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The Most Taxing Time of the Year

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

How does tax season make you feel? Angry? Tired? Probably both, but there’s a good chance you also felt a bit confused while preparing your returns.

And who could blame you? The mind-numbing complexity of the Tax Code, with its myriad deductions, credits and exemptions, can baffle anyone.

Several years ago, in fact, Treasury Department investigators posing as taxpayers contacted IRS centers designed to help people with their returns. They got incorrect answers (or no answer) to 43 percent of the questions they asked.

Many surveys show that Americans view the tax code as unfair and corrupt. An overly complicated system only feeds this perception.

Shouldn’t we have a tax system that looks like it was designed on purpose, instead of a jerry-rigged maze? The need to simplify this mess is a major reason we need tax reform.

And not simply to make tax preparation easier. It’s much bigger than that. As a recent Heritage Foundation report notes:

“The sheer complexity of the system makes it difficult to understand the true impact of the tax system, including how much taxpayers are paying to the federal government. Tax reform should strive to make that cost explicit to taxpayers. Once taxpayers know how much of their hard-earned income goes to the federal government, they will be more willing to reduce the size of government since they will better understand how it negatively affects them.”

Of course, that may explain why true tax reform is so difficult to achieve. Very few Washington policymakers are truly interested in reducing the size of government. Complexity and high rates naturally facilitate big government.

And tax rates for families, businesses and investors are too high. The top individual income tax rate is 39.6 percent, and Americans in some states pay marginal rates exceeding 50 percent.

Imagine losing more than half of every dollar you earn above a certain amount. How eager would you be to expand your business and create jobs?

High marginal rates discourage entrepreneurship -- the very kind of risk-taking that helped build the American economy in the first place. And for what? To fund an ever-growing government rife with waste, fraud and abuse.

That’s why there’s more at stake than simply cutting taxes, as important as that is. A better, simpler and fairer tax code would help the entire economy. That would be good news for all Americans, no matter what their income level.

Unfortunately, such common sense often gets overlooked when tax policy is up for debate. Take the top corporate tax rate for the U.S. At 35 percent, it stands among the world’s highest. Talk about lowering this rate to help American businesses -- and the workers they employ -- become stronger and more competitive, though, and risk being denounced for pushing “tax cuts for the rich.”

That’s ridiculous. Businesses can expand and profit only by offering something of value to consumers. That’s very difficult to do without the kind of job-creating investment that low tax rates encourage.

Framing the issue as class warfare is shortsighted and wrong. True tax reform helps everyone. As tax expert Adam Michel points out: “Lowering individual rates and applying them consistently — i.e., without special breaks for only some people — would help average Americans build a nest egg and retain more earnings, which they could plow back into their business, their child’s education or their retirement plans.”

There are five broad goals that ought to accompany any kind of tax reform:

1. Ordinary Americans must be able to comprehend the tax law.

2. Tax law should be a tool for raising revenue, not attempting to alter people’s behavior.

3. Tax rates should be as low as possible.

4. Tax law should not punish work, savings or investment.

5. Tax rates and exemptions must be transparent.

“The difference between death and taxes is death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets,” Will Rogers once said. It’s time to change that -- and help America prosper.

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