This tax season got me wondering: What if private enterprise treated its customers as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (and its Congressional and Executive branch masters) treats us taxpayers?
For example, if your phone company treated you as the IRS treats us, this is how your billing would work:
While the company knows the details of your calls, you would be required every year to add up the costs of each call, and list and report them by categories the company arbitrarily devises. If you leave some out, or add the numbers wrongly, the company could come after you, get you to pay the right amount, fine you, and even get you incarcerated. (While the IRS knows most details of your income from the burdensome reporting it imposes on payers, it won’t tell you what it knows until after you tell it what you think. Of course, it could tell you what it knows it the first place, but that would relieve you of the burden of compiling the information, and would give a semblance of being taxpayer friendly vs. bureaucrat friendly, so that is out of the question.)
You would have to report your calls separately on different forms by often meaningless categories, such as short, medium, or long distance calls, to odd or even numbers, type of phone, length of call, and whether made or received. Ridiculous? Then why do we have to separate dividends from interest from wages from long term capital gains from short term capital gains, from business income, and on in finitum? And again, when the IRS already knows these answers?
The company would give you outdated forms for reporting, having never adapted them to recent decades, much less the present. For example, it might tell you to list all your text messages on a worksheet, then put the total on the main form, rather than taking the trouble itself to adapt the form to current requirements. That is how the IRS treats items such as “qualified dividends” and capital gains distributions today. But again — the IRS already knows the answer; as a taxpayer, you are simply a targeted victim for the game of “gotcha.”
Perhaps the phone company, as does the government, would want to use its billing rules to encourage certain behaviors. They might assess a penalty for calls made while driving – for which you would have to fill out extra convoluted forms. And then, if you go over or below certain thresholds, you have to start your reporting over because all the numbers change. The IRS is especially fond of that technique – whether your income is above or below certain thresholds determines whether various deductions (e.g., for IRAs) are allowed, or penalties are applied (e.g. alternative minimum tax).
Like the IRS, your phone company — and every other major company you deal with — would give you a hundred page booklet with instructions as to how to comply with their fiats. But you might need extra forms to comply, and you would be on your own to procure them.
Another analogy to the IRS treatment would be a supermarket that scanned your purchases, but made you add them up yourself — and would possibly prosecute you as a shoplifter/criminal if your total came up short. Presumably, the store would allow the supermarket division of TurboTax to set up in the parking lot, where for an extra fee they could help you calculate what you owe.
The store would also give you a hundred page booklet of instructions. After all, its management might have decided that special rules must apply to anyone who purchases two cans of anchovies and seven bottles of beer. The booklet would be full of special rules for similarly rare or trivial situations.
State governments are hardly better. They search for their own way of gratuitously exacting pain, and not just financial pain. The Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, orders its taxpayers to repeatedly write their names on the same page of the return – reminiscent of having to write the same thing over and over on an elementary school blackboard.
You would think that all taxpayers would have realized by now that any desire to be forced to deal more extensively or exclusively with government agencies – such as via further government regulation of health insurance or other businesses — is insanity. But, sad to say, that apparently is not the case.