KENT WARD

On junking a tax code gone rogue

Posted April 20, 2012, at 6:12 p.m.

There is an idea often expressed by frustrated taxpayers after the annual mid-April income-tax-filing frenzy has abated that the ponderous federal tax code should be junked and a new one, short and to the point, be written — this one in plain English.

In the words of political satirist and author P.J. O’Rourke, the present tax code is so confusing that every time a federal appointment is made “the appointee has to go before a congressional committee to explain how he got so confused that he didn’t pay his taxes.”

The late Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson might well have been speaking of the arcane tax code rather than an inept Tiger pitching staff when he told a sportswriter, “You don’t have enough smarts to straighten this out. It’s unstraightenable.”

At the tax-filing deadline a couple of years ago, I watched with smug satisfaction as a cable television talk show host read a passage from the federal tax code to his guest, a tax expert who had made a comfortable living deciphering government gobbledygook. The tax expert readily acknowledged that he hadn’t a clue what the paragraph meant, and I thought, well, the man should not feel like the Lone Ranger. He certainly has lots of company.

The passage in question was one of those classic convoluted tax preparation instructions that tend to make a normal person’s eyes glaze over and his ears buzz. Which is why I always farm out my annual tax prep job to a downriver accountant who is an old pro, unbothered by such afflictions. He has suggested to me more than once that the tax code ought to come with a prominently displayed caveat: “Warning. Do not try figuring this out at home alone, without adult supervision” and since he knows far more about the subject than I would ever want to, I take him at his word.

It’s little wonder that many taxpayers take satisfaction in waiting until the last possible moment to file their tax returns. No one ever said it is smart to unduly mess with the tax man, especially if such brinksmanship might cause you to miss the filing deadline. But there’s no law yet that says we can’t delay the inevitable capitulation until late in the eleventh hour, just for kicks.

My theory is that the authors of our impenetrable tax code prose may have signed on for the task after mastering the technique of unintelligible government jargon at the knee of some veteran ongoing review mechanism facilitator who taught such time-honored concepts as integrated management options, systematized digital capabilities and the like. Upon earning a doctorate in cranking out unnecessarily complicated copy they qualified to become writers of tax law, and the rest is history.

To remain current in the technique they would do well to adopt as role models sports personalities who are experts in speaking in riddles. Citizens such as former professional basketball player Darryl Dawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers, for example. Dawkins once took a vow of silence in dealing with sportswriters, explaining that “Nothing means nothing, but it really isn’t nothing because nothing is something that isn’t.”

There is also much to admire in the style of another great communicator, former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. “If a guy can’t get sick on a day like today, he ain’t healthy,” Berra reportedly told a teammate while playing baseball on a cold spring afternoon in New York.

As far back as 347 B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato warned about the shortcomings of the income tax code of his day. “When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of money,” the old boy warned, which is pretty much the same lament we hear today whenever the talk turns to the federal tax code presently in play.

Politicians running for high political office often profess to believe, like their constituents, that reformation of the tax laws is a swell idea whose time has long since arrived. Some promise that if elected they will straighten the “unstraightenable.” But once in office they invariably seem to fall back upon a philosophy attributed to late South American dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, a former president of Chile.

Pinochet is reported to have once said his regime was not against people having ideas. It simply was against their spreading them around.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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