Ah, the blithe joys of springtime in the United States. Azaleas in bloom at the Masters, breezy picnics on balmy afternoons, Easter egg hunts — and the annual ordeal of tax forms, with helpful I.R.S. instructions like this: “Go to Part IV of Schedule I to figure line 52 if the estate or trust has qualified dividends or has a gain on lines 18a and 19 of column (2) of Schedule D (Form 1041) (as refigured for the AMT, if necessary).”
Americans will spend more than six billion hours this year gathering records and filling out forms, just to pay their taxes. They will pay some $10 billion to tax preparation firms to help get the job done and spend $2 billion on tax-preparation software (programs that still require hours of work). Millions will subsequently get a notice from the I.R.S. saying they got the figures wrong, or put the right number on the wrong line or added wrong in calculating line 47 — which means more hours of work or more fees to the tax preparer.
And here’s the most maddening thing of all: It doesn’t have to be this way.
Parliaments and revenue agencies all over the world have done what Congress seems totally unable to do: They’ve made paying taxes easy. If you walk down the street in Tel Aviv, Tokyo, London or Lima, Peru, you won’t see an office of H & R Block or a similar company; in most countries, there’s no need for that industry.
In the Netherlands, the Algemene Fiscale Politiek (the Dutch I.R.S.) has a slogan: “We can’t make paying taxes pleasant, but at least we can make it simple.” It is certainly simple for my friend Michael, a Dutch executive with a six-figure income, a range of investments and all the economic complications that come with an upper-bracket lifestyle.
An American in the same situation would have to fill out a dozen forms, six pages long. Michael, by contrast, sets aside 15 minutes per year to file his federal and local income tax, and that’s usually enough. But sometimes, he told me, he decides to check the figures the government has already filled in on his return. At this point, Michael was getting downright indignant. “I mean, some years, it takes me half an hour just to file my taxes!”