Jewish World Review April 18, 2006 / 20 Nissan, 5766

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Happy Tax Day | April is the saddest month, mixing — no, not memory and desire, as the poet said — but all kinds of tax forms.

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 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.

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.

None of this will come as news. Any candid politician will admit that the whole system is almost as big a mess as the country's immigration "laws," which are as confusing as they are unenforceable. Wouldn't it be something if Washington actually did something about either?

One year about this time, a businessman I know was telling me that what really got to him wasn't having to pay his taxes, but how long it took him to understand — well, to try to understand — the computations his accountant had made. These days you need an accountant to explain the accountant.

Often enough, not even the pros can agree on the right answers to this intricate puzzle. Every year, surveys find a wide disparity between answers to the same tax questions. One year somebody monitored the performance of the IRS' hot line, and estimated that the IRS had given out more than 24 million wrong answers — that is, if there is a right answer to some of these conundrums.

But why blame the revenooers for being as confused as the rest of us? The big problem isn't the IRS but the complexity of the tax code itself, which has grown like some monstrous Topsy over the years. It keeps being changed, expanded and further confused, usually to reflect the demands of the latest powerful interest. Until finally it surpasseth all understanding.

Is tax reform the answer? It's more like the problem, since every reform tends to complicate tax law only more. And the longer and worse the tax code gets, the less chance there is of really reforming the thing.

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 indecipherable and counterproductive as the one we've got? So why not opt for a clean break with the past? 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 till 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, 2007. At midnight, this whole encyclopedia of complexities would be history. The government would have until then to come up with a simple, fair substitute.

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 creating a simpler, fairer system might become clear to all those bureaucrats who now say it can't be done.

We'll be told that now is no time to fiddle with the tax system, not with the economy finally revving up again.

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 more uncertainty.

In the end nothing will really change. And this cumbersome apparatus will grow still more cumbersome. That's why there is no time like the present to abolish the Internal Revenue Code. Which is just what I suggested on Tax Day in 2002, and 2004 and . . . .

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

Every weekday publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

Paul Greenberg Archives


© 2005, TMS