Sunday, March 18, 2001

Tax Time

As a people, we pride ourselves on our humanity, our openness, our sense of fair play. We teach our children that no matter what else, it's the quality of your personal behavior that counts. In fact, we like to think that we are a nation of Boy Scouts, more or less. Sure, there are exceptions, but we all generally try to be brave and clean, thrifty and reverent, courteous and kind, and above all, honest.

But if there's a time when that mindset breaks down, it is the month of March. It's not that the winter doldrums have infected the national psyche. It's not that the long, holiday-less stretch from President's Day in February to Easter in April stresses our lives. It's not even the depressing prospect of all repeats on television means the viewing highlight of the month will turn out to be "Greatest Outtakes You Never Saw." Rather, it's that looming just into the next flyleaf on the calendar is April 15th, tax day.

Forget the intensifying national debate among the President, senators, congressman and pundits over the wisdom and structure of a tax cut. For the majority of us, that's a discussion that's happening at 50,000 feet, up there where the air is so thin you can't even breathe. Tax credits for reinvestment in small business? The deductibility of investments in physical upgrades of energy efficient factories? Pro and con it all you want, but most of us are just hunkered down in the trenches trying to decode the nuances of the latest version of the 1040 form. And that means that, like it or not, it's time to take out the shoeboxes full of receipts and the checkbook register from last year, and write the accounting equivalent of "The Truman Show."

For in this manufactured world, nothing is at it seems to be. The dinner with your golf buddies? A dinner with your best clients. That new CD player for your den? An entertainment system for your office. That trip to Florida to visit your college roommate? A fact-finding trip during which you interviewed for a new job. Or at least that's how it'll read on paper, and damn it, just try and prove it wasn't.

It's gotta be something in the air this time of year. It affects everybody, from housewives to ditch diggers, from school bus drivers to investment bankers, from politicians to lawyers. After all, people who wouldn't dream of robbing a bank or making an illegal right on red, or even trying to sneak on board the plane before their row was called suddenly turn into Al Capone, attempting money laundering on a scale that makes the Cali cartel look like a bunch of Swiss bankers.

The IRS always makes some high profile busts and stings this time of year, as a way of shoring up their position. A few years ago it was Leona Helmsley. This year, they set up sting operations at a bunch of tax shelters that cater to the wealthy. But it's all just posturing. For if truth be told, by their own admission, they have no idea of the size of the "tax compliance gap" that's out there or even how to fix it. The last time they even ventured a guess was in 1998, when the agency estimated that $195 billion went uncollected in corporate and individual taxes in fiscal 1997. That works out to $1625 for each of the millions of income tax returns filed for that year.

Unless they overhaul the system, it'll continue to be a losing battle. That's because the current foundation of voluntary compliance is based on 17,000 pages of rules, regulations, deductions, exemptions and guidelines that even the agency's own people can't follow. Yet, in spite of this, most folks hew to the spirit of the law and send in some money, even if they're off a little bit on the bottom line. It kind of works, especially when you consider the alternative. After all, if each of us had to haul our records into a knowledgeable government accountant who could parse our earnings and expenses to get a truly accurate tally, they'd still be sorting out the 1932 tax year.

Instead, most of us perform a ritual not dissimilar to creating a witches brew. But rather than eye of newt and claw of salamander, we stir together all the receipts we've accumulated over the past year, the substitute 1099 forms we've received in the mail and a few other standard deductions, chant an invocation to the spirits, and emerge with a number that tastes bad but will hopefully keep away the demons. Then we dutifully send it in, and hold our collective breaths, hoping that one of the huge contingent of 23 auditors assigned to examine the 150 million returns filed doesn't hit our number with a dart from his desk.

Knowing that the likelihood of that happening isn't high, however, encourages us to bend the truth a little. Sure, it's not what mamma taught us to do. But the temptation is too great. As song writer Glen Frey wrote in Smuggler's Blues, "The lure of easy money has a very strong appeal."

