April 15: Taxed in the USSR


"MOSCOW (AP)—Another Western influence may invade Soviet society: filing annual financial returns and paying a progressive income tax. Economists said in articles that a reform of the Soviet tax system is necessary to expose those who made fortunes in the multi-billion-dollar black market and to spread income more equitably."

If I were to conjure a hierarchy of all the things that could possibly happen to me during my life on this planet, residence and citizenship in the Soviet Union would rank only a tudge lower than having my eyeballs skewered like two of those little cocktail olives you find at the bottom of a dry martini.

Sure, I've heard about how Russians, when told to count their blessings, are now encouraged to report that they haven't any. And I am truly impressed that Mr. Gorbachev has allowed Billy Joel to sing in Moscow, just as if it were a real city like Buffalo, with music fans, electricity, and indoor plumbing.

But let's face it. The Workers' Paradise is still a place for which American pundits happily cite the most peculiar things as positive evidence of improvements in the quality of Communist life, like when some sick Ukrainian gets permission to visit the West to avail himself of 20th-century medicine.

And now, consider Soviet Finance Minister Viktor Semenov telling the weekly Moscow News that the Soviet system of taxation is hopelessly unscientific. And coauthoring an article with economist V. Yaroshenko for the daily Pravda, extolling the virtues of an American-style progressive income tax and a department of internal revenue to administer it.

Comrades! We're really talking perestroika now! Because while Soviets have been historically eager to purloin Western technology, they've largely eschewed imitating any of our cultural institutions. So I think it's more than coincidental that at this point they might try to emulate our own IRS.

You see, Soviet officialdom likely regards the task of understanding Western government to be a lot like learning a second language: just as French would be acquired more quickly than Chinese by someone who speaks only English, it's much easier for a Russian to first study those parts of Americana that are most like what he already knows.

Ergo, the IRS is the perfect choice, because Soviet citizens are certainly used to the idea of a bureaucracy operating largely without regard for due process. Instituting something like "the inalienable right to visit one's old Aunt Babishka in Hamburg" would throw Boris and Natasha for a real loopski.

And checking out the American tax police would be good for the Soviet ego, too, since Russian delegations to America hardly ever get to return home and brag about something that's done better in their country than in the West. They will visit IRS centers and be quaintly charmed by the relative lack of methodological sophistication. They'll chuckle at how fast, fair, and friendly IRS agents cannot order recalcitrant taxpayers shot for under-reporting income, or even have them sent to psychiatric hospitals for therapy. The best hostage an American IRS agent ever held was a four-year-old's bank account. A Soviet IRS agent would hold the four-year-old.

Indeed, the specter of an American-style IRS operated with Soviet-style technocratic efficiency is no doubt welcomed as great news by the Russian people. And I'm sure our most recent émigrés from that country will be clamoring to board the next Aeroflot flights, seeking to return to their homeland in order to enjoy all the benefits.

While the notion of Soviet tax-collectors visiting their American counterparts to pick up a few pointers might be amusing at worst, the possibility of reciprocity is horrifying at best. Just picture IRS agents visiting the managers of Soviet gulags, each warmly toasting the other with vodka on international television.

How long would it be before we realize the convenience of random audits performed in the comfort of our own homes, tied to our favorite easy chairs, conducted in the middle of the night? No appointment needed! Agents will assess your personal possessions against your latest statement of income While-U-Wait.

In the event your audit is irregular, more careful scrutiny of your tax liability and threshold for pain will be conducted at one of the many centrally located IRS centers, transportation to which will be provided in one of the agency's shiny new vans, each innocuously labeled "Bakery Co-op Delivery Truck."

Maybe then people will make an extra effort to report early, write legibly, and file the 1040-EZ. Maybe then they'll remember to include their W-2 forms and use their gummed mailing stickers. And maybe then people will stop criticizing the IRS, lest they disappear in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.

Dominic Casella is a pseudonym used by the American grandson of an Italian cowboy.