Every spring I develop something known in the psychological literature as Taxpayer's Block. Taxpayer's Block is typified by a deep aversion, one might even say a phobic reaction, to sitting down with check stubs, credit-card receipts, a W2, a calculator and income-tax forms.
Admittedly I do not have the worst case of Taxpayer's Block ever recorded. There was, for example, a man with perfectly good teeth who volunteered for root-canal research on April 2, 1982, in order to qualify for an extension. There was a couple who claimed mathphobia as a medical excuse when they were called to explain why they hadn't filed in 11 years.
Nevertheless I do manage to postpone the inevitable by performing all sorts of important tasks, like washing the leaves of my ficus tree, pruning the magazines, and alphabetizing the records. This year, the MX vote added at least a day to my Block. While $1.5 billion is not serious money in Pentagon terms, I kept using the calculator to figure out how many bolts of a warhead I could personally initial.
In this spirit, under the muse of full- tilt Block, I happened upon an article in Psychology Today describing a pre- season meeting organized by the IRS. A number of social scientists gathered to help the IRS figure out how to get people to pay up. Since this was a meeting of social scientists, the big word was not enforcement but reinforcement. They weren't talking handcuffs: they were talking incentives.
I won't list all the dippy tips to the taxers that were spawned at this meeting. One psychologist suggested a lottery -- the names of the accurate taxpayers could go into a computer and they could pick a $1 million winner. Another said that the IRS could offer honest taxpayers a rebate.
But my favoite, absolute, golly-gee- whiz of a plan came from one social psychologist who thought that the IRS should run a celebrity taxpayer series on television. This would feature people who were "happy to pay their taxes fully and promptly." Who did they have in mind? Well, the names Ronald Reagan, Joe Montana, Michael Jackson and Jane Fonda came up. They would "appear on television talking about how proud they are to be American citizens and to pay taxes to help their country."
The vision of Ronald Reagan, the Tax Cutter, admitting a secret love for taxpaying is fanciful enough. At least he pays some. Last year his bill was $128,639 on an income of $422,834, including $1,537 in residuals from old TV shows. That's about the same amount his pals in California pay their tax lawyers, but it's not jelly beans.
As for the other stars of celluloid and Astroturf, only a psychologist who gets excited about a $15 rebate would think these folk are material for a Solid Citizen Spot. Michael Jackson reportedly took in $70 million for "'Thriller" in 1984. If you think that the government saw half of that profit, you may take your gloved hand and clap for Tinkerbell.
Jane Fonda made $300,000 from desk calendars alone last year, and $20 million from exercise tapes the year before. Any accountant who didn't shelter her share of that money would be publicly humiliated and have to commit hari- kari on his pointed pencil.
What of the $900,000 Joe Montana gets playing football? I imagine that if Joe admitted cheerfully and nationally how much he really paid in taxes, he would be mangled by the fans.
The psychologist at that meeting was right. A celebrity series would modify taxpayer behavior. When the average taxpayer found out what's legal for the tax-sheltered, more of them would cheat.
At the moment we do have cover boys and girls. They're the ones who don't pay. Money magazine in February featured unabashed profiles of three proud celebrities -- a dentist in Bakersfield, Calif., a real estate broker in Madeira Beach, Fla., and a sales rep in Clearwater who had combined incomes of $296,000 and legitimate tax bills of $0.00.
But am I complaining? Is it a sense of unfair play that has given me my annual case of Taxpayer's Block. No, not at all. What I want to know before I sit down at the calculator is this: how much of my tax dollar went to pay for that meeting?