Richard M. Prinzi Jr., CPA, was back at his childhood home in Staten Island for a Christmas party when he noticed something strange.
He had, through no concerted effort on his part, become . . . popular.
Not handsome high school quarterback popular, exactly. More like the kid with the swimming pool in summer, or the senior with a serviceable fake ID. This was a new feeling for Prinzi, but not altogether unexpected. Congress had just passed the largest tax bill in more than 30 years, and suddenly everyone in America needed an accountant.
"People were lining up to talk to me," he said.
Prinzi escaped to his old room. Sitting on his old bed, he reached for his phone and promptly realized that he had been collecting upward of 20 emails an hour from clients desperate for his advice.
"I'm the most popular guy on the planet," he said.
Such is the chaos and the thrill of being an accountant these days. Congressional Republicans had ended the year by ramming through a 500-plus-page tax bill that few, if any, truly understand. (Will it really blow a $1.4 trillion hole in the deficit? Will the permanent tax cut for corporations really trickle down to regular Joes? Can somebody please explain what exactly an S-corporation is?)
Complexity is a gold mine for accountants, saviors for a nation that doesn't know its assets from its escrow. And if Prinzi isn't really the most popular guy on the planet, it's only because he has competition.
"I'm a rock star for the first time in my life," said Jeffrey Solomon, an accountant at Katz, Nannis + Solomon in Waltham, Mass. "I'm starting to come out of my shell."
"People are now coming out of the woodwork to contact me," said Stephen Slater of UHY Advisors in New York.
"Finally," said Tom Wheelwright, chief executive of Tax-Free Wealth CPAs in Tempe, Ariz., "a topic of conversation everyone wants to talk about that I'm the expert on!"
Sure, the adoration comes at a short-term cost. It can seem like there aren't enough hours in the day to deal with panicky clients, or to read the newest iteration of the tax bill.
"I missed a chunk of 'Hello, Dolly!' on Broadway because my phone kept buzzing with messages and I couldn't help but respond," said Slater. "My wife didn't say anything, but only because she's used to me."
"I haven't seen my daughter or wife in two weeks," said Jeffrey Levine of Alkon & Levine in Newton, Mass. "And they live with me."
"I'm fortunate that my wife is also a CPA, because this has been the sole topic of conversation for the past two weeks," said Wheelwright.
Not that Wheelwright is complaining, mind you. He is what you might call a genuine tax nerd. As Congress wrote and voted on various versions of the bill, Wheelwright read each one all the way through and actually enjoyed it.
"It's like reading a crime novel," he said. Even if some parts of the hastily written text didn't feel particularly thought out, Wheelwright enjoyed the process of thinking it through himself. And as for dealing with clients? Well, that's not so bad when the news you're giving them is mostly good.
For the coming year, at least, about 80 percent of U.S. households will see some benefit from the bill. And what makes the job particularly fun for accountants is that most taxpayers don't realize that they stand to gain. Last week, "CBS This Morning" brought on a CPA to deliver the good news to three families around the country. The job has never felt more like being Santa Claus.
Oh, and the increased billable hours for this year and next aren't so bad either.
"The end of the year is always busy," Wheelwright said. "But now you've doubled it."
That's partly because there are real changes happening to the tax law that require action now: With certain deductions going away, there's an ongoing debate about whether it might be advisable to, say, prepay property tax or next year's state and local taxes. But more than anything, it's today's high-octane news cycles that have people in a panic.
"TV has made people nervous," said Prinzi. "And exactly how depends on which news channel you watch. My Fox-watching clients want to know how much more money they can spend, and all my people who watch MSNBC think they are going to go broke if they spend anything on Christmas."
And what's the reality?
"Basically, for everyone I talk to, I bring them back to reality and tell them not that much is going to change and that everything is going to be okay," he said.
For accountants are more than just number crunchers. They are therapists. They are educators. They are cryptologists, making sense of 1040s, 9412s, and W-2s, -4s, -7s and -9s. And they are, at this time of year anyway, basically not that different from religious leaders.
"I'm thinking about doing a presentation at my temple," said Levine.
And why not? It's all he's been thinking about these days. He drives to work pondering the tax bill, trying to make sense of the "three or four sections" that still have him confused, piecing together what he's missing. He goes to the gym and watches legislators yammer about the bill on television, knowing that they haven't read it nearly as closely as he has.
"All these people are saying it was 1,000 pages long, and because I read it, I know it was 504," he said. "These people don't even know what they signed."
Still, as much as he loves the business, Levine is ready for a break.
"I'm looking forward to the last week of January when I'm finally going to get a break in Hawaii," he said. "It's my last chance to get away, because after that, it's tax season."