Tax Season

US Tax Form 1040It’s that time of year again, when almost 140 million people in the US have to waste many hours of their personal time collecting information from forms sent to them by employers, banks etc, then enter it all into another set of forms to be sent to the federal and state tax services. Oh, and all that information has already been sent to those very same authorities. Just so they can check your answers? Is this some kind of annual test?

Wasted Time
The IRS estimates that on average across all people filing any type of federal return, individuals will spend 17.3 hours “preparing” these forms. The IRS reported (pdf) that in 2007 there were almost 139 million individual tax returns filed. So, a quick calculation suggests that every year in the US, 274,509 person-years are wasted on collating and transcribing information that the recipient (the IRS) already had. And that doesn’t include the burden from the state tax filings.

Wasted Money
In addition to the ridiculous amount of time wasted on this activity, the IRS also estimates that it will cost individuals on average $225 to prepare these returns; that’s $31 billion every year (and, again, doesn’t take into account state tax filing costs). That could be spent on things that were a lot more beneficial than collating and transcribing information from one set of forms to another.

Wasted Resources
It doesn’t end with wasted time and money either. Every year, employers, banks and other companies mail out those tax details to all their employees/customers. Some now offer electronic delivery at least, but I wonder how many of those end up being printed at home, either for reference while preparing taxes, for providing to an accountant or just for records?

Estimates online range from 9,000 to 15,000 sheets of paper per tree (obviously, the type & size of the tree plays a big part in this!). Let’s assume the 15,000 sheets per tree number for the sake of this post. That means, assuming each person filing a return received at least 5 of these forms (probably lower than reality based on my experience), 46,000 trees were destroyed to print these forms (and that doesn’t include the envelopes used to mail them – probably close to as much again).

Then there are the tax forms themselves. The IRS reported (in that same data book PDF) that about 79 million of the 139 million returns were filed electronically (a great achievement, by the way). That still leaves 60 million that were mailed in, on paper, though. My federal return from last year was 13 pages. For the sake of round numbers though, let’s say that the average person mailing in a return is 10 pages. That means another 70,000 trees were cut down to send the information to the IRS a second time.

Every year, that means over 100,000 trees are being destroyed every year just to pass this information around multiple times. And that doesn’t include the rest of the carbon footprint of this process (converting trees to paper, the resources used in printing, and the delivery of the forms).

A Better Idea
I don’t expect the US to do the smartest thing and switch to a taxed at source model, where companies who pay people are responsible for deducting the correct amount of tax before sending out the money, any time soon. I just don’t believe it is in the American psyche. Especially not when I hear so many people who are ecstatic to receive a refund from the IRS! They don’t seem to realise that all those refunds mean is that they gave the IRS an interest free loan for the year.

There is another solution though that would make much more sense than the current scheme: just bill me!

Yes, that’s right, the IRS (and the state tax authorities too) have all the information that they need to be able to calculate how much tax I owe, or how much they owe me. They have the resources to process that data, and it is all keyed off of a single identifier. So, why can’t they just send me a statement, and either a bill for what I owe or my refund? That would reduce the time most people spend on taxes to just minutes (the time required to scan the statement, and pay the bill).

The paper waste is also reduced dramatically. Let’s assume an average of 2 pages, printed double sided, per person billed, and 139 million bills mailed out. That’s under 10,000 trees now. Add electronic statements as an option, and no-fee bill pay options, and you also reduce the paper wasted by the process even further – assuming the same proportion of people who e-file their taxes, it would drop to below 5,000 trees per year – a reduction of over 95%.

Tax Reform
How about it President Obama? Democrats? If you want to make a meaningful difference to the tax system in the US, how about reforming the collection mechanism rather than individual taxes? It makes sense from a fiscal perspective; it makes sense from an enforcement perspective (less avoidance); and it makes sense from an environmental perspective. What’s not to like here?

HOAs and the Environment

Those who follow my Twitter feed might have seen that we received a snarky letter from our HOA here at Bayport in Alameda this week complaining about our front lawn. The complaint itself was not specific (it said something along the lines of the lawn needing “weeding, edging, mowing and/or fertilizing”).

Now, my opinion of HOAs in general is pretty low (and of the particular management company used here, Vierra Moore, even lower), since most of what I have seen from them has been silly time wasting nonsense. At our expense since our monthly dues pay for these time wasters. To highlight just how much nonsense Vierra Moore believes in, one of last year’s “straw polls” for potential new rules they could impose on residents included whether home owners should be allowed to fly flags, and if so what sizes and types of flag. Pathetic people. Learn how to live and let live. Let’s take away all the rules that are not ensuring safety and deal with it.

But, complaints about lawn condition have a much larger implication. By requiring that lawns be kept ‘green’ they are essentially requiring a massive, and unacceptable, waste of water. And the houses here in Bayport do not include grey water systems (a shame in newly built homes). Currently water is a precious resource here in northern California, with a serious drought entering its third year now. Why are we wasting it watering grass?

Unusually for me, I honestly think there needs to be a change in the law to prevent HOAs from requiring their members to run irrigation at all. If grass can’t survive naturally in the climate, then it is simply the wrong thing to plant. That said, even when it is burnt badly in hot summers, it usually comes back unaided when the rain returns in the winter months (as the many un-irrigated hillsides in the bay area demonstrate every year). Of course, it doesn’t look green all summer, but really people, is having a green lawn more important than having water to drink? Perhaps this year we can make brown the new green.

I do think it is time that cities and/or states stepped in here to prevent these pathetic, bullying organisations from being able to require their “members” to waste precious resources. So, I am going to be sending this post to a number of places, including local and state politicians, to see if anything can be done to knock some common sense into these HOA management company bullies.

Vertography Blog

VertographyI’ve just launched a new blog, with the goal of providing information to help you live a greener life, without compromising on its quality. This is not information for the hard-core tree hugger, but information for everyday people. Yesterday looked at eco-friendly lighting options; today a search engine that plants trees for every 1000 searches performed (and produces great results too thanks to Yahoo!).

In addition to simple tips for greening up your life, it is also going to cover some cool green technology that is being developed or tested. Today included a post about plugin hybrid cars. And there’s lots more cool, green technology out there for us to cover!

Reusable Plastic Bags

ReusableLast year San Francisco passed a law that made the plastic bags commonly provided by supermarkets illegal. This was a huge step forward in a number of ways, including reduction of the amount of these bags that will end up in the landfills, but most importantly perhaps it will help reduce the number of these plastic bags that end up in the bay and ocean, where they can harm or kill wildlife that doesn’t know what a plastic bag is.

Yesterday though I went to a small supermarket in San Francisco, and found that they were still handing out plastic bags. To side step the law, they seem to have made the bags from a thicker plastic and printed the word ‘Reusable’ on them. As if that will change the behaviour of the people taking them home. The previous type of plastic bags were reusable too, and, like this bag, could be returned to the supermarket for recycling. So, this seems to be just a way to exploit a loophole in a law that was intended to improve our environment. Hopefully, somebody will find a way to close this loophole, and force supermarkets like this one to use only bio-degradable bags, preferably paper ones.

If the paper ones cost more (as a sign in the supermarket suggested), then why not charge customers for them? That might encourage the use of truly reusable bags.