Poor souls now lost in the baffling intricacies of filing a federal income tax return should know they have two friends in high places. One is Shirley Peterson. The other is Fred Goldberg.
Peterson, a tax lawyer who likes taxpayers, is the new commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, the first woman ever to hold the job and a true believer in tax simplification."Most people want to comply with tax law," she says. "They just don't know how to do it."
Goldberg, the man she replaced at the IRS, is the new assistant secretary of the Treasury for tax policy. He, too, is a sentimental fool who thinks tax forms should be written in English. "The American people aren't crooks," he says. "They're trying to do what's right."
Tax forms, says Goldberg, are "too hard, too complicated, take too much paper and take too much time." He tells small-business owners they don't have to put up with hostile tax collectors.
One businessman cornered Goldberg at a conference last June and told him he had been forced to take the IRS to court to prove he was complying with the law. "That makes me mad, man," Goldberg said.
It's one thing, of course, to profess great sympathy for the taxpayer and something else to help the taxpayer stay out of jail, especially when Congress keeps adding new wrinkles to the tax code.
"When these guys talk about tax simplification, hold your wallets and double your accountants," Goldberg warns.
A good measure of the complexity of tax law is the fact that nearly half of all taxpayers use a paid preparer to do their returns. That's a sad commentary. Why should more than 50 million taxpayers rely on a proxy to figure out how much money they owe the government, or how much the government owes them?
Sometimes there are reasons. The new IRS commissioner, who practiced tax law for 20 years and later supervised tax cases at the Justice Department, doesn't do her own returns. She sends them to an accounting firm after her husband, retired financial adviser, does a first draft. "I think my time would be better spent on other things," she says, and maybe she's right.
But the average taxpayer, who doesn't have a complicated return or a high-profile job, should be able to compute tax liability without a hired gun. Who knows your financial situation better than you do?
It's too early to tell, Mrs. Peterson sounds as though she wants to make it easier to file a tax return. For one thing, she promises to spend a full four years as IRS commissioner instead of jumping ship earlier, as many commissioners have done.
More importantly, she seems genuinely interested in preventing mistakes by the hopelessly confused and prosecuting only the hard cases who simply prefer not to pay taxes.
One approach: She wants the IRS to help small businesses, especially new businesses, to file accurate returns. "Front-loading,'" she calls it, as opposed to "back-loading" on the enforcement side.