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Hayden Bixby

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Family Bonding at Tax Time

Posted: 04/15/2012 4:11 pm

I put my return (and not-insignificant check) in the mail to the IRS Friday, and I have to admit that I'm sad to see another tax season come to a close. I'm not saying I love paying taxes, but I am saying that I love doing taxes.

Please tell me I'm not alone!

For one thing, I enjoy the little moments of success when TurboTax prompts me to enter some information that I, miraculously, can locate in the file I keep throughout the year. This makes me feel organized and prepared -- and even maybe a little smug, as I consider how much money I'm saving by not hiring someone to do this work for me.

I'm pretty sure I get this personality quirk from my dad, who also does his own taxes and is a source of my most valuable and most inexpensive tax advice. I confess I don't always follow his suggestions (yes, I know it makes more sense to keep the money in my bank account throughout the year than it does to try for a refund... but refunds are so much more fun!) -- but I notice that I hear the wisdom of his words far more often as I get older.

And I get to hear from other family members at tax time, too. The flurry of text messages from my brothers, asking and giving advice throughout the process, is a comical distraction, as is the friendly competition among us to see who can unravel a complicated question most efficiently, or get the best tax rate, or locate obscure but required information.

I know: Nerd Alert.

But the best connection I've found between family and taxes happened this year, when my usually-Facebook-averse cousin suddenly started posting images of Montana's new Tax Gnome. She and her team at the Partnership for Montana's Future came up with a "Thank Taxes" campaign that captures photos of a goofy-looking garden statue next to various buildings, services, and events that tax dollars support.

That's right: taxes are getting an image make-over with the help of an extra from Gnomeo and Juliet!

Because she's my cousin, I think she's a genius for even being part of a team that would come up with this. But a little more YouTube-driven exploration led me to other "Thank Taxes" campaigns from states as diverse as Minnesota and Arkansas. So maybe thanking taxes isn't a completely original idea. Neither this fact nor the fact that I can't look at the Montana photos without thinking about discount airfares diminishes my sense that she is on to something.

In the political climate of my whole adulthood, we have been bombarded with criticisms of and challenges to our tax system: who is and isn't taxed enough? how should or shouldn't our tax dollars be allocated and managed? what social programs should or shouldn't be shored up by tax revenue? should or shouldn't inherited money be taxed a second time as it enters the hands of a new generation?

These questions aren't inherently bad, but the language in which the debate is conducted is polarizing and confrontational. As George Lakoff reminds us whenever he can, we have been linguistically and rhetorically hijacked, submitting to terminological conversions that affect us on an unconscious level. The move from the "estate tax" to the "death tax," for example, equates taxes not with the "she's gone to a better place" kind of death, but the "there's a murderer on the loose and I'd better get a gun to defend myself" kind. This and other brainchildren of Conservative think-tanks have more or less successfully demonized taxes and social programs in the American popular consciousness.

In this context, I'm heartened by the efforts to reflect on the daily benefits of programs that serve our whole society and, yes, are funded with taxes on our hard-earned pay. I like being reminded that the tax dollars I pay result in benefits to me and the people I care about... and even people I don't know. Anyone who attends public school, appreciates roads that are pot-hole free, has ever checked out a library book or called 911, or likes that fact that there are limits set on how much "byproduct" can legally be included in his or her hot dog might like to engage in a moment of reflection during tax time, too.

It is in this cheerful spirit that I'll log back in to TurboTax, get my family's phone numbers on speed dial, and sit down to file my amended 2011 return... My 1099 from PayPal just arrived in today's mail.

Yay!