All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 2001

Beware the Ides of April (Plus Two)

Why Do We Cringe at Uncle Sam's Annual Fundraiser?

Ted Roberts is a freelance writer in Huntsville, Alabama, who often writes on public-policy issues.

April 15, two days after the Ides of April. A day of infamy that causes the sour-hearted taxpayer to shudder and wish a warp of time would wash over him and carry him to seventh-century Notaxylvania, an idyllic kingdom where the caliph only took the newborn lambs and 50 pounds of dried dates a year. But the retentive taxpayer smiled behind his hand because safe and secure beneath the sandy floor of his tent lay his hoard of silver simoleons.

Why do the faint-hearted fantasize about Notaxylvania and cringe at Uncle Sam’s annual fundraiser? Why aren’t we reconciled to handing a significant share of our earnings to an unknown bureaucrat who never had us over for supper? Why don’t we solace ourselves with the thought that many of our bucks will supply jobs for the tax collector’s talented Uncle Joe and Aunt Emma—so talented, in fact, that they can run the state’s administrative machinery without even showing up at the office!

The pittance of our remaining contribution will go to build a constituency for the caring politician who’s taken the heavy task of wealth distribution off our shoulders. How could we uninformed taxpayers sprinkle our dollars around our poverty-stricken society without exhibiting a bias toward the worthy unfortunates in our own circle of friends and relatives? And would that be fair? And if we who earned the bucks passed out those fat envelopes, the beneficiaries would be grateful to us, not Senator Porkheart. So he might not stay in office. And we’d be totally vulnerable to the sin of self-glorification, provoked by our largess.

Moses Maimonides, a twelfth-century philosopher and Talmudic scholar, wrote extensively on charity and the problem of donor arrogance. He constructed many levels of charity. The supreme gift, according to Maimonides, is not goods or money, but employment or an opportunity for self-sufficiency. Much of his concern dealt with the dignity of the recipient and the anonymity of the donor—how to hide the connection between giver and taker. If A gives to B, he might revel in his power over B. Maybe better that A gives to C, who transfers the gift to B, thereby shielding B from A’s pride. Almost a thousand years after Maimonides pondered this conundrum, it’s solved by Senator Porkheart and his pals. We givers are totally anonymous. A United States congressman is the only philanthropist who gives away somebody else’s money.

Pick Your Own Beneficiaries

Maybe we could avoid our lust for gratitude by designating not an individual, but a category of beneficiaries? Why not a block on the 1040 where we can designate groups—any community we choose, by race, gender, religion, occupation. Even regionally. Like the sixth-grade school teachers of Gadsden, Alabama, or the Battered Women’s Shelter in Peoria, Illinois. Or Korean War veterans south of the Waxahatchie River. Or all the teenagers in Oakland, California, who don’t have a Sunday suit of clothes.

Congressman Porkheart is dying to sprinkle a mill or two on his constituents in Detroit. But you hate Detroit. You’d rather spend the money on pineapple upside-down cakes for the needy of Chicago. Your money—your whim.

Some of us pine for the old days when the feudal aristocracy granted tax exemptions to whole towns and villages. If a local saved the kingdom by pulling his liege lord out of the duck pond, or by diverting the village cesspool into his liege lord’s enemy’s well, or stuck a sword in his liege lord’s enemy, great—no taxes for the whole village. It was a time-honored tradition. For example, Joan of Arc’s hamlet of Domrémy went tax-free because of her heroic feats. Naturally, as the word spread, tax-oppressed peasants moved in from miles around. Grateful villagers muttered Matins every morning for their benefactress.

This has never happened in my village. Last year I met our IRS benefactors personally because my return was filled in with a No. 8 pencil and contained 42 erasures. They invited me down for coffee and doughnuts. It was a close encounter of the fourth kind.

I purposely dressed down for the occasion in a holey T-shirt and shorts that used to be boxer underwear—when they were new. I looked so bad they frisked me when I walked in. But all they found was a pad of blank restaurant checks that I’d concealed in my sock. I was well armed for a grilling on my business expenses, but shockingly the offensive was aimed at my Sunday school travel expenses!

Me: “I tell you I teach Sunday school three times a week—it’s 100 miles away—that’s 52 weeks times three sessions a week times 200 miles. I drive both ways. (You expect me to walk home after two hours on my feet lecturing against dishonesty?) So that’s how I got 31,200 miles at 27 cents a mile. And that’s exactly what I put on line 152C. Right?”

Aggressive auditor: “It is only correct if I grant your two basic assumptions that there are three Sundays in a week and you live in Huntsville, Alabama, and teach Sunday school in Chattanooga.”

Me: “I can prove without reasonable doubt I live in Huntsville, Alabama—and I can prove that there are houses of worship in Chattanooga.”

We eventually compromised and put the site of my moral instruction in Brooklyn—Alabama, that is.

Remember Robin Hood, a man ahead of his time? He, too, stole from the rich (anybody who owned two matching shoes or a belt instead of a rope around his waist) and gave to the poor—minus an ale and roast-beef allowance for the merry band of brigands. In those simple days travelers on less-than-urgent business made a 50-mile detour to avoid Sherwood Forest. Today, all roads lead through Sherwood Forest. Maimonides, though a great fan of philanthropy, would have hated the lack of choice.