by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 23, 2006
LIFE AND TAXES
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- As Ben Franklin famously said, "Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." How true. But for me, there is another certainty - taxes as a useful way to reckon with life.
Life gives us many ways of reckoning. We can observe Yom Kippur by fasting, acknowledging our sins and seeking forgiveness. We can observe New Year's Day by making resolutions to correct our flaws. We can be thoughtful in the days leading up to our major birthdays. We can make lists of all the fun things we haven't done and check them off, one by one, as we complete them. We can watch our lives flash in front of us as we lay dying.
Or if, like me, you are in a business where you can itemize your deductions, tax time is a useful way to confront reality by facing down hundreds of slips of paper.
What do I mean? My husband, for example, has an employer. He marches into the accountant's office carrying a slender folder. I am self-employed. I haul in a garbage bag full of receipts which took me three full days to organize.
It's tiring work to review the year restaurant by restaurant, taxi ride by taxi ride, magazine subscription by magazine subscription and computer blowout by computer blowout.
But when I finally add everything up, I have in front of me a year's worth of life as I have really lived it. That means, not infrequently, not as I'd hoped to have lived it. Maybe I wasn't as charitable as I wanted to be. Maybe I wasn't as thrifty. Maybe not as productive. Maybe not as financially well-rewarded.
But there's also much room for congratulation. Those restaurant bills are reminders of fabulous conversations, deepening relationships and new and productive ideas. Some of those airline tickets resulted in touching essays. That decision to upgrade the computer made it possible to produce a book. The decision to paint the house - well, the new colors give me pleasure, even though the experience cost a fortune in terms of paint and mental anguish.
For patriots like me, paying taxes give a feeling of responsibility, of being a part of the fabric of our country, of contributing to the common good. "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society," said U. S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt echoed him when he said, "Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society."
Of course, in these mean-spirited years of President George W. Bush , the small pleasure of contributing lies around us in shreds and tatters. We no longer live in a truly civilized society, but in one which revels in its arrogance, wealth, brutish conquest, denial of civil liberties and torture. It's hard to put a good face on paying taxes when we well know that the money will go into the pockets of scoundrels and keep our troops in places where they have no reason to be.
Given this reality, some people refuse to pay their taxes. Their refusal gives them the same sense of participating in a democracy that I used to get from paying mine. They make a good point. After all, this country was founded on the idea of taxation with representation - and how many? only 30 percent? - of the population feels it's being represented by our present government.
I admire war resisters and the protesters who refuse to pay their taxes. I think they are very brave, especially when we know the government is spying on us, taking vengeance on those who don't cower before it, imprisoning people without cause, and awarding contracts to Haliburton to build secret concentration camps in our own country. In light of the Big-Brotherness of our present government, I am meticulous about paying my income taxes. But I still write columns critical of Mr. Bush, so - see you there, guys!
After my tax bill is reckoned, I'm always left with amazement at how little money it takes to live a wonderful life, at least up here in the backwoods of Vermont.
I'm not alone in this. Many artists - musicians, writers, poets painters, sculptors, dancers - are living on the margins of our country's economic life. While movie stars are paid millions of dollars a year, many of us seem to live more or less on air. After deductions are filtered through earnings, there's often nothing left.
Yet here in Vermont we eat well, have friends, educate our children, do interesting work, entertain ourselves, volunteer in our towns, stay warm in winter, drive cars that are good in snow, and vote to impeach President Bush and end the Iraq war at our annual Town Meetings.
We also pay our property taxes, and here is where the whole "it's a wonderful life" thing might soon be falling apart. As we struggle to do our work and keep up our homes, property taxes rise higher every year. It's not income taxes that will drive artists out of Vermont or put working couples on the street. It's the property taxes.
"I am proud to be paying taxes in the United States," said the late entertainer Arthur Godfrey. "The only thing is - I could be just as proud for half the money."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture,
politics, economics and travel. A collection of her columns, called "A
Thousand Words or Less," will be out in May. She can be reached at