It’s that time of year again: grass is greening up, trees are blossoming, the days are starting to get a little longer, it’s starting to get just a little warmer outside, and Lady Liberties and Uncle Sams are sprouting at every major intersection. It’s tax time! In the United States, anyway; I don’t know how any other countries do their taxes, but it must get done because they all have health care and don’t seem to shut down their governments down all willy-nilly. I’m grateful for the hints of spring, though, and tax season has also renewed my gratitude for not being at the library anymore, and not just because it meant we got a bigger refund this year.
Tax season was always weird at the library. Since we were in the business of providing public services, the IRS sent us tax forms to make available for the public, but every year they sent us fewer forms (with no explanation) until around the time of the pandemic when they didn’t send us any. It was one less thing to deal with, but the fewer forms we got, the more questions patrons had. Questions like, “Which form do I need?” “Where are the tax forms?” “What do you mean you don’t have any forms?” “Will you get some later?” “Can you call me if you do?” “Which form does my iguana need?” “What’s your name, so I can blame it on you when they throw my iguana in debtors’ prison for delinquent taxes?” And we, not being tax experts, legally couldn’t give them any advice even if we wanted to, which led to quite a few disgruntled patrons.
There was a group that would prepare simple taxes for senior citizens at no charge, though. When I first started at the library, I was told that the group had set up shop at the library in years past but had since relocated. If anyone came in or called looking for them, we were to give them a phone number. This also became a fallback for the disgruntled people looking for forms that the government had not sent (whether we earnestly believed they were senior citizens or not). And then, after explaining all spring that the tax group would not be meeting at the library, they suddenly were at the library for a week or so. This didn’t really have any effect on us (beyond making us look like liars after spending two months telling people, “They won’t be at the library anymore”) as they did all their own scheduling and kept to themselves. The bigger issue came a couple of years later. Every spring, people would call and ask about “the people that do taxes in the library,” and we’d patiently explain that they were located somewhere else and offer the phone number. Most of them took the number, thanked us, and hung up. A few would ask more questions about why they weren’t at the library anymore and where they were instead and did they still have a lot of openings and was that the building that used to be a Wal-Mart? I was legally allowed to answer these questions, but I still didn’t have any of the answers (because, let’s face it, I hadn’t had the answers to the other questions either).
Frequently, people began the conversation by asking for, “the people who did taxes at the library last year.” My first year, that was fine and made sense. My second year, it still made sense as they had come to prepare taxes for a handful of people the previous year at the last minute in our building. But as the years passed, the request stayed the same. The third year, out of a sense of caution, in case someone had met with their personal tax preparer at the library, we specified, “They haven’t been here for a couple of years, but is this who you’re trying to reach?” And each year became a little more bewildering as a handful of people insisted they had had their taxes prepared at the library the last year. It was beyond our control and out of our hands; all we could do was offer the contact information that we had, and then, after hanging up, quietly wonder how many years had passed since the person on the phone had actually filed their taxes.
Everybody hates taxes. People have complained about taxes forever. Wars have been fought over taxes. Politicians promise over and over to lower taxes. But I think what really needs to happen with taxes is that they need a makeover, a little rebranding. Because the fact is, taxes are a necessary evil that serve an important purpose.
Instead of the tired, old image of the government taking part of our hard-earned money like a parasite, they need to spin it a little differently. Change them from “taxes” into a membership fee for the trendy, new club that is civilized society. If you join the gym that costs $8 month, you don’t expect that gym to offer free fitness classes, cucumber water, personal trainers, an olympic-sized swimming pool, or regular equipment upgrades. They might not even repair the equipment they have, or not in a timely manner, anyway. But if those things are important to you, it is probably worth joining a more expensive gym, and while no one is thrilled to pay gym membership fees, they tend not to moan about those as much as everyone moans about taxes.
You want shockingly low taxes? Okay, but you can’t expect that membership fee to fund a society with good roads, clean water, comprehensive education, public health services, and emergency responders. It’s not about the government sticking its grubby little hands in our cookie jar; it’s paying for benefits that apply to everyone. Yes, I know, there are also complaints about how the membership fee gets allocated. We will always have disagreements about which things are over- or underfunded. That’s true even with the gym membership metaphor. I’d like for them to overhaul and redo the pool, or build another location closer to my house, but someone else probably feels just as strongly that they should focus on expanding child care or offer more classes. Another regular is probably still upset over the loss of racquetball courts when they closed the old building. But if we feel strongly enough about any of these issues, we can petition the gym or join one that offers those things (almost certainly at a higher price), just like we can petition the government or throw in the towel and move to a country that provides more public services.
And that’s the other place where this rebranding can help the image problem that has always plagued taxes: we all pay different amounts of taxes, and that’s as it should be. At a gym, there are different levels of membership, and some gyms offer a sliding scale based on income, but there will always be people who think that it’s “not fair” they have to pay more than someone else. Instead of leaving us thinking, “The government takes more from me than they do from my neighbor,” the government should do what charities do. When we pay our taxes, give us a hypothetical about what our portion of taxes is enough to cover. Food banks love to say things like, “Your gift of $4 will feed a hungry child for a week!” or what have you. If the government were to follow suit and say, “The taxes you paid this year covered the cost of an elementary school’s new white boards!” or “Your taxes funded half a mile of interstate highway!” people might pay their taxes a little less begrudgingly and, because they’ve been reminded of things that our taxes actually do, have more appreciation for the things we get for our taxes. It would also provide a guideline for the people to hold the government accountable for the responsible allocation of tax dollars. Even though no individual will have the entirety of their taxes go specifically to interstate highway repairs, “I’ve paid enough taxes over the last four years to repair 40 miles of I-70, but it’s rougher than my granddad’s gravel driveway, Mr. Senator. I don’t think you’re earning your keep!” feels like a pretty compelling argument.
And then there’s the issue of the obscenely wealthy: the billionaires who gloat about not paying taxes. What’s the one thing these buffoons have in common (aside from unfathomable hoards of cash)? Giant fucking egos. But if we got them to pay a fair share of taxes that would do so much good, and just told them how far their money was actually going, and do a little, “Oh, thank you, what would we do without you?” to soothe their egos, and they could putter around in their rocket ships full of chamagne and caviar to think about how great they are and the rest of us could actually get on with our lives.
Just a thought. Anyway, don’t forget to pay your membership fees. Happy Spring!