Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cleaning Up the Mess

A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System – T. R. Reid (Penguin Press)

While there have been many variations on the same theme, the actual quote traces back to 1789 when Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

It is now an annual rite of passage that United States taxpayers will gather up mounds of paper kept in files or old shoeboxes and fire up their coffee pots and their computers or sharpen pencils and dust off calculators or for those less daring head out to their accountants office or strip plaza tax service to get their taxes done. It is a frustrating, head scratching, aggravating and costly endeavor whether or not you actually end up owing Uncle Sam or the state or local tax authorities a check.

It is a task that annually finds me flexing my procrastination gene; I tend to put it off until April 15 looms large. We hear the crazy statistics about the countless man hours and billions of dollars that we throw away in the quest to getting our tax returns filed. It is the absolute definition of insanity!

It is that system that longtime Washington Post correspondent and NPR commentator T R Reid places squarely under the microscopic in his new book A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System. Reid’s premise is a simple one; there has got to be a better way!

He lays out the case that much like the trains running on time, the U.S. Congress has taken it upon themselves to tackle “reforming” the tax system on a 32 year cycle. Not sure how that span worked itself out, maybe it takes that long for folks to build a critical mass behind getting fed up with the tax code before they start working in it. If the clock remains true, our next overhaul should take place in 2018.

Reid does a nice job of enumerating the myriad of issues that we have with the tax system; the loopholes, countless ways corporations and high net worth individuals can dodge or limit their tax hit and the Medusa’s head nature of the tax code which only serves to perpetuate the need for tax lawyers, accountants and auditors. He also delivers a synopsis of how we in the U.S. stack up against other countries around the globe when it comes to taxation.

Then comes the hard part; while he does a nice job of spelling out the problem, when it comes to offer suggested solutions it becomes heavy lifting. It simply isn’t a workable solution to scrap the whole thing start over. It is the quest for that sweet spot, landing somewhere between the current epic mess and a more equitable and easy to grasp new state. Here’s hoping that Congress has a better handle on things…but I won’t be holding my breath.

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