Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Fountain of Youth

Computers and the internet are wonderful things. The combination allows me to pay my bills on line, without benefit of stamps. It allows me to listen to practically any radio station I want, anywhere I want. I could watch movies from the comfort of my desk chair if I was so inclined. I can get news updated instantly. I can trade stocks, or obsess about my retirement funds. I can manage my bank accounts. I can write books, create music, or play games. I can send greeting cards. I can order food, books, toys and flowers to be delivered right to my doorstep. I could live the entire rest of my life without seeing the sun shine or interacting with real people. Sad to say, there are some social misfits who live just like this. I am just happy that it can help me do my taxes. It allows me to compute my taxes and pay them without actually putting pencil to paper. It is a miracle of modern technology.

TurboTax is God’s gift to man. For those of us who do our own taxes, TurboTax makes life much easier. Thanks to TurboTax, what used to take me hours, now only takes me hours, but fewer of them to be sure. And, at the end of my session, I push the button and away my taxes go, flying wonderfully through the ether, to my grateful government. I don’t think about them again until next year. It is as good as magic.

Thanks to the fine reputation of TurboTax and its flawless ability to add and subtract my dollars accurately, its clearly printed forms, and swift transportation of my dollars from my possession to theirs, my government believes my numbers and hasn’t ever deemed it appropriate to question me further. This may not be entirely accurate, but it appears as though, thanks to TurboTax, there is less government in my life. Thanks to TurboTax, I am a grateful tax payer. Also thanks to TurboTax and a quirky by product of governmental efficiency, I am, according to my Uncle Sam, a year younger than I know myself to be.

It is a curious thing. I can account for almost all of my 55 years. I have to go through all of my fingers and toes more than a couple of times, but I know for a fact that I am as old as I am. I have documents to prove it. Separate documents that prove it time and time again – my birth certificate, my social security card, my passport, by baby book, photographic records, birth announcements all proclaiming the same thing. And yet, my government wouldn’t believe me. In fact, my government wouldn’t even let me pay my taxes because they wouldn’t believe me.

To pay taxes online, one of the checks in place to prove that you are the person you say you are is for the IRS to quickly match your birth date and your social security number with their records. If you can’t pass this simple test, you must be someone else, and therefore, your money is not acceptable. It is an odd concept that our government would actually refuse money, but that’s what they do. If they would just absolve me of my obligation to pay when they refuse to take my money, then I would really be on to something.

As it turns out, in order for the IRS to leap into the 21st century and allow us poor taxpayers the privilege of paying our taxes without actually writing a check, not only did they have to convert all of their paper records to digital ones, but so did the rest of the government. The Social Security Administration, the keeper of all things social and orderly, did not have completely computerized records until a scant 6 or 7 years ago. The paper record of my social security number may have been accurate, but it was not digital. It was not “in the computer.”

I can imagine in the great halls of government, in huge offices devoid of character and even cubicles, sat thousands of government workers sitting at keyboards, inputting every known piece of data that the government uses to identify us as us. In the deafening rush to digitize the hundreds of millions of social security numbers our government maintains on us (and the illegal aliens who steal them), they somehow managed to incorrectly input my birthday. In the single stroke of a single keyboard key, in the midst of billions of keystrokes, my birth year was changed. I lost a year just like that.

Not that losing a year is any big deal. Women and men have been shaving from or adding to their stated ages since time immemorial. Jack Benny was perpetually thirty-nine. College kids routinely carry fake identification cards to add a year or two so they can drink with the majority. Liz Taylor has never been as old as she is right now, and never will be as long as she is still alive. I would have been content to live it all over again if I could, but the fact that I lost my ability to pay my taxes on line was too steep a price to pay for my regained youth.

For several years I was able to pay my taxes on line and then, suddenly I wasn’t. There was an event that occurred in the hallowed halls of government that changed the world for me and I didn’t even know it. Then, in the year of the time warp, I tried to enjoy one of the unique pleasures afforded me by TurboTax and my good humor came to an abrupt halt. The clock stopped. Hell had frozen over. The government had refused my money -- money that was rightfully theirs!

I try to keep my dealings with the government at arms length. I never do in person what I can do through the mail or over the internet. There are occasions and circumstances that sometimes require a personal touch. Oddly enough, people who might steal my social security information are not required to prove that they are not me, but the burden of proving that I am who I say I am and when I actually became that person, requires a full blown assault on our government.

I used the internet to download the appropriate forms. I made a personal trip to the Social Security Administration office to recapture my lost year. I was very disturbed at the depth of depersonalization at the very agency that is supposed to maintain and safeguard our most personal information. This is the sight that confronted me as I walked in the front door: A grocery store sized room with a central waiting area. Surrounding the back half of the waiting area were walk up windows. Each window opened up on a desk with a government analyst sitting patiently ready to give us all the personal care that we deserve and expect from our government. The entire facility was painted with a depressing pastel green color that has been so popular in jails and elementary schools because of its known calming effect. The waiting area was populated with a hundred or so cheap metal framed chairs all facing the door I came in. Many of these chairs were occupied with not a cross section of society as you might expect, but only the dregs of society, suspicious newcomers that spoke little English, and the ancient. There were no businessmen, or women, like myself. There was no art on the walls; there was nothing to look at except for an electronic display hung a couple inches from the ceiling against the front wall. Just inside the front door was a ticket machine with color coded, sequentially numbered tickets labeled A through D. I decoded the instructions, grabbed my ticket and proceeded to blend in.

An interesting addition to the office was the guard seated at the desk behind the ticket machine. He was well armed with an automatic handgun and the haughty air of authority. He was a take charge kind of fellow who deflected questions from the uninitiated about where to go and what to do by pointing to the first window under the sign that said “Information.” Apparently, answering questions was not in his job description. He felt that the sign attached to the ticket machine was informative enough. It said, “Take a Number” in four different languages.

It was a little disconcerting to note the weapon on our guard’s belt. The Social Security office is not a hotbed for controversy or job stress. It is not the Post Office for goodness sakes. The majority of people that actually go to the Social Security office are there so that our government can simply give them money. What the Social Security office does when not safeguarding our birthdates and social security numbers is to freely dispense our tax money. Having the office guarded by someone with a gun struck me as rather pointless. One needs to just ask for the money and they’ll give it up without a fight. There is no need for foul play, or nefarious acts. Leave that to congress.

My number was D97. The number displayed on the electronic display was A5. I settled into my seat. Even with a bureaucracy as efficient as this one, there was going to be a wait involved.

When at last I was called to a window, my special analyst was very helpful. I had previously filled out my change form. I had with me all the necessary documents that indisputably set my birth in the correct year. My analyst was able to see the error of the computer’s ways and make it right. I made her show me the change so that I knew it had happened. All of this transpired within a couple of minutes. I felt suddenly more wise and another year older.

It is bittersweet that I had to give up that extra year of my life. The government giveth and the government taketh away. One faceless bureaucrat changed my life with a single keystroke and another unwound the clock. With my taxes, I pay for both of them to do whatever it is that they do. I regret that my tax money paid for the one and I regret that I couldn’t pay the other one more. I don’t regret that I must wait almost a whole year to pay my taxes again.

1 comment:

Bob Meighan said...

Mark (or D97)... Wow! Your statement that "TurboTax is God’s gift to man" is perhaps the best testimonial I've ever read for our product. Now, if only I could convince our marketing folks to place this on our product boxes. But actually, word of mouth from passionately satisfied customers like you is our most powerful marketing opportunity. Thanks.

And like you, I don't regret either that I must wait another year to file my taxes again.

Bob Meighan
VP, TurboTax