"The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest amount of hissing."
I get emotional every time I think of that scene from William Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar, where, on the "Ides (middle) of March," the Master of the Roman Empire cries, "Et tu, Brute?" to the friend who is about to assassinate him.
Not that thinking about the famous bard or the "brute-al" betrayal of his principal character is an everyday thing, you understand, but sometimes, at this "Ides of April" time of year, I can feel old Caesar's pain.
"Et tu, Barbara!" No question there, just a statement that if you earned even slightly more last year than you did the year before, and if those estimated self-employment taxes you paid throughout the year didn't cover the overage, you can face dire consequences, too. Not that I expect Uncle Sam to come to my door, dagger or handcuffs in hand and take me to my doom, but a tripled tax installment the same month your computer dies, your roof leaks and your car needs major surgery was a little beyond my comfort zone.
But never fear, my fellow taxpayers. Fortunately, I was able to dip into my children's dwindling inheritance and come up with the extra tax money, so you won't have to pay for my incarceration. My tax preparer and I have also come up with a way to keep this jolting experience from happening again: Make less money in 2006 than I did in 2005 or, at least, don't scrimp on the quarterly payments thinking, if I don't pay it, I must not owe it.
Advice taken; lesson learned.
I jest - now that the tears are dry, and I'm not nearly as poverty stricken as my sad tale sounds. But knowing I'm not the only taxpayer out there whose refund went to the government this year instead of to us, I thought I'd let you know I feel your pain, too.
I used to have more pain than this: I used to do my own taxes. Since it's tough to figure what you owe the government when you're self-employed, it's been a long time since I've attempted that task alone. I'm more than happy to let my mathematically superior accountant determine the depreciation on my equipment, what I can and can't deduct, and the prorated household expense I'm allowed to include because I work at home.
Under his tutelage I've learned to pay all business-related expenses by check, draft or e-mail; keep a mileage log when my driving is related to my work; and never throw a receipt away.
Then there are the questions I can't answer, like wondering why I could deduct part of the painting and plumbing repairs on my house, but not the new motor on my washing machine.
"If it's in the kitchen or bathroom, it's deductible," the wise one said, "unless it's the washer or dryer." It took a while to figure that if I had an office somewhere else I might have a stove, refrigerator, and other necessary appliances there, but I'd still do my wash at home. I accepted the verdict, but wondered how many IRS man/woman hours it took to come up with such a precise conclusion.
Ah, taxes. Does anyone ever say the word or think of tax deadlines with a smile? Did any legislator ever thrill to raising taxes on those whose votes he needs to stay in office?
No to all the above, but yes to the need for some way to fund the services none of us would want to be without. As economist David Bradford writes: "Taxation is a political act involving controversial decisions arrived at through the democratic process. Fairness at any given time is what the law says it is, though we shall never be certain we are not paying too much, and someone else is paying too little."
Clear? Never, but is there a better way? Can you say "Fair Tax?"
Whether that idea, which is sweeping the country - but not the legislators - today is a better idea or not, time will tell. But things could be a whole lot worse. We could live in a country where un-elected dictators make the rules, and the benefits we now consider synonymous with rights would go to ruling Caesars on gilded thrones, and not to us.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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