Americans are impatient. We look for the quick take-away, the executive summary, the timesaving "nut graph" that keeps us from having to read all the details.
Unfortunately, we have spent most of the past week trying to do this with the U.S. income tax system. That's like trying to master Mandarin Chinese in a five-minute lesson, define the universe in 25 words or less or lose weight through finger exercises.
The tax code fills about 73,000 pages. If you're into visual images, you could give one page to every football fan in a sold out Lavell Edwards Stadium and still have nearly 10,000 pages left over.
A nation that demands its presidential candidates release their income tax returns, which otherwise are kept private by law, ought to do so for only two reasons. One is to determine whether the candidate is a law-abiding taxpayer. The second, and far less important, reason is to glean some sort of insight into the candidate's character. Did the candidate try to reduce his tax obligation through some strange or contorted deduction? (One business owner deducted the cost of a yacht because he said he needed it to impress and attract new business clients, according to a list of interesting deductions posted on efile.com.)
Did the candidate give to charity and, if so, how much? That says much about a person's inner convictions.
Mitt Romney ought to have scored big on that one. His returns showed he gave $7 million to charity in 2010 and '11, including his church. That was several hundred thousand more than what he paid in taxes.
Because the only fair way to examine this is by percentage of income, Romney donated 16 percent of his income to charity compared to Newt Gingrich's 2.6 percent.
That's it, folks. That's the end of the relevant lessons to be learned.
But no, we want to learn Chinese through Professor Harold Hill's "think method."
Pundits and other candidates have been fixated on the amount Romney earned, awed the way a museum visitor might be at the Hope Diamond.
Americans, then, are not only impatient, they are marvelously contradictory. We want a president who understands the world, but we become unsure of someone who speaks a foreign language. We want a Washington outsider who knows how to get things done in Washington. And we want someone who is a successful leader, but not too successful.
The candidate should show he understands the common person's plight, although we wouldn't really want someone like us — up to his ears in car payments, with a big mortgage and credit card debt.
You want a quick takeaway from the recent Romney tax-return taffy pull? There is only one — the U.S. tax system is far too complicated.
Financial journalist Kathy Kristof noted on CBSnews.com this week that it took 203 pages for Romney to "comply with the nation's Byzantine tax laws…"
As she said, the tax code defines income so many ways it's hard to know whether Romney earned $21 million, $26 million or $27 million last year. Sure, he paid only 14 percent, or perhaps it was 11 percent if you define income differently, but about half of the nation's wage-earning workers paid absolutely nothing after deductions and credits. Does anyone think this is any way to finance a country?
Americans have been demanding tax returns from their leaders for years. The website taxhistory.org contains all of them, including Franklin Roosevelt's first returns in 1913, the first year the nation required an income tax. It's three pages long. His gross income that year was $14,224.86, or roughly $323,000 today. His tax bill came to about $9.90, or $225 in today's dollars.
The important thing there isn't how much money he made at the tender age of 31, 20 years before he supposedly connected with the common person's plight during the Depression. It is that he figured his taxes in three simple pages.
How did we add those 200 other pages, and how can we make taxes more simple and fair?
The way candidates answer those questions ought to matter more than how much money they make.