“Jojo, how’s it feel openin’ up this first check, man?” Dad asks from the passenger’s seat of the parked car, his voice brimming with expectation. “Oh, c’mon, Papa,” Jojo exclaims with a beaming smile, “let me just open it up.”
The 18-year-old holds his first paycheck proudly toward the camera. Then, in the envelope equivalent of spiking a football, he drops the check’s paper casing to the floor with a flair of a seasoned magician. He unfolds the document, reads the figures, and then, slowly but surely, everything changes.
Jojo’s grin flattens, then hardens into a visible downturned frown. His eyes dart back and forth past the figures on the paper. He doesn’t believe what he’s seeing. “Why your face like that, Jojo?” Father asks, knowing full-well what just happened. “We’re you expectin’ more?”
Dad and the two other guys in the car start to laugh. Jojo, however, isn’t amused. Without saying a word, he opens the door. “They took out taxes, Jo,” says one of the young men, “welcome to the world.” With that, Jojo exits the car.
“Jojo, where you goin’?” Asks Dad. But his son can’t hear him. He’s already outside of the vehicle, pacing in disbelief.
As the initial shock quickly transforms into indignation, Jojo gets back into the car. “They just finessed me!” He proclaims to his comrades. “Aaauugh. Noooo.” The man in the driver’s seat takes the check from Jojo and tries to clarify the situation. “Okay,” he explains, “so they took out employee Medicare, and they took out your Social Security employment.” “But I got my Social Security number!” Jojo protests. It hasn’t sunk in.
“No, you always have to pay taxes…” the driver responds, “you have to pay taxes every time you get paid.” Dad interjects, “We have to explain to you how this works.”
Jojo’s buddy in the driver’s seat continues, “Look, you earned $282, but they still had to take out $28.42 in taxes, which is why you have this much to spend.” “So, if I earned that, why can’t I get it?” Jojo demands. “Because you have to take out federal taxes.” But Jojo’s not having it. Nor, frankly, should he be having it.
With that, Jojo has been baptized into the million-wide involuntary fraternity of tax-paying Americans. Unlike other adult baptisms, however, this isn’t a celebratory event. Instead of bringing a sense of forgiveness, hope, and peace, the moment brings the opposite: condemnation, dread, and inner turmoil. “You pay taxes for everything, Jojo,” Dad assures his son, as if that grim reality softens the blow.
As the video concludes, Jojo wipes his brow in disappointment and frustration. He worked hard and clocked his hours, but feels cheated. While his videotaped response certainly has a comedic tinge to it, “Jojo” came to realize a profound, instinctive truth: what just happened was unjust.
This real-time revelation shouldn’t just end with retweets and likes of Jojo’s painful enlightenment — it needs to be part of a renewed acknowledgment among Americans that what the government does with your money isn’t a “side-issue”; it touches the lives of nearly all Americans and it’s a wide-open opportunity to engage in critical political outreach.
Jojo’s viral social-media moment is an experience shared by many high school graduates as they read the paycheck for their first job. If they take the time to read the details, most, like Jojo, will be dismayed and dumbfounded.
The spouse of one of my federalist colleagues used to manage entry-level employees at a moving company. The most formal education earned by most of his workers was a high school diploma. On one occasion, a young employee, one of his best workers, approached him and blurted, “Okay, how do I become a Republican?”
As it turned out, he wished to be a Republican not because of a full-throated ideological conversion or a social issue that had pushed him over the edge. No, he wanted to register his allegiance with the GOP after the first year of paying his taxes above the threshold of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Instead of getting a sweet “payout” come Tax Day, this time he had to pay more taxes. He felt punished for his hard work and success. And he’s not alone.
Every May, conservative and libertarian groups, political action committees, and think tanks should seize the calendar to reacquaint the American public, particularly first-time employees, about just how much the government takes from each paycheck — and how much more it will soon have to start taking thanks to decades of overspending. Late January and early February present another opportunity, as the earliest W-2 tax forms arrive in mailboxes nationwide. April 15 could also be better used to remind Americans of the comedy of rejoicing over having a small pittance of income returned to them despite it being theirs in the first place.
What Jojo and many more young American adults will discover this summer is a truth never explained better than by 19th-century political philosopher Lysander Spooner:
The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: ‘Your money, or your life.”’And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat. The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the roadside, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful. The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber.
As I jested on Twitter, in an ideal world, a mysterious man would appear to hand out a copy of Milton Friedman’s still indispensable Free To Choose the moment every young adult reads the fine print on his or her first paycheck. He’d explain the book will expand on the person’s new Awakening to the Truth.
While this (sadly) isn’t possible in the actual world, lovers of liberty should realize there are more “Jojos” waking up to reality every day. They’re disheartened about how little harvest they keep from the fruits of their valuable labor. They crave a way out, and then, ultimately, the way forward.