Saturday, February 17, 1996

A Taxing Proposition

Forget the $20,000 toilet seats.  Forget the B2 Bombers. Forget the foreign aid to Bosnia.  The reason for the 3 gazillion dollar national debt is walking among you.  I have been discovered by the nameless, faceless inspectors.  The Federal Government has reached out and touched me with its long sword, and brought its full power to bear.  They have identified my crime, passed judgment, and demanded restitution.  And when they cash my check, democracy will once again be solvent.

A little background may be in order.  Both my wife and I are self employed.  This complicates our tax picture enough that we employ the services of an accountant to help us prepare our returns.  Referred to us through a friend, he's an older guy who teaches accounting at a local college.  While he's been doing our books for nearly 10 years, he still starts every message he leaves on my machine with, "Mahhhk, this is Gabe, you accountant."   While I used to prep everything and head to his office to review the material, I came to the conclusion that he doesn't really want me to talk to him.... the numbers talk to him.  With that in mind, I now get everything together, reduce it to 5 or 6 typed pages of figures and notes, and send it all to him to wrestle into shape.  Occasionally, either I make a mistake compiling the data, or he makes one transposing it onto the tax forms, and we have a error crop up.  And that is what kicked off this exercise in governmental might.

In the fall, the mail contained one of those dreaded envelopes stamped with "Internal Revenue Service."  Now, regardless of your innocence, you know you're guilty.  Because we all know that if they look hard enough, we've all changed lanes without signaling at one time or another.  I'm not talking big, Al Capone deception here... not even Leona Helmsley stuff.  But who hasn't bought gift wrap from the school PTA sale, and listed it as a charitable donation?  Who hasn't gone out with an associate for a social evening, and called it a business dinner?  Who hasn't won the office football pool and "forgotten" to declare the winnings? Enough said... you know who you are.

I rip open the envelope and scan through the user friendly prose (Thanks to George Bush, I guess, it's a kinder, gentler IRS), looking for the bottom line.  First, I realize that it's not last year that they're talking about, but the year before.  So in spite of the government shutdown, in spite of the budget battle, in spite of the marriage of Michael and Lisa Marie, some federal clerk has found the time to sharpen his pencils, put fresh batteries into his calculator, pull up a large pot of coffee, and review our 1993 returns.  (I guess that at least it's comforting to know that somebody is checking.)  A few more minutes of reading and I find of dense series of references, dollar amounts and footnotes.  As near as I can determine, a bunch of stuff didn't add up, and we owe another thousand dollars or so.

So now the big question:  how much is it worth to figure out if this is right or not?  I have to go and yank all of my 1993 files from the attic, and review and relearn them, trying to reconstruct my thought process as to why I put which deduction into which column.  Then, even if I can reconcile my notes and theirs, I have to take it to Gabe (you accountant), and have him fit it into the correct formulaic response.  Odds are, even if I'm right and they're wrong, it'll just open a can of worms that will only lead to more fun and games.

But, because I play by the rules, I tackle the problem, spending several evenings with a calculator and stacks of forms, trying to make ends meet.  Eventually, I find that it's a split decision.  Indeed, I mislabeled one number and put it into the wrong column.  At the same time, they overlooked a particular payment.  I dutifully trot it all off to Gabe, who fills out the proper paperwork, adds a letter in accountanteese, and returns it to us for our signature, with a note to attach a check for about half of the original amount. Like sheep being led to the slaughter, we do as we're told, and send it on to Washington.

Five months go by.  The government is running again, a budget deal is near, and Michael and Lisa Marie are no more.  But once again, the long arm of the law knows no rest, and comes a-callin'.

With a sense of deja-vu' , I rip open this new envelope, and extract the now six pages of explanations and citations.  I envision a team of crack investigators combing through my recycling, gluing together scraps of long ago discarded bank statements.  The FBI fans out across a 10 state region, interviewing ex-girlfriends, old teachers, and former neighbors.  All have a single goal:  GET 'EM!

I finally get to the bottom of the letter.  Yes, they received my check.  Yes, they accept the split decision.  Yes, section C cancels out paragraph 3.  The net is that I still am on the hook for unpaid funds.  And the price to square me with the American People?

One dollar and forty six cents.

That's right.  $1.46.  The paper and stamp costs more than that, never mind the time and computing power it took to arrive at this conclusion.  Without a second thought, without consulting Gabe, I scribble out a check, and throw it in the mail.  Once again, the universe is back in perfect balance, and Warren Christopher will get his paycheck.

At least until April 15th.

- END -

Marc Wollin of Bedford files a 1040, a Schedule C, a 5500 and  a 4562.  You'll have to ask Gabe (you accountant) what that all means.  Mahhhk's column appears weekly in the Record Review.