Chicken soup for the tax-weary

By Allan Sloan, senior editor at large


(Fortune) -- In honor of Tax Day, I'd like to recommend a new book to you: As Certain As Death: Quotations About Taxes. It's a labor of love (or possibly hate) compiled over more than 30 years by Jeff Yablon, a tax partner in the Washington office of the Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm.

The book is like canapés for anyone interested in taxes, which ought to be all of us. You can't devour it all in one sitting -- you graze for a while, come back, then graze some more. It features about 250 pages of quotes, many of which are hilarious -- if you're into tax humor. To give you an idea, here's this one from George Bernard Shaw, "A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can depend on the support of Paul."

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Allan Sloan, senior editor at large

I rarely use this space to plug any sort of product, but I'm shilling for this book because it's noncommercial, as well as amusing and occasionally educational. The book, published by Tax Analysts, a nonprofit group, goes out next week to subscribers of Tax Notes and the group's other publications. The rest of us can get it online next week at tax.com and taxanalysts.com.

After reading the book awhile, I found myself growing angry -- which turns out to be just the reaction that Chris Bergin, president of Tax Analysts, is hoping to provoke. Bergin has published Yablon's ever-growing quote collection over the years, and is promoting it heavily this year. "Considering what a freaking mess this system is, we've got to get people to pay attention to it," Bergin told me.

I suspect that one reason the book made my blood pressure rise was that it showed up about the same time I got my tax returns from my accountant. I write about taxes as part of my job -- but this year, for the first time that I remember, I couldn't make heads or tails of my federal return. So I just signed the form, allowing my accountant to e-file it.

In any sort of normal world, my tax return would be simple. My wife and I own only the home we live in, have no investment real estate or tax shelters, and the closest we come to exotic investments is units in publicly traded master limited partnerships.

Yet our federal tax return was 23 pages long, including four pages of Form 1116, detailing calculations that yielded a $51 alternative minimum tax foreign-tax credit. Or maybe it's $53. That credit, generated by our share of taxes that some of our mutual funds paid, included $3 (or maybe $5) of credits that we couldn't use last year, God only knows why.

Our alternative minimum tax payment wiped out about half the tax-deductibility benefit of our state and local taxes. I think. And somewhere along the way, we lost about 20% -- or maybe about half, I can't tell -- of the value of our personal exemptions.

I'm not all that angry about the amount of income tax we paid -- even though, at nearly 24% of our adjusted gross income, it's a pretty hefty bill. What enraged me was being subjected to an intellectually dishonest system that plays bait-and-switch with my deductions and makes it impossible for me to figure out my marginal tax rate.

But even in my grumpy state, I had to smile at Yablon's brief introductory essay. In true lawyer fashion, he's got footnotes, including this jewel: "One of Leona Helmsley's employees swore that she said, 'Only little people pay taxes,' but Helmsley denied it. She was alive and litigious when the line became famous, so I included it, but parenthetically added the word 'attributed.'"

There are well over 1,000 quotations in the book -- including two from me, 14 from Yablon and 33 from "anonymous."

A few samples:

"The wages of sin are death, but by the time taxes are taken out, it's just sort of a tired feeling." -- Paula Poundstone

"No one who has witnessed tax lobbyists' perennial infestation of Capitol Hill can ever again confuse the making of tax laws with the making of sausages: at least when you make sausages, you know the pigs won't be coming back." -- J. Mark Iwry

And from Yablon: "Our tax system is so screwed up that even if we could agree on a better one, there is no way to get there from here."

So enjoy the book. Think of it as chicken soup: It may not cure what ails the tax system, but what can it hurt? Besides, you'll have plenty of snappy lines to use if you go out drinking on April 15th. To top of page