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Taxalicious! Getting to know the social contract we all sign

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I got married last year and was actually somewhat excited this month when I arrived at the accountant's office. For some reason, my husband and I were under the shared delusion that we'd be getting a big fat tax refund.

Not so: These wee slips of gold around our ring fingers cost us a fair chunk of money. But the four-hour slog at the accountant's also started me thinking about the social contract hidden within the 17,000 pages of tax code.

Our painful April 15 ritual is arguably the only thing we do together as a country. Undocumented immigrants, conservative Republicans, anarchists, grannies, teenage babysitters, janitors and bankers line up every year, fill out a series of tedious forms, and stand ready to have what they've monetarily accomplished for the year added up and held to account. Of course, people from those same groups also cheat together as a country (joining Tom Daschle and dozens of other nominees to government posts). But cheating is part of the ritual. (As is tax evasion: Leona Helmsley reportedly said, “Only the little people pay taxes.” Then she was audited by the IRS and sentenced to four years in prison.)

Whether you like its priorities or not, the tax code represents our country’s social and political agreement: who should pay and who should pay more; who gets penalized for working or not working; what institutions in our society are valued; and what it means to be a full member of society, or a buyer of the social contract.

Guilt, obligation, bureaucracy, hard labor and relief when it’s finally over — all the same elements as a bad family reunion. As your resident geek at the family dinner table, I’m going to write about some of the most interesting pieces of tax day over the next few weeks. Send any questions along and I'll try to answer them.

Sitara Nieves

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