Allan Rolnick, CPA
Many years ago, ambitious social climbers had just two career tracks to choose from: you could hunt or you could gather. (Cave painting was a fun hobby, but no one had figured out how to monetize it.) Training was entirely on-the-job. There were no classrooms, written exams, or licensing boards, and “distance learning” meant watching someone else spear a mammoth or saber-toothed tiger while you were safe in a tree. The Bronze Age added a new career track in technology. (The land between the Tigris and Euphrates was the Silicon Valley.) Around that same time, we see the first record of organized taxation: Bereishis 47:24 tells us the Egyptian Pharaoh sent his commissioners to take 1/5 of the grain harvest. As civilization developed, taxes developed with them. The famous Rosetta Stone that helped scholars decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics turned out to be documenting the Ptolemaic empire’s “Tax Reform and Reconciliation Act of 196 BC.” Fast forward to now. Hunting and gathering have evolved into today’s irrigated, drought-resistant, pest-proof agribusiness. Technology has evolved into iPhones and Teslas. (Flying cars and jetpacks are on their way, really!) Even cave paintings have evolved – you may not like Warhol or Basquiat, but you can’t deny they learned how to spin cheap paint and canvas into real wealth. As for taxes, we still have what former President Jimmy Carter called “a disgrace to the human race” and what the rest of us laughingly refer to as “the Internal Revenue Code.” What’s that all about? Today’s tax pros typically earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Some go on to earn a master’s in business or tax. Those sorts of classes prepare future tax pros to put the “right” numbers in the “right” boxes on the “right” forms. But those core skills are becoming less and less valuable all the time. Technology used to help us do that work more efficiently. Now, in the form of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotic process automation, it’s on the verge of doing the work for us. It’s the same evolution you may have seen in your own work, as spreadsheets replaced calculators, which replaced slide rules, which replaced pencils and paper. Where does that leave entrepreneurial tax professionals like us? Just like with the earliest hunter-gatherers, our real education comes on the job. We can take classes on how business entities work. We can pass the “Regulation” section of the CPA exam with questions on federal taxation of individuals, business entities, and property transactions. But the real education comes from navigating the ever-changing red tape of federal and state forms. If your tax pro doesn’t show you how to use a medical expense reimbursement plan to write off your family’s medical bills as a business expense, it won’t matter where those numbers go – you’ll lose that deduction. If your tax pro doesn’t help you use the right business entity to legally minimize your employment taxes, there’s nothing you can do on April 15 to help. If you want more than just a tax return, you need a tax pro with more than just a degree. (In fact, some of the best tax pros don’t have degrees at all.) Anyone can learn how to put numbers in boxes. But how valuable is that when technology can do it faster, cheaper, and more efficiently? It takes an experienced, proactive mindset to scour your business and your investments to find better boxes for your numbers. That’s where evolution has taken us. So why wouldn’t you take as much advantage as you can?
Allan J. Rolnick is a CPA who has been in practice for over 30 years in Queens, NY. He welcomes your comments and can be reached at 718-896-8715 or firstname.lastname@example.org.