family loves to chuckle over a photograph of me sitting at a table,
doing our taxes. You can just see me over the top of my wife's
belly, because she took the picture from her hospital bed the day
she delivered our eldest son, Antonio. It was April 15, 1990, and
both my son and my taxes were due.
Tax day is now greeted with mixed emotions around my house.
I hate paying taxes, and having to finish my return in the
hospital on the day my son was born — because I procrastinated —
doesn't describe my resentment. When I figure out how much I pay in
income, property and sales taxes, as well as fees to use the beach,
fees to use the Little League fields and fees for a dog license, it
takes my breath away. I have $20,000 invested in a Treasury bill,
which is exempt from state income taxes, and the $66 I'm saving this
year gives me more satisfaction than I know is healthy.
I realize that I get a lot in return for some of my tax dollars,
like the education of my four children. I also understand the
thought behind what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said: "Taxes are
what we pay for civilized society" — although "Survivor: The
Australian Outback" should give us a chance to rethink that thought.
My wife, Christine, also says that taxes are the price of the good
life and that I should just stop whining.
The Tax Foundation, a nonprofit research group in Washington,
estimates that people work until May 3 each year just to pay their
various annual tax bills, so why do I have the feeling that that is
when I'm just getting started on mine?
The Internal Revenue Service, because it doesn't ask our ages on
its tax forms, doesn't know how much baby boomers pay
proportionately in taxes. Considering that we are in our prime
earnings years, we are obviously not shirkers. And like every other
generation that has tried to raise a family, save for college, save
for retirement and still go out to dinner once in awhile, we are a
bit sensitive about taxes.
"Everywhere you turn there's something," said James Westerheid,
53, an engineer at Texas Instruments in Dallas who said he has been audited three
times. "There's federal income taxes. They're trying to raise the
mill rate on my house. Gasoline taxes really, really bother me, and
there's the sales tax. The tax code has gotten thicker and more
complicated year by year. I get a headache trying to read that
Jeri Maier, 53, president and chief executive of Boomers
International, which runs a Web site for baby boomers, says she
often hears complaints about taxes during chat-room discussions. One
comment, she said, was, "I am just sending my cremated body in an
urn to the I.R.S. with a note saying `THERE — now you've got that
Ms. Maier said that "a lot of people who are making good money
feel that they pay a lot of taxes and don't get a lot of benefits
back; they are frustrated."
The I.R.S, of course, realizes that. To show us where our money
is going, and what benefits we indeed are paying for, the agency has
put online an interactive version of the pie chart that it prints in
tax instruction booklets
/index.html). Called Tax
Receipt, it lets taxpayers type in the amount of federal taxes they
paid last year and learn how that money was spent. Since Feb. 1, the
site has received about 37,000 hits. It has been up since 1999, and
in the words of an I.R.S. spokesman, "it's kind of neat to see."
It is fun. I plugged in my 1999 tax bill (calculations for 2000
are not yet available on the site) and found that I paid $11,552.21
for Social Security and $8,036.32 for national defense, two of the
largest expenses. Interest on the national debt cost me $6,529.51,
although I got some of that back with my T-bill. Assistance to the
poor, like food stamps, child nutrition and earned income tax
credits, was $7,031.78.
Although the site also lists how many billions are spent
on categories like public schools, military salaries, space programs
and Amtrak, I wish they had been further broken out into individual
Amtrak, for example, a service I love and use for visiting family
in Washington, is at the bottom of the list, receiving $200 million.
I would gladly agree to give it more of my taxes. I'd also pay more
for schools and the food stamp program if I could shave a bit off
national defense and debt payments.
Wouldn't it be nice to have such choices? That may be
impractical, but it would make April 15 a bit easier — and do
wonders for my mood at Antonio's birthday
James Schembari is an editor at The Times.
His column on the prime earning, spending and striving years appears
the fourth Sunday of each month. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.