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Personal Essays

One for You, Nineteen for Me

The president in his speech last night urged for greater federal and personal responsibility to stimulate our economy. But will Americans heed the call on their tax forms? What it’s like to get audited.

Photograph by Marianne Fosnow

Sarah Palin had an odd accusation she used to wig out her small-government, gun-toting conservative base during the election. Democrats, she chirped, think paying taxes is patriotic!

In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been all of our lives, that’s not patriotic,” she told Joe Biden during their one vice presidential debate. “Patriotic is saying, ‘Government, you know, you’re not always the solution.’”

Something seemed off about this sentiment, off in a way that felt both obvious but hard to finger. Then it dawned on me—Palin’s premise made no sense. Of course paying taxes is patriotic; it’s the very definition of patriotism: individual sacrifice for and contribution to our common defense and well-being. Simply restating that phrase with a lip curl didn’t make it a slur.

Thomas Friedman better articulated this when he respectfully asked the governor, “If paying taxes is not considered patriotic in your neighborhood, who is going to pay for the body armor that will protect your son in Iraq?”

Tell it, Tom! I thought.

Then, on the eve of the election, I got a letter in the mail—such a letter as has apparently never been sent to Tom Daschle, or Tim Geithner, or Nancy Killefer. I was being audited.

And though I was certain that Thomas Friedman was right and Sarah Palin was wrong, turns out it is exceptionally hard to feel patriotic about producing all bank statements, cancelled checks, and deposit slips (both business and personal, savings and checking) for a 14-month period; as well as all books, journals, ledgers, and work papers used in determining gross receipts; all invoices, receipts, canceled checks, and other method of payment to substantiate other expenses; and itinerary of business trips away from home, such as brochures, activity schedules, agendas, etc., for all conventions, cruises, or meetings.

For the next three months, my liberal belief in paying taxes would clash with my poorly paid freelancer’s more mundane—and, I feared, hypocritical—concern: Please, please let me deduct that plane ticket to Greece.

 

* * *


Included with my audit letter was a brochure—“Why your return is being examined”—that did little to answer my more metaphysical whine, “Why me?” I narrowed on the least helpful reaction: crying. Weren’t the various indignities of self-employment vast enough already?

I never stopped to consider if I had done something wrong. Of course I had done something wrong; that’s why I was being audited. This is the worst side effect of the process: Whether you knowingly tried to pull a fast one by the IRS or not, the nature of the inquiry will wind up convincing you that you did.

I tried Googling the reassuring combination of “what happens when you’re audited?” + “you’ll be fine.”An audit demands that you defend yourself, without specifying the crime. “We must examine randomly selected tax returns to better understand tax compliance and improve the fairness of the system,” they say. By which they mean, “We suspect you’re stealing the government’s money.”

And suddenly my relationship with my government—thankfully, Barack Obama’s government, by the time it was all said and done—had taken a dramatic turn toward the adversarial.

It took me about 45 minutes to calm down and call the IRS agent, as he had requested in the letter. It was another two weeks, after he returned from vacation, before we would finally speak on the phone, and six weeks after that before I would be assigned a different agent closer to my new home in Atlanta.

I was pretty sure in the interim that the IRS had forgotten about me, or, better yet, re-examined my 1040 and concluded I wasn’t worth the effort. I was visiting family in Chicago over the holidays, running out the door to lunch, when a Georgia phone number appeared on my cell phone.

“Can I call you back next week,” I asked the agent, “when I’m home in Atlanta?”

We agreed on a day. I tucked his phone number in my pocket. Later that night, I washed those pants, setting off a chain reaction that would later lead to a second bout of tears.

You cannot, you see, under any circumstances look up a phone number for an IRS agent that you have either forgotten to write down or accidentally run through the washing machine. I tried calling the number in my cell phone memory; I tried Googling the agent’s name. I tried the local Atlanta office—an automated machine—and left a message. I called the national customer service number and spoke with a succession of short-tempered women.

“If you want to get in contact with an agent,” one of them told me, “the only way for you to do that is through correspondence.”

“‘Correspondence?’” I asked.

“Through correspondence.”

“You mean writing him a letter?”

“Yes. The only way you can contact him is through correspondence.”

“But you don’t understand. This person called me last week, and I’m supposed to call him back today, but I lost his phone number. No one can give me his extension?”

“The only way for you contact him, ma’am, is through correspondence.”

Another woman in the Atlanta bureau later called me back and insisted that the local office was mysteriously vast and full of “field agents” and so didn’t have anything resembling a directory.

“So, I should just wait until this guy gets annoyed with me and finally calls me again?” I asked.

“Yes, sorry,” she said, sounding genuinely sheepish. “And maybe this time you should write the number down.”

 

* * *


The longer the process dragged on, the more obsessive I became, recalculating numbers on scraps of paper around my house, rewriting the script I’d planned for the Big Day. The voices in my head could never reach consensus on whether we should open with a disarming tax-related joke.

When the new agent did call again, he was less interested in my wacky tale of trying to contact him and more interested in where did I keep my records?

“My records?”

Shoot. That was supposed to come out as a statement, not a question.

“Ahhh, my records. I keep them on my computer. Which is a laptop! So that means ‘my records’ are portable. And I can bring them to you, you just let me know when.”

Had I sold anything on eBay? Was I drawing alimony? Had I sold a yacht in the last year? Did I dabble in online gambling? Was I storing cash in a shoebox in the closet?No, no, he insisted. He was a “field agent” (I assumed this meant he didn’t have an office) and he would come to me. We set a date for February second (he suggested eight a.m.; I balked and said nine) and I suggested we meet in my kitchen, which I realized was a little strange.

