It's too darn taxing

April 15, 1994|By Thomas V. DiBacco

IT shouldn't be this complicated.

But we taxpayers already knew that.

The 81-year-old system wasn't devised to be intricate. Indeed, the first Form 1040 for the year 1913 -- a single page for most taxpayers, three pages maximum -- was the model of simplicity.

It remained that way until World War II, when withholding was introduced and most wage-earning Americans started to pay taxes. Congress passed a tax bill that President Franklin D. Roosevelt vetoed because he couldn't understand it. "These taxpayers," wrote FDR in his veto message, "now engaged in an effort to win the greatest war this nation has ever faced, are not in a mood to study higher mathematics."

Congress overrode the president's veto, forcing a half-century of calculus.

The 1913 income tax law was 14 pages. Two pages were added by 1916. In 1954, the tax code totaled 984 pages. It was 3,975 pages in 1985. Today, it's some 9,400 pages.

Taxes are so complicated in part because the system feeds on itself. Special interests want tax loopholes. They lobby Congress, Congress opens the loopholes, often without knowing doing it. The holes proliferate until the tax code becomes the proverbial block of Swiss cheese. Tax specialists are needed to interpret the ever-changing regulations. The business of preparing tax returns grows. Tax forms and instructions proliferate.

Taxpayers have choices, but they're all unfair: They can file the easiest way, taking only the standard deduction, even though that might be cheating themselves. Or they can turn the whole thing over to a paid preparer, who might not do a good job. Or they can do it themselves, negotiating the thicket of tortured English in the instructional booklets.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, former California Gov. Jerry Brown was the only candidate on the right track in proposing tax reform. But what is needed is not Mr. Brown's flat tax. What's needed is a major overhaul that keeps progressive rates -- the more you make, the more you pay -- and eliminates loopholes.

The simpler system could be phased in over a few years so as to permit accountants, investors and other interested parties to adjust. Congress could shoot for 1996 -- 220 years after a revolution sparked in part by unfair taxation -- to effect the simplicity and resultant equity that should be the cornerstones of a democracy.

Paying taxes should be no more taxing than voting, getting a driver's license or filling out a marriage certificate.

As former IRS Commissioner T. Coleman Andrews put it, "There is something wrong with any law that causes many people to have to take a whole day off their jobs to find out how to comply."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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