Kozlowski: Doing taxes complex, mundane yet inevitable

Mark Kozlowski | April 2, 2012    

What makes this time of year so anti-charming is that one specific tiding it brings is inevitable and predictable. What makes this time of year so anti-charming is that one specific tiding it brings is inevitable and predictable.

That inevitable tiding is, in a way, worse than death: We know that death comes to us all, but it is interesting and exciting in that we’re never quite sure when it will occur. Brushing against it can be thrilling and as easy as jaywalking. And, of course, death occurs only once. Yet what we do at this time of year comes every year, twinned with death in its certainty.

I refer, of course, to taxes.

Now taxes by themselves are the annoying price we pay for civilization. Indeed, the marker of civilization is that a society has taxes where a pre-civilization had extortion. Throughout history, people have disliked paying taxes to the point of taking up arms against the government. I really don’t think anybody actually enjoys paying taxes any more than they enjoy paying to get their cavities filled. It’s unpleasant, but we need to do it.

I see why taxes are necessary. They pave the roads, sort of. They keep our army maintained so the Canadians don’t get any ideas. They provide services to the needy. They build random bridges in Alaska that nobody uses. While there’s both pork and baloney in the federal budget, one man’s baloney is another’s graduate student stipend. I won’t complain too much about the money itself.

I will complain about the time it takes me to do all this stuff. The Folger Shakespeare Library estimates that the complete works of Shakespeare contain 884,647 words. In contrast, the U.S. tax code contains 3.8 million words, according to The Economist, with none of it written in iambic pentameter or speaking to the human condition — though I’m sure the code talks about falconry somewhere. The IRS estimates that tax compliance takes up 6.1 billion man-hours every year, or 3 million people working full time, year-round, just on taxes. That’s about as many people as the entire civilian federal workforce or the entire Department of Defense. That’s a lot of time that could probably be better spent elsewhere.

It’s also a lot of aggravation or expense — or both — to do your taxes. At 16, I tried to file my taxes using pencil, paper and an instruction booklet. Accounting for three sources of income, the task took me about three hours. Accompanying this inconvenience was the realization that if I screwed up and got caught, in theory, I would be liable for perjury. This is spooky, so 60 percent of Americans pay to have their taxes done, with another 29 percent shelling out for software.

Aside from the lost time, there are other real costs to having a complicated tax code and filing system. First, the IRS has to catch those people who are either mistaken or dishonest in their tax filings, which takes a lot of time. Second, all this complexity makes it easier to hide amidst the many exemptions and loopholes of the tax code, considering you are able to afford somebody who will find those loopholes for you. This is how some billionaires are able to pay taxes at a rate of 17 percent while not reporting some of their income as, well, income. Even Warren Buffett, he of the Buffett Rule, is able to exploit loopholes to pay less and completely avoid the Alternative Minimum Tax, a tax specifically targeted at the rich in the first place. Third, there are parts of the tax code that simply make no sense, such as how interest on Treasury bonds is taxed at normal rates whereas municipal bonds are tax-exempt.

There is a serious need for tax simplification, something which is felt on both the left and the right. Herman Cain had a big surge in the polls before he demonstrated he wasn’t sure where Libya was, and the big reason was the 9-9-9 plan. Of course, a lot of people thought that it wasn’t really workable, that it was regressive and that he got the idea from playing SimCity. But what made the plan appealing was its simplicity: Attach documentation of everything that you made this year, send us 9 percent, thank you. When you go to the store: your total is $5. With 9 percent federal sales tax, that’s $5.45. Have a nice day.

Unfortunately, although a general agreement about the tax code is in place on the left and the right, there is no specific agreement. There are also very strong vested interests in keeping the tax code exactly the way it currently is. For one thing, those with money want loopholes in which to hide it, and every interest group is interested in a particular set of exemptions. For another, tax preparers are not at all interested in everybody being able to do their own taxes with a pencil and paper. This isn’t because they’re evil; it’s because they want to have jobs. Most taxpayers accept irritation at tax time as inevitable and don’t really make noise about it.

So while there is a very real need for tax simplification, the sad truth is that we are just going to have to accept the complexity. If only people would demand comprehensive tax reform, or if Hollywood could at least make taxes as exciting as death is on the silver screen.


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