My mother, who I talked to later in the day, thought this was worse than strange.

“What!?” she yelled. “You never let the government into your home!”

I cried again after that.

For the next three weeks, I was more or less bipolar. Some days I would shove the audit around in my head until I finally had it wedged in a place where I felt comfortable that I could handle it, that I would be fine, that I didn’t make much money anyway so what’s the worst that could happen? Other days, I realized that what I was really afraid of was feeling like a bad person, a tax-cheating citizen. And me, a good, patriotic liberal. After those days, I couldn’t sleep at night. I spent a lot of time reading online about other peoples’ experiences. When that made me feel worse (all indications were that if an agent was eyeing a home visit, you should immediately get representation). I tried Googling the reassuring combination of “what happens when you’re audited?” + “you’ll be fine.”

I developed a strange Tourette’s syndrome for blurting out “I’m being audited!” It made me feel better, especially in front of other people. I told everybody I knew, with absolutely no context, in the middle of totally unrelated conversations. A friend asked if I was available to go skiing in mid-February, and I said, “I’m not sure. I’m being audited.” (Which I now realize makes no sense.)

I felt comforted by all the ensuing sympathy, and I imagined I was providing people with future freak-show stories.

“Audits!” they could say, whenever the topic came around. “I knew a girl that once happened to. Wonder what ever happened to her.”

 

* * *


When the agent arrived in my driveway, I was waiting with a collection of manila folders that I thought demonstrated excessive preparation. Then he pulled out his file, nearly two inches thick.

“Is that all me?” I asked.

“Oh, this is a small one,” he assured me.

At my kitchen table, he produced a laptop and his own printer, which would allow him to hand me his report by the end of our meeting.

We started on a strange note: the hunt for income I hadn’t declared (or known I needed to). Had I sold anything on eBay? Was I drawing alimony? Had I sold a yacht in the last year? Did I have renter’s income? Did I dabble in online gambling? Was I storing cash in a shoebox in the closet? (This honestly came up.) Then he declared he was ready to review my bank statements, and I could do something else for the next hour.

What to do while an IRS agent is sitting at your kitchen table going through your bank statements? I sat about five feet away at my own laptop, pretending in awkward silence to surf the Internet. I got up a few times to microwave my tea.

Eventually, he called me back to the table for the nerve-racking presentation of receipts and invoices. It is not very easy to explain to the IRS that you went to France for seven months “for business.” This was a bit of a sticking point for us, given that I came home in the red.

I wondered if most jobs sound ridiculous when you’re trying to justify them to the government, which is apparently deeply invested in people turning a profit.

“Now I know this is going to sound weird,” I told the agent, “but this is a train ticket I bought to go work on an organic farm for two weeks. And, well, I was living on the farm while I was there, so I didn’t deduct any lodging.”

He seemed skeptical but receptive enough. He accepted the minor adjustments I volunteered on my return, admitting laziness with my exchange-rate calculations. I produced more receipts. He asked for more alone time.

This whole thing went on for about four and a half hours, and we were almost done when he discovered a hiccup that required me to spend 15 minutes on the phone with my bank.

Taxes, I decided, are like any destination we’re aiming for but haven’t yet reached, where there’s a gap between how we’d like to think we’ll behave and what we actually do.“Oh no, you’re being audited! I’m sooooo sorry! That’s terrible!” the woman at the bank cried when I explained my problem. I was terrified the agent would overhear her screaming.

Having finally sorted out that last glitch, the agent turned to his printer.

“Here comes the report,” he said, as if he were introducing Johnny Carson. “Are you nervous?”

For the first time in three months, I told him, I wasn’t. I knew I was minutes away from showing him to his car, calling my dad in Chicago and my mom across the globe and my boyfriend, in exile at the coffee shop down the street, to tell them I had survived.

The agent looked happy for me. There it was on the piece of paper, what I owed…

Seven bucks.

“It’s immaterial,” he said. I didn’t even have to pay it.

And so there was the whole last three months of both of our lives (or at least the whole morning, for him): a wash.

After I walked him to his car, I went online to send a few self-congratulatory emails and was immediately hit with the latest Internet news: On the day when it turned out I was short $7, Tom Daschle owed $140,000.

Republican politicians and conservative talking heads would pick up Palin’s refrain, with a new kicker. Liberals say it’s patriotic to pay taxes, but they don’t even pay their own!

I thought about this for the next few days (three tax-scofflaw Obama appointees does, after all, constitute a trend), trying to reconcile my own behavior with my bewilderment over Daschle’s.

Taxes, I decided, are like any destination we’re aiming for but haven’t yet reached, where there’s a gap between how we’d like to think we’ll behave, and what we actually do. I’d like to be a good person, but sometimes I’m not. I would like the government to hold civil liberties above all else, but every now and then I catch myself racially profiling people at the airport. I don’t think this is hypocrisy, it’s just being human; but we don’t expect our governments to be human, too.

I’m pretty sure all of us want Sarah Palin’s kid to have a flak jacket, but when that noble goal is transformed into a tangible pile of paperwork due by April 15, many of us will calculate what to do by what’s best for our bank accounts, within reason.

I also suspect that $7 to me is the equivalent of $140,000 to Tom Daschle.

Emily Badger is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area, where she writes about public policy, urbanism, and sustainability. She’s a contributing writer to Miller-McCune and The Atlantic Cities and has also written for GOOD, the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. More by Emily Badger