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Tax Day's birthday presence

Photo: 401kcalculator.org/Flickr

This year, once again, I'll celebrate my birthday as Canadians file their tax returns.

I was born on April 30th. And considering my line of work, that coincidence might be ironic. Or perhaps just particularly appropriate.

I know, I know. Taxes, right? But the thing is, I've never been one of those individuals who says the "t" word in the same tone of voice some people reserve for words like "larvae." Or, I don't know, "Ke$ha."

But as maligned as the whole process is, I actually don't get all angst-y about paying my taxes. In fact, there was a time (before becoming a parent, when I actually had time) when I would fill out the entire form without using a calculator (which -- full disclosure -- I had lost), out of a misplaced desire to keep my math skills sharp. Granted, I usually waited till the last minute, but I still managed to file by the deadline. And without throwing a tantrum.

I will admit that now, in the interests of expedience and practicality, my partner and I have a more formal approach: we pick a weekend before the end of the April, set out the pencils and (yes) calculators along with all relevant forms, put our youngest down for his nap, see our eldest off on her play date, and then have at it.

Yes: life in a two-kid household. If we lit candles and opened a bottle of wine, it could almost be a date.

While the process has become more complicated over the past few years, largely because of all the tax credits that necessitate saving receipts for 12 months, and other initiatives like the Universal Child Care Benefit, we still would readily admit that filling out our returns is not exactly an onerous task. And to be honest, upon completion we share a sense of elation that is apparently quite widely enjoyed -- a feeling of satisfaction for having contributed to society, according to one of the most recent of many studies documenting this phenomenon.

Interestingly, there is one sub-group that does not share in the satisfaction of doing its taxpayerly duty: "Economics majors apparently perceived less utility from paying taxes... In Econ 101, you're taught you get zero utility from paying taxes. It's ingrained in their behaviour." It's a disconnect I, a public transportation-using CBC listener with a couple of arts degrees, find particularly interesting.

I'm fully aware the discovery at a fairly young age that my special day was also about everybody else could have made for a painful dose of reality that might have changed my perspective about taxes entirely. Introducing "it's not all about you" -- a difficult lesson for any little kid -- into an emotionally volatile birthday atmosphere might have been explosive. Even if, as parents know, it's not a real party until the birthday girl or boy is in tears and someone throws up after a particularly vigorous game of tag.

After all, my siblings and I were already traumatized by being the only kids on the block whose mom made carrot cake -- before anyone else had heard of it -- for our birthdays instead of buying one of those big iced slabs with the decorative flowers on the corners and our names in fancy script. I was, admittedly, a sensitive kid, so this more substantive wake-up call (on top of the cake controversy) just might have pushed me over the edge into pathological possessiveness as an adult.

But I credit a combination of factors in helping foster in me a positive take on paying taxes -- and even an eventual fondness for sharing my birthday with a day that really is about everyone else. My dad grew up without many social programs and made it clear to us what life was like without them -- and how much better it is with them in place. My mom was a public school teacher, and her father a doctor who practiced medicine before and after the implementation of the Canada Health Act. More immediately, I had a younger brother and sister: with the exception of toothbrushes, not sharing was not an option.

And then there are the intangibles, like the fact that I grew up as part of the Sesame Street generation, and learned at an early age that not only is it okay to share, it actually helps everyone succeed. The show's powerful progressive messages provided many of us in that cohort a more collective approach to life. And now, as I watch the show with my kids, I still believe its focus on principles like sharing and co-operation help foster a more empathetic perspective.

I'm not naive: I realize my view of paying income taxes is not universal; that there are others (one Stephen Harper, for example, also born on April 30 -- the irony! -- who just happens to have taken an Economics class or two) with a very different attitude towards taxes and the tax system in general (in spite of that "warm glow" many people feel after filing). A number of them even have a somewhat contrarian approach to how education, health care and other elements of our social infrastructure should be provided -- or if we should have these programs at all.

Things might have been so different if some of these individuals -- even just one of those other April 30th-ers in particular -- had been born a few years later, so that as children they too might have benefited from Sesame Street. Or even on a different date, so as to completely avoid the potential trauma (and its long-lasting impacts) of competing with the annual reminder of how we pay for our social programs.

Either option could have possibly spared us the current erosion of the tax base and resultant gutting of our social infrastructure. But hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. (And when the full slate of cuts to the CBC takes effect, who knows what children's programming will look like by then?)

This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

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