The first President Bush, in that time-honored tradition dating back to the beginning of time, or at least to the very first political campaign, told us quite emphatically to “read my lips: no new taxes.” Well, we didn’t need to take any special course in lip reading to know that his promise was an empty one.
Then along came his son George W. Bush, who did indeed reduce taxes for some people. But even those reductions came with a price: they were temporary and, as we have been hearing and reading ad nauseam for the months and months, they are set to expire at year’s end.
To demonstrate that the promise of tax reduction – or at least the absence of any tax increases – transcends political parties, President Obama vowed in his campaign not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 annually. Yet, we are already starting to see this promise fall by the wayside, with an increase in the tobacco tax (indeed, there are those in the middle class and working poor who do smoke), not to mention the numerous tax provisions legislated under the health care reform bill, such as a new tanning tax and the penalties for those who fail to purchase adequate health insurance.
The fact is that the promises made of no new taxes – or tax increases – by any individual running for office are as naked as we are during a Transportation Security Administration body scan at our local airport.
Indeed, the complicated issue of taxes is like a wild 500-pound gorilla for our politicians. There are so many rules, regulations and interpretations that impact one’s final tax result, it is literally impossible for any politician to ever guarantee your taxes will not be raised.
Consider that in 2005, the Tax Foundation determined the Internal Revenue Code contained 2,139,000 words. If one were to include the Treasury Regulations that interpret the Code, there are over 9,097,000 words, all of which in one way or another attempt to determine federal tax liability. And this does not include the countless other administrative and judicial interpretations from the IRS and our courts, respectively.
Is it any wonder that Albert Einstein once stated, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.”
Imagine for a moment, your gross income at the end of the year being fed into a highly complex machine with millions of levers, switches, buttons, dials, throttles and gears; and depending on which switch is thrown, which lever is pulled, the end result of your tax exposure differs. Well, that pretty much sums up every American’s varying annual federal tax bill.
The tax rules are littered like an overflowing back-alley dumpster with numerous provisions which may come around to bite the tax return filled out by an unsuspecting taxpayer.
Here are just some of a few among the many:
- The adjusted gross income (AGI) includes floors and ceilings for certain itemized deductions (e.g., only medical expense deductions in excess of 7.5 percent of AGI are permitted, only casualty loss deductions in excess of 10 percent of AGI are permitted, your total charitable deductions are capped at a certain percentage of AGI, etc.).
- The phase-out or reduction of certain entitlements, such as the child tax credit and the earned income credit once you make too much money; the dreaded “kiddie-tax,” where your child’s unearned income is taxed at your higher marginal tax rate (can’t we leave the kiddies alone!).
- The infamous bracketed marriage penalty, where married couples more quickly jump into higher tax brackets than two single taxpayers (if only there were a double-wide version).
- And last, but not least, the notorious “alternative minimum tax,” or AMT in its acronym cloak. It may sound like an ATM machine – but unfortunately you are definitely not getting money back! Apparently, if your tax is not high enough, the AMT will make sure it is, and then there goes your deductions.
And should I dare mention when the clock strikes midnight this December 31, the New Year’s baby brings such unwelcome bundles as higher marginal rates, higher rates for capital gains, dividends treated as ordinary income, and the estate and generation-skipping transfer taxes in their full splendor?
As if tax law was not complicated enough, do we really need expiring or “sunset” legislation, such as the Bush tax cuts, which sometimes expire at the whim of the Congress and sometimes are temporarily “extended” or patched-up through legislative acts?
Perplexed? Ready for another bottle of Champagne to drown your sorrows? Even all those newly elected officials, and all those who have come before them, will hit the bubbly a few extra times trying to decipher it all.
The fact is that everyone’s specific tax situation is unique, like a homeland security fingerprint. We all have various tax benefit items, bracket issues, income characterization issues, credits, deductions, etc., that make us special. Dante’s particularized results await you, and only you, in his elaborate and schematic detail.
This means that two years from now, when you are reading about and listening to the politicians on the campaign trail banter on and on about how there will be no new taxes or tax increases when they are elected into office, read this humble accounting professor’s lips: you’ll be better served asking your accountant who to vote for before casting your ballot.
Rodney P. Mock is an assistant professor of accounting at the Orfalea College of Business at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA.