Paul Greenberg

Ronald Reagan said it back in 1983: "Our federal tax system is, in short, utterly impossible, utterly unjust and completely counterproductive [it] reeks with injustice and is fundamentally un-American it has earned a rebellion and it's time we rebelled."

But what politician would rail against the country's irrational, insufferable, infernal Internal Revenue Code today, except perhaps for ceremonial purposes? Some in Congress have made distinguished careers leading the innocent and unwary through its byzantine ways and byways, occasionally constructing secret passages to favor the special interests they represent. Whole industries like accountancy and tax law have been built on it.

This republic, which was born of a tax revolt-indeed, several of them-has lost touch with its roots. We have become inured to the injustice and, even worse, the unknowable intricacies of the tax system so that complaints about it sound more like ritual than indignation.

Most of us don't object to paying our taxes-living in the United States of America is not only a privilege but a great bargain. What we object to, or should, is how hard, how complicated, how expensive and sometimes just plain hopeless it is to figure out how much we owe.

Awash in a sea of paper, or maybe in an ocean of electronic impulses in this internetted age, the American taxpayer needsŠ


Every new sweeping tax law Congress enacts-always called a "reform"-makes the job even more complicated and, if possible, more confusing. And the tax code longer.

One such grand reform, makeover and general overhaul was enacted in 2001. It included 441 changes in the tax code. Just one of them-about how to claim a tax rebate if you didn't get one that year-generated a million errors on that single line of people's returns.

The country's tax code has grown as indecipherable to the average American as Hammurabi's. It might as well be written on clay tablets.

Even the length of the Internal Revenue Code is a matter of debate, with estimates varying widely. According to the U.S. Government Printing Office, it's 13,458 pages long and available in 20 volumes ($974, shipping included), but that doesn't count an additional 3,387 pages contributed by Congress, available for $179. Which brings the grand total to 16,845 pages. It sounds like just the thing to keep on your bedside table if you should ever have trouble nodding off.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.