It's just a matter of degree. For the wealthy few, it's a bank account in the Caymans, a fictitious shell company that buys and sells cell phone licenses at a tax loss, or structuring your compensation to include mostly deferred options payable in reduced capital gains in 20 years. But for most of us, it's more likely claiming that the $25 we spent on Girl Scout cookies was a gift to charity. High crime or misdemeanor? We'll let the courts sort it out, and hopefully, the government will still be able to afford a proper toilet seat for Air Force One.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is trying to decide if the doctrine of "exclusive use" means he can't print vacation photos on his office printer. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Slow Food

In the United States we pride ourselves on our efficiency. We are the home of fast food, drive-in automatic teller machines, clip on ties and the one-hour workout. Speed is a virtue, a selling feature of everything from radio stations to microwave meals to newspapers. "Give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." "From package to oven to table in less than 10 minutes." "Not the most words, just the right ones." It seems everywhere you turn, we're in a hurry to get to the next minute, whatever adventures that may hold.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at lunch. For many, it's a chance to grab a quick sandwich or a bowl of soup, and then bolt out to do errands or other activities. Maybe it's a quick turn on a stationary bike, or picking up that birthday present for your sister-in-law's party, or checking out the latest toys in the electronics section of your local store. But the idea of lunch for lunch's sake... a long, slow partaking of the individual elements for the sheer pleasure of it... is practically anathema to vast majority of those of us who are trying to cram 80 hours of obligations into a 40 hour week.

And even if you make the commitment to sit and enjoy, the clock is still an unwelcome partner. If you are taking time from work, your office mates up and down the ladder might be willing to cede you 60 minutes, but no more. If you have less pressing obligations, you become acutely aware of the fact that sitting and grazing seriously affects the waiter's ability to flip the table for an additional tab and tip. And you have to contend with the reality that all around you, people are rushing in, chowing down and heading out. In light of those factors, you have to have a pretty strong commitment in order to have that extra glass of wine.

But Carlo Petrini takes major issue with this hustle and bustle. The 52 year-old Italian food and wine critic took the appearance of the golden arches near Rome's Spanish Steps as a gauntlet thrown into his zuppa de pesce, and decided to fight back. Something had to be done, and he was just the man to do it. And so, using the snail as his symbol, he founded the Slow Food movement.

His aim is to give people pause, and cause them to put down their hamburger, their hot dog, their pizza and their sandwich, and revel in what else is offered. According to his official manifesto, "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods." In other words, the devil is not the antichrist, but Colonel Sanders.

Carlo's movement has struck a nerve with many, both in his country and out. It has spread, boasting some 60,000 members. It hosts Slow Food Fairs, wine conventions, taste workshops, magazines and guides. At a recent event in Turin, 150,000 people showed up to sample hams, cheeses, smoked fish, stuffed roast pig and other delights, not to mention a wide array of vinos. And in spite of our national obsession with drive- thru windows, there was even a sizeable American contingent, proudly displaying Cajun cooking and barbecue sauces, two culinary arenas where long, slow cooking can play a part.

Having just returned from Italy on holiday with my family, I can readily understand Signor Petrini's approach. For us, the best meals we had were not the dinners in Rome or Venice. While they were nice, there was an urgency to eating, a hustle that went with the time, a weariness that came after the end of a long day of touring. No, the best gustatory experiences we had were the long, slow lunches we enjoyed in Sienna and Bologna. We had a little wine, a little ham, a little pasta, a little dolce, a little cappuccino. We watched the restaurant slowly empty, the staff wind down, the people bustling by outside the window. Not once did I pine for the bowl of chicken noodle and crackers that usually accompanies my noon hour in the states.

Petrini actually see his campaign as a crusade with broader implications than just lunch. He wants it to be an international movement focusing on anti-globalization and anti-standardization, one which celebrates the assertion of local and regional identity. His manifesto continues: "In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and landscapes. " While there may be some truth to the concept, it would seem that he's pushing a good thing too far. After all, it's a bit much to lay the responsibility for a toxic waste dump at the oversize shoes of Ronald McDonald.

Better that he should concentrate his efforts, as we did in Tuscany, on coercing us to sit and enjoy a plate of spinach and ricotta tortellini, or tagliatelle with a smoked duck sauce, or ribollita brimming with bread and beans. As his manifesto says, "May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency." Or taken another way, sitting and savoring a plate of bruschetta, followed by a nice pumpkin risotto, then toping that off with some goat cheese and bread, followed by a plate of tiramisu may not cure the ills of the world, but it makes it look a lot better as it goes down.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is bilingual. He can order fish and chips as well as saltimbocca. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, March 04, 2001

Iron Anthropology

Ask any scientist, and she'll tell you that every habitat or environment has its own rigorous rules of organization. Atoms have their form and function, as do elephants in the jungle, snowflakes on your windowsill and ants staking out your picnic. Identifying, categorizing and defining the behaviors of the elements which are resident in these arenas has become the life's work of more than one graduate student.

