David Bouchier: Making Our Contribution

Mar 27, 2017

This week we have an appointment to meet with our tax accountant. I’m not asking for sympathy, just a little understanding. It’s always with a sense of doom that I pull out the boxes and the files and start working through the contents. There it is, my whole life for the past year reduced to dollars and cents: every meal and hotel room, every postal packet and phone call, every printer cartridge and paper clip, every check flowing in and every check flowing out (a considerably larger number), and every regretted extravagance. Whatever fantasies I may have had about my financial habits, this is the inescapable reality. False memory syndrome has no chance when we sit down to do the numbers. The best thing about the past, generally speaking, is that it is the past. It’s over. Whatever mistakes we made can be filed away and forgotten, except at tax time when we have to relive them all over again.

It’s a reminder of all the projects that didn’t work and all the bad decisions I made. Did I really need a five hundred dollar computer printer when I could have got one for a quarter of the price? Was it absolutely necessary to upgrade my wardrobe with no fewer than three new shirts, when the old ones looked almost as good as they did when I bought them, in 1986?

Quite apart from the unwanted reminders there’s the sheer clerical tedium of the job, adding up hundreds of slips of paper and trying to arrange them into some kind of convincing economic story. These numbers mean nothing to me, but they may mean something to the IRS, and that’s worrying.


Almost nobody understands the full Byzantine intricacy of the tax system, and those who pretend to understand it are probably fooling themselves. I suspect that the tax code is like the Microsoft operating system: it has taken on a life of its own, and has evolved beyond the power of the human mind to grasp it. But in spite of or because of its complexity the system accomplishes what it is designed to accomplish: the traditional transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

This is perhaps a cynical view, and we might be happier about paying our taxes if we had a little more control over how they are spent. It would be nice to decide what our tax contribution will buy in concrete practical terms, perhaps some school library books or medical help for poor senior citizens. But if our tiny contribution is destined to cover a tax cut for some billionaires, we should know that too, and consider it. Their need may be greater than ours, and our taxes might just cover an extra life jacket for the second yacht, or a nice bottle of Petrus Bordeaux 2010. But if we are going to be so generous, it should be our choice.

In short, at tax time, I would like a kind of line item veto at the end of my 1040, a more elaborate version of the organ donor statement on the back of my driver’s license. It would be quite simple: a detailed list of major government expenditures (including weapons, tax cuts, border walls, salaries, pensions, and health care costs for members of Congress, and so on) against which the taxpayer could just check off “Yes” or “No.” The President believes in smaller government. Taxpayer choice would make his wildest dreams come true.

Copyright: David Bouchier