Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

If Everybody Did

In honor of Tax DayImage by swanksalot via Flickr
Tax day is coming, the W-2s and 1099s are rolling in, and in the midst of the usual bitching about paying them, I heard one fella actually brag that he did not report cash income. Which put me in mind of people I have known who claim bogus deductions. I myself, while reporting honestly, am more often late than not: Indeed, I would venture to say that I have probably filed nearly as many requests for extensions as I have actual returns. What is all this resistance about?

The tax complainers seem to see taxes as some kind of terrible, unfair imposition, as if (a) they had nothing to do with electing the governments that assess them, and (b) they never use the services the taxes pay for. They complain about how the money is spent, without much actual awareness of where it really goes. About a fifth, for example, goes for Social Security and Medicare, both of which these folks will apply for the day they become eligible. They elect a government that takes us on military excursions overseas and then resent ponying up their share (almost another fifth of the national budget, not including veterans' benefits) every April. These same people send their kids to public schools and will not hesitate to call the police if their office is burgled, while resenting paying their fair share for these services via sales, property, and other local taxes.

A couple of years ago, the IRS released results of a survey in which about 84% of us said it was never ok to lie on your returns. From that, researchers assumed that about 16% of us cheat. I would bet that there's another few percentage points at least comprised of those who say one thing and do another. Add those together, and you get at least a $345 billion (yes, that's billion) shortfall in any given year. Approximately 3/4 of government borrowing goes to make up this shortfall, adding to the deficit every year. Is it any wonder that early in the wars we saw stories about soldiers' parents having to purchase and ship body armor out of their own pockets? Or that programs and services are being cut or terminated because of lack of funding?

Besides being illogical and selfish, it's unethical to lie on your tax return.

When I was a little girl, someone gave me a book on ethics called If everybody did. The gist of it was that there were some things one person could do once that had small(ish) consequences, but if everybody did it, well, then. . .
Kant for short people

That question has been an ethical touchstone for me all my life. When I remember to ask the question and really listen to the answer, I rarely make a false step. When I don't,  the results are about what you'd expect.

I've been thinking a lot about that little book lately.

What if everybody who ever accepted cash for their work did not report it? What if everybody put their personal dry-cleaning bills, club memberships, and even church pledges down as business expenses? What if everybody claimed everything they bought at the drugstore, from magazines to shaving cream, as medical expenses in order to get the itemized deduction? And before you ask, yes, I've personally known people who've done every one of these things. Where do you think the the money would come from to treat injured veterans?  to pay for your Daddy's nursing home?  to upgrade the armor on that HUMVEE your cousin's riding around Afghanistan in?

When you cheat on your taxes, you are not cheating the IRS. You are, in effect, cheating your fellow citizens. Your coworkers. Your neighbors. Your children. Your parents.

The irony is that none of these people think of themselves as illogical, selfish, and unethical, or as liars, cheats, or criminals, despite the fact that they are every one of these things.

The whole system is based on self-reporting, on trust. If everybody lied and cheated, it would collapse. If everybody dragged their feet like I've been doing, we'd have to borrow even more every year to keep the government running (10% of the budget every year goes to interest payments as it is). The IRS would have to audit everybody, or maybe they would require all our patients, customers, clients, etc. to start issuing us 1099s at the end of the year. Or maybe we'd just go back to the system of old, when the government just showed up at your front door and took what it needed at the point of a spear. How would you like that?

So you just think about that the next time you are tempted, as a former colleague liked to put it, to "round things off at the corners". I know I'll be thinking about it this spring when the temptation to procrastinate arises.

What if everybody did?
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