In the world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.
– Benjamin Franklin
Putting a quote at the top of a page is an old trick, one that serves several useful functions. First, it takes up space, which is the primary goal of all writing. Second, it creates the illusion that I’ve done a lot of quality research, scouring the great works of history to find just the right sentiment or philosophy to tie together whatever it is I’m trying to say. And third, nobody ever argues with Benjamin Franklin, so it’s a safe place to start. For example, he also said, “Tis a well spent penny that saves a groat.” See what I mean? A little while ago, when I read that for the first time, I found myself nodding in agreement, even though I have no idea what a groat is, or why it might need saving.
Franklin was one of the Framers of the Constitution, a role that is today glorified by many Americans, way more than it deserves to be. After all, the hard part about a constitution is coming up with the right words and memorable phrases, and making sure everything makes sense and is spelled correctly. Picking out a nice frame is really not that difficult.
The original document, written in the late 1780s, said little if anything about an income tax. But things tend to change over centuries, and the United States is now strangling itself in a jungle of strange and tortuous tax laws.
As usual, Canada has imitated its southern neighbor in all of the worst ways, including a bizarre collection of codes and regulations that were apparently designed to provide an endless income for people who prepare tax returns, conductors of financial workshops, and companies that manufacture printer ink and toner. And, of course, there are the inevitable loopholes.
One of those loopholes allows individuals and businesses to delay claiming certain expenses until a later year, when doing so will provide a larger refund, or at least a smaller tax bill. The result is that they’ve avoided wasting something that, under different circumstances, would be an advantage. This method of saving deductions for the future is called a carry-forward. There are also options for carrying back certain credits in order to offset profits from previous years. In fact, there seems to be no limit to the magical things a person can do to avoid paying taxes, as long as that person can afford a high-priced accountant, and won’t buckle under every time they get a letter from the IRS or Revenue Canada. I can’t afford even a mediocre accountant, and those letters always seem to arrive right before my birthday. That can squash any desire to celebrate, especially when they use scary terms like interest and penalty and imprisonment with such thoughtless abandon.
Still, I find the basic concept appealing. Imagine if we could re-allocate wasted time. When I think about all those summer vacations I spent playing freeze tag and kickball, I could cry. There was even a game called Hit the Stick, a name that suggests it was invented either during the Great Depression or by somebody in prison.
What if I’d had the option of filing a form that allowed me to carry forward that time to some future date, when my brain would have been more developed and less inclined to fritter away precious weeks and months? If I could recover just those hours I squandered playing Hit the Stick, I could probably go to college and get a degree in something useful.
And then there were all those sunny Saturday afternoons I devoted to sitting in a dark theater and watching Mary Poppins, Beach Blanket Bingo, or Attack of the Eye Creatures. The same movie would keep playing, over and over, and you could blow half a weekend on a film like Back Door to Hell, whose title would remind me that I was one fatal accident away from eternal damnation. The following Saturday, I’d spend part of another sunny afternoon kneeling in a dark confessional, and then on the cool marble of the church altar, saying my prayers of penance and hoping to die with a clean soul. But I didn’t die. Confessing my sins — those that were real and others that I fabricated — became something like the life insurance policies I would later pay for through automatic withdrawals from my checking account. Had I known then what I’ve since come to learn, I would have cut the confessions back to twice a year, and invested those insurance premiums in Coca-Cola and Microsoft. If only there were a carry-back form for that.
I realize this all sounds like second-guessing and wishful thinking, tinged with regret and self-recrimination. And maybe that’s what it is. To make matters worse, I’ve now caused you to consume another ten minutes of your life, as you’ve strolled with me down a pointless path to nowhere. I’m sorry about that. To make amends, I offer once again the words of Ben Franklin, who wisely advised: “Beware of the young doctor and the old barber” and “Every little makes a mickle.”
Franklin also said, “He’s a Fool that cannot conceal his Wisdom.” I find comfort in that last insight, because I actually understand it, and have no trouble concealing my Wisdom. And if any country ever decides to rewrite their tax laws, or even their constitution, I might volunteer to make the frame.
Meanwhile, with the Canadian penny out of circulation, I need to figure out how to save my groat.