A reader has sent me a clipping of a year-old news story. It says that on March 24, 1977, the Federal Trade Commission began investigating prices charged by accountants.
The story said the FTC wanted to find out "why in this day of complicated tax returns the services of a qualified accountant are beyond the reach of the average consumer."
One year later, a CPA's services are still expensive. John G. Whelan comments: "The most obvious solution would be to have the IRS simplify the tax forms so that the 'average consumer' could prepare his own tax return. The FTC finds it easier to criticize the accounting profession than to tangle with another government agency."
John, they can investigate all they like, but skilled professionals are always going to have customers waiting in line in spite of high fees. The problem is that we can't buy accounting insurance as one buys health insurance.
For good tax advice, one pays a good fee. The alternative is to hire somebody who works cheaper - usually a tax preparer who isn't really an expert and certainly isn't a CPA.
Because April 15 is a tax deadline for almost all of us, the quality of the advice available at this season is poor. The experts are spread too thin.
In the spring, people whose primary work is something else become part-time tax preparers. Even IRS people normally assigned to other tasks are given temporary duty as tax advisers during March and April - but it is a mistake to assume that their free advice can be relied upon.
"If we make an error," IRS warns, "you are still responsible for the payment of the correct tax, and we are generally required by law to charge interest." But why blame IRS for this? Congress writes our tax laws. When laws are complicated, there is no simple way to administer them.
Congress talks about tax reform but thus far has shown little ability to reform itself, let alone the tax laws. Some day, perhaps, voters will stick a pitchford into the seat of government, but until then we are not likely to get a simple income tax law.
So while we wait for relief, permit me to make a suggestion: Why not have a dozen tax deadlines in each year instead of just one?
The 15th of every month could be the deadline for one-twelfth of the nation's taxpayers. The first letter of each person's last name would determine the month in which his return would be due, and therefore the "tax year" for which he would be filing.
If your last name starts with an A or B, your deadline might be January.C and D might file in February; E and F in March; G and H in April; I, J and K in May; L and M in June; N and O in July; P, Q and R in August; S in September; T and U in October; V and W in November; and X, Y and Z in December.
Each person's tax year would end 3 1/2 months before his deadline for filing, just as it does now. Junius Q. Wroughtiron's tax year would end on July 31. His employer would be required to furnish W-2 forms covering Wroughtiron's earnings and deductions between Aug. 1 and the following July 31. Wroughtiron's filing deadline would be Nov. 15.
In the first year, special rules would be needed for orderly transition. Thereafter, everything would run as before with one big difference: Today when Wroughtiron calls IRS for advice or tries to hire a good tax adviser, he is in competition with every other American whose tax deadline is April 15. If we switch to a system of monthly deadlines, 91.6 percent of Wroughtiron's fellow taxpayers will not be facing a deadline in the same month, and won't be competing with him for tax help.
State governments have learned to stagger driver's license renewals and keep a competent work force on the same assignment all year long. IRS could get the same benefit from a staggered system of tax deadlines.
Professional tax experts would no longer be forced to work themselves into exhaustion each spring. They would be availabile to clients, and leave no void to be filled by less competent tax preparers.
Yes, employers would have to set up 12 tax year schedules instead of one. But in this computerized era, that is no great problem, and anything that yields benefits requires some expenditure of effort.
If there are serious flaws in my idea, please tell me about them and I will drop it. But if the only objection is that it would cause a bit of difficulty, that won't deter me. The present income tax law is a difficulty of considerablemagnitude.