Let me begin by introducing you to a couple I have in mind, Mr. and Ms. Guilt. As we greet them, they are sitting at a kitchen table covered with receipts, W-2s, 1099s and a 1040 calculating their taxes.
The first thing you should know is that the Guilts are people who have a quote by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes posted over their income tax records: "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society."
The second thing you should know is that the Guilts do not approve of the Reagan tax cuts. Nor do they approve of the current redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Nor do they approve of tax shelters, which they associate with oil magnates.
Furthermore, when Ms. Guilt, something of a mathphobe, realized how many people were taxed higher on the money they earned (income) than on the money that their money earned (capital gains), she uttered a phrase that hadn't passed her lips since she was 13: "That isn't fair!"
Nevertheless, the Guilts, inhabitants of a real estate deduction, recipients of the tax cut, holders of two IRAs, one Keogh, and God help them, a modest tax shelter, are figuring out how to avoid paying a nickel more than they absolutely must.
They rationalize this, with apologies to Justice Holmes by saying, "We are not paying for a civilized society, but for the Pentagon." Indeed when Mr. Guilt remembers an energy credit, he yells gleefully, "AHA! Three hundred dollars less to the missiles."
I introduce the Guilts to you solely in order that you may understand the odd sort of people who might conceivably be interested in the harebrained idea that I am about to pass on. People who are benefiting from tax cuts they may disapprove of and a tax structure they may abhor. People who would also like to do a bit of personal redirecting of their own tax dollars from military MX to social Rx.
Now then, here is the scheme: taxpayers can donate money to their favorite government project and get a charitable tax deduction.
This idea was culled from J. Peter Segall's guide, "Deduct This Book!" a do-gooder's guide subtitled, "How Not to Pay Taxes While Ronald Reagan Is President." Segall calls it the "TADPOLE Tactic": Tax-advantaged donations to promote ongoing legitimate expenditures.
Now, I grant you, not many people are trying desperately to figure out ways to contribute more to the government this week. But it isn't quite as bizarre as it sounds. Let's say that the Guilts saved $100 through some combination of tax cut or shelter in 1982. They managed to take that money out of the general fund, where Congress and the president decide where to spend it.
They can now take the same $100 and decide where they want to spend it. According to an IRS spokesman in the national office, they can contribute that $100 into another program that interests them as long as it's "for the public good." The beauty is that they can deduct it from next year's income taxes. If the Guilts are in a 35 percent bracket, they will save $35 in taxes next year on the $100 they saved this year.
Lest you think this is an absolutely off-the-wall idea, since 1862 the government has received gifts of more than $50 million, from the grateful as well as the guilty.
It appears the citizen can bear tax-deductible gifts to a huge range of programs: a social welfare project that's been devastated by the budget, a teetering legal defense project, a hatcheted environmental program. The government itself is soliciting alms to reduce the national debt with a plea right on the tax form this year. In 1982, over $900,000 went into that particular black hole alone.
The national parks have been such popular recipients of gifts that five of them now publish gift catalogues. For $5 you can give the Santa Monica Mountains National Park a canteen for water. For $500 you can give it a PA system.
Is this plot hopelessly naive? Probably. If the figures are right, we have a greater problem with tax cheats than with tax guilts, a greater problem with alienation than donations. We have more people who want to pay their private bills than a public bill.
But there is something intriguing about a modest little tax subversion, out of one government pocket and into another. There's something appealing about making your own public policy with the tax structure. After all, Justice Holmes himself once gave $200,000 to the government. Now that's a deduction.
Copyright (c) 1983, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company