Saturday, May 18, 2013

Kinder? Gentler?

Much has been written about the economic problems in Greece. You can blame bad management, social programs and public sector employment, and each of those has played a part. But even if all were to be addressed, one of the major underlying causes would still be there: an almost complete disregard for the tax system. Estimates are between that 20% and 30% of the country's GDP is underground. The result is that even as they reduce their need for revenue, they still collect far less than they should.

Contrast that with the state of the tax system in this country. By and large, most people who owe taxes pay in a timely manner. That's not say that the tax system isn't desperately in need of an overhaul. But by April 15 of any given year, either through payroll deductions or quarterly payments, most Americans have squared up their accounts with a minimum of fuss.

Now, if everybody paid what they were obligated to pay, the US Treasury could just deposit the money and on we would go. But of course, the honor system doesn't always work perfectly. Sometimes, there are - how to say this charitably - discrepancies. Deadlines get missed, amounts are wrong or not tendered. And that's where everybody's favorite agency comes in, the IRS.

In terms of numbers, since overall compliance is generally good, the amount of times they get involved is actually very small. Sure there are audits. But more often than not, a letter is dispatched and matters are quickly resolved, a situation not unlike resolving an erroneous charge on your Visa bill.

However, make no mistake: this is not your charge card. And while the agency has followed the lead of any good customer facing organization - courteous and helpful phone agents, online access to account information, electronic payment systems – they are still the IRS. As such, they have some pretty big sticks to use, and are less likely to give you a $25 credit on your next statement just for being a loyal customer.

Take me. As part of my world, I owe a small employment tax: for the last quarter of 2012, it came to a whopping $56. I paid it on time as I usually do, and went on with my life. Then a month ago I got an official looking letter from the IRS. Its tone was pleasant enough, stating very simply that the tax had not been paid, and noting it was now past due.  Since it was in arrears, there was interest as well, and would I please remit at my earliest convenience $56.58?

Since I distinctly remembered making the payment, I did a little digging. And when I examined the cancelled check, I saw the problem. When my account number was entered, it was mis-keyed by one digit. So someone else's account was up by $56, while mine was down a like amount. I quickly wrote a letter, made a copy of the proof, and sent it back.

I assumed the next missive would acknowledge the error and set it right. So when it arrived, I opened it hopefully. Rather than saying "mea culpa," the 16 point type of the first page screamed "You have unpaid taxes as of December 31. This letter states the intent to seize property or rights to property." A quick scan confirmed it was indeed related to the same matter. Then it told me how egregious was my transgression, and why they were ready to take all that was precious to me: "Amount due immediately $57.55."

A call to the agency confirmed that the letter was in error, that they indeed had my return correspondence, and were working through it. In all likelihood things would be resolved shortly, and the next letter should confirm that. But I couldn't help but reflect on the poisonous atmosphere in Washington, how civility has all but disappeared. Was this another example of going from simple disagreement to vilification in the blink of an eye? Or just two letters crossing in the mail?

Yes, they still refer to each other in Congress as "the gentleman" or "the gentlewoman." But there is no doubt as to whether or not they think that gentleperson is a gentle idiot. And so it seems here. Forget innocent until proven guilty. We went from "please pay" to "we're throwing you in debtor's prison" in a flash. It would be nice if they could dial it back a little bit. After all, we're their boss.


Marc Wollin of Bedford pays his taxes on time and in full. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

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