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After 94 years, filing taxes still a process of trivial tyranny

The Baltimore Sun

A citizen is obligated to pay for his nation's reasonable operating costs. A nation is obligated to collect the revenue in the fairest and least painful way.

Americans have met their side of the bargain.

America has miserably failed.

As you do your taxes, remind yourself that this is not the way it ought to be. Ninety-four years of federal income taxes have numbed us to the outrageous reality of the filing process, the trivial tyranny of forms, schedules, instructions and exemptions.

Today, no matter what your politics, wake up and meet your inner Steve Forbes (the best-known advocate of tax simplification).

I'm not anti-tax. I'm anti-confusion, and Congress has made tax laws so confusing that even the Internal Revenue Service doesn't understand them.

I'm anti-oppression, and Congress has made completing the tax forms more oppressive than paying the tax. I'm anti-cynicism, and Congress has designed a system to make even a patriot want to stop filing.

There are 77 boxes to complete on this year's Form 1040, each a trap door of potential perjury and fraud prosecution. Schedules, worksheets and attachments add many more.

One box depends on another, so even simple, honest errors breed multiple mistakes. Chaos-theory researchers don't need hurricane patterns or bacteria colonies when they have the tax code.

The instructions for Form 1040, by my calculation, have the same length, theme and appeal as Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, the undergraduate philosophy staples.

Flunking Kierkegaard, however, never sent anyone to jail. And with income taxes, anybody can flunk! Even the highly trained IRS customer-service reps.

Take the earned income credit, which is supposed to help low-income, typically unsophisticated taxpayers.

If anything should be user-friendly, the EIC is it. But the EIC rules are a joke, a tiny corner of 1040 hell serving as a metaphor for the whole, infernal wreck.

Are you a dependent on somebody else's tax return? Is your spouse? Are you a qualifying child on another return? (Of course you know the difference between a qualifying child and a dependent. It's obvious, but you might have to fill out a worksheet and consult Publication 596 and Form 8862.)

Did you earn combat pay? Are you disabled? Older than 65? Younger than 25? Do you or don't you have a Social Security number?

It all matters for the earned income credit, and you'd better not mess up. "If you fraudulently take the EIC, you will not be allowed to take the credit for 10 years," the IRS warns. "You may also have to pay penalties."

Lord help you if your kids have taxable income, which can involve hours of extra paperwork. The rules for distinguishing taxation of short-term capital gains from that of long-term capital gains can send even sophisticated taxpayers into the arms of an expensive accountant.

If you receive Social Security benefits and are also subject to the "IRA deduction phaseout rules" (and you know who you are, right?), there are three worksheets to fill out. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a particularly poisonous example of the alternative minimum tax, in which a couple's home was threatened because the IRS said they owed tax on stock gains they never received.

And don't forget this year's Where's Waldo deduction - for college tuition. It's not on Form 1040. It's not in the instructions. You have to either hire a psychic or read Publication 970, which basically says, "Pay no attention to everything else we said about this."

Every now and then, Congress pretends to address the mess. In 1986, there was a revamp, but mainly for business taxes.

"Most of the complexity that has been added since then has been on the individual side," says Leonard E. Burman, director of the Urban Institute's Tax Policy Center. Individuals, of course, are the taxpayers least equipped to deal with complexity.

One reason the tax code looks like a bird's nest, Burman says, is Congress' fondness for funneling social policy through the tax apparatus - subsidizing homeownership, helping the poor, promoting long-term stock ownership, etc. "Most other countries don't try to do so much with their tax system as we do," he says.

But if so, Congress is killing us with kindness. The Tax Foundation figures tax-compliance costs (H&R; Block, lawyers, recordkeeping, hours spent on your return) amount to 20 percent of federal revenue. Economist Gary Becker says maybe 10 percent. Either way, it's a huge waste. Whatever benefits individual tax gimmicks might have, in the aggregate they are crushing us with costs.

Stop the madness. Simplification doesn't necessarily require a "flat tax," the fix pushed by Forbes. We can easily have the same revenue and progressiveness as today's system, but without the rattlesnakes. Tell your congressman.

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