It's cowardice, I confess, but for weeks after the forms came they remained carefully tucked away, out of sight if not quite out of mind. Then, the holiday. In a moment of idle curiosity I picked them up and began reading.
I was prepared for a pleasant surprise. For months, we had been reporting major progress. Help was on the way for the long-suffering taxpayer. Not just all those continuing promises from the president about reforming the tax system. (The tax code, you remember, was "a disgrace to the human race," as the president put it during his campaign.) But this year real change has occured.
We were getting new Internal Revenue Service tax forms. These were, we reported, easier to understand and simpler to fill out. Much of the legalistic wording had been replaced by everyday language, and the forms themselves were redesigned so that taxpayers could proceed logically through them, instead of having to flip back and forth. And the IRS even had added an esthetic touch to the new taxpayers' form: the latest model would come in a soothing pink-on-white color.
The pink seems to have become lost in some unknown bureaucratic battle: mine comes blue-on-white, then black-on-white, and finally a formless gray. As for the simpler, more logical, everyday language, well -- but Judge for yourself.
Right away, under instructions for filing Form 1040, and who MUST -- the capitalization is the government's -- itemize deductions, there appears the following:
If any of the above applies and your itemized deductions on Schedule A, line 39, are less than the amount on Schedule A, line 40, you must complete Part II of Schedule TC, Tax Computation Schedule. Enter the amount from Schedule TC, Part II, line 5, on Form 1040, line 34. Do not make an entry on Form 1040, line 33 and disregard the instruction on line 34. Line 34 is your Tax Table Income. If (b) applies, check the box under line 33 on Form 1040.
Surely, that was an aberration. Someone must have slipped in some of the old language. Or could it be this really was the streamlined form of the future?
Next page. Here's a simple one. It's on how to claim credit for contributions to candidates for public office, "etc." The etcetera presumably covers a multitude of other political contributions. The IRS instructs you thus:
If you elect to claim a credit, add up the money you gave to help pay campaign expenses of candidates for public office, political committees and to newsletter funds of candidates and elected public officials. If you are filing a seperate return, enter HALF the amount you gave, but not more than $50. If you are married, filing a joint return, enter HALF the amount you gave, but not more than $50. Do not enter more than the amount on Form 1040, line 37 reduced by the amount of credits on lines 39, 41 and 42. Make a side calculation before you enter the credit here. Do not claim this credit for the amount, if any, you checked off to go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.
Not as bad, perhaps, but still. . .
Next page. Here's what at first appears to be an anachronism -- and then turns out to be more proof of the continuing gobbledygook of government programs. This one tells how to recompute a prior year's WIN credit. WIN? Wasn't that Jerry Ford's smash idea to Whip Inflation Now? Remember the WIN buttons? But, no, it seems this WIN program has nothing to do with inflation. It's about a Work Incentive credit program. As IRS explains:
If a WIN employe is dismissed within the first 90 days of employment (whether not consecutive) or before the end of the 90th calendar day after the day in which the employe completes 90 days of employment, you must repay (with certain exceptions) any tax credit previously taken on the salaries and wages paid or incurred to that employe. Please see Form 4874. The tax from recomputing a prior year (WIN) credit map not be offset against the current year's (WIN) credit . . .
I like the "with certain exceptions."
One of the more outrageous aspects of modern American government is the fact that half of our citizens must turn to a third party for help in filing their income tax returns. It's gotten to the point where now even professionals must seek the expert advice of others in threading through the maze of the tax system. The burden strikes most cruelly on the poor, but the rest of us who are more fortunate economically also pay an unnecessary price in time, money and frustration.
That's true even for government officials. Take the experience of one acquaintance, a top-level manager in a major U.S. department. He had been a business administration major in college, and had studied accounting. He has always done his own income taxes -- always, that is, until now.
"I did some transfer of property business," he said, "but I wanted to check up and make sure I was right about my tax interpretations. So I went to an IRS office --heard.
"One person told me I didn't have to file the form. I could forget about it. Which I knew was wrong. Here I was sitting there reading about it in their own booklet which says you must file the transfer of property. So I started shopping around. I went to another IRS office, and got a completely different story. No place did I get the information I thought was right from what I was reading.
"All I wanted to do was to confirm that my interpretation was correct. But here I was, a government employe and screwing up my own taxes. It doesn't make sense. I wanted to do it right. Finally, I said the hell with it. I filled it out and mailed it in."
What he was saying -- and what the new tax forms confirm -- is that despite all the efforts of the Carter administration, to date we still are trapped in a tax jungle. Progress of a sort may well have been made. Certainly, a sincere and intense campaign has been directed from the president down. But in this, as in other areas, success does not come easily.
Note: A reader, responding to another recent article on taxes which included a Biblical citation of Caesar Augustus, writes with the following worthwhile clarification.
"When Caesar Augustus ordered that 'all the world be taxed' he was demanding a census, not a raid on citizens' purses. The obsolete meaning of 'to tax,' in this context, is that of 'to classify' -- as in taxonomy, the science of classification.
"I'm sure the tax came later, after the census. But what Caesar wanted to know . . . was how many people he had to oppress."
Take it way, Caesar. Either way, you get us in the end.