Vanessa Williamson Loves Taxes

by Arin Greenwood on October 21, 2010

Vanessa Williamson loves taxes.

Williamson is the founder of something you don’t (or at least we don’t) hear about every day: a pro-tax group – I Heart Taxes – and she describes the paying of taxes as a patriotic act.

The I Heart Taxes website features t-shirts and other merchandise. But Williamson – who is working on her PhD at Harvard’s Government and Social Policy Department – isn’t getting rich from the sale of  pro-tax t-shirts and tote bags: she’s donating all I Heart Taxes proceeds to the U.S. Treasury.

OOTS News caught up with Williamson to find out more about her pro-tax movement.

IHT: is a website for the patriotic taxpayer. We cover the latest tax news, and we also sell “I Heart Taxes” merchandise — shirts, tote bags, mugs, and so on. 100% of IHT proceeds to support the U.S. Treasury, so your purchase goes to support the programs you care about.

OOTS News: When did you start the site?

IHT: I came up with the idea in the spring, but I don’t actually have any web or design skills, so I only launched it (very softly) in August. I think our first live posts went up for Social Security’s 75th anniversary. And I’ve been rolling it out slowly since then — an occasional new product, twice weekly blog updates. I have to fit it in between school and work and family stuff!

OOTS News: What inspired you to create the site?

IHT: Well, last April, around Tax Day, I noticed that a lot of my friends updated their gmail or facebook status to say that they had paid their taxes, and what programs they were proud to support. (Veterans tended to say that they were proud to support the troops in Iraq, environmentalists were happy to pay for the EPA…)

And I thought, it’s really too bad that no one is providing these folks with a platform. You hear so much anti-tax rhetoric, but at the same time, 60% of Americans think their own taxes are fair. That’s true of Democrats and Republicans alike.

So I thought, why not set up a site called “I Heart Taxes,” which would be a light-hearted way of talking about what is usually a pretty dull issue.

OOTS News: So I think the free market people would respond to this by saying “Hey, that’s great. Let those 60% pay the taxes, and leave me alone.” What would be your response?

IHT: Well, I’m sure no one would want to benefit from tax dollars without having paid their share. The sticking point is, we all benefit. Roads, schools, the fire department, clean air — these are public goods. So I think we all have to do our part.

OOTS News: Do you get upset at all about government waste, or corruption?

IHT: In studies, people often think as much as half of their tax dollars are wasted.  Independent studies suggest that the actual figure is about 7%, and the government actually invests a lot of effort in trying to bring that number even lower.  (If you want to see some good watchdog work on government spending, check out the Government Accountability Office, the GAO.  They are charged with improving the performance of the federal government, and I think they are a great agency.  You should also check out the SAVE Awards, which reward government employees for finding new efficiencies.)

So there’s a real disconnect between how the government is perceived and how well it is actually performing. I think one reason people imagine such a high level of waste is because they are thinking about the programs they don’t like.  And of course, I can think of programs I don’t like, too.

But the great thing about tax dollars is that we have the power to change how they are spent.  I don’t have to *ask* that my tax dollars go to certain programs and not others.  I can demand it.  We elect the people who decide how to spend tax dollars, and we can unelect them.  They should be held accountable, and they can be.  After all, our taxes pay their salaries!

OOTS News: Do you know how much merch has been sold so far?

IHT: I don’t have a total, but when I send the first check I will post it on the website. IHT proceeds are a dollar per item sold, so my plan is to have a little running thermometer widget, so people can track our progress.

OOTS News: How many people have joined I Heart Taxes?

IHT: Well, we don’t actually have an email list or membership — it’s on my list of things to do! But I’ve been amazed at how many people are interested in the merchandise. Just yesterday, a friend of mine walked by where I was eating lunch, and he was wearing the “Taxes Fight Fires” shirt. And so I talked to him about it — and he had no idea I was involved in the project. That was pretty neat.

OOTS News: It’s a meme.

IHT: I tell my husband, “It’s the next Facebook!”

OOTS News: Have you made a donation yet to the IRS? If so, what was their response?

IHT: I haven’t made a donation yet; the way it works is that Printfection collects the proceeds and then sends me a check, and then I’ll send a check of that amount to the government.

I called the IRS to make sure that my donation wouldn’t reduce my personal tax responsibilities. (By the way, I will say they were very friendly at the IRS helpline. This was a weird and difficult question, I know.) So it turns out, rather than send the money to the IRS, I should write my check to the U.S. Treasury.

It’s a gift to the people of the United States of America, technically. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (the Supreme Court Justice and Civil War veteran) donated his entire estate to the country

OOTS News: Can you earmark your donation to Treasury?

IHT: I’m not sure if you can earmark your donation, but I certainly will not do that for IHT donations. The spending of tax dollars should be decided by the democratic process, and no one elected me to make those decisions.

OOTS News: What are your future plans for I Heart Taxes?

IHT: Well, in the next few weeks, we’ve got some new shirt designs coming out. First up is “Taxes Put a Man on the Moon.” And then I really need to buckle down and try to promote the thing. Twitter, Facebook page…

OOTS News: Do you have a favorite public program?

IHT: Personally? There are a lot of programs I love– food stamps, national parks. I love the Lincoln Memorial. But I am especially proud that my own tax dollars support military veterans’ pensions and health care. They gave so much to this country. It’s nice to be able to give back, even in such a small way.

All right, I’ve got to go reread the Federalist Papers. Seriously.

OOTS News: Thanks, Vanessa!

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