Rare is the performance that speaks as passionately about tax law as monologist Josh Kornbluth's one-man show "Love & Taxes."
This autobiographical work was performed at Stanford earlier this fall as a part of the Center for Ethics in Society's Ethics of Wealth series. The show follows Kornbluth on his journey of exploration into the American tax system. Through a series of hilariously misguided tax blunders, he builds up a debt of nearly $60,000—to the IRS, to the State Franchise Tax Bureau, and to a chipper tax attorney named Mo.
According to Kornbluth, "Love & Taxes," like all of his work, is inspired by his father, whose death he views as the driving force behind his career as a performer.
"My father died when I was in college," Kornbluth said in an interview. "I'd never been a performer. When he died, I wanted to tell these stories about him."
Kornbluth began this performance with a brief description of the conflict at the heart of the story, which was figuring out "how to love a woman with the same depth and clarity that I had loved my father." The answer to that question, he continued, was to be found in tax law.
We see the answer to this question unfolding throughout the show. As his debt grows larger and larger, Kornbluth is likewise in the process of falling in love. When his girlfriend becomes pregnant, however, she presents him with an ultimatum—she will not marry him unless he takes care of his tax problem.
Kornbluth presents the audience with a very comprehensive history of his experience with taxes, including his very first “tax memory” of his communist father refusing to file.
“We don’t give our information to the man,” he recounts his father telling him. “We don’t give our money to the government.”
Kornbluth also recalls the elaborate (and dishonest) lengths his family went to in order to secure financial aid for 17-year-old Josh to attend Princeton University. Unexpectedly, the story ends with his father breaking into tears over his inability to simply pay the tuition. Even his communist father, Kornbluth explains to the audience, just wanted to be a provider.
This is the first hint to the audience of what exactly "Love & Taxes" is about. While Kornbluth readily admits that he is no tax expert, this is, he said, a “pro-tax show.”
In the show, Kornbluth hits one speed bump after another as he races to solve his problems before the birth of his son. His debt continues to grow, however, and his situation begins to seem more hopeless by the day. It is when he meets, by chance, a former IRS commissioner, and begs for help in finding some sort of loophole in the system, that he is given the message that will ultimately become the theme of the show: that the tax system is complex because human beings are complex, but without it our country simply could not function.
“Anyone can criticize the system,” Kornbluth is told. “The art is in making it better.”
In the end, through the help of a friend, Kornbluth attains the money he needs to pay off his debt. As he walks through the streets of Berkeley, on his way to mail the check, he reflects on the fact that everything he sees around him was paid for by tax dollars. Ultimately he has learned what it means to be an American citizen, paying his part so that all may reap the rewards.
Following the show was a discussion by Stanford law professors Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried, and U.S. Tax Court Judge Jim Halpern, about their perspectives on the American tax system. Kornbluth started them off with a question about the ethics of tax cuts for the wealthy.
“Is it ethical to cut taxes for people who are not poor, when it effects negatively the people who are?” Kornbluth asked, which drew arguments on either side.
“If you are going to cut taxes, you ought to cut them for the people who pay them,” Halpern said. “If you cut them for poor people, they are not going to pay them anyways.”
Bankman, while expressing skepticism of the ethics of such a stance, focused more on the economic feasibility of the tax cuts.
“I don’t think we can afford the Bush tax cuts,” he said. “We owe a lot of money. Taxes are going to have to rise substantially in the future.”
Fried added to this that for a politician to commit to opposing any and all new taxes “cuts off any intelligent policy discussion before it even begins.”
Echoing Kornbluth’s realization at the end of "Love & Taxes," she continued, “we’re not just throwing taxes into a sinkhole. We’re paying for things that people use. Until people are willing to face real cutbacks, it’s irresponsible to talk only about the tax side of things.”
Although falling on different sides of the question of tax cuts, all three speakers were in agreement with Kornbluth on the value—and the excitement—of American tax law.
“There is a central logic in our tax system,” Halpern said. “I like the intellectual construct of it. It’s like God has given you a crossword puzzle that will last your whole life.”
Cara Reichard is a native of San Diego. She is a member of the Stanford class of 2015. She plans to major in Political Science.