A Fine Mess

A Fine Mess

A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System

Penguin Press, 2017 more...

Editorial Rating



  • Analytical
  • Background
  • Engaging



A book about the American tax code may not hold much appeal for most readers, but journalist T.R. Reid’s exploration is anything but a dry tome. His engaging, straightforward arguments remind readers that the question of taxes goes right to the heart of what it means to live in a society, especially in a time of growing income inequality and slowing social mobility. Reid provides a treasure trove of facts and common sense that puts political and media sound bites into context. Originally published before the 2018 US tax changes, an afterword in the updated edition covers the salient details and their consequences. He highlights the patterns that lead to ad hoc complexity, particularly in the tax breaks that provide financial support to groups of taxpayers, in contrast to the subsidies and benefit transfers other countries use. Many American taxpayers will find Reid’s work a refreshing call for real tax reform.

The complexity of the American tax system continues to grow.

Reid begins his analysis by noting that many Americans feel overtaxed, even though they have a comparatively lower tax burden than other advanced economies. He argues that the United States’ distinctive political culture and history sets it apart as a nation that resents and chafes at paying taxes. That negative attitude also creates harsh resistance to government subsidies and spending programs. Instead, tax policy has become a way to aid those deemed worthy of assistance – by giving them tax breaks – while also becoming a government tool for promoting desired taxpayer behavior.

The result has been a series of major overhauls of the tax code, starting in 1922, each followed by a constant flow of legislation for credits and adjustments. Reid describes a patchwork approach to fiscal reform that has set up extremely complex and confusing rules, thereby creating a system “at war with the taxpayers” and itself. He calculates that, in terms of money and time, Americans spend roughly 40 times the $11 billion budget of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on filing their taxes, making tax preparation services a major industry. US officials could take a hint from the slogan of the Dutch fiscal authorities: “We can’t make paying taxes pleasant, but at least we can make it simple.”

About the Author

T. R. Reid is a longtime correspondent for The Washington Post and a former chief of its Tokyo and London bureaus. He is also a regular commentator for National Public Radio and has written a number of bestselling books.

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