W Bruce Cameron:
Not long ago, I received an invitation from our federal government to be a guest speaker at a special fundraiser, otherwise known as a “tax audit.” My immediate reaction was probably typical: As an American citizen with no previous IRS problems, I knew I had nothing to fear so long as I had access to countries without extradition treaties.
Then I decided that I was overreacting – the notice was probably a simple mistake, and the audit was meant for somebody else who coincidentally had my name, my address and my Social Security number.
To calm down, I performed a simple mental exercise of trying to imagine fates far worse than a tax audit – shark attacks, invading armies of cannibals, boiling acid coming out of my shower in the morning. I couldn’t think of any.
In calculating my tax returns, I’d turned to my friend Tom, who’s an expert in finances because he got some free software with his computer. Now I needed his help again, and he selflessly agreed to attend the audit with me because I lied and told him we were going to a basketball game.
I asked Tom to carry my box of records into the IRS building so that I would be free to be nauseated. A tall man with a thin mustache shook my hand and told me I could follow him back to his office as soon as my legs stopped trembling enough for me to get off the floor. “Call me Mr. Ferris,” he suggested.
We settled into chairs in a cold, windowless room. Bullet holes pocked the walls. I could hear the screams of fellow taxpayers echoing down the hallway, along with the crack of whips and the whine of chain saws.
“Would you like coffee?” he asked.
Mr. Ferris told me his primary concern was in the area of my business deductions, which he characterized as “creative and disturbing.”
“For example, you show expenses for the year totaling more than a thousand dollars for pizza,” Mr. Ferris said. “How is pizza a business deduction, exactly?”
“Pizza helps me think. I usually need to think in order to do my job,” I responded smugly. Tom and I high-fived each other.
“Then there are . . .” Ferris squinted at the receipts. ” . . . corresponding expenses for beer, each the same dates as the pizza.”
“You can’t have pizza without beer,” I protested.
“Legally, I think he’s right,” Tom offered, proving the wisdom of having an expert witness on my side.
“So the beer helps you think as well?” Ferris asked softly. Tom gave me a stricken look: I’d fallen right into the man’s trap.
“Sometimes the thinking . . . it’s too much to bear,” I said, burying my face in my hands.
“Then there’s $300 in what you term ‘bad loans,’ ” Ferris continued.
“Those were to my daughter. They can’t get much more bad than that,” I explained.
“I understand, but they aren’t allowed as deductions.”
I whirled on Tom. “You and your fancy-pants computer!” I snarled.
“And your deductions for attending sports events,” Ferris pressed mercilessly.
“I’m a columnist,” I protested.
“A sports columnist?”
Tom began softly sobbing. Ferris made another tick mark on his paper. “This one is my favorite: $2,100 in ‘baked goods.’ ”
“Can’t a man have a doughnut?” I cried.
“Let me ask you this,” Tom said. “If a friend used his software to prepare a tax cheat’s returns, you wouldn’t audit the friend, too, would you? I mean, just a hypothetical question.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cameron, but we’re going to have to disallow most of your deductions on the grounds that they’re stupid.”
“Mr. Ferris, are you not aware that this country was founded by people who didn’t want to pay taxes, and there is nothing more American than taking deductions for things that wouldn’t withstand an audit?” I thundered.
“Yes, but not doughnuts.”
Mr. Ferris eventually settled the audit by levying a fine in an amount equal to my net worth plus interest. Tom and I left, deciding that neither one of us was in the mood to watch a basketball game anymore.
Besides, it’s not deductible.
W Bruce Cameron: