The Tao of Tax Avoiding
An Interview with an Albuquerque couple living well below the poverty line
Chuck Hosking and Mary Ann Fiske won't be paying personal income taxes this year. In fact, it's been two decades since they've had to. The couple married in 1971 after meeting in New York City's lower east side, and a deliberate process of downward mobility has been a part of their life together from the beginning. Their annual income is well below the $15,800 taxable minimum for a married couple, and every year they donate over half of what they earn to charities in impoverished nations, such as giving thousands of dollars annually to a health clinic in Nicaragua.
They have lived on approximately $6000 for several decades, simplifying, without meaning to, in fairly exact proportions with inflation. They are pacifists, so a refusal to pay for war has contributed to their lifestyle choices, but a desire for global equity drives their decisions more than tax concerns. The couple maintains that the values you live have more meaning than those you profess, and their lives humbly support this philosophy.
They've lived in Albuquerque since 1983, except for a five-year stint when they enrolled in a volunteer teaching program in Africa. Mary Ann, 57, volunteers full-time, coordinating Just Focus, a local organization working on global peace issues. A couple of years ago she was treated for cancer, and has now cut back on volunteer work to do several hours of health maintenance for damaged lymph nodes every day.
Chuck, 56, works part-time at TVI, teaching math and taking notes for students with disabilities. He is also a full-time bookkeeper and copy editor with the Interhemispheric Resource Center, a progressive think tank that touts Noam Chomsky as a board member.
It is the everyday details of their lives that make them remarkable. Their home in the South Broadway area is simple, and impeccably neat. They wash their clothes in a bucket, recycling the wash water for flushing the toilet. A small orchard in the backyard is canned into 200 quarts of food each year, and other food is bought through a neighborhood bulk food buying club organized through a local church. Urban foraging also plays a role; the little fruits off cacti, and other such finds. With the exception of a stove, refrigerator and a hot water heater, nothing in their house cost them more than $20. The south side has been retrofitted to take advantage of solar gain. Mary Ann has made three solar ovens out of recycled materials, and does most of the canning and baking in these ovens.
On a typical day Chuck is up at 5:30 a.m., and starts his IRC job at 6:30 a.m., biking to his job at TVI later that morning. For 40 years he says he ran an average of 10 km a day; that's three and a half times around the world at the equator, according to his calculations. He has since transitioned to walking due to knee troubles but still goes for daily walks. The night I visited him he had just gotten back from a “nice long walk to Isleta Pueblo,” a 20-mile round-trip jaunt. On the weekends he will often bike from his house in the East San Jose neighborhood to La Luz trail in the far Northeast Heights, and then hike to the top of the Sandias and back again. The biking is done on a one-speed, because, as Chuck explains, “I figure if it's one speed, if it breaks I have a chance to fix it.”
What's the driving philosophy behind the lifestyle choices you've made?
Chuck: A lot of the things we do are rooted in the gospels, and basically the thrust is to try to strive for global equity.
Mary Ann: In a Quaker language, there's a god within everyone, or in standard Christian terms, we're called to love our brothers and sisters globally. And so for us, that means you can strive to meet your basic needs, but that you should, as much as possible, share the resources. I mean, we're living in the wealthiest country in the world. We should be on a downward mobility journey and not an upward mobility journey in order to reach more of that global harmony. That's what drives our values more than the tax issue.
Explain your income situation?
Chuck: Well, we did most of the savings in the early years, and then bought things like our house. So that's one of the reasons why our expenses aren't so high because we don't have a mortgage payment. We pay property taxes, but we don't have a lot of the expenses that a lot of people have in monthly bills. Our only monthly bills are utility bills.
Mary Ann: And we don't have school debt.
Chuck: Marianne put herself through Cornell with babysitting.
Mary Ann: Thirty-five cents an hour (laughs)
Chuck: She did a lot of babysitting (laughs). Over the 33 years we've averaged sharing 60 percent [of our income] and living on 40 percent. It varies a lot year to year. We've been able to share more when I make more. During the first years we were married, we weren't sharing as much because we were saving up for things. We have a little unusual, maybe extremely fiscally conservative, attitude in that we pay cash for everything. So we didn't have a car for the first five years that we were married, and when we had cash to buy a car we had a car, and same thing with a house. We didn't have a house for the first six or seven years and when we had the cash to buy it, then we bought it. It was just a philosophy, you know, we'd buy everything as if we were buying a loaf of bread at the store.
Mary Ann: What [tax] avoidance does is it limits your career options. And the resistance does that too, from the other end, you cannot make too much or the IRS will garnish your wages. But in the avoidance situation you have to stay under (the federal poverty line). I essentially have worked 40 quarters for social security.
Chuck: Half of my work week is spent in volunteer work and the other half is spent in paid work. And that's very threatening to employers, because an employer wants to feel like he or she can control the employees by way of wages. If he likes your work, he wants to be able to raise your wages. And if you're not receiving wages, then he doesn't have that control. And so there has to be a level of trust to allow that to happen. I'm just like any other staff person in one of the places I work, except I'm not paid.
What's been the most difficult part of making the lifestyle decisions you've made?
Mary Ann: It's much easier having made this decision before we got married. The people that have the hardest time are those that are having to untangle from professional or suburban lifestyles. That's a much harder journey than if you've just always done it.
Chuck: The difficulty I would say is trying to explain how good a life it is. I mean, we don't see that there's any sacrifices in what we're doing. We are absolutely living the good life. This is the good life. It's just a different set of values to define what's good. I've always said that it seems to me that people want to strive for what's best. And that's exactly what we're doing, we're shooting for what's best. I'm a very selfish person. I don't want anything but the best for myself. I don't want to settle for any second-best thing that Wal-Mart puts up there. Like Thoreau said, you get a hold of life and suck the marrow out of it, really live it. When there's an attempt to live a life in solidarity with the average folk of the world that to me is the fullest way you can live. You really get a hold of what life means. It's hard to explain it to people, that's the most difficult part of it.
I hear a lot of people talk about stress and tension and all that stuff in their life. I think a lot of that has to do with not living the kind of life they want to live in their heart, and that would cause them to respect themselves more. And so in many people's vocabulary, there's always a whole long list of shoulds: I should be doing this, I should be doing that. And if you're simply doing it, instead of feeling guilty about not doing it, then you don't have so much in the way of this tension that's always there about well, you know, I know there's people starving in Africa, and I shouldn't be going out to the restaurant and eating ... but now I feel terrible. I just had this big meal and I spent $50 bucks and I feel worse than I did when I went in. You know, to me that's crazy.
Same thing with Christmas. You spend all this money on Christmas and people don't end up happy from it. They end up either guilty or feeling in debt. It's like all this pressure. It's a time when you should relax and concentrate on who it is that has a birthday on that day. You know, people lose track of this sort of thing. I've thought about life in the United States as living in a fantasy world. We are so insulated from what it really means to live. Most of the people in the world spend up to half their day hauling water and hauling wood. We don't do any of that. We just push a button and the heat goes on, we turn our tap and the water comes. I mean, we, including Marianne and I, are part of the global elite. We live in a way that's just off the charts by anybody's imagination 50 years ago.
Do you feel like you understand the conventional way of life in America more through your detachment of it?
Chuck: I certainly don't understand the appeal. It just doesn't make any sense to me why people put themselves through the kind of rat races they get into for the meager rewards they get out of it. I don't get it. Some people seem happy at least part of the time. [But] I would say that on our good days we're maybe 20 percent consistent with our values, and on our bad days maybe 3 percent. We are still part of the global elite, I mean, on all the operable questions. For example when you're hungry, can you eat? Bill Gates and I are on the same side of the fence and 80 percent of the world is on the other side. For 80 percent of the world, if they eat today they may not be able to eat tomorrow so they have to really think about whether they can eat today. When you are cold, can you get warm? Bill Gates and I just go over and flip a switch. For most people, it means walking five km to get some wood and then five km back. It's a major hassle. You know, when you're thirsty, can you get a drink? Bill Gates and I are on the same side of the fence and 80 percent of the world—that's the biggest problem. The majority of all the diseases in the world are caused by water pollution, or lack of water.
Most of the people I knew in Africa had one pair of shoes for their life. We had people who would walk down this craggy plateau, with all kinds of sharp jagged rocks everywhere, barefoot, and when they got down to the grass, in the hundred yards surrounding the church, they would put on their shoes and walk across the grass. And we always asked, you know, if it was me I would do it just the opposite (laughs). I'd have the shoes on going down the hill and then take them off when I got to the grass. But they said, these are my only pair of shoes, they have to last me my whole life. If I wear them as I walk across the grass, it doesn't wear them out. It's a whole different way of thinking. And that's how most of the world thinks. We're the ones that are odd.
So only being 20 percent consistent with your values on your good days, then, does that bother you?
Chuck: Well, Marianne said it well, we feel that the direction is what's important. It's not so much where a person is, but are they on an upward mobility trip or a downward mobility trip? We're always striving for 21 percent, that's really what's most important. If we found ourselves going out to get a second car, and getting a bigger house, all that kind of stuff, then we would have to feel like we're moving in the wrong direction. Our whole life has been about trying to figure out ways to live on less.
What you call the “global equality level,” is this is a number you've actually arrived at?
Chuck: We just did some rough calculations. When we came back from Africa in 1992 I went to the library, and you know, it's easy to find out population numbers, that's a simple thing, and then I had to figure out the global income. So you're adding up all these GNPs from all over the world and all this kind of stuff. And then I talked to an international economist about the idea of what percentage of that global income is really disposable, what reaches people, and what do they have to spend. And he did some calculations and came up with a percentage. So I took the global GNP, added all that stuff up and multiplied by that percent, which was about 80 percent, and then divided that by the world's population and came up with a number in 1990 dollars of roughly $3,000 per person, per year. You don't have to ask what I teach (laughs).
Did your upbringing influence the way you are living your lives?
Chuck: Well, the basic religious values are what shaped our values. Neither of us were living in households that were living in this way, but we were both raised in churches that professed this way of living even though the churches didn't live it. And so we were somehow able to keep the baby and throw out the bath water, instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Our religious values have always been strong even though we're some of the most vocal critics of the institutional church in our society.
How do you reconcile that?
Chuck: Well, once a church decides it wants to be an institution, the purpose of an institution is to self perpetuate. You've got to keep the institution alive, and so your priorities become the building and the pastor, and paying all the bills rather than some sort of prophetic mission that's lived. St. Francis I think said it better than anybody, he said, ’Preach the gospel always, when necessary, use words.' You know, if the church is living the gospel, it doesn't have to go out and say anything, people would observe it. To me, the churches in North America anyway, are most interested in the building, and the pastor's salary, and the benefits—the health insurance and the car that he drives. That to me has nothing to do with what Christianity is about.
Do you think that is true also in the Quaker church?
Chuck: Well, yeah. We've sort of taken to calling ourselves traditional Quakers because modern Quakers don't have the problems with technology, computers, that we have. Our Quaker meeting here is geared up to spend over half a million dollars on a building. Those are not my priorities. So, we don't relate to that kind of thing. To me, if I'm going to attend a religious institution, I want to be challenged. I want to be inspired to do more than I'm already doing. If the institution isn't further ahead than any of its individual members, then why do they come?
So you don't go to church?
Chuck: Very rarely. We've been attending occasionally a Mennonite church here in town, more because of the community there. But, there are few examples of churches in this country that really live their message, very few.
Anything else you think is important for me to know?
Chuck: The one area that we didn't really touch on is the whole area of environmental sustainability and why that's important. Again, from the Biblical perspective, for me, I'm the kind of person who likes summaries, so I relate to a passage in the Book of Luke when someone comes up to Jesus and says, could you just sort of summarize everything you're about in half a dozen words? And to paraphrase it, he says something like, revere God and love your neighbor. To me, if you revere God, a minimum part of that is having some kind of reverence for creation. I mean, whose creation is it anyway? You didn't create this world. So how did it get in your mind that it's your prerogative to simply consume and pollute the planet into oblivion? Somebody else created this place and it's your responsibility to leave it better than you found it, not worse than you found it. So, you know, from a Biblical perspective, most all of the technologies that have been developed in the last 20 years are heading us on a course towards environmental destruction. It'd be one thing if we created the planet, but we didn't. These technologies are basically designed to exacerbate global wealth disparity which is the antithesis of loving your neighbor. You can't be grabbing everything that he or she has, no matter how little it is, and claim that that's any sort of love.
A friend who had just returned from Africa was in this mall, and he was looking around at all these shops and he finally went up to this young woman who was behind the information desk and he said, young lady, do you realize that there's not anything in any one of these stores that anyone needs?! And she sort of looked at him and said, well, of course.