Many long years ago, I opened a letter from the Internal Revenue Service and discovered that I had erred on my taxes. I cannot remember what the offense was. Perhaps it was listing the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue as a deduction under "professional journals." In any case, the computer caught me.
I vividly remember my reaction, which was twofold: I hastily sat down and wrote out a check to the U.S. government for the shortfall and gave a fervid prayer of thanks that the IRS had checked only that particular year.
Did I haul out my previous three or four returns and make sure I had not made the same mistake in other years?
You're kidding, right? It is an enshrined American tradition—right up there with Fourth of July fireworks, hot dogs at the ballpark, and shiny Chevrolets—to perform the awe-inspiring duty of citizenship and pay one's fair share of taxes—and not a cent more.
Maybe even a few cents less. For that I have no less an authority than George W. Bush, who (as president, and in public) argued that making the tax rates more progressive was a waste of time, because rich folks would game the system anyway, with their slick accountants and brazen lawyers. Well, he should know, I guess.
No doubt you can see where I am going with this.
Timothy Geithner, the incoming secretary of the treasury, is getting his chops busted in a very public way for failing to note that an old employer was not taking Social Security and Medicare taxes out of his paycheck and, once alerted to the error and having paid the overdue taxes, not voluntarily going back and finding whether the error had occurred in previous years!
Now maybe I am one cynical dude. But ask yourself: In the economic straits we are in, do we really want a smarmy-pants do-gooder—a "baby-faced man of 47" as he was described in the morning paper—who likes paying taxes with his hands on the levers of economic power? Of course not! We want a buccaneer. A robber baron like J.P. Morgan. We need a Joe Kennedy, who knows the game and can whip the rascals on their own turf. A man's man, like Larry Summers.
My personal qualm about Geithner is that he got caught at all. What kind of pirate is that? The whole law of Wall Street is that nobody ever gets caught. You have to really fail spectacularly, be an absolute buffoon—somebody like, say, Ken Lay—to get caught.
And hey, all you Ivy League brilliants in the Obama administration: Did nobody on the vetting team realize that you might have a bit of a perception problem if the guy who will be supervising the IRS suddenly "discovers" he owes back taxes?
Who was in charge of this talent search anyway?
Oh yeah, Caroline Kennedy.