Each year in the United States, an estimated 6.1 billion hours are spent complying with the federal tax code. I'm pretty sure at least half of those hours are spent by me.
With less than two weeks remaining before this year's tax returns are due, I've barely made a dent in my stack of forms, receipts, and instructions. Each year the prospect of doing my taxes looms more daunting and dismal than the year before. Each year I wonder where I'll find the time, never mind the patience, to get it done. Each year's tax ordeal seems to require more mental energy, more double-checking of math, more scouring of check registers and credit-card statements and brokerage records. And yet when I finally hit that "Send" button, I'm less certain than ever that I haven't inadvertently screwed something up. And if that's true for someone like me, whose financial arrangements are not especially abstruse, how much more miserable tax season must be for taxpayers whose circumstances are more elaborate.
Some people claim they file their tax returns cheerfully. They approvingly quote Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s dictum that "taxes are what we pay for civilized society." I quote instead that eminent commentator Dave Barry: "It's income-tax time again, Americans: time to gather up those receipts, get out those tax forms, sharpen up that pencil and stab yourself in the aorta."
Not surprisingly, the Internal Revenue Service embraces Holmes's words. They are chiseled over the entrance to the IRS headquarters in Washington, DC. Yet I doubt whether Holmes, who retired from the Supreme Court in 1932, would think there was anything civilized about what the federal tax system has turned into, or the burdens, confusions, and complexity it imposes on honest taxpayers.