Tax Torn

Well, it’s Tax Day — April 15, the due date for most federal and state income tax filings.  The butt of jokes by comedians for decades.  The annual source of angst for millions of American taxpayers.  A rallying cry for conservative anti-taxers ever since the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913 and allowed the federal income tax in the first place.

My feelings about Tax Day are decidedly ambivalent.  I recognize that taxes are the price we pay for living in a free society, and I pay them willingly.  A modern military with modern weaponry, a welfare state system that tries to help the poor and elderly, and a government that shoulders far-reaching tasks like disease control or preventing alien species from invading the Great Lakes can’t be funded by the system of duties and tariffs that supported a much more limited government during the colonial era.  I also think it’s ridiculous for people like Ted Cruz to talk about abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.  If you accept that taxes must be paid, as I do, there must be an entity that collects the tax.

At the same time, it’s hard for me to feel warm and fuzzy about our tax system or the IRS.  Last night Kish and I watched the latest Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and it tried to make viewers feel sorry for the IRS, because IRS jobs are boring, the Internal Revenue Code is constantly being changed by Congress, and IRS funding has been cut.  Good luck with that effort!  The IRS may be necessary, but don’t expect me to give it a hug, okay?  And when I sign my forms and send in my payments, don’t think I’m a nut if I wonder about the presence of unfairness in our tax code and abuse and favoritism in the highly political process by which tax exemptions are determined and tax rates are imposed.

Every year, as I look at the forms and the complicated instructions, I wonder if there isn’t a simpler, fairer way to do it.  Say what you will about the sales tax, but it’s a straightforward percentage that anybody can calculate, and it targets consumption rather than work.  If you want to soak the idle rich, wouldn’t a tax when they buy ridiculously appointed $200,000 SUVs be a good idea?  And user fees that are triggered when a specific federal service is used — say, for use of ports and customs, for airline security, or for drug or vehicle testing to ensure compliance with safety standards — also seems fair.  Couple that with an income tax and withholding system that involves fewer exemptions, exclusions, deductions, tax rate levels, and schedules, and maybe you’ve got a workable system that won’t cause so many Americans to take the IRS’s name in vain come every April 15.

A News World Without Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart, the long-time star of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, shocked his audience yesterday by announcing that he would be leaving the show this year.  In a sign of just how important Stewart and The Daily Show are to modern America, his impending departure from what is, at bottom, a consistently funny comedy show was headline news at such diverse websites as the BBC and CNN Money.

Stewart has sat at the anchor desk of The Daily Show since 1999 — an extraordinarily long tenure in the modern world.  For many young adults, he’s been an immutable part of the social landscape for as long as they can remember.  With Stewart as the motivating force, The Daily Show has launched the careers of other comedy stars, like Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver, but more importantly it has become an essential cultural and political touchstone for a huge swath of the American population.  It is amazing, but true, that a large percentage of young Americans routinely get their exposure to news from The Daily Show and identify Stewart as more trusted to provide accurate information than networks like MSNBC.

Commentators may moan that such survey results are a sign of America’s illiteracy — and the growing irrelevance of broadcast and print journalism — but the reality is that people just get their news in different ways now.  Stewart and The Daily Show became trusted  because they mixed the humor with a healthy dollop of news footage, factoids, and actual interviews of Presidents, political and cultural figures, and world leaders.  And, although The Daily Show unquestionably came from a general liberal perspective, Stewart and his crew weren’t afraid to skewer racial politics, the disastrous roll-out of the healthcare.gov website, and other causes and developments on the left end of the political spectrum.

With Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert taking over for David Letterman, where will younger Americans turn to get their tolerable daily exposure to the world’s events?  There’s no guarantee that the new host will capture their confidence, and the risk is that they won’t turn to other sources for such information at all.  That should be a significant concern for those who have used The Daily Show to reach the Millennials.  If those Millennials (and members of the next generation, which hasn’t yet acquired a catchy title) who have some interest in politics and news aren’t watching The Daily Show, how do you engage them?  Jon Stewart’s replacement will have awfully big shoes to fill.