Paying the Taxman, I think

screamI am relatively convinced that tax law and IRS forms are designed and written by college freshman shortly after toking up. To think otherwise would assume that sober men and women with fully functioning frontal lobes could conceive of these forms. That’s more frightening than Hannibal Lecter, Jeffrey Dahmer, or the zombie apocalypse. Feel free to kill me, boil me up in a stew, and feed me to the neighbors–just don’t make me try to figure out if I need to complete form 1089, schedule D, appendix RULOSTYET.

No one really likes to pay taxes and, other than Warren Buffett, I don’t see my neighbors rallying for fewer exemptions. But, I think, when we dig deeply enough, we can see that the basis of the tax code has good intentions. Like washing the dirt, grime, and soiled sins of humanity off the early explorers of the new world, we can see a clear sense that the original intent was noble. We wanted to create a system that allowed us to share the costs associated with our core national values.

I’ll also admit that I have myself sucked at the teat of big government. I’m a product of public schools, have allowed the government to partially subsidize my college education, happily contribute part of my salary to help fund social security, and willingly pay to keep our soldiers armed and ready. I am also proud to contribute my fair share to pay for roads so my friend who owns a business can deliver goods, to pay pennies on the dollar so my colleagues at public institutions can teach and research, and to send in my little bit to fund the arts and Big Bird. I don’t even, for the most part, mind paying the salaries of our political leaders. (Well, most of them. I don’t what the heck the voters in some districts are thinking by electing some of those numbskulls.) I’m even willing to fund a savings account to help states deal with natural disasters and pay so scientists can ensure my food arrives safely to my table. I sure as heck can’t afford my own personal taste tester.

I’m not even horribly bothered by those people who take advantage of the system or wasteful government spending. We are a nation of 300 million people. Inefficiencies are part and parcel of the deal. For every welfare cheat or $300 toilet seat, we saved someone’s life, fed a hungry child, and protected someone half-way across the world today. Some people cheat and some people get more than they deserve. Hell, I’ve only got 4 people in my house and we have the same problem.

These are the shared costs of being an American. I’ve got your back and, I hope, you’ve got mine. The good outweighs the bad.

But our IRS forms and our tax systems seems designed to make me bitter and angry about paying my taxes. The complexity of the system contributes to our large national malaise about shared costs and shared benefits. Federal taxes are, for the most part, lower than they have been in five decades. More people than ever are benefiting from our educational subsidies, social security, and medicare. We have the best military in the world. And we just had yet another peaceful government election to decide who will pass laws. (If you need a refresher on how amazing our election cycle is, go visit Syria, Egypt, or Venezuela.) Despite what your crazy right wing friend writes on Facebook, things aren’t that bad. We have 11 million people who risked life and limb to get here so they could join us.  We are, and I’m not afraid to say it, an exceptional country.

But if we are so darn good, why can’t we figure out a tax system that isn’t so darn difficult? At what point do we create a system so unwieldy it becomes a mockery of itself? (Yeah, yeah–I’m fairly certain we are there already. Every time I do my taxes, I feel like I’m in a Saturday Night Live skit. I keep waiting for Will Ferrell to walk in the room.)

More importantly, why have we created forms designed to collect my share of government expenses (which I’m willing to pay) that alternately find ways for me to avoid paying my fair share? It’s a bit like giving students a math test but offering them a chance to fill out alternate forms explaining why they should be exempt from answering certain questions.

Our tax system has evolved into a mess of contradictory desires. Fundamentally, though, the system has become so burdensome the amount we pay seems disproportionate to the benefit we receive, but most importantly, the way we pay creates perceived inequities and a sense of unfairness. Why, we might ask, does the rich guy get to itemize for his house (because he pays so much) but all us in the middle don’t? Why, we might wonder, does the person on the bottom pay nothing? We become, and the form fuels this idea, more and more focused on what others are paying or not paying that we lose sight of what we gain.

But when the form has 15 exemptions, deductions, and various goofy exceptions designed to give you a break on one side while taking it back on the other, what else are supposed to think?

I guess the best thing to do is grab the calculator, light up, and start filling in the boxes. Hopefully, I can claim I’m smoking for medicinal reasons. There’s a deduction for that, right?


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Paying the Taxman, I think

  1. And we’re even able to track dangerous asteroids! That is just indescribably awesome (yes, I used the word “awesome”). 2012 DA14 swings by on February 15! And we only know it because we pay taxes!

  2. mjthecreator says:

    Liebster Award: if you’re interested! Thanks for your thoughtful writing

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