Bozo Sapiens

Exploring how our cognitive, logical, and romantic failures are a fair price for our extraordinary success as a species.

Taxes: the Morning After

Why what feels so bad should feel good.

By now you should probably have swept up the litter of broken pencils and replaced the keyboard pounded into shards. The scribbled-over "handy worksheets" have been sent to the shredder or the compost heap. The red haze lifts and the buzzing in the ears has diminished to a low roar: tax season is over. It seems cruelly perverse to choose spring, a time of hope and renewal, as the best moment to tot up the all-too-small rewards of last year's labor and hand over all too large a lump of them - but that's how history's arbitrariness shows itself: we pay because the year used to begin, centuries ago, on Lady Day, when all debts became due and we consigned our financial past, with our winter garments, to the fire.

"Let's talk about taxes" is second only to "Come, Muse, let's sing of Rats" as a dispiriting opener - but taxes are an interesting example of the irrationality of the human heart, so apparent whenever we are dealing with that substitute for all good things, money. Money, is, or should be, mere potential, a characterless cipher on the bank statement until the time comes to convert it into what we actually like (lobster Newburg, Blahnik slingbacks, the view over Siena, a really solid table-saw...). Yet these imagined pleasures keep seeping through the printed columns, so that we cannot look at any incoming or outgoing item without a warm flush or sharp pang of emotion. Moreover, we fail to balance our feelings about money in the neat, symmetrical way that arithmetic does: minus is always bigger than plus; a thousand dollar windfall never equals in pleasure the pain of a hundred lost or wasted. So when the time comes to send the check (not stapled!) off to the IRS, we feel doubly expropriated: that was my future enjoyment is compounded with and you'll just fritter it away. No wonder that in 1816, when the British parliament abolished the temporary income-tax by which it financed the Napoleonic wars, one legislator proposed that all records of it should be burned to prevent posterity from even knowing of its existence.

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Charitable giving, though, is a genuine pleasure, producing that swelling of the chest we feel when hearing of the self-sacrifice of heroic soldiers or tales of dogs that have walked a thousand miles to find their families. It's not just getting one's name on the Patrons List or being asked to gala openings - the large number of anonymous and small-scale donors tells us not to be so cynical. It's the urge to be good. Here (though the waste and graft in some charities would shame any government) we feel we "have a choice" and "make a difference." In the back of our minds are tithing, zakat, tzedakah - the ways religion prescribes charity as holy duty to community. We sign our pledge with something of the flourish by which St. Martin divided his cloak with the beggar.

Consider this, then, about your taxes (I choose US taxes, but the facts are similar in any advanced, aging country): if we put the largest federal income sources (individual income taxes, social security payments, payroll taxes) against the largest federal outgoings (social security, Medicare, Medicaid) they almost match - but not quite. We don't even pay enough for the most basic, charitable functions of government. Our mandatory programs for the old, the sick, the poor, and the disaster-stricken already consume more than we and our employers individually contribute. In budget terms, none of that hard-earned income you listed on Form 1040, line 7 goes to the $1.3 trillion allocated to discretionary budgets, from the Department of Defense to such minor line items as the National Science Foundation, Small Business Administration - and the Legislative and Judicial branches of government.

Forced into rationality, we generally admit this; a majority even of "Tea Party" members agree that their taxes are fair. It's just that money matters expanded to national scale disappoint our preference for local action and reaction. Every village, along with its butcher and baker, has its worthy unfortunate, its cheat, its wastrel, its layabout. We know them and we adjust our charity accordingly (a nicely self-serving arrangement that explains why, when public relief was purely voluntary, so many people went starving). Now, our gift disappears, all unthanked for, into a universal fund; and in return we get anecdotes about millionaire welfare cheats, filthy hospitals, federally-sponsored studies on the sex-life of quails, and $7,000 military coffee pots. Our instincts, ever alert for unfairness, contradict our reason.

Despite its many annoying loopholes and inconsistencies, income tax is constitutional, legal, necessary, and - even if it doesn't feel that way - probably the best way to provide for our neediest neighbors. Perhaps if the government arranged the occasional thank-you letter, it would save some shattered pencils.

Michael Kaplan writes about chance, fate, probability and error. He is the author of Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human.

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