Friday, October 2, 2009

ESPN take note: a National Tax Bee?

The popular stereotype of a tax professional paints them as bland and boring, robotic and devoid of personality. Reading tax pro blogs has certainly convinced me otherwise.

A quintessential example of a colorful (sometimes to the point of flamboyance!) character is Robert D Flach, who writes the Wandering Tax Pro blog. Robert's blog gives fascinating glimpses into his professional life as an unenrolled tax preparer who has been preparing tax returns in New Jersey since the early 1970s. Based on what I can discern from his blog posts, he seems exceptionally conscientious, scrupulously careful, and well-versed in tax law. It's also clear that he takes pains to stay up to date with the ever-changing tax law, as his latest post includes notes he took during his attendance at a recent continuing ed seminar for tax preparers. (As an unenrolled preparer, no law compels him to take this training, but it's clear that he embraces such opportunities whole-heartedly--he's clearly no "seat-warmer." Based on his blog posts, I would guess that his class participation contributes a lot to the liveliness of the sessions and helps keep the other preparers awake.)

His use of the occasional expletive in his blog is a bit jarring--his language sometimes sounds more like that of a sailor than a tax professional, but otherwise, his blog posts suggest that he serves his clients very well, minimizing their tax burdens while staying completely within the law.

He clearly takes pride in the tax returns he prepares for his clients, regarding them as works of art. He writes them out in meticulous longhand, since he eschews the use of tax software. I suspect he may be in a class by himself in that respect--I've never met or heard of any other tax pros who don't use software.

Although he refuses to use software, he apparently does like to watch TV (and complains a lot about reality TV shows.) I watch very little TV myself, aside from my two annual rituals (the National Spelling Bee in late spring and the Times Square ball at midnight on New Year's Eve), but recently I did catch a fascinating episode of a show called "Are you smarter than a fifth grader?" in which a Nobel Laureate physicist wound up winning a million dollars and the right to say "I am smarter than a fifth grader."

All of this has given me a great idea for highlighting the bizarreness of the tax code: ESPN should televise a National Tax Bee, just as they televise the National Spelling Bee. Robert would make a great contestant on such a show (though they might have to bleep out the occasional expletive.)

The Bee could present little minitax scenarios and the contestants would take turns figuring out the answers. Just as the National Spelling Bee doesn't allow spellers to use computerized spell-check, the National Tax Bee wouldn't allow preparers to use software. The rules should allow them to use the tax forms, tax instructions, Pub 17, and copies of the tax code for reference.

Just as the National Spelling Bee doesn't ask contestants to spell out whole essays, the questions would be relatively short and self-contained focusing on particular aspects of tax situations (such as, "Who gets to claim this kid?" or "What is the filing status?" or "Is this allowable as an itemized deduction?" etc.)

There are some details to work out. The tax code and regulations are much more convoluted and less readable than the Webster's Third New International Dictionary, and they also have an order of magnitude more pages than the dictionary. So the judging panel would have to be pretty resourceful in dealing with contestant challenges to the official "correct" answers. I can imagine some ways to handle this. Contestants who want to submit challenges could submit them in writing, to be referred to a panel of tax law professor judges in an isolation booth, so that they would not know the identity of the contestants whose challenges they are evaluating.

Just like the National Spelling Bee, the early round questions would start out with reasonably commonplace but challenging tax situations and then they'd get more and more bizarre and obscure with succeeding rounds.

Here's a contestant lineup that would make for an interesting show:

Robert D Flach, Tax Girl Kelly Erb, The Tax Lawyer Peter Pappas

HR Block, Jackson Hewitt, and Liberty Tax could be invited to send their top tax preparers

VITA and AARP could be invited to send their top tax preparers

The IRS could enter a few expert employees from different departments (TAC, SPEC, audit, NTA all come to mind as possibilities)

The American Bar Association and CPA professional societies could be invited to send their top tax lawyers and CPAs

Then we could have some celebrity contestants: There are many interesting possibilities in Congress--I'd put my money on Barney Frank over Charles Rangel, any day. Larry Summers vs. Tim Geithner would be an interesting match up--that would be a lot closer, but my bet would go on Larry. Maybe the CEOs of the big chains also.

Who else would you suggest for this show? Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.

And what about the judging panel? The tax law professors would be the clear choices for that--and some of them would be at least as colorful as the contestants.

As for color and play-by-play commentary, I'd love to see National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson in the anchor role, along with Alice Rivlin and Economist Mom as well. Nina could talk about the hardships faced by American taxpayers in trying to comply with the code, while the other two commentators could talk about the cost of all those exotic loopholes for the favored few in terms of the burden they inflict on the rest of us. It would be a great chance to talk about how tax reform could improve our economy.

It could be a great way to educate the American public about tax law. Imagine everything the public could learn from watching a show like this:

1) How to comply with basic tax law (from the early round questions)

2) Some good questions to ask your preparer to see if he knows his own stuff (from the middle round questions)

3) The ridiculous complexity of tax law and the crying need for tax reform and simplification. (from the final round questions)

There could also be student editions of the show, perhaps with different divisions: middle school, high school, college, professional schools.

ESPN, are you listening? (Hey, Noah Webster is in my family tree, and as the mother of two former National Spelling Bee contestants, I'd be happy to volunteer my services as a consultant in developing the show.)

This could be a huge opportunity for television to do some real good for a change.


  1. I'm open to the idea of making this a team competition, or at least giving individual contestants the option of making a limited number of "lifeline" calls to an expert of their choice.

  2. MOK-

    Thanks for the glowing description of my blog and practice – you are too kind.

    I don’t mind being called “flamboyant” (I have been called a lot worse), as long as this description is not misinterpreted (like my love of Musical Theatre).

    I didn’t realize my really very occasional use of an expletive was “jarring”. When I call reality tv “shit” (I try to use the word “excrement” instead of the s-word whenever possible) I am merely calling a spade a spade.

    As for your suggested contestant lineup, I would be honored to appear on the show alongside Kelly, but I would prefer Joe Kristan of the ROTH AND COMPANY TAX UPDATE BLOG or Monica Lawver of THE TAX CPA as the third contestant – Pappas and I aren’t speaking (like another tax blogger he cannot accept anyone who disagrees with his Pope-like pronouncements).

    I would love to have Nina Olsen as the moderator, and Professors Paul Caron, James Maule and Dan Shaviro as the judges.

    Regarding my “meticulous longhand”, my completed 1040s have indeed been literally called “works of art” by IRS personnel and fellow tax pros (or so a long-time client has told me).

    A very serious thank you for the post. I am glad you enjoy THE WANDERING TAX PRO, as I do also enjoy reading BED BUGS.

    Once I have finished with my GD extensions I will give some thought to suggestions for the National Tax Bee.


  3. What a great idea! Thanks to Robert for the shout out. He'd wipe the floor with me, but I'd have fun nonetheless.

    I definitely agree we need to make the public more aware of how insane the code is, and then maybe we can get some action on reform.

    What kind of major reform would you support?

  4. No doubt in my mind that Robert would ease through and be reining champ for all time. None the less, where to I apply to be a contestent? I am eager to see how long I could hang with Robert and Kelly.

  5. Mary,

    Thanks for the kind comments. I really appreciate it. Keep up the great blogging.