April 11, 2014

Mentally taxing: an open letter to the IRS

Lawmakers’ failure to simplify tax code reveals disconnect with their past college selves and all of America.

To Whom It May Concern:

Enclosed, please find my income tax return for the year ending December 31, 2013. As requested on the bottom of Form 1040, “I declare that I have examined this return and accompanying schedules and statements, and to the best of my knowledge and belief, they are true, correct, and complete.”

Sincerel—wait a minute. I didn’t see a “comments” section on the 1040. To avoid those “penalties of perjury,” I had better share my thoughts here. Bear with me, Mr. or Ms. IRS Employee; I’m sure you have a tall stack of 1040s to process by April 15, but as a University of Chicago student, I wouldn’t badger someone facing a crushing workload and too-soon deadline unless there’s something that really needs to be said. Like how filling out a Federal Income Tax Return is beyond the brains of this spring break-ing college student. The 1040 seemed easy enough—nice, neat boxes, only two pages!—but when I opened the instruction book, flipping through 10 Maroons’ worth of recycled newsprint, things got hairy.

The trouble started on Line Nine: “ordinary” versus “qualified” dividends. Time to add up and allocate every dime that my grandparents had lovingly saved and invested over 19 years to support me through this fine institution. The warm familial glow of their generosity began to fade as I sorted through one cold, confusing tax category after another: “Coverdell ESA”? “QTP Distribution”? Was I on the hook for the entire pot of money in those bonds and accounts?! Yup, I decided wearily after a half-hour poring over Publication 970. As I factored nearly two decades’ worth of patriarchal love into my “Qualified Higher Education Expenses,” the taxes started adding up. Thanks anyway, Grandpa.

Before you have the IRS check my home address to verify that Wilmington isn’t in Texas or Idaho, relax. I’m a friend, a registered Democrat from Biden Central. This made turning to my graying Reaganite dad for help, braving his smug smile and question, “Do you see what dealing with the federal government is really like?” all the more painful.  As it turned out, only the 2013 interest counted as “income.” At least I had someone to set my figures straight; not every 19-year-old lives under the same roof as a Harvard-educated corporate counsel.

Can’t your higher-ups on Capitol Hill find a way to make this easier? Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell may disagree on the numbers that I should be penciling in to those 1040 boxes, but can’t they make it a little easier for me to fulfill this basic civic duty? Voting is no longer a guarantee, and airport security can be shirked, but you would think that this age of austerity could unite our elected leaders around a saner tax code. After all, most of their voters didn’t even have the luxury of a week off this time of year, and haven’t the power brokers themselves struggled to make sense of their tax returns?

I suppose not. Members of the most affluent Congress in history probably have to fill more than two pages’ worth of boxes, but those poli sci and history majors can at least pay someone else to do their taxes. I think we’re onto something here: Pundits have hemmed and hawed about gerrymandering, horse-race political coverage, and the exploits of the Koch brothers, but give me a break. The real problem with our Senators and Representatives is that they’ve forgotten life as a college student.

The evidence is everywhere. The typical Senator doesn’t have to spend hours of precious spring break at her dining room table, puzzling over a 1040, so she never thinks to make it easier. House members are even worse: They can shout, shout “You lie!” mid-lecture with no more than a glare from the “professor.” They can buy $250 worth of crack cocaine without fearing that the campus police will haul them off to prison for 20 years. They can shrug off all the inconveniences they faced on campus, and give in to the same temptations with impunity. Well, not always. Thanks to Representative Todd Akin, we can rest assured that, from college to Congress, American society still deals swift and terrible justice to anyone with notions of “legitimate rape.” Not only does Akin have someone else do his taxes; he clearly skipped the House’s “sex signals” talk.

Anyway, those are the “comments” that I didn’t find space for on the 1040 itself. Now that I can truthfully state that my tax return is “complete,” would you mind passing this along to your elected reps? Ask them to visit their kids in college, and remind themselves what it’s like to navigate adult life with all of its impulses, and none of the impunity.   Perhaps they’ll recall that college students, like most of the American electorate, can’t skirt the system so easily. Oh, and tell them I said thanks: When the eraser dust settled, that little box marked “Refund” held a whopping $11. As your former boss was fond of saying, ’merica!


Patrick Reilly

Patrick Reilly is a first-year in the College majoring in history.