Commentary

2009: A Tax Odyssey

This article was first published in the Washington Post Outlook section, April 7, 2002.

April 15 is fast approaching, which means it’s time to assemble the mountain of documents needed for my family’s 2009 tax return. Last year’s return was a huge headache for my wife and me after an IRS audit found that the hybrid car we had donated to a retirement home the year before was not eligible for the Green Autos for Seniors (GAS) tax credit. While a sales tax exemption had enabled us to install solar panels on the car roof and achieve the required 62 miles per gallon, the car was disqualified because its storage batteries were found to emit global cooling gases, the planet’s latest environmental threat.

This year we planned ahead and made sure we had jumped through all the hoops. My wife did extra volunteer work and reached the 4,000-hour target that George W. Bush had set during his administration to qualify us for the Freedom Corps tax credit. Of course, we won’t tell the IRS that her “volunteering” consisted of leading a dancercise class at our local health club. Some women in the class also saved money by losing more than 10 pounds and becoming eligible for the Citizen’s Overweight reduction (COW) tax credit, which varies depending on a taxpayer’s body mass index.

My past military service allows us to file under the special National Security tax rate schedule, at least for my share of our combined income, based on years served. Also, I can deduct half the cost of a business ethics class I took under the Business Honesty (BusH) tax incentive. (You remember that one: It was enacted in the wake of the Enron scandal.) Our records are all in order but, boy, do we need to be careful! The IRS is cracking down on the BusH incentive’s rampant fraud.

My computer software found that our income was too high for any of the Republican-backed Big Families First tax benefits, even though we have the required three children. But we can take substantial faith-based tax credits because of my wife’s 80 percent attendance record at synagogue. Luckily, she is good friends with the rabbi, who allowed her to make a last-minute adjustment to her record, if you know what I mean. No fraud there.

We had both joy and sorrow in our family during the past year, which of course had significant tax implications. We adopted a daughter, and her disadvantaged background allows us to take the No Child Left Behind Adoption Child Care credit for the next five years rather than the usual three! But our happiness was offset by the death of my father, which was ill-timed: His business is being hit with last year’s 45 percent estate tax, rather than this year’s zero rate. And that’s enough to make me want to turn to drink. I’d have to watch myself, though, because more than 10 drinks per week would mean having to file Schedule D’oh and paying at the Boozer tax rate, thanks to legislation introduced by Rep. Homer Simpson (D-Springfield), a recovering alcoholic.

And don’t even get me started on the 16 other income tax rates, plus the 14 capital gains rates, which are based on length of asset holding, income level and various “corporate responsibility” criteria. We sold our Space Tourism Inc. shares to take advantage of that company’s 5 percent “green” capital gains rate before its stock was reclassified to a 15 percent rate for flunking its annual personnel diversity evaluation.

Usually, our biggest headache at tax time is sorting out our dozen different savings plans. This year we need to move the IRA assets of my dear departed father, perhaps into an MRA, or Marriage Retirement Account, championed by congressional conservatives after they won back the Senate in 2004. Of course, the problem with MRAs is that after those pesky pension reforms a number of years ago, I can only invest my MRA contribution in low-yielding bonds rather than in riskier securities, such as energy stocks. A better option for Pop’s savings might be to transfer them to my wife’s WRA, or Women’s Retirement Account: you know, President Hillary Clinton’s new women-only funds, which can be invested only in high-yield securities, the logic being that women only earn 70 percent of men’s salaries, and therefore need higher investment returns to achieve equitable retirement income levels.

As I sharpen my pencils, I think: It is too much! I’m feeling socially engineered! Oh, for the simple days of a decade ago. Back then, I remember, we thought our tax code was Swiss cheese. Now look at it!

I vividly remember the beginning of the end of tax sanity. It was that day in 1999 when Rhode Island’s Rep. Patrick Kennedy introduced his 20 percent tax credit for buyers of luxury yachts at least 50 feet long. A few years later, Bush put the final nail in the reform coffin with the 20 complexity-increasing provisions of his 2003 budget. Can you say “downhill ever since”?

Chris Edwards is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.