Death and taxes
The doctors are furious. The reason for it is a Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) advertisement that appeared in this newspaper showing them piggybacking on the back of the poor.
Specifically, the ad shows a doctor perched on the shoulders of a public school teacher. The caption reads: “When you don’t pay your taxes, you’re a burden to those who do.” Philippine Medical Association president Leo Olarte protests: “To project to the entire nation through the trimedia that medical doctors are tax cheats per se is absolutely unfair.”
BIR Commissioner Kim Henares defends it in this wise: “They have to accept that it is a common public perception that many doctors do not pay the right taxes. That perception is based on experience [by people who avail themselves of medical services] and on data we gather…. Instead of getting hurt, they should take it as a challenge to prove to the public that tax-delinquent members have changed their habit and are already paying the right taxes.”
At the very least, what’s wrong with it is this: “It is common perception as well that the BIR harbors complete rogues who make deals with delinquent, and rich, taxpayers. That perception is based on the public’s actual experience with it. The funny thing I learned some years ago is that the BIR, like Customs, has one of the highest rates of attendance among government offices. It doesn’t pay to be absent, in the completely literal sense of ‘pay.’ What now if the doctors came up with an ad in the Inquirer that portrayed the BIR perched on the shoulders of Juan de la Cruz with the caption ‘Pabigat sa bayan’? Or if they want to be cute, ‘If you’re lax, don’t tax.’”
And if Henares complains, they can always say she shouldn’t take it personally but as a challenge to clean up the BIR ranks. Or like Jesus Christ, since we’ve entered Lent, flail at the merchants for turning his temple into a den of thieves.
The BIR ad indicts wholesale and condemns an entire profession. It exposes to ridicule not just the tax cheats among doctors but even those who pay their taxes diligently. It doesn’t help to say “The honest taxpayers shouldn’t feel referred to, only the dishonest ones should.” That’s like Marcos saying the innocent should not fear being arrested without a warrant. That is quite apart from the disparagement subverting the credibility or trustworthiness of doctors. If doctors can cheat about their taxes, why can’t they cheat about their qualifications or the value of their services?
In fact, as perceptions go, what is a huge misperception, which the BIR ad propagates, is that Philippine doctors as a rule earn fabulously. As Olarte points out: “Only a few of us are lucky enough to rub elbows with the rich and famous. Many even fall within and below the poverty line. We have members earning a measly P15,000 every month.”
I myself know doctors who work under penurious conditions in the hinterlands, driven only by the philosophy of “Serve the people.” They get indicted, too.
At the very most, the question is whether the ad is effective in shaming the incorrigible enough to want to make them pay the right taxes. The question is whether the ad puts the fear of God and Kim Henares in doctors, other professionals, and/or the citizens generally enough to make them want to pay the right taxes.
I myself am not averse to shaming the corrupt and ungodly, the tax cheats among them. But if you’re going to do that, make damned sure you name names. Naming an entire profession and not just erring individuals is epically counterproductive. It doesn’t just shame the good and bad, it doesn’t just make out the entire profession to be erring, it doesn’t make the erring pay the right taxes, anyway. There is no shaming the shameless, and far more so where they are not even named. If you are shameless enough not to pay the right taxes, then more than likely you will be shameless enough to continue to do so. Why should you feel referred to by a generic category?
What’s likely to happen is that only the honest will be shamed. The dishonest will just laugh it off and continue being dishonest while the honest will be pissed off and start wondering why they should pay the right taxes when they’re being shamed along with the others, anyway.
In fact, I don’t know that Henares’ confrontational attitude toward taxpayers, or her tack of cajoling, threatening, and humiliating people, isn’t counterproductive as a whole. Presuming people to be guilty until they can prove themselves innocent doesn’t encourage compliance, it breeds defiance. A couple of months ago, Henares showed how bad that tack is when she commented after Rose Fostanes won Israel’s “X Factor” that if Fostanes thought her winnings were exempted from taxes, she had another think coming. Your first instinct is not to congratulate someone like that but to make her out to be a potential tax dodger? That’s just bad manners and wrong conduct.
In fact, I don’t know why the BIR hasn’t yet discovered that a more positive spin is known to do wonders for collections. Why not instead, as I’ve always suggested, mount a campaign that hammers into the people’s brains that taxes are their money whether they file taxes or not? They do pay taxes, anyway, each time they watch a movie or buy mami or Emperador, courtesy of the e-vat. That corruption is stealing from them, that not paying taxes is stealing from them? More than merely encouraging people to pay taxes—at least that has better chances of doing so than blanket indictments of professions—that stops corruption. It’s in fact the only thing that does: the people taking their taxes as sacred, the people taking their taxes as inviolable.
Taxes do not always have to be associated with death, they can always be associated with life.
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