But occasionally those hierarchies are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of some new and unexpected variable. It turns established relationships and reactions to stimuli on their head, and forces adaptation that strengthens some elements while killing others. It can be a change in temperature, a novel predator that appears on the scene or a change in the environment. And nowhere in the wilds of nature is this more in evidence than with commuters.

Whether it's the train or the bus, a carpool or the US Airways shuttle, regular users have a routine that seems carved in stone. While each minutely choreographed ballet is unique to the individual, it is nonetheless clearly defined: where to stand while waiting to board, what seat to try and get, what to do at each stage of the journey. If you doubt the angst that disruption to this ordered existence can cause, on your next journey grab a seat that you know belongs to a regular and watch what happens when they get on. They'd be less upset if you kidnapped their children than if you take the fifth row window seat, left side, second car from the front.

All this is by way of introduction to the latest environmental upheaval visited on those inhabitants of the northern suburbs of Gotham who take the train to work each day. In a feat of engineering magic, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, working with the city, have actually created real estate when none existed before. By tunneling and carving around tracks, steam pipes, electrical lines and basements, they have created a handful of exits leading uptown out of Grand Central Station in New York, the central hub for all trains arriving in the city from points north.

To those unfamiliar with the geographic sleight-of-hand involved, an example might help illustrate the earth shattering revisions. Trains would come into the station and park with the head car at about 44th street. On your typical 8 car train, that meant that those riding in the caboose were somewhere between 46th and 47th street. Yet the former structure made no provision for departure at that end. So a person traveling in the tail wishing to go to a destination such as Saks at Fifth and 49th had to detrain, walk south underground to emerge in the daylight at 42nd street, only to turn uptown to retrace her steps above ground to get to the store. From start to finish as a mole would go? Less than a thousand feet. Distance actually traversed from the arrival on the platform of the 2:19p from Darien to the display of Kenneth Cole black platforms in the store? Closer to a mile.

All of this meant that before the renovations it was possible to determine the temperament and occupation of the passengers merely by the positions they took in the AM rush hours. The types A's, along with lawyers and bankers who racked up billable hours, were packed like sardines in the front cars, chomping at the bit to bolt onto the platform and get to their offices. The creative types who wanted a bit of extra time for reflection, along with the misanthropes who preferred a seat with a buffer zone around them, congregated in the later coaches. And strung along in between were those further up or down the evolutionary ladder, depending upon your view of humanity.

With the addition of the uptown exits, the gaggle that was in the front has redistributed itself, allowing for a finer parsing of the personalities involved. The front cars still contain hyper-kinetic go-getters, but these can safely assumed to be predominantly investment bankers who need to sprint to the subway to get to Wall Street in time to launch the next Microsoft. The end of train now contains the same basic personality types, but these are reliably reported to be investment bankers and lawyers, who now shoot out of the uptown exits and into their Park Avenue suites in some 7 minutes less than it took them under the old regime. And once again, the great gray huddled masses fill in the gaps strung out along the middle.

It's an academician's dream. If you're a professor of fashion design, you'll not the note the European cut in the front, the Brooks Brothers classics in the back, and the dress down everyday crowd in the middle. If you're a mathematician, you can look to plot the distribution of passengers on a graph, creating an inverted bell curve or barbell layout that mirrors load factors. And if you're a cultural anthropologist, you can examine the droppings of the crowd, noting the proliferation of Wall Street Journals and Investor's Dailys in the head car, the New York Times and New York Law Journals in the tail, and the People Magazines, Advertising Ages and Backstages in the center.

There's an old saying that you can't tell a book by its cover. And likewise, that you shouldn't judge a person until you get to know them. But at least it provides a starting point from which to draw an impression. As such, it is sometimes tempting, even if it's not fair. And so let's face facts: Caucasians and Asians may have a hard time telling each other apart, but up until now, I had the same problem sorting out the white color mercenaries in the head car of the 7:18.


Marc Wollin of Bedford prefers the third car from the north in the morning, last seat heading south on the west side. Going home, he's more flexible. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.