The Tax Code and The Influence Game

It’s 10:30 the night before I have to write a big check to the I.R.S.  and I have to keep telling myself “I love paying my taxes” over and over and over again.  Otherwise I’ll probably throw something. For anyone else who feels that way, now might be a good time to think about whether you can take steps to have a little more influence over those who determine tax rates.  How?  I’m glad you asked.

First, tamper down what is likely to be some pretty passionate feelings about paying taxes by looking at the reasons behind them.  Ben Franklin said “if passion guides you let reason hold the reins,” and I talk more in depth about it as one of the leading principles of The Influence Game (right there in Chapter 1!).  So think about why we have taxes by repeating to yourself one of the following mantras:

I’m Investing in My Country

Do you like roads? Parks? Mail? The job our military does to keep us safe? Health care for the poor and elderly? Education? Having your garbage picked-up? Whatever your particular interest is, some portion of your tax dollars are going toward that project. If you’re curious as to where your tax dollars go, check out the National Priorities Project and their interactive tax chart . Here you can enter the amount of taxes you actually paid (if it doesn’t make you cry) and determine where those dollars went. Then, as you’re filling out your 1040, pretend to yourself that you’re making a donation to the programs you love best. You can even include that in the “memo” portion of the check – believe me, IRS workers have seen it all. That might ease the pain a little.

I’m Investing in Myself

If you’re not convinced by the broader benefits to society that paying your taxes brings, think about it from a purely selfish perspective. Every minute of every day you are impacted positively by government actions. Think about it. Did you wake up this morning? If you did and heard the clock radio alarm or watched television, you were affected by FCC regulation of the radio spectrum. Did you take a shower? Clean water regulations (hopefully). Have some coffee? Trade tariffs on coffee beans. With cream? Dairy price supports. Use the restroom? You better hope there are combined sewer overflow regulations in your area. Drive on a road? Well, you get the point.

If you want to test this out, pick a day when you’ll stop every few moments to write down how government impacts you (you can even use Twitter, if you’re so inclined). Then, imagine that your personal tax dollars are bringing you these benefits. In fact, I’ll be doing this through my Twitter feed today, so sign up to follow AdvocacyGuru and see what I come up with!

“But wait,” you’re thinking. “The main reason I don’t want to pay my taxes is because government spends my money on things I don’t like” or, of course, “the government wastes my money.”  And, I’m not going to lie.  It occasionally does – like on 800K+ parties in Las Vegas.  Sure, it’s all very well and good to imagine that you’re spending money ONLY on those government programs that make sense to you. But as a practical matter, that isn’t really the case, is it?

Well, here’s the most wonderful thing about our tax system and our overall system of government. If you don’t like where your tax dollars are being spent, you have a right and a responsibility to let your elected officials know! For example, if you paid $5,000 in taxes, you’ll find out that $1,470 went to the military and just over $1,000 went to health services. For some people those ratios are just fine: others believe that more should be going toward non-military programs.

Wherever you stand on the spectrum, once you’ve simmered down a little bit (maybe start advocating next week, or if your bill was ridiculous, the following week) let your elected officials know what you think we should be investing in as a nation. How can you do that? Here are four simple steps:

  1. First, make sure you know what you’re talking about. Don’t rant about the huge portion of the budget being spent on foreign aid, for example. It’s ½ of 1 percent. Try a site like www.usaspending.gov to be sure you’ve got the latest information.
  2. Second, be clear about what you want. If you want a specific program cut, say so. If you want a specific tax increased or decreased, be explicit. Don’t simply say “we need to pay less in taxes.”
  3. Third, be able to answer the question “why should this legislator listen to me?” You’ll be far more compelling and persuasive if you are a constituent, if you represent constituents or if what you want connects with policy issues the lawmaker is interested in.
  4. Finally, connect your “ask” to your personal story. How would what your asking for you benefit you and other constituents?

Go to www.house.gov and www.senate.gov to find and contact your specific legislators.

When All Else Fails…

If things get too stressful just try to be thankful that at least you’ve got some income to pay taxes on, right? There are too many Americans struggling to make ends meet (especially in this economic climate). So sit back and relax with a glass of wine – and who knows? That Cabernet or Chardonnay or even, gasp, Merlot might not have made it to your glass without some sort of taxpayer investment.

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