When I went to Prague a few years ago with friends, we were obviously identifiable as American tourists and so subject to manipulative price inflation by bartenders, taxi drivers, and street vendors (one friend swears up and down that a cabbie stole his mobile, although I was inclined to believe it was misplaced in an absinthe-induced fog, but that’s neither here nor there, just long gone). Although a certain amount of swindling is to be expected, it does grate on you after a while and you lose your naive veneer of politeness and develop a hardened, you-have-got-to-be-fucking-joking attitude about these things.
So it was interesting to move to the UK and experience that familiar feeling of being taken for a ride, but to find that it’s not the hard-working folk on the street trying to gyp you out of cash, but actually the government. Yes, my taxes are higher here, my flat is four times what I was paying in the States, and goods and services reliably cost twice what I would pay in America. My salary, on the other hand, is less than twice what it was at home and so after more than a year in the UK, I go through my life in a permanent state of mild irritation, exacerbated into fury every time I check my bank account. Living the dream is effing expensive and I have become something of an Angry Person, and potentially a Tightwad and a Bore to boot.
Leaving out my epic, nine-month, $1,000 battle with British Telecomm for service I did not receive (which involved collection agencies and threats of lawsuits), forgetting the $2,500 electricity bill of last year on a one-bedroom apartment I barely occupied (an error thankfully corrected after my fifth hysterical phone call), considering the additional water and gas bills negligible, there are other bills here that get right on my tits (there’s a great British phrase for you).
For a start, there’s your Council Tax. No one told me about Council Tax, so it was an unpleasant surprise to discover that I’m expected to pay an additional $200 a month on top of my rent, PAYE Tax, and National Insurance. Did you think your rent was $1000 a month? Well, it’s not, it’s actually $1200, because this is what you pay for the privilege of having a roof over your head. As anger-making as Council Tax may seem, I find some comfort in the fact that, at least, you see it in action. Trash is collected from the street each morning and twice a day, lovely men in reflective vests sweep the sidewalks clean of stray litter and wash it down on Zamboni-style machines. Yeah, I could handle a few more cigarette butts and fast food wrappers on the road if it meant a cut in my tax, but overall, I’m not as worked up about it as I used to be.
What I’m less cool with, however, is TV licensing. TV licensing is used to pay for the BBC, which is certainly a valuable service. However, as someone who does not watch television or even listen to the radio, it’s a bit of a pisser to be expected to pay an additional £139.50 a year for the sheer fact that there is a television in my furnished apartment, which I sometimes use to watch movies. Yes, the mere existence of a television subjects you to this tax. If you are blind, you get a 50% discount, but if a television is present in your flat, you’re paying for it. If your television is black-and-white, the license is a reasonable £47. Actually, because I have occasionally watched American television shows on my laptop (which I bought at home), courtesy of Virgin broadband (which, obviously, I pay for separately), I believe I would be in violation even if I disconnected the TV entirely.
Plenty of the natives are outraged too, not least because of the threatening letters they send you in the mail. They don’t even know who you are, they just assume (usually with accuracy, it being the 21st century and all) that a television exists in your home. My latest extortion notice is below, with apologies for the teeny print:
Important: Please respond to the letter by 28th December to avoid your details being passed on to our Enforcement Division for investigation.
The consequences of such an investigation can be serious.
Your details will be prepared for transfer to our Enforcement Division for investigation. Regional Officers will be scheduled to visit your address. If they find evidence that TV receiving equipment is being used on the property without a valid license, you may be cautioned and your statement will be taken in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 or Scottish criminal law. You may face prosecution and risk the maximum penalty of a £1,000 fine.
Now, I suppose I have the option of never letting these people into my home, but I do have fantasies of them lurking outside the flat with some sort of radar that will detect the fact that I have a TV, big brother style. So, yeah, I am grudgingly going to pay the stupid tax for the year, because it is possible that someone will come over at some point and turn on my television and I am a reluctantly good citizen. But I’m going to be bitter about it, because at least whining is free.