The best thing about the past, generally speaking, is that it is past, it’s over, whatever mistakes we made can be forgotten or filed away – except on tax day when we have to relive them all over again.

It’s always with a sense of doom that I pull out the boxes and the files and start working through the contents. There it is, the whole of my life in 2002 reduced to dollars and cents – every meal and hotel room, every postal packet and phone call, every printer cartridge and paper clip, every check flowing in and every check flowing out (a considerably larger number), and every regretted extravagance. Whatever fantasies I may have had about the past year, this is the inescapable reality. False memory syndrome has no chance when we sit down to do the numbers.

I really resent having to face this reality check every year. It’s a reminder of all the projects that didn’t work and all the bad decisions I made. Did I really need a five hundred dollar computer printer when I could have got one for a quarter of the price? Was it absolutely necessary to upgrade my wardrobe with no fewer than three new shirts, when the old ones looked almost as good as they did when I bought them, in 1986?

Quite apart from the unwanted reminders there’s the sheer clerical tedium of the job, adding up hundreds of slips of paper and trying to arrange them into some kind of convincing economic story. These numbers mean nothing to me. But I know they mean something to the IRS.

I’m not the only one who fails to understand the full Byzantine complexity of the US tax system. Almost nobody understands it, and those who pretend to are usually fooling themselves. I suspect that the tax code is like the Microsoft operating system: it has taken on a life of its own, and has evolved beyond the power of the human mind to grasp.

So, for many years we’ve employed the same friendly and reassuring accountant to lead us through these mysteries. We sit in his office, watching in amazements as the numbers leap about on his computer screen. It’s like an economic makeover – nothing that emerges at the end is quite like what went in at the beginning. What emerges is a set of tax forms so elaborately structured and so beautifully printed that it would be sacrilege (we hope) for the IRS to question them.

If our accountant has a fault it is his honesty. He is scrupulous, careful and conservative. We need an accountant more like the famous Arthur Anderson who could turn our mundane losses into billions in paper profits, which we could then steal and go and live in the Caribbean. But our man frowns on this kind of creative accounting. Instead he presents us with a more or less horrifying sum of tax due, plus a whopping bill for his own services.

I know that our taxes will help pay for some good and necessary things, but they will also help pay for some horrible and completely unnecessary ones. So I would like a kind of line item veto at the end of my 1040, a more elaborate version of the organ donor statement on the back of my driver’s license. It would be quite simple: a list of major government expenditures (including Congressional salaries and pensions) against which the taxpayer could just check off “Yes” or “No” – I want to help pay for this, or I don’t. The President believes in democracy. Taxpayer choice would make his wildest dreams come true.

Copyright: David Bouchier