Cook: Only 364 days to go

Cook: Only 364 days to go

April 16th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

I have a dream.

First, anyone with a sixth-grade education is able to completely and easily fill out each and every tax form before them.

Second, doing so should not take longer than the time needed to drink two cold beers. Three at most.

Instead, we encounter the Amazing Race of tax preparation that sends us sheep-like on our annual paper quest to the accountant while the guy in the Statue of Liberty costume waves shamelessly -- come on in, all you tired and huddled masses -- from the parking lot. Sir Galahad had it easier.

Tax Day turns us into hostages, unable to meet the one and only thing required of us as citizens without help from someone else. While listing our dependents, we've become co-dependents.

"If tax compliance were an industry, it would be one of the largest in the United States," reports the Taxpayer Advocate Service.

(Incidentally, the woman who first created the 1040 form a century ago also wrote horror stories, if that tells you anything).

The complexity of Tax Day represents the wide gulf between this government and the people. Paying taxes ought to be civic and manageable, like voting. Something you can do on your lunch break. Something that takes only slightly longer than your March Madness bracket. One Coors, then another, and it's done.

Yet as Thoreau wrote, Tax Day is the only day we encounter -- "once a year -- no more," he said -- our government, which at every other day on the calendar, makes itself impossibly unavailable.

So we drown in Schedule Qs and distributions and 1099s and more publications than Random House. There are 1,974 downloadable files on the IRS website, including one rascal called a Form 8316. Try to read the title without taking a breath.

"Information Regarding Request for Refund of Social Security Tax Erroneously Withheld on Wages Received by a Nonresident Alien on an F, J or M Type Visa," it reads.

Speaking of Visa, why not just let the IRS send us a bill each year, just like a credit card company? Back in 2010, two senators proposed such an idea, and since it was such a good idea, it went nowhere in Congress.

As the crow flies, we're 10 million miles away from a simplified tax code.

And as the Black Crowes sing, we need a remedy.

• Educate America as to where our federal tax dollars go. We can't understand what we don't know. (Didn't Yogi Berra say that?) For every $100 we're taxed, $50 goes to defense and health care spending. Turn this into a pie chart, and include it with every 1040 like coupons with the Sunday paper.

• Listen to and empower the IRS. They hate this too. Routinely, they beg Congress to make changes, which is like begging Smaug to go cold turkey on all the gold.

• Create on the local level a system of participatory budgeting. Picture it here: each county commissioner or city council member holds a series of meetings with his or her constituents, who are then involved in the research, prioritizing and selecting of which projects their taxes should fund for the coming year.

It's gorgeously democratic. Hixson residents want their downtown library cards paid with their taxes? East Ridge folks want more policing? Ooltewah needs art teachers? Bike lanes and speed bumps? You choose how your taxes are used, which then opens up all these other good things.

People are more involved. Elected leaders more accountable. Money moves downward into the decisions of the people, away from the puppetry of budgeting that so often takes place. The idea started in Brazil, and has been imported to Chicago, Toronto, New York City. One former councilman here once discussed how to implement it in his district.

For a government that is able to levy and receive taxes in a democratically understandable way is an open and accessible government.

And a government that is able to rearrange its tax code to fit the requests of its people is a listening government, one able to be managed and molded.

But we don't have that. I wonder if we ever will.

Every Tax Day, I daydream about some national protest, where 10 million citizens willingly withhold their taxes for 10 days. A movement or protest of sorts, designed to turn the tables, just to send a message.

We'd like a refund.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.