Paul Jacob

Taxation has a tendency to sink into the arbitrary.

It’s fairly easy to tax, by simple percentage of price, items that are exchanged for money at discrete moments in time and between separate agents.

But taxing the value of something that is not money being given (gift tax), transported (tariff), or lived in (real estate tax) is often hard to figure. What is the value?

It gets murky.

And there’s nothing murkier, today, than trying to tax fossils.

Nearly a month ago, the BBC broke the droll tale of a whale fossil, the Basilosaurus Isis. (Since the first outing, the story’s appeared as “human interest” nearly everywhere.) Excavated in the Valley of Whales, in Egypt, it was sent to the University of Michigan to be assembled and studied. Then the U.S. paleontologists sent it back to Egypt, to be put in a new museum.

But there are a few problems. This new museum is said to commemorate, catalog and ballyhoo the aforementioned valley in northern Egypt that contains numerous fossils, particularly of prehistoric whales. Unfortunately, the museum hasn’t been built yet. And the whale’s too big to fit in existing museums. Some say a fit home can be put up in two months.

So is that why the fossil is housed, currently, at Cairo Airport’s cargo village?

Maybe. But the story is longer than you might think.

Years and years ago, long before the first bureaucrat began figuring the best way to extract wealth from the first dusty digger of rocks, the Tethys Sea began to dry up. The geography and fossils left behind fascinate some folks more than does the Valley of the Kings. (In Egypt, it seems, every valley shall be exalted.)

What’s amazing about this particular fossil is that it is the mineral remains of a mammal that had moved from land to water not long before. It is one of those “missing links” that Darwin predicted we’d find. It’s found. Along with quite a lot of others.

And yes, this whale had feet.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.