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Opinion Column
For the week of April 11 through April 17, 2001

Your tax dollars at rest

Our basic problem is that we, as a people, are somewhat ambivalent about surrendering our own hard won money for something as nebulous as the costs of living as a collective nation.

When I was a kid the signs were everywhere. In bold, black letters they read, "Your Tax Dollars At Work." Unfortunately for the IRS, there was often, in the very shade of the sign, a highway worker leaning on a shovel, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Sadly, some of those people are still being propped up. It may have been the most overt sign of the IRS’s public relations problems but not the worst.

I’ve often wondered if the exercise we go through every April 15th really has to be so infuriating. I think it is safe to say that almost everybody, save tax attorneys, finds the process, if not the concept, of paying taxes relatively hateful. It would seem that we could do better. Does the IRS really have to bring each and every American’s blood to a boil? Do they get some sort of perverse joy out of confounding millions of people?

What is it exactly that makes the tax process so unpleasant? I think there are both practical and philosophical reasons the IRS engenders so much enmity. Some of the problems can be solved by the IRS and the congressmen who write tax laws. Other issues that I would consider more philosophical stumbling blocks, we simply have to come to terms with.

I would venture to say most Americans truly love to spend money. Our economy is, at times, driven by consumption. The government economists are constantly encouraging us to save more than spend, because, left to our own devices, we might just spend it all. Spending is an exercise of power, however transient.

So why is spending on taxes so different? Primarily, I think it is because we can’t easily define what we "get" for our money. The product we buy every April 15th is either intangible, irrelevant, or invisible.

I recently went to the Congressional Budget Office web site trying to find a simple breakdown of what we buy with our money. All I wanted was a pie chart telling me, in percentages, the allocations of the federal budget. I found reams of reports and spread sheets riddled with indecipherable jargon. I couldn’t figure it out, so I’ll venture a few guesses as to what we spend money on.

Certainly, defense is a big part of the budget. And what are we getting other than a lot of snappy looking jets that none of us get to fly? We are buying a sense of security and, to a lesser extent, a sense of pride. Both are nice to have but hard to hold in one’s hands.

We also buy civil order in the form of police and fire protection. Again, it is nice to have but easy to take for granted. It is like buying a negative. If nothing happens, you’ve gotten your money’s worth.

No doubt we spend a lot of money on social programs: constructing safety nets for the old, sick, and the unfortunate. To a certain extent, these programs work to society’s benefit, but to the average tax payer the gain is invisible. Likewise, appropriations for education are well spent but the return on them are long in coming and hard to define. What should be the cost of an educated society?

I would imagine we spend a fair amount on transportation as well. Roads and bridges and airports are certainly tangible purchases. The problem with transportation is that the average transportation horror story—everyone has one or two—far outlives the memories of the "smooth" trips we take on the national transportation system.

I could go on, but the theme is the same: we pay but we don’t feel like we getting much back.

A second reason taxes are so maddening is the process itself is utterly confounding. There is a great irony in the cliche about death and taxes being the only things certain in life. Doing one’s taxes is anything but certain. It is wallowing in a swamp of uncertainty and interpretation for days on end. The tax code is so convoluted and complex now that it is virtually inaccessible to the average guy. I doubt that even the tax attorneys are sure about everything.

Certainly, some of that complexity is due to special interest groups inserting their own tax breaks in there. But there are also a myriad of rules and conditions and sub-conditions in the laws for the cause of equity. The absurdity of it is that the very people who are meant to benefit from all of the equality provisions cannot afford to hire the tax attorney it takes to negotiate the maze of laws.

The IRS does have free help lines and web sites. I’ve used them. I couldn’t, with good conscience, send anyone into that kind of a hell.

A third reason the tax collectors receive our ire is because there is so much blatant waste and abuse of our money. This is no revelation to anyone. We have all heard the news stories of the ridiculously expensive toilets the Pentagon buys, the highways to nowhere that congressmen insist on building, the social security checks going to dead people. What is astounding is that we’ve been aware of the waste and inefficiency for so long, and yet it is still going on. We tolerate it; government workers expect it.

Finally, perhaps the most problematic aspect of taxes may be one of philosophy.

Our basic problem is that we, as a people, are somewhat ambivalent about surrendering our own hard won money for something as nebulous as the costs of living as a collective nation. Our country is built on the premise of individual and equal freedoms. The central contradiction and irony of the American experience is that to guarantee and protect these freedoms for all, we have to establish a government that by its mere existence diminishes personal freedoms.



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