[IMGCAP(1)]The end of tax season is usually a joyous event, but I must confess that last Tuesday was a little sad for me.
As it was a beautiful spring day, I decided to wander up to the Farley Post Office in Midtown Manhattan to see the usual Tax Day carnival, which I hadn't done for a few years.
In the past, this huge neo-classical beauty was the one they always kept open until midnight on Tax Day. The lobby would be filled with tax forms and long lines of confused taxpayers, and the expansive steps out front would be filled with tax forms and long lines of confused taxpayers—as well as groups of protesters (many of them clearly crazy), a horde of dodgy-looking tax preparers, swarms of reporters seeking Tax Day stories, and a host of publicity-seekers, from out-of-work actors peddling energy drinks to out-of-work models offering "Tax Day Stress Massages" on behalf of ... well, some company or other. I can't remember.
The point is, on Tax Day you used to be able to go up to the Farley Post Office and get a massage from a model. Then you could file your taxes, and enjoy the parade of desperate taxpayers right up until midnight.
When I got to Eighth Avenue and 32nd Street around 3 in the afternoon, there was literally no one on the steps outside. And inside? No tables and racks full of tax forms, no canvas carts bulging with postmarked returns, no lines of weeping taxpayers. No carnival, no massages, no fun.
Turns out they stopped stocking tax forms in 2010. And they weren't even going to stay open until midnight—just 10 p.m. I am reliably informed that at some point some Occupy-style protesters showed up to complain about the 1 percent not paying enough taxes, but they didn't Occupy the Farley—they just made their point and moved on. (Perhaps they realized that the 1 percent have never had to rush to any post office late on Tax Day.)
[IMGCAP(2)]The culprit here, obviously, is electronic filing, which means that many of those who once made frantic trips to the post office can now be frantic at home in front of their computers.
I could try to spin this into a Bowling Alone type of thing, where soulless new technologies have stripped us of communal traditions and left us all alone in dark rooms facing computer screens. But while all that is certainly true, e-filing is, on balance, an excellent thing. It lets professional tax preparers like you be much, much more productive; boosts the efficiency of the IRS (no mean feat); and reduces the likelihood of desperate taxpayers getting into car accidents as they race across town to find an open post office at 11:55 p.m.
Up until last Tuesday, I would have said that e-filing was entirely victimless—it benefits tax preparers, taxpayers, tax regulators, traffic enforcement and insurance companies. But last week I realized it's not entirely victimless.
As I was leaving the Farley P.O., an angry young man with a stack of pamphlets approached me. I happily took the pamphlet he thrust on me, hoping it was a crazy scheme to replace the income tax with a levy on negative thinking (which only residents of the original 13 colonies will have to pay, unless they shield themselves from the alien rays).
Instead, his pitch was to save the post office itself. The USPS has been talking about closing hundreds of facilities (though not the Farley)—largely because people aren't sending as much paper mail as they used to. Now they use e-mail, and e-filing.
So e-filing has victimized post offices—and that's when I realized it has also victimized me. After all, if there's no reason for people to go to the post office on Tax Day, then there's no reason for the carnival atmosphere outside the post office on Tax Day. And that means there's no reason for journalists to go there, and no reason for companies seeking publicity to hire actors to give us samples of energy drinks—or models to give us massages.
And that's why Tax Day was a little sad for me.
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