William Simon long ago served as the U.S. Treasury Secretary, from 1974 to 1977 under both Nixon and Ford. He was being sarcastic when he coined the phrase, realizing that even decades ago, the United States did not have a tax system that looked like an intelligent being designed it on purpose. Such a system would be easy to comply with, easy to understand, and not a burden on the economy.
Over time, the political class has continuously used the tax system to reward both constituents and reelection campaign donors and tried to manage social and political changes by manipulating the tax code to advantage those changes. As a result, we have ended up with a tax system that is anything but fair, easy to understand, efficient, and easy to comply with.
Consider the following factoids about our nation's tax system:
- First, let's find out a basic fact: how many pages are in the Title 26 Federal Tax Code? If you search for this answer on the Net, the estimates are never exactly the same but are pretty consistent, most around 70,000 pages. However, most of the estimates were prior to 2011, they probably did not take into account the additional Federal tax changes that Obama Care seeks to put into place so at least 70,000 pages seems like a solid number
How long is 70,000 pages? If you were reading the three volume edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord Of The Rings" tome, which measure about 5 inches across, you would have to read it about 70 times. If you bought the King James version of the Bible that is currently available on Amazon, you would have to read it about 46 times. And both of these examples are probably much easier reads than 70,000 pages of tax code.
- An online article from U.S. News and World Report in April, 2010 also estimated 70,000 pages but provided some additional, fascinating, and depressing statistics:
Americans spend about 7.6 billion hours a year just preparing their tax returns.
This is the equivalent of placing 3.8 million Americans into full time jobs.
Using this criteria, the tax preparation effort in this country is six times larger than the auto making industry in this country.
The original Federal tax code published in 1913 was 400 pages long, making it about .6% the size of what we deal with today.
- According to a Business Week article from its Insider report for Spring, 2011, there is a $345 billion gap between what U.S. taxpayers are supposed to pay in Federal taxes and what they actually pay. This gap theoretically places an additional tax burden of about $3,000 on each U.S. household, all because the political class and the government it runs does not know how operate an efficient tax collection system. The size and complexity of our 70,000 page tax code probably has a lot do to with tax evaders being so proficient at hiding the taxes the owe.
- According to a short article in the December 12, 2011 issue of Business Week, 51 Federal tax breaks were expected to expire at the end of 2010. A sampling of these 51 tax breaks give a good indication of how convoluted and needlessly complex our tax system has become (remember these are the tax components that went away, there are probably thousands and thousands of other similar ones that did not go away and which take up the 70,000 pages):
* Special expensing rules for certain film and television productions.
* Mine rescue team training credit.
* Temporary increase in limit on cover over of rum excise tax revenues to Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.
* Credit for electric-drive motorcycles, three-wheeled vehicles, and low speed vehicles.
* Seven year recovery period for motor-sports entertainment complexes.
* Look through treatment of payments between related controlled foreign corporations under the foreign personal holding company rules.
* American Samoa economic development credit.
* Tax credit for first time DC home buyers.
These were some of the 51 tax components that I understood. Many of the other ones are complicated and apparently narrowly focused. Few, if any of these 51, apply to the vast number of ordinary Americans. They were likely developed and inserted into the tax code at the behest of Washington politicians to support a narrow geographic, personal, or business interest.
Did any politicians personally make use of that tax credit to buy DC home and real estate? Did Hollywood interests kick in some political campaign donations for those special expensing rules? How many Americans qualify for the mine training credit? Special rules for special political people all of which add to the complexity of our tax code, favor special interests, and cost ordinary Americans more in their own tax bill.
- A March 21, 2011 article in Business Week magazine reported how American corporations are holding $1 TRILLION worth of profits and cash overseas since it is a better business, financial, and economic decision to do so than to bring that wealth back to the United States and have it heavily taxed.
$1 TRILLION is about 25% more than what the Obama administration spent on its economic stimulus program. Dumping $1 TRILLION back into the U.S. economy, would have to have a positive economic on our unemployment situation. Wouldn't it be nice if we had a tax code that encouraged American companies to bring money and wealth back into America for investment in America which would generate jobs for Amercians?
- A recent Wall Street Journal article, that was summarized in the April 29, 2011 issue of The Week magazine, estimated that U.S. taxpayers expend about $431 billion a year to comply with the complexity of the U.S. tax code. This money could be so much better spent on productive expansion of the economy and employment rather than tax paperwork.
- Another Busines Week article in the Spring, 2011 issue had some interesting facts regarding corporate tax realities. According to the article, although the top U.S. corporate tax rate is 35%, that rate is applied haphazardly and grossly unfairly against different companies and different industries:
* For the business quarter that ended on December 31, 2010, Proctor and Gamble had an effective tax rate of 17.9%.
* Other the past three years, Walmart has had an effective tax rate of 33.6%, about twice the tax rate of Proctor and Gamble.
* But wait! Over that same time frame, General Electric had an effective U.S. tax rate of 3.6% even though it had billions in revenue and profits, about one ninth the rate of poor Walmart.
Looks like Walmart needs to significantly improve its Washington lobbying effort, given how poorly the tax code treats it vs. how well the same tax code treats General Electric. You cannot say you have a fair and balanced tax code when different sections of the economy are treated radically different from each other.
- Let's stay with General Electric for a while to show how ridiculous our 70,000 page tax code is. According to November news reports, the latest General Federal tax filing, if it had been printed out rather than submitted electronically, would have been about 57,000 pages in length.
In other words, just one company's one year tax filing would have been about 80% the length of the entire tax code. To make it more tangible, these 57,000 pages, if stacked one on top of another, would be about 19 feet tall.
Think about how many GE resources went into compiling a 57,000 page, one year tax return. Think about how much more productively GE could have used those resources to create new products and expand the economy.
Think about how many government resources will have to be expended to go through one 57,000 page tax return. Think about how easy it is for GE to cheat on its 57,000 page tax return, which I am definitely not saying it did, since I doubt even the Federal government has the resources to thoroughly go through all 57,000 pages to determine if the filing was accurate.
Think about how much better those government resources could be used if we had a simpler tax system, possibly diverting those resources to go after the criminals and fraudsters that rip off Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid of hundreds of billions of dollars every year.
The details of how unproductive a 70,000 page tax code be is now pretty obvious. It creates an incredibly complex process that makes tax cheating and tax evasion so easy. It allows politicians to use the tax code to reward their financial backers or to personally enrich themselves.
It wastes time, resources, and wealth, all of which could be used for far more productive purposes, either reducing government fraud and waste or allowing individuals and companies to focus on expanding their businesses and lives. Replacing non-productive tax activities with productive economic activities would certainly go a long way to reducing unemployment in this country.
How do we get to this new view that taxes should be simple, fair, compassionate and not a drain on the economy? Believe it or not, the first step has to be installing term limits into our political processes. Our current set of politicians, in both parties, are not interested in simplifying the tax code. If they did, they would lose a primary source of political and financial power. They need to be replaced and the only way to do that is via a Constitutional amendment that imposes a "one and done" term limit restriction on all Federal politicians.
In the mean time, the nation needs a simplified tax code approach that is fair, easy, effective, and efficient. It is not hard to do if you use reason, logic, and a little math, three attributes that constantly appear to elude most of Washington's political class.