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Forms of Punishment

Nothing taxes me quite like filing each April.

Every spring, I take my shoebox full of tax receipts to Steve Blacketer in Plainfield. I met Steve 31 years ago, and he has done my taxes ever since, keeping me out of jail. Besides a bureaucrat or two at the IRS, Steve is the only person who knows how much my wife and I earn each year. People tend to be secretive about their income, and I’ve never understood why. It is a fairly simple matter to look at someone’s home and discern how much they make. I don’t mind telling you I make somewhere between $10,000 and $150,000 a year.

I get a letter from the IRS every couple of years saying I owe them more money. I give the letter to Steve, who writes the people at the IRS and tells them they’re mistaken. They must have a high opinion of Steve, because it always seems to settle the matter. I’ve never had to send more money. Once they even sent me money. I phoned Steve, who told me not to spend it, that the IRS had made an error and would want its money returned. Sure enough, six months later they wrote me, asking for it back. The IRS, like the Lord, giveth and taketh away. But mostly it taketh.

Since I’m a big believer in the social compact, I have no problem paying taxes.
I do have a problem filling out 46 pages before I can pay my taxes. I would prefer a federal sales tax, capped at 15 percent—except in times of war, which I would prefer to not fund at all. The people clamoring for war can pay for it. I have no enemies and see no need to pay someone to kill another on my behalf.  My mother was a Catholic-school principal and straightened out ne’er-do-wells with a single, inexpensive glare. Though she is 80 years old, her powers have not diminished. If I ever have an enemy, I’ll have my mother set him straight.

The worst thing about taxes isn’t having to pay them; it’s having to figure out how much to pay. Even with Steve filling out our taxes, my wife and I still have to spend a week each year compiling the information to give Steve. We spend another week praying the IRS doesn’t audit us. The prospect of an audit terrifies us, even though we report every dime we make. Well, almost every dime. My mother-in-law used to give us $50 at Christmas. We never told the IRS about that.

Not long ago I saw a picture of a crowd demonstrating in a public park. Half the people were carrying signs that read “No Taxes,” and the other half were toting signs that read “Support Our Troops.” They were marching in a public park paid for with tax dollars, had driven there on roads paid for with tax dollars, and wanted us to support soldiers paid for with tax dollars. I enjoy a rousing public demonstration as much as the next man, but such unbridled stupidity makes it difficult to join their cause.

It has been years since I picketed anything—28, to be exact, when I carried a sign against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
It did little good that I could tell, but it was exhilarating, and I’d like to give picketing another try. Picketers have been busy on Wall Street, but that’s 735 miles from my house in Danville. There’s not a lot of picketing in Danville. I am annoyed every time I read about rich corporations not paying a dime in taxes. If they ever have a march against that in Danville, I’ll make a sign and lead the horde. Especially if the march is in mid-February, on the day I’ve hired Steve to fill out 46 pages of tax forms for me.

Saying the IRS provides a service to taxpayers is like saying an executioner provides a service to inmates.

It’s nice to see young people protesting the inequalities of our tax system. To be honest, it’s nice to see young people doing something besides listening to iPods. Every now and then folks ought to grab up pitchforks and take to the streets. Democracy, when it’s working, is a boisterous undertaking, not for the faint of heart. I have a friend who says it’s good for a teenage boy to be just a little bit afraid of his old man. Politicians should be just a little bit afraid of the electorate. They ought to see the crazy in our eyes every dozen years or so, since they’re the ones who put it there.

Sometimes mobs burn books. I’m generally opposed to the burning of books, having received the charred remains of a few I’ve written. But I am not against the burning of IRS publications, and if I could lay my hands on some, I’d put a match to them. Not as a protest against taxes, but as a protest against poor writing. I was recently reading the instructions for the 1040 form. At the bottom of the second page it said the mission of the IRS was to “Provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all.” Someone should shoot that sentence to put it out of its misery. It begins with a lie. Anyone who has ever dealt with the IRS knows its service is anything but top quality. Nor is it a service. A service is something rendered by one person to another who had a choice in the matter. Saying the IRS provides a service to taxpayers is like saying an executioner provides a service to inmates.

In addition to the lies, the IRS used the word “and” three times in one sentence. Were they having a sale on the word?  Let’s try this for a mission statement: Helping America’s taxpayers understand and meet their tax responsibilities, with integrity and fairness for all. Not only is that a 44 percent reduction in words, I’ve eliminated one “and” and two lies. It could be argued that the phrase “with integrity and fairness for all” is also a lie, but we’ll let that slide for now.

To be honest, the IRS has little control over the “integrity and fairness” part. Congress writes the tax code, not the IRS. When Warren Buffett’s secretary pays a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett, that’s the fault of Congress, not the IRS. Though to be accurate, Congress doesn’t actually write the tax code; lobbyists do. Congress just votes it into law. But I’m sure if we were to bring these inequalities to their attention, they’d apologize and hasten to rectify the situation.

I wish the IRS would let me rewrite the instruction booklets in exchange for not having to pay taxes for the rest of my life. My instructions would be so simple that everyone would understand them. In fact, I think I could whittle down the instructions to one sentence: Every April 15, empty your savings account and send the money to us. Excellent. Only one “and,” no lies, and clear as a bell.

Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.