Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Say Uncle Sam
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2003 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
I love reading government documents. The first book I remember reading is the Pennsylvania driver's manual, and for a week after I had nightmares about cars. (The one I remember: my mother is driving and has a heart attack. I have to take her place, but I'm too short to look, steer, and use the pedals at the same time. We hit a guardrail and are about to flip over it.) When I was about eight or twelve, I heard various instructions to adults encouraging the saving of receipts, but I completely missed the bit about large purchases and optional deductions. I just thought, "Okay, I'm supposed to save my receipts for taxes," and accumulated huge stacks of five-dollar receipts for candy and books and whatnot against some uncertain tax judgment day. I still haven't quite broken the habit.
This morning I relaxed while eating breakfast by flipping through the instructions for the more obscure deductions and forms. Did you know that, in certain circumstances, you can amortize "goodwill and other intangibles"? Leonard and I debated the possible reasoning behind California's tax credit for renters. (I eventually surmised that the credit makes up for the indirect property taxes a renter pays, which explains why it's nonrefundable.)
Tax history fascinates me. My first year in college, I had the excellent Robin Einhorn for US History (pre-Civil War) and she surprised me by making use of data about slave prices. Of course! The market for slaves gives us clues as to historical trends! Anyway, she hits my intellectual G-spot with her vigorous riffs on slavery, taxes, legislative maneuverings, and counterintuition. (Example: the early-republic mystery in which "a series of New Englanders proceeded to oppose taxing slaves, and a series of southerners spoke in vigorous support of taxing this 'species of property.'")
Perhaps best of all is that my search for Einhorn's articles online led me to Margaret Garb's Urban History Seminar on late nineteenth-century working-class homeownership in Chicago, in which people say such things as:
Great stuff! Neighborhood credit markets-where did you find this stuff? It's all these records in the building in the bottom-wow, unbelievable-did anybody know this was going on? Am I the only one who didn't know this was going on? All right.
The value of the property is the assessed value from the assessor.
Tax assessor. It's in the papers.
But I just love that secret laundry in the basement.