Sometime around March 1, taxpayers in Japan will receive a postcard in the mail from the Japanese version of the IRS. The postcard will explain what the government thinks the taxpayer earned during the past year, how much money was withheld, and either how much refund was due or how much in taxes was still owed. The appropriate amount of refund or the amount required to still be paid will be either deposited or withdrawn from a bank account that the citizen has already designated. Eighty-five percent of the population will look at the card briefly, file it away and taxes are done until the next year.

Compare this to the United States, where 6 billion hours will be spent between now and April 15 by citizens paying taxes. The average family spends roughly $260 each year for the privilege of filing a tax return. Yes, we spend money for the right to pay taxes to the government. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Our current tax system is rotten to the core. It is hopelessly unfair, inefficient, confusing and complicated. Mitt Romney, making $20 million a year (yes, we used to have presidential candidates who disclosed their tax returns) pays tax at a lower rate than a family of four making one-hundredth as much. Harvard University has an endowment that is bigger than the GNP of many countries, yet money donated to the university is tax-deductible. Our tax system is riddled with loopholes, but we usually make things worse instead of better. In a typical year, there are 400 new exemptions added to the tax code as the result of well-connected interests lobbying Congress.

So, if we are really interested in serious tax reform, here are some suggestions. Unless you have no use for roads, bridges, hospitals and parks, and obtain no benefit from the security our police and armed forces provide, then you should pay taxes. Americans pay less tax than most of the rest of the world in terms of overall tax burden, but we certainly complain more. If our code made more sense, perhaps we would complain less. The basic principle is simple — broad base, low rates. Everyone pays something. And if everyone pays and there are no special classes, everyone pays less, and returns are much simpler. Wealthy citizens should pay at a higher rate than citizens who are less well-off. If the disparity of wealth in this country were not so great, our tax code would not have to be so progressive. We need a tax code that fairly taxes our nation’s wealth, so if the top 25 percent of our earners account for two-thirds of the nation’s income, our tax policy must reflect that.

But here’s the catch. If there are no “special” classes of taxpayers, then there should be no special tax breaks for those who pay a mortgage instead of paying rent. If a homeowner decides that solar panels or an electric car are good ideas, that is wonderful. But that decision should not be based on the tax break awarded to such a purchase. If you have materials to donate to a museum that they would appreciate, that is also wonderful, but that donation should be made because you wish to support the museum and wish to have your belongings properly displayed and enjoyed by the public. The same should be true of other deductions for charity, student loans, moving expenses, mortgage points … the list goes on. These expenses or donations are either desirable for the individual or they are not. They should not be actions taken simply to avoid paying taxes.

Of course, at this point, I have offended almost everyone and now you see why real tax reform is difficult. None of these ideas is mine, of course. You might wish to read, “A Fine Mess,” by T.R. Reid, who describes in detail what real tax reform would look like. This requires political will that, unfortunately, we don’t seem to have. And, it requires us to carefully examine what works in the rest of the world, and to admit that they have ideas that, in this case, work better than ours.

Gary Foote writes from Westminster.

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