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Citigroup economist blames near nervous breakdown on U.S. tax code complexity

Does doing your taxes drive you crazy? Then you need to meet Willem Buiter.

Frustrated-taxpayer-Ken_Hurst_iStock_000006713208XSmallThe chief economist for Citigroup says the U.S. tax code almost gave him a nervous breakdown.

Buiter recently appeared on Bloomberg Radio primarily to talk about the European fiscal situation. The discussion, however, eventually returned to American shores and Buiter's dismay with the U.S. fiscal system, including taxes.

"I had to try and get the data together to give to the person who prepares my tax returns, and I almost had a nervous breakdown collecting the data," said Buiter, who also described himself as a "victim" of the Internal Revenue Code.

"The U.S. tax system is completely incomprehensible! My wife and I are both PhD's in economics -- both of us! -- and we can't make head or tails of it," he said.

Everybody hates the tax code: OK, I'll cut Buiter some slack regarding the tax code's confusing language. Everyone agrees that it's a mess and revamping the tax system is America's legislative Holy Grail.

The last two occupants of the Oval Office set up blue ribbon panels to find ways to ease our tax filing headaches. And we can't forget the Super Committee's dipping of a legislative toe into tax reform waters.

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson regularly lists the complicated tax code as one of the biggest challenges facing taxpayers.

Heck, even Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman has admitted that he finds the tax code complex.

But a nervous breakdown just from collecting the information needed to fill out the forms? Really? Dramatic much, Mr. Buiter?

Happy, happy accountants: Of course, the flip side of a complicated tax code is that it keeps tax professionals in business.

Buiter noted that after he struggled through the overly stressful information gathering process he handed the material over to someone else to actually complete the forms. 

He's not alone there. The IRS estimates that about 60 percent of taxpayers this year will use tax professionals to prepare and file their returns.

Maybe that explains why the accountanting profession made Career Bliss' list of the 20 happiest jobs in America.

You'll probably quibble with the list. I did. Being a customer service rep and dealing with unhappy people is a good job? Really?

But at least in the latest Career Bliss analysis, accountants rank high on the happiness scale.

The the website, which tracks workplace trends, says the work contentment ranking was determined by evaluating key factors that make showing up at the office worthwhile. These include work-life balance, relationship with the boss and co-workers, work environment, job resources, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture, company reputation, their daily tasks, and job control over the work.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that even though I don't prepare taxes for a living, writing about the complexity of the tax system has provided me with a very nice and generally happy living.

So the next time you join Buiter in cursing the tax system, remember that an accountant (and some journalist writing about it) is probably having a great day.

Frustrated taxpayer photo by Ken Hurst/iStock

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William Dague

I have been a volunteer tax preparer with AARP Taxaide for 17 years and the statement that stirs more fear in us than any other is; Congress is going to "simplify the tax code". Lest we forget, they are the ones who came up with the present tax code.

It has gotten so complicated that even many in the IRS can't understand it, and sometimes we just throw up our hands, agree on how we will handle it, and hope for the best.

There are more tax credits than ever, most because the feds think they should be deciding on what's best for the country, rather than letting the market decide what the people actually want.

Of course, if you worked for the IRS and were assigned to write a new provision in the tax code, would you make it as simple as possible, thus requiring fewer IRS employees? I'll let you answer that. Whoever came up with the age of 70 1/2 as the time to start withdrawals from your IRA? How about 70? Perhaps the strangest one of all is the fact that everyones' tax age is determined by their age on Dec. 31, with the only exception being that if you become 65 on Jan. 1, you are considered as being 65 for tax purposes. I'm sure that was because one year some Congressman had a friend who would benefit from that.


You're right, everyone finds the tax code complex! The 60% of people using a preparer are on the right track - in the case of an audit, they have someone on their side!

I almost had a nervous breakdown myself in gathering information for my tax preparer . . . and realized that we just have to do our very best and leave the rest up to the preparer.

Thank you for a post that I could identify with!

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