Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle Are No-Goodniks
I have enjoyed my visit at Concurring Opinions, but alas, my time is up and this will probably be my last (and maybe least) post.
I am one of those who is irked by the Timothy Geithner and now the Tom Daschle tax controversies. Geithner avoided paying tens of thousands of dollars in self-employment taxes. Then he paid back the part that he was forced to. Then, when his nomination as Treasury Secretary loomed, he paid the rest of it. And he wasn’t straightforward about his reasoning for the timing of all of this. Wags took the opportunity to argue that we need to reform the tax code, to make it simple enough that even the Treasury Secretary can follow it. Geithner was confirmed, apparently because none of the candidates who paid their taxes correctly were good enough for the job.
Now, Tom Daschle is facing similar issues. Nominated for Secretary of Health and Human Services, he amended his last three years’ worth of tax returns. Upon further reflection, he realized that he had failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, and that he shouldn’t have claimed some of the deductions that he took. He wrote a check for $140,000 and is now hoping for the best. It apparently wasn’t very challenging to get it right the second time around; why couldn’t he have had his “people” be equally careful in the first place? The most obvious reason is that nobody was watching then.
I agree with the idea that you can gauge how ethical someone is by how they behave when they think nobody is watching. Given the difference between how Geithner and Daschle behaved before and after people were watching, I think that they both fail the test.
I’m in a self-righteous mood about this right now, because I am doing my taxes this week and I found some old mistakes.
I use TurboTax, just like Geithner did. He blamed the program for failing to prompt him to enter his information correctly, which it probably didn’t. But there is good reason to argue that he should have known without the program telling him.
I recently found out that I had been double-counting a certain deduction. TurboTax asks about it twice, on the Schedule C and the Schedule A. If you have already entered it on the former, it warns you not to enter it on the latter. Unfortunately, I do the Schedule A first and I didn’t get prompted.
Still, I should have known better. When I realized the problem this week, I sheepishly went back through all of my old returns. I found that I had made the error in 2007, 2006, and 2004. I dutifully filled out 1040X amended returns for those years, wrote out some checks, and will file them next week. It’ll total $125 plus interest, which is not going to break me—but I can think of a lot of things I’d rather spend the money on.
The IRS would never come after me for any of this. They have bigger fish to fry. Even if they did come after me, the 2004 return is probably past their time limit to pursue me. So why am I doing it? And why have I done it in the past, over other innocent, small, but inexcusable errors? Not because I think I am ever going to be nominated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, let alone imminently. Not even so that I can affect a holier-than-thou air if I ever meet Geithner or Daschle (though I reserve that right).
The reason is simple. I pay my taxes because I am supposed to pay them. If I make a mistake, I try to correct it. I’m not perfect, but I try not to make excuses. To say anything else—to say that I get to decide which taxes I have to pay, and which mistakes I have to correct—is to put myself above the law. That is not acceptable. It would set a horrible example for my sons.
Let me put it more strongly. Our leaders send the message that you only need to do the right thing if somebody is watching. Living that way borders on the sociopathic. But it doesn’t keep you out of the Cabinet. There are apparently more important qualifications for office than these.