Most of us only get one guaranteed, regular opportunity to connect directly with our federal government. No Virginia, it's not elections -- it's TAX TIME!
You would think the feds, a government of, by and for the people, would pull out all the stops to inspire our confidence. But one glance at your 1040 instructions highlights some of what's wrong in America these days.
An estimated 60 percent of taxpayers pay a tax preparer. Ideally, we should all do our taxes in the spirit of communal support of freedom; an annual cathartic renewal of the social contract between the government and her citizens. Knowing that every other red-blooded American is joining us should be a cause for community celebration. But it's not, simply because we've lost trust in our government as well as our fellow citizens.
We do our own cost/benefit analysis to decide if what we pay is worth the services we get. Personally, I can't complain too much since most of my income comes from the feds. But I do mind having to sort through the hundred plus pages of instructions in a feeble attempt to get it right. With every exception, deduction and exemption, I consider who benefits most and conclude that it is clearly not me or even anyone I know.
Ways to fix the tax system are legion: a flat tax, current system reform, a consumption based value added or sales tax, or infinite combinations of these. The merits are certainly debatable, but there are two absolutes: Any system has got to be better than what we have now, and there's no political will to make an effective fix.
Don't blame the IRS. It is just another growing, myopic federal bureaucracy trying to make sense of late, arcane and conflicting guidance from Congress. With the president spending his political dimes elsewhere, there's no drive to fix the wacky tax code that impales us all.
Tax breaks for dead astronauts, teachers' books, victims of terrorism, employees of the intelligence services? All bright ideas -- but not elements that should be incorporated in a tax code that applies to everyone.
Fixing the tax system is not a new idea. Most of these themes were addressed by the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform in January 2005. But nothing much has happened.
So how can we force the politicians to pay attention?
As elections loom, the federal government appears to be gravitating to ancient Roman "bread and circus" methods -- it hands out "bread" to individuals with economic incentive rebates while the federal "circus" plays out on Wall Street, Afghanistan and Iraq, at the common man's expense. From buyout support, to sub-prime mortgage relief to continuing interest rate reductions, the feds incentivize the inept while sticking it to everyone else, as a dollar buys less and less.
Unfortunately, the only things you hear about tax reform from any candidate are little wiggles to placate whatever group they happen to be visiting. It's clear that we have plenty of taxation but the only representation is on behalf of the special interest groups and lobbyists who want to claim victory with a new tax break. Every serving politician puts tax reform into their "too hard box" and hopes that nobody asks about it.
From the Whiskey Rebellion to Ruby Ridge, tax revolts haven't met with much success. But what if every taxpayer advised their federal representatives that they would be held accountable at the next election if income tax reform did not become a reality? Something tells me that if Ted, Lisa and Don heard from even 5 percent of the voters in Alaska on April 15, even they might be forced to pay attention.
At a minimum, I hope my elected representatives will for once take pencil and calculator in hand, do their own taxes and then let us know if they think the system needs reform. If the right candidate comes along who puts a fix high on his priority list, I might even forget my capitalist responsibility to consume and use my share of the economic stimulus as a campaign contribution.
Unable to deduct sleep loss or time spent divining the alternative minimum tax, retired Army Col. Dan Bonney will send an April Fools Day gift to the federal government again this year.