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Channeling Satirist Russell Baker on Tax Reform

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Feb 13th 2018
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The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was recently signed into law, and it represents the latest major tax overhaul in our long history of tax reform. Just a little more than a century ago, legislators amended the Constitution to approve an income tax, which the U.S. had foregone since the nation’s founding. And not until 1943, in the middle of World War Two, did the tax become democratized.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office when our present withholding system debuted, and the term "take-home pay" became part of the modern lexicon. All subsequent presidents, however divergent their views on hot-button issues like budget deficits, climate change and abortion, have voiced their unqualified support of proposals to make it much easier to fill out 1040 forms and to simplify our byzantine Internal Revenue Code.

How much have we benefited from bipartisan commitment to tax reform? Not much, according to Russell Baker.

Who is he, my readers ask? That’s an unsurprising response. Only persons who are of a certain age even recall Baker, much less that he received a Pulitzer Prize for his “Sunday Observer” columns that appeared on the editorial page of The New York Times and were syndicated to newspapers across the nation.

Why then am I mentioning him to my readers in the 21st century? To introduce them to a premier political satirist, some of whose columns slyly and perceptively skewer proponents of tax reform, the latest version of which went on the books in late December.

Baker’s views on reform remain relevant, decades after they were first published. What follows are excerpts from two of those Observer columns long ago.

From Sept. 4, 1976: "The words ‘tax reform' send chills down the spine of every sentient American because each new reform deepens the nightmare of income tax law. Just when you have got a purchase on this monster, Congress reforms it and everybody has to start all over again. It has become a complexity to confound a Dickens lawyer, a maze to make King Minos's labyrinth look like a playpen. The conscientious citizen would have to devote every waking hour to its study if he wanted to make a reasonably close guess at what he owes his Government each April.

Even then, he would probably be wrong. Last year a test of Internal Revenue's workers—the people who help the desperate fill out their forms—showed that the majority even of these ‘experts’ didn't know what the law means. So now, unless supernatural providence intervenes, it is all going to be changed again."

(I supplement that excerpt with a definition for “sentient”, an arcane word, and I’m not unmindful of the need to comfort those who, like me, are vocabulary-challenged. So it doesn’t discomfort me to divulge that I needed to delve into Webster’s Dictionary to discover that it defines “sentient” as “finely sensitive in perception or feeling.”)

From April 19, 1987: “I have something my tax doctor calls ‘narcotaxis.’ Within 20 seconds of hearing someone launch into an explanation of tax laws, my eyes become glassy, my body loses all feeling, and I go into a shallow coma.”

Why, more than a few decades later, does Baker’s invitation to supernatural providence to intervene remain unheeded? Perhaps because it would be inherently unfair to deprive Americans of the opportunity to show just what sensitive souls they actually are.

Additional articles. A reminder for accountants who would welcome advice on how to alert clients to tactics that trim taxes for this year and even give a head start for next year: Delve into the archive of my articles (more than 225 and counting). 

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