Wineke: Are you a fool for paying taxes?
MADISON, Wis. — About 12 years ago, I decided I needed the help of an accountant to figure out my taxes.
One of the reasons for that is that I had been paid a few thousand dollars by a non-profit organization that failed to provide me a W-2 form, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t reported that expenditure to the IRS either.
“So, if the government doesn’t know I was paid that money, do I have to report it myself?” I asked my new accountant.
He smiled cheerfully and replied, “You do now.”
Actually, I was pretty sure what his answer would be before I asked the question; it’s just that I didn’t have the moral courage to be honest on my own. He filled out the forms and I paid taxes on the income.
I was thinking about that the other day as I read of New York State indictments of the Trump Organization, which, apparently, offered its executives free apartments, Mercedes Benz autos and all sorts of other “fringe benefits” which allowed at least one of those executives to avoid paying almost a million dollars in income tax.
I claim no moral superiority to that executive, Allen Weisselberg. I was hoping my accountant would suggest that I lie.
It’s the response of the Trump Organization and its founder, former President Donald Trump, that I find troubling.
Essentially, the response is that “everybody does it” and that those who don’t are stupid.
In fact, Trump said exactly that when debating Hillary Clinton in 2016. When Clinton claimed he didn’t pay taxes, Trump replied, “That’s because I’m smart.”
Although we all love to hate the Internal Revenue Service, it is one of the triumphs of democracy.
Millions of us voluntarily pay what the government determines we owe each year. Because we do, we have interstate highways, national parks, arguably the best military in the world and you can add hundreds of items to that list.
Most of us pay every penny that we owe. Some because the taxes are withheld from our paychecks, some because we are afraid of getting caught, but most of us pay taxes because we just consider that part of our duties as Americans.
We are not stupid. We know, vaguely, that some rich folks get away with murder in this regard.
But, when they just flaunt it in our faces, when they don’t have to pay attention to the law because they are more important than we are, then we start to wonder whether honesty is indeed the best policy.
In terms of damage to society, the Trump Organization’s response to the tax charges is more damaging than the actual crime committed.
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