Monday, April 16, 2007

Ronald Reagan said it back in 1983: “Our federal tax system is, in short, utterly impossible, utterly unjust and completely counterproductive… [it] reeks with injustice and is fundamentally un-American… it has earned a rebellion and it’s time we rebelled.”

But what politician would rail against the country’s irrational, insufferable, infernal Internal Revenue Code today, except perhaps for ceremonial purposes? Some in Congress have made distinguished careers leading the innocent and unwary through its byzantine ways and byways, occasionally constructing secret passages to favor the special interests they represent. Whole industries like accountancy and tax law have been built on it.

This republic, which was born of a tax revolt — indeed, several of them — has lost touch with its roots. We have become inured to the injustice and, even worse, the unknowable intricacies of the tax system so that complaints about it sound more like ritual than indignation.

Most of us don’t object to paying our taxes — living in the United States of America is not only a privilege but a great bargain. What we object to, or should, is how hard, how complicated, how expensive and sometimes just plain hopeless it is to figure out how much we owe.

Awash in a sea of paper, or maybe in an ocean of electronic impulses in this internetted age, the American taxpayer needs help. Every new sweeping tax law Congress enacts — always called a “reform” — makes the job even more complicated and, if possible, more confusing. And the tax code longer.

One such grand reform, makeover and general overhaul was enacted in 2001. It included 441 changes in the tax code. Just one of them — about how to claim a tax rebate if you didn’t get one that year — generated a million errors on that single line of people’s returns.

The country’s tax code has grown as indecipherable to the average American as Hammurabi’s. It might as well be written on clay tablets.

Even the length of the code is a matter of debate, with estimates varying widely. According to the U.S. Government Printing Office, it’s 13,458 pages long and available in 20 volumes ($974, shipping included), but that doesn’t count an additional 3,387 pages contributed by Congress, available for $179. That brings the grand total to 16,845 pages. It sounds like just the thing to keep on your bedside table if you should ever have trouble nodding off.

For the average American family, filling out a tax form has become like attacking a puzzle to which, often enough, there is no right answer. But we’re all supposed to swear, on penalty of perjury, that we’ve done our best to find it. It’s enough to take the bloom out of April even in these dogwood-blessed latitudes.

What to do? Don’t mend it, end it. Abolish the tax code and start all over. Think about it: Would anybody starting from scratch come up with a system as arcane and counterproductive as the one we have? So why not opt for a clean break with the past?

Yes, abolish the Internal Revenue Code and begin anew.

But would that be fair? Well, one thing this current complex, loophole-riddled tax system isn’t is fair. Even a flat tax, if it didn’t start until incomes reached, say, $30,000 a year, might be fairer than the monster we’ve got on our hands now.

Put this thing out of its misery and ours. At a time certain. Say, Dec. 31, 2008. The government would have until then to come up with a simple, fair substitute.

Too much to ask?

To rephrase a thought from Dr. Johnson, nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of being executed. Kill the Internal Revenue Code, and the way to create a simpler, fairer system might become clear to all those politicians, bureaucrats and other unimaginative types who now say it just can’t be done.

We’ll be told that now is no time to fiddle with the tax system, not with the economy humming along.

And when the economy slows down, as it will sure as there is a business cycle, we’ll be told that now is no time to fiddle with the tax system and risk a recession.

It’s hard to crack the wall of inertia out there. How many years have I been writing essentially this same column on Tax Day? I’ve lost count. The only change? The tax code grows longer and more complex.

There will always be an excuse for doing nothing about taxes. But abolish the old tax code on a date certain, and you can bet the politicians in Washington will get busy devising a new one. They’ll want to get paid, won’t they?

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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