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Paying Our Fair Share: Explaining Taxes to Kids

As we rush to file our taxes, parents should take a moment to teach kids about money—and Jewish ethics

Marjorie Ingall
April 09, 2013

I married a man who is stringently ethical about money and neurotically obsessive about bookkeeping. This combo comes in handy around tax time, since Jonathan often has at least three jobs going at once: consulting, a small business with a friend, and a full-time job. (Idleness is not his particular flavor of sin.) When his incredibly complicated tax situation got him audited around 15 years ago, the IRS ended up deciding that it owed him $60. They sent him a check.

It’s nice to know the girls’ college funds won’t vanish because my husband squirreled them away in an insolvent Cypriot bank. But even more important, the fact that Jonathan is honest with his taxes sets a clear example for our kids. And this week, when parents across the country are rushing to file their 1040 forms, is a great time to talk to kids about money, honesty, and responsibility.

As I always say to the girls, I could have saved myself a lot of anxiety if I’d played Monopoly with Jonathan before I married him. They laugh; they’ve played with him. He always buys every single utility and most properties he lands on. He nearly goes bankrupt, repeatedly, plunking down houses and hotels. He strikes side deals with other players (in my childhood home, there were never side deals in Monopoly!). I married a reckless Monopolizer! He gets down to $9! Me, I start hyperventilating if I don’t have a big safe pile of festively colored cash. I feel most comfortable buying the cheapest properties: the purple and light-blue ones. I rarely win, but I never flame out, either.

Board games parallel life. (In the Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel Dead End in Norvelt, the husband calls Monopoly “the American Dream in a box.” Indeed.) In real life, Jonathan’s appetite for risk and his fondness for nice things freak me out; my tentativeness and penny-pinching bug him. Jonathan is an entrepreneurial spirit; his financial attitude is “go big or go home.” I’m an opportunity-missing chicken. If we’d broken out the wee metal thimble and Scottie dog earlier in our relationship, I’d have been far less shocked to see our very different financial tendencies at play. But even with our disparate attitudes, we both abhor cheating. Which is why Josie knows the story about The Day Mommy and Daddy Lost $400,000.

Back in the glory days of the go-go Internet, Daddy worked for a big company whose employees went out for zillion-dollar dinners at fancy restaurants and unironically chanted “We’re on fire!” and “Be legendary!” (No one seemed to consider that building websites for online furniture retailers was not exactly the stuff of which legends are made.) One day, Daddy’s boss was out of town and Daddy had to sit in on a senior managers’ meeting in his stead. There, he learned that the company was going to miss its revenue projections by a mile or three, and its stock would surely take a dive in the next few months.

Alas, on that very day, Jonathan had been planning to sell some of his often-blacked-out stock. But because he’d been in that farshtunkiner meeting, if he’d sold the stock, he could have been charged with insider trading—even though it was unlikely that anyone would have known he’d been in a meeting he wasn’t actually supposed to be in. Even though we already knew that the entire world of big-money Internet consulting was built on sand and made of Siegfried-and-Roy smoke and mirrors. We talked about it. And we opted to obey the law, even though we knew it meant we were unlikely ever to make so much money. Furthermore, it took us 10 years to pay our way out of the negative tax consequences of being forced to hold on to increasingly worthless stock. (To this day, if you ask Jonathan about the Alternative Minimum Tax he turns a sickly green, like Kermit the Frog.)

Our kids weren’t even born then. But as Jonathan’s grandmother always said, “Start as you wish to continue.” It’s easy to justify cheating, and it gets easier the more you do it. But the Torah is explicit: “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor” (Leviticus 19:13) and “keep a distance from speaking false” (Exodus 23:7). “Do as I say, not as I do” (I’m not sure where in the Talmud that’s from, but I’m sure it’s in there) is a crappy parenting strategy; kids should know that adults struggle with doing the right thing too. Struggling is OK; when something is hard, it’s more meaningful.

Jewish tradition is explicit that thou shalt not be a lying, thieving, self-justifying weasel on thy taxes. In a fascinating article, “Jewish Ethical Perspective to American Taxation,” Kenneth H. Ryesky, an adjunct professor of law at CUNY Queens College (and a former IRS attorney) discusses the specifics: Jewish law “recognizes the need for a fair, just, and objective scheme for imposing taxes,” he writes “and, under such a governmental taxation scheme, requires compliance with it. Indeed, the famous Talmudic dictum dina d’malchuta dina (‘the law of the ruling government is the law’) is specifically set forth in the context of the payment of customs duties imposed by the secular governments.” In other words, Jews are obligated to follow the law of the land. Even if other people don’t.

Another academic article points out that even Orthodox Jews do sometimes shrug off tax law. In Jewish Law Commentary: Examining Halacha, Jewish Issues and Secular Law, a religiously observant lawyer named Eli Clark writes: “The phenomenon takes many forms: merchants who do not charge sales tax, customers who agree to pay cash for goods or services, individuals who understate their income on their income tax returns. Even many people who would not personally cheat the tax authorities seem most tolerant of those who do—they make no criticism of such behavior among their friends, relatives, and neighbors and, in many cases, willingly patronize businesses which flout the tax laws. Nor does one hear loud condemnation of this problem from the leadership of our community.”

Sadly, our people have had our share of tax cheats and businesspeople who’ve behaved like scumbags, ripping off other members of the tribe as well as defrauding the government.

Obviously this is Bad for the Jews. Gordon Cohn, assistant professor of accounting at Brooklyn College, points out in his article “The Ethics of Tax Evasion: A Jewish Perspective” that being a tax cheat is a chillul Hashem, “the most reprehensible of all transgressions.” He writes: “Chillul Hashem has two meanings. First, it refers to any action which makes people look down at the Jewish religion. For example, if someone who is a Torah scholar and keeps all rituals is convicted of stealing money this is a chillul Hashem. It makes people think that following the Torah does not lead one to become a more ethical person.”

As my people (native Rhode Islanders of the 1970s) say: doy.

Now that I am old and have kids (and no longer say “doy” as often as I used to), I know it’s part of my job as a parent to convey my values about money and cheating to my offspring. One way is by talking about current events. Recently there was a huge cheating scandal in the news—a former district superintendent of schools in Atlanta was charged with racketeering, theft, conspiracy, and making false statements after instigating principals and teachers to change kids’ scores on state standardized tests. According to the New York Times, one middle-school principal even held “changing parties” in which teachers sat together erasing wrong answers on test sheets and filling in the correct ovals instead, while he guarded the door. “I need the numbers,” he’d tell the teachers.

Talking about this story is a way to talk about how horrid I find cheating, about why the girls both go to schools that de-emphasize standardized tests even though there are more prestigious schools out there that do the opposite, and about why I think it’s better to be moral than to win at all costs. We talk about the financial incentives on principals to cheat and how we can work to create a world in which they aren’t tempted to do it. We explicitly tell the kids we’d rather have them fail a test than cheat on it.

And I think it’s fine for the kids to know that their parents sometimes disagree about spending, as long as they know we always agree about not being financial skanks. Silence isn’t golden. We’ve talked about tax reform and how little corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent currently pay. We’ve talked about what the government pays for: public schools, paved streets, the subway, helping veterans and poor people—all things we value. I don’t want my daughters living in the dark about the costs of living and the constant need to make moral choices. They hear us talking about where to give our tzedakah money; they know about our volunteer work. I have two girls; I don’t want them unconsciously expecting a prince to sweep in and take care of them financially. They should know the costs of living, including the costs of running a just government and the cost of keeping one’s moral soul.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.