"You know that plaster foot with the bullet hole in it that Reagan gave to James Watt?" the cabbie asked.
"Don't tell me you are a Beach Boys fan," I said.
"I'm not talking about the Beach Boys," he snapped. "I couldn't care less whether they ever sing on the Mall or not. I'm talking about the trophy Watt got for shooting himself in the foot. Reagan gave it to the wrong guy. They should have given it to the head of the IRS, or whoever it was that dreamed up that notion of withholding interest on savings accounts."
"Now just a minute," I said. "I happen to think that is one of the Reagan administration's better ideas. I'm surprised that you don't feel the same, considering how you're always crying about the fat cats not paying their fair share of taxes. If you read the papers, you'd know that a lot of people aren't reporting their interest earnings to the IRS, which means that the rest of us have to take up the slack. If the banks withhold the money, then all of us will be better off."
"You couldn't be more wrong,"the cabbie said.
"I suppose you're going to tell me that the extra paper work will increase the banks' costs and force them to pay us less interest on our deposits. Well, the banks are doing all right, thank you."
"You're wrong about that, too," the cabbie said. "The banks aren't doing all right. In fact, a lot of big ones are in trouble for making all those ridiculous unsecured loans to countries that can't pay their debts. But that's not my point."
"Well, what is your point?" I demanded.
"I'll tell you what my point is," he said. "You know why people like me pay their taxes? Because we're scared of the IRS, that's why. That's the reason Washington cabbies don't want meters in their cabs. They think the IRS will check the meters and hit them for the money they actually make, rather than the chump change they put on their manifests. And I'm not just talking cabbies. Nurses, doctors, lawyers, waitresses, barbers--all us nonsalaried people--live in fear of the IRS. We're afraid they're going to catch up with us, so we knuckle under and pay our tax--at least some of it."
"And what does that have to do with interest payments?" I asked.
"Just this," he said. "Why did the administration say it wanted to withhold the interest?"
"Because some people--perhaps 15 percent--aren't coughing up," I said.
"And why aren't they coughing up? After all, the banks already have those 1099s they fill out and send to Internal Revenue, showing how much interest they paid to who. But the IRS says their computers can't match up the 1099s against the 1040s to make sure that the individual taxpayers report their interest."
"What's that got to do with . . ."
"Are you stupid? The IRS has been scaring us to death for years, making us believe we can't get away with anything. I know handymen and yard boys and back-alley mechanics who won't let you pay them by check, not because they think your check's no good but because they think the IRS will find the record of the checks and make them pay more taxes.
"Now they come telling us that their computer people are too incompetent to hook up the 1099s with the 1040s, even when they've got the Social Security numbers and everything. In other words, we've been scared for nothing, and fear is the only thing that makes the system work. They've shot themselves in the foot."
"That's the most cynical thing I've ever heard," I said. "Look, all I've got is this twenty. I don't suppose you'd take a check for your fare?"
He was still laughing when he gave me my change.