Could anything be worse than staying home, socially distanced, and pondering the end of the world as we know it, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes: All of the above, plus fretting about taxes.
As if Americans needed more on our minds, the IRS’ tax-filing deadline is less than one month away. April 15 already is an annual headache. This year, it threatens to become a cranium-cleaving migraine, due to the still-unfolding coronavirus catastrophe and the widely expanding waves of worry: some 10 million kids at 600 colleges heading home two to three months early, major-league sports on indefinite hold, restaurants and theaters begging for patrons, passenger jets turned into flying ghost towns, ski resorts purged of skiers, China and Europe largely beyond reach. And much more.
President Trump should give Americans a massive break and push the tax-return deadline back a full quarter — to July 15. The same should apply to estimated-tax payments, which self-employed individuals, small-business owners, and sole proprietors like me file quarterly. Likewise, those of us who take the automatic six-month tax-filing extension through Oct. 15 also should be excused, until mid-July, from submitting our anticipated tax liability.
These actions would let Americans breathe a massive, national sigh of relief — right into our collective elbow. The rapidly morphing COVID-19 crisis is rattling enough without having to locate pay stubs, chase receipts, and complete government forms. Many Americans are self-isolating for medical necessity. Millions of others are doing so out of an abundance of caution and what now seems a patriotic duty to hide at home.
This has become a dreadful time to walk, drive or ride a crowded subway to H&R Block and spend 15 minutes or more speaking up close with tax preparers and often bankers, notaries public, photocopy-shop personnel, and Post Office employees. Which among them might be carrying this delightful pathogen without even knowing it? And which among them might go to work without it and then go home with it — perhaps courtesy of a gregarious taxpayer who unwittingly transmits it?
Delaying payments into the U.S. Treasury and speeding payments out of it would increase the federal deficit. But this would be temporary — essentially a three-month spurt of red ink that would help Americans survive this national emergency.
Through the legalized pickpocketing of the withholding tax, Uncle Sam gets his fingers on the money of salaried employees before they do. Furthermore, Sam usually swipes more from each paycheck than ultimately will be owed in tax liability. Consequently, most Americans receive tax refunds, rather than remit additional money to Washington. Changing the filing deadline wouldn't harm taxpayers who want their refunds now. They could still file their returns any time between now and July 15. And IRS personnel should process returns and pay refunds as swiftly as possible.
The IRS accepts returns electronically and can direct deposit refunds electronically, avoiding the need to print scores of millions of paper checks, deliver them via USPS, and then make taxpayers endorse them, and schlep them to local bank branches for deposit. Again, with so many keeping their social distance and coping with medical quarantines, electronic refunds are the way to go.
Will this cost the Treasury money? By definition, delaying payments into the U.S. Treasury and speeding payments out of it would increase the federal deficit. But this would be temporary — essentially a three-month spurt of red ink that would help Americans survive this national emergency.
With so many living check to check, the alternative is for Uncle Sam to demand people’s money one month hence and, thus, steer millions into forsaken purchases, abandoned credit-card debts, and delinquent mortgage and rent payments. Rather than risk fresh bankruptcies and job losses, Washington should live without this share of our money for a mere three months.
"Taxpayers need some breathing room with onerous tax obligations now more than ever," National Taxpayers Union president Pete Sepp told me. "The annual difficulty of complying with taxes is compounded this year with the difficulty of simply making sure our families and loved ones are safe and financially secure. That's why giving extra room for tax filing in 2020 only makes sense."
This Andromeda Strain-like situation is almost too nerve-wracking to contemplate. To make April 15 great again — as just another day on this year's calendar, and not a rendezvous with marginal anxiety — would be a simple and huge step toward tempering this bizarre global horror show.