Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dad and his Sister: Paying the Taxes Due

My father and his sister Helen in Homewood, Alabama, 1944.

My father and his sister Helen looked enough alike to be fraternal twins--tall, skinny people, they had long skinny feet, eyes the color of the sea off the coast of Scotland where their forefathers came from, and dark, dark hair that turned white, white as they grew older. They had similar, quirky senses of humor and both were stubborn. And both had very kind hearts. But not when it came to the IRS!

The siblings had similar feelings about this, and similar will to follow it through. My father worked hard at being an amateur expert on the federal tax code. My Aunt Helen was so knowledgeable she served for many years as a volunteer at her church and at various senior centers, helping others fill out their tax returns.

She never took money for this. She thought that was un-American. 

My father and his sister in 1989.

They both read voraciously, and were well informed enough to know how wasteful the federal government was at spending their hard-earned money--from subsidizing school lunches to increasingly obese children, to paying wealthy farm conglomerates not to farm, to all the other ridiculous government boondoggles one can now look up on the Internet.

They also learned, by keeping up with the tax code, how unfair and slanted were the rules imposed by Congress--from deductions for racehorses and yachts, to other rarely-written-about, obscure, and specialized tax deductions, thrown into the code by members of Congress at the behest of their friends.

My father's goal--and I later learned his sister's as well--was to read the code, follow the law, and make every reasonable effort to use it to his (and her) advantage.

He was never a wealthy man and did not buy a yacht or a racehorse so he could get a tax deduction. The money he had to invest was money he saved nickle by nickle through thrift. He read the law and invested it in things that would produce an income in his old age and that would also help him reduce his overall tax burden. That was the law of the land. (During only the last few years of his life did he hire a tax accountant, and his tax burden increased as he grew less and less able to manage his own investments. So in this case, Uncle Sam's burden fell heavily on an old man losing his mental acuity. Not exactly the "fairness" we hear so much about in political campaigns.)

I have thought a lot about this as I've read the criticism of Mitt Romney, who acquired his own wealth through working hard, taking risks, and following the law. My father didn't have much in common with a wheel like Romney, but they do seem to have shared a healthy scepticism of the IRS. They read the tax code and followed it so that they would not pay the federal government any more than they were required to pay.

If you have an objection to that, find it not with my father and my aunt and with Governor Romney: find it in Congress. Congress writes the tax code. The president not only does not write the tax code, he/she does not have a line item veto under the constitution and cannot cross out the parts of the code he doesn't like. The president, in the end, has very little to do with the tax code, as does the average citizen.

There was an attempt, when I was a Washington reporter, for a "flat tax" in which all Americans would pay the same percentage of their income with no deductions. Simple and, some believed, more fair. That lasted about ten minutes, morphed into two tax rates, then three--then dissolved into the same mess we've always had. Hard to do "tax planning" with the code changing every year, eh?

So I have to admire my father and my Aunt Helen--and any other citizen like them--for making their (ethical) best of a bad situation. They read the law and they followed the law. They also supported and voted for people they thought might produce a better law. 

I wish I had inherited more of the Chapman DNA that made Dad and Aunt Helen so good at this. We could do a lot worse than to have a president with ethics and brains like theirs.

My father and his sister in 2001, the last time they were together before her death from MS. They both had their degrees from Auburn and these two Tigers were much beloved by me.

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