Hitting a Tax Gapper

Summer is almost here, and sports fans across America have a lot to look forward to. Basketball's 13-month-long season is (finally) starting to heat up. Hockey playoffs are coming to a close. Baseball is in full swing, and NFLers are about to report to training camps. Stop at any bar or water cooler in the land, and you'll hear talk of wins, losses, and plays that you just have to see.

Fans and analysts have all sorts of statistics they can use to measure (and argue about) their teams' performance. "Turf investors" have relied on The Daily Racing Form for over a century. Baseball is famed for legions of "sabermetricians," who obsess over statistics like WAR (Wins Above Replacement), BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), and LWCT (Largest Wad of Chewing Tobacco). Football and basketball too, even hockey, all lend themselves to measures far beyond the mere score at the end of the game.

But there's one more sports statistic we might need to evaluate our favorite team by, and that's SITR (State Income Tax Rate).

Fixed This for You

For generations, Americans fostered a culture of thrifty self-reliance, especially where it comes to taking care of our stuff. It started all the way back in pioneer days, and living on the frontier's edge. Back when Pa Ingalls lived in that little house in the big woods, if his saw broke, he couldn't just order up a replacement on Amazon. He had to fix it, or he would have a tough time heating his house for the winter! Ma had one nice dress, for Sunday church, and when she got home she spent the rest of the day taking care of it. Folks mended and darned and repaired until household items had more lives than the family cat.

More recently, though, we've become a throwaway society. Maybe it's the flood of cheap, shoddy stuff from Walmart and China. Even formerly big-ticket purchases like TVs are cheap enough now that it rarely makes sense to repair them. (Think about it — your family room TV may have cost less than your phone.) Even real estate has become disposable, as thousands of Americans buy perfectly serviceable houses for the land they sit on, then tear them down to replace them with something bigger (and usually gaudier and not as well built).

Names!

Every year, the IRS gives us a peek inside the wallets of the highest-earning 400 Americans. It's full of juicy facts like their average income ($318 million in 2014), how much they give to charity ($37 million each) and how much they pay Uncle Sam ($73.5 million). But there's one set of facts the IRS guards as carefully as the secret formulas they use to decide who gets audited — the top taxpayers' names.

That wasn't always the case. Back in 1924, the stock market was soaring, flappers were dancing the Charleston, and

Survey Says...!

The people who work at the IRS can be proud to do an important job. They're the "accounts receivable" department for the federal government, and whether you think we need more government or less, we should collect the revenue to finance it as effectively as possible. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has already stated that the incoming administration's ban on new government hiring shouldn't apply to the IRS — perhaps because he's seen the research showing every dollar invested in tax enforcement yields seven dollars in tax. (If you could spend one dollar to make seven, you might do it all day long!)

At the same time, IRS staffers understand the work they do isn't especially popular. As Louis XIV's Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert once said,

Better Call Saul!

On January 20, 2008, AMC debuted a promising new drama called Breaking Bad. The series chronicled the highs and lows of high-school chemistry teacher Walter White, who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and put his knowledge to work opening a meth lab to secure his family's financial future. Millions of viewers became addicted to White's exploits as he plunged deeper and deeper into a life of crime, breathlessly watching him juggle relationships with his DEA-agent brother-in-law, arms dealers, cartel soldiers, and crooked strip-mall lawyer Saul Goodman. All fun to watch, sure . . . but there's a reason the announcer always says, "Kids . . . don't try this at home."

Jack Vitayanon is a 41-year-old, Ivy League-educated attorney in the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, where he investigates crooked accountants, attorneys, and IRS agents. He even taught a class called "Tax Lawyering and Professional Responsibility in Tax Practice" at Georgetown Law School. But apparently he needed to crank out some adventure in his life. And while we may never know if he drew his ambition from AMC's antihero, it's crystal clear that he decided to join the methamphetamine trade.

Star Power

On January 23, the IRS began accepting 2016 tax returns, and that means refund season is officially here. For 2017, the IRS expects 70% of Americans will get refunds, and those refunds will average around $2,840. Yes, if you're among that 70%, it means you paid in too much over the course of the year and gave the IRS an interest-free loan. (And no, they won't return the favor.) But millions of Americans still very consciously use their tax withholding as a savings account, and look forward all winter to receiving that sweet check.

That leaves just one nice problem to have — deciding where to spend it all.