Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Deduction Reasoning

I'm doing our taxes.  I started yesterday--well, that's not true; I actually started the day before yesterday, when I sorted the Pile of Denial into piles of "Tax-Related Documents" and "Empty Envelopes" and "Other."  I then felt accomplished and quit for the day. 

Yesterday I began entering our information into the online tax service.  I watched the federal and state tickers at the top calculate our progress, consistently yielding a net "owe."  There would be no such thing as quitting while I was ahead, so I just quit. 

Today I learned that tax day is not actually Friday, April 15, but Monday, April 18.  The whole nation just got an extension on their big homework project!  Probably everyone else knew this, but it was the kind of news that enables a true procrastinator to forge ahead in not forging ahead:  I am now inappropriately confident in my ability to complete taxes by the deadline, and have decided to write about taxes instead of do them today.  Winning!

But really, it's hard to not feel like you're losing when you're doing taxes, even when you're calculating a refund.  If you're getting a hefty refund, you wonder why.  You wonder why you haven't had all that money all year long, and what the government has been doing with it, anyway.  You wonder if someone else is getting a bigger refund.  Someone with the same salary.  Someone with the same number of kids.  If you're me, you're inwardly grumbling about the fact that it sure feels like Everyone Else is getting a refund and telling you exactly how they're already spending it. 

Taxes and death are the two certain things, and they're two mysterious ones, too.  It might also be appropriate to proclaim 'all is fair in death and taxes', since we seem unable to draw clear lines of distinction between what is just and what is not when it comes to how we pay The Man and how we meet The Maker. 

I don't want to cheat on my taxes.  I appreciate that taxes educate my children, provide my salary, and fix the cracking sidewalk in front of my house.  I like that the park down the hill has a new play structure and that the grass there gets mowed, too.  And I'd pay more taxes if it meant fewer hungry, ill, uneducated, and desperate and dangerous people in our society. 

But as I do my taxes, I recognize that it's hard to know if I'm doing it right, hence a fear that I am "accidentally" cheating.  Since I'm filing ours myself I figure it's more likely that I am overlooking deductions that my colleague's so-called "shady tax guy" finds for him.  On the other hand, I relish not having to organize myself for or answer to someone else (besides the IRS, of course). 

All this relativity reminds me of my visit to Wasini Island when I lived in Kenya.  To reach this little island of no cars and roads from the mainland, we had to hire someone in a small boat to paddle or motor us across the channel.  I met an American family at some point during the day, and shortly after exchanging information about our origins and travels, the father asked me how much I paid to cross the channel. 

"Well..." I explained, "I speak some Swahili, you see, and I have lived here for some months now..." 

"Right," the father replied impatiently.  "But how much did you have to pay?"

I admitted that I negotiated a fairly small fee with my ferrier. 

The father stomped his foot.  "I knew I was being ripped off!  And we already paid for the trip back!"

I asked him if he felt, as an American consumer, that the cost of his trip across the channel was worth the experience he was having.  He conceded that it was, but that it chapped his hide to know that others were getting a "better deal." 

I hoped that the gentleman would not blame the ferryman, when, in fact, he had agreed to a price and paid it.  I was reminded of the inconsistency in airplane ticket prices, in the cost of a gallon of gas, in the value of a shirt on sale at full price today and on clearance next week.  I think we're only ripped off when we don't have options, and when what we're buying is something we truly need.  Most of the time, we choose to value commodities and services by what we're willing to pay, or by the research we're willing to put into competitive rates.

And value is relative.  When I traveled to Morocco with a friend in the late '90s, our truck driver shared a story of delivering a safari mobile across Africa with a tight deadline and dwindling resources and cash.  On a day when they were almost out of fuel and in the near-middle of nowhere, they came to a river with only one bridge across for miles in either direction.  Two men stood at the base of the bridge to charge a toll for crossing vehicles--a rare but lucrative occurrence.  Our driver and his colleague knew the bridgekeepers could name their fee and the drivers would have to pay. 

The bridgekeepers conferred while our drivers calculated the potential damage.  They had a few hundred dollars between them and weeks of travel ahead; they estimated they could part with up to $200 and retain enough to make it to the next town for reinforcements from their company. 

Finally, the bridgekeepers approached the truck, trembling in anticipation of their windfall. 

"Give us $10 to cross," they implored.  Almost laughing in relief, our drivers handed them $20 and barreled over the bridge before they changed their minds. 

Was $10 to cross a rickety bridge a swindle?  Perhaps, but it felt like both a bargain and a boon at the time.  Winning!  It's all about perspective.

Which is why I am ultimately content to do my taxes with an understanding of the grayness and subjectivity inherent in the system.  And yet, I am befuddled enough by estimated sales tax and what we can and cannot claim as business deductions to seek outside assistance next year.

Not to mention, I hear I can write off the cost of tax preparation...


Kay said...

flat tax...
I hate doing taxes, hate watching that ticker...especially when it's red...and always wonder why my return can't have choice boxes on it so I can check send my taxes children...fill pot holes...make bridges safe...develop clean energy... and other stuff I would never check. All perspective I suppose. Love your life that's on the tip of your tongue.

Betsy Noel said...

wow. you must really not want to do your taxes because that is a really long blog post.

Anonymous said...

Seriously good post. And an excellent exercise in further procrastination. Do I win if I admit that I filed an extension? Heh.