U.S. taxes drive us crazy. Simplify, please
The Kansas City Star
Oh Lord, it’s that time of year. You stare at the words on the form. “Short-term gain from Form 6252 and short-term gain or (loss) from Forms 4684, 6781, and 8824. … And you think, somewhere the world is at peace and people gaze from a beach as the sun dips below the horizon and no one is taken hostage, ever, by the most diabolical tax code on the face of the planet.
Seventy-five years ago the instruction booklet for Form 1040 was two pages. Today it’s nearly 200. The tax code in all its malignant glory is nearly 4 million words. No one fully understands what those words mean.
The annual ordeal reminds you of those sci-fi movies where the machines become sentient, develop egos and start bossing the people around. We’re already hostages to the tax code. Next, perhaps, we will somehow become its food. Anything is possible.
Ninety percent of individual taxpayers have given up trying to decrypt the code’s Delphic language. They hire somebody else to do it, or try. This year, individual taxpayers and businesses will spend more than 7 billion hours as tax-code hostages. Imagine the load that would be lifted from the economy if that burden could be cut, say, in half.
Our lawgivers make a pretense of feeling our pain. Then they go back to Washington, where lobbyists make them feel their pain, and the lawmakers obediently spray more loopholes and exclusions into the code. Since 1986, when many deductions were wiped out and the top rate dropped to 28 percent, there have been 15,000 changes. Not good, people. Do you think we don’t notice?
Take the Alternative Minimum Tax. A few years ago, most people didn’t even know it was out there, waiting to eat them. It started small, like the income tax itself. Somebody found out that a few dozen rich people had used loopholes so cleverly they didn’t pay a dime. Oh, the enormity! But instead of carving out the loopholes and simplifying the code, which is what everybody wanted then and still wants today, Congress made the code more complex.
With the AMT, our lawgivers added what amounted to another tax code, forcing everyone with an income over a certain amount to do two sets of calculations. And yeah — if you get eaten by this thing, you have to pay the higher amount.
It turns out these geniuses forgot to index the monster for inflation. So now AMT calculations can kick in for incomes around, say, $75,000. Congress began by trying to grab a few rich people and ended up trapping millions of middle-class taxpayers. Nice.
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put his finger on the problem. Thanks to our basic political dynamic, when rates go up, loopholes flow in, almost like a “hydraulic phenomenon.”
The obvious compromise, if you want a simpler code, is to lower the rates and carve out the loopholes — exactly what President Barack Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission suggested more than a year ago.
After a great deal of talk, nothing happened. So here we are, staring at the words …Short-term gain from Form 6252 and short-term gain or (loss) from Forms 4684, 6781, and 8824 … dreaming of release from our annual captivity, and yearning for a taxpayer’s utopia where a citizen’s annual duty could be fulfilled on a form the size of a postcard.