Paying taxes, because someone has to

by Brian Clarey

On Monday morning, with no great fanfare or pageantry, I paid my 2010 taxes.

It wasn’t big deal, just a quick side trip to the accountant’s office on my way to work. My wife met me there and we looked over our return, shrugged and then signed off on our single largest annual expenditure.

And like I said, there was little in the way of demonstrative expression, no hair pulling or shaking of balled-up fists to the heavens. Nobody called anybody a “bloodsucker.” We took the news quite well, in fact.

Like most Americans, about a third of our income goes to state and federal taxes and Social Security/Medicaid — this does not include our property tax, which is rolled into our mortgage payments.

In my case, the money is taken directly from my paycheck; it only stings when I study my payroll stub too closely. And I understand the wisdom of this system — if I had to cut a check for this amount every two weeks it would feel like a stick-up in a truck-stop restroom. But it’s easier for our government to take our money when we never have it in the first place. It’s the American way.

I, in fact, am due money back this year, a neat little bureaucratic trick that makes people feel thankful for being given — eventually — money that was theirs to begin with. People love getting money back until they realize they basically floated the US government an interest-free loan for a year, terms way less favorable than said government would offer them if the situation were reversed.

It is an easy thing to bring oneself into a snit over taxes in this country. In any country, really, for they are surely as inevitable as death and as much a part of any regime, to some degree, as back-room plots and shameless politicking. But I am of the opinion that around here we get a pretty good deal, especially when I consider all the areas of my life touched by the invisible hand of government.

We have an FHA-backed home loan, and our kids take the bus to public school. We go to the park and the library, and are fond of wildlife areas.

We take airplanes and drive on roads, drink water, rely on police and fire apartments for our safety, are glad to have a standing army to act on our behalf.

We believe that our society is evaluated on how it treats the lowest among us, and that kicking in for the safety net as established by this country is a moral as well as a legal obligation.

So we kick in a third of our money more or less willingly. We don’t really mind.

But when news breaks, as it did this year, of multi-billion-dollar company General Electric enjoying the largesse of tax legislation it helped create, collecting $3.2 billion in rebates and incentives last year without directly sending a cent in the other direction… well, it makes you wonder just what the hell is going on.

The tax code is weighty and untenable, a 100-year-old barnhouse built room by room on a fault line, weighted at times in favor of one end of the socioeconomic spectrum or the other for political gain but with the principal goal of hoovering US dollars into its maw. The problem is that for most Americans paying taxes is hard-bound law while for corporations and the elite the tax code is more a series of obstacles to be outmaneuvered or wiped away.

GE, for example, hired a team of former US Treasury Dept. and IRS employees to make the US corporate tax rate — at 35 percent, among the highest in the world — the punchline to a sick joke that most of us are not in on.

Every year at tax time, as I acknowledge my annual hit and ponder the things it buys, I also fantasize about the perfect tax system. I like the Fair Tax plan, which replaces all taxes with a consumption-based, national sales tax around 25 percent. It effectively eliminates loopholes for both billionaires and welfare recipients, but it also tacitly encourages a black market for tax-free goods — not that there isn’t one already.

Plus, I fear, we will never be rid of the Internal Revenue Service, as it’s far too useful as a whipping boy, a source of fear, a symbol that affirms our underlying suspicion that it’s all about the money — unless, of course, the big corporations just band together and buy the whole thing outright.

Until then I’ll continue to shrug and sign the paperwork at my accountant’s office and throw my payroll stubs in a drawer, accept my burden as I accept the things, both the ones I like and the ones I don’t, I get in return.

I’ll kick in my fair share, because someone’s got to pay for all this stuff, and it’s not going to be General Electric.