent. Have you see the price of potato chips lately? Those in the country living with a poetic sense of community responsibility can take heart, knowing that as they crunch their way through a bag of chips, they are contributing to keeping the economy afloat. Surely this is incentive enough for people to cast their health concerns aside and gobble up those calories. Where would the country be were we all to monitor our salt intake, scrimp on sugar, and head down the fat-free road to penury.
It pays to be prepared
Just last month, the new traffic fines kicked in. Driving without a licence now attracts an on-the-spot fine of HUF 50.000 (€175) and if you don’t have that sort of cash on you (credit cards not yet accepted by the boys in blue), then the fine will triple! Yes, triple! If you’re contemplating violating a smog alert, then be sure to have an extra HUF 40.000 (EUR 139) in your wallet just in case you’re caught. And, perhaps the strangest of all, if you’re one of those drivers who dares to keep an illegal blue light in your car, then that particular perversion will cost you a hefty HUF 30.000 (€103). The mind boggles. Who has that sort of spare dosh to carry around… just in case?
Limit your talk time
With a hozzáadottérték-adó rate of 27%, the turnip is already being squeezed beyond recognition. So what’s with the new 2 forint per minute levy on telephone calls? Granted I can talk for 10 minutes each month before the levy kicks in and if I talk for more than 350 minutes per month, then the rest will be levy-free. Twitter has already condensed our talk time to 140 characters. Maybe this levy will see us texting more and talking less. This is in addition the 0.1% tax on financial transactions. Can it be true? Am to I be taxed on using my phone AND taxed on paying the bill?
I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous line: We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle. Now, there’s an image that would make me smile, if I wasn’t afraid that my smile might be taxed.
First published in the Budapest Times 18 May 2012