For decades, I’ve been Public Relations chief at the IRS. You may know some of my work — Taxes are Your Friend episodes on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Free Cigar offer when you land on the Income Tax square in Monopoly, and the handwritten thank-you letter you receive each May.
My most important work, however, came out of my insight that Americans’ antipathy to taxes is mainly ignorance. The public doesn’t realize the good their taxes do, I told the Commissioner, because successes — reliable air travel, a safe and secure food supply — are what doesn’t happen.
Every April 15, I went on, my parents and I recycle the same old routine — they take a picture of themselves, smiling as they mail their return, because ‘it all goes into our son’s salary.’ This is how you personalize taxes. Give everyone a sense of ownership, a stake, with a face or a place or a name, and proof — a picture, a certificate — of where their money went. Get them to think of their taxes as a donation to their most cherished cause.
The Commissioner liked the idea, and we did a few test runs, usually with gratifying results: the Chicago schoolteacher who drove to Arizona to get a shot of himself with his part of the Border Fence; the Denver bus driver who has lunch with her experimental solar panel at the National Renewable Energy Lab; the Laramie widow who daily checks the video feed of her Bald Eagle nest in Yellowstone.
Yes, there were some glitches: the man who broke into Fort Knox to spend the night cuddling his gold bar; the woman who wanted a fifth of a Maryland Congressman and wouldn’t let go; the Kansas man who parked overnight on his section of Interstate 70.
We were making great progress on this when, Bam!, the Cincinnati office gets caught sticking it to the Tea Party and the IRS falls behind Child Molesters Anonymous in the ratings wars.
It’s true that the Tea Party is nakedly political, and as far from the 501(c)(4) definition of a Social Welfare Organization as a Mel Brooks movie is from tasteful and refined. But trying to get them re-categorized for what they really are would dig the hole even deeper.
What’s needed is political smarts, PR common sense, and a little imagination. Tea Partiers are not heartless. They obviously love wolves, so funnel their taxes to predator protection in our National Parks and Forests (a postcard of a cute little wolf cub wouldn’t hurt). They’re strong supporters of the military, so let them adopt a veteran by designating their taxes to the VA, and make sure the vet sends a thank-you note.
We can even turn the biggies around: oil and gas subsidies aren’t going away, so funnel the Koch brothers’ taxes into it and call it the ‘Things Go Better with Koch’ Fund. Rupert Murdoch, the same. His media consolidations are unstoppable, so accept reality, change the name of the FCC to Fresh Air and let him fund it. Before you know it, every right-winger is convinced that taxes are simply a charitable donation to a pet cause.
By the way, we did not have this conversation