The first indication that we had hit a nerve was a chiding call from the mail department at this newspaper. If we were going to solicit a reader response, they suggested, why didn't we establish a separate mail box first? It would make sorting a lot easier, they said.

Then came the packages of cards and letters. Then more. And more. There were letters scribbled on lined paper, letters with delicate fonts printed by laser printers, letters on corporate stationary. Those who took the time to write letters discussed Congressman Armey's bill, other flat tax bills, and alternatives to the flat tax.

  The postcards included some wonderful pictures--- my favorite was the "Tacosaurus" from San Antonio. To mention a few, the cards showed pretty scenes in California, hotels in Colorado, bottles of Coors beer, several kinds of dogs, a few cats, a corpse being picked at by a vulture, fields of flowers, a reproduction from the International Museum of Erotic Art in San Francisco, the front of a Healthy Choice cereal box, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Proof positive that Americans retain their sense of humor at all times.

Most of the messages were very simple: "Flat Tax Now!", repeated 5,000 times.

Yes, you read that number right: 5,000 times.  

What does that mean?

Just this. The flat tax is not just an idea to be debated by politicians, journalists, policy geeks, and others who do no heavy lifting. It is a FORCE, a power, something to be reckoned with. It is a lightening rod that is beyond Democrats and Republicans, a message that THE BURDEN OF THE TAX SYSTEM ITSELF IS MORE IMPORTANT TO MOST AMERICANS THAN THE UNENDING ARGUMENTS OVER FAIRNESS AND EQUITY IN WHAT IS COLLECTED. The current discussion in Congress is irrelevant.

Listen:

Bob and Judy Miller of Pearland, Texas, sent their reply on a postcard with a recipe for Chili and wrote: "Just received my 95' tax form with instructions. It's as thick as the Pearland phone directory!!! Please help us simplify our taxes."

"For the average citizen the worst thing about our government is the fear and trouble of our income tax system.   The government would be absolutely amazed at the amount of revenue the flat tax would produce..."--- D. Henderson, Kerrville, TX

"Save the poor and middle class and retire the IRS. They need a rest anyway."--- H. Oppigard, Valley City, ND

"I'm willing to pay my share but it's time we eliminate red tape, long forms, and loop holes. Make it simple."---S.Cole, Warrenville, IL

"I am for a change in the way we have to prepare taxes. It has become so complex that I dread the end of the year... the system is totally out of hand and it is time for a change."---D. Jeter, Houston, TX

Here are some of the other concerns in reader comments:

o             the specifics of the Armey bill, which goes far beyond personal                  income taxes, particularly in the area of interest, dividends,                  and the definition of business income;

o           the effect of trading large personal deductions for itemized                deductions such as mortgage interest and real estate taxes;

o           the effect on charitable giving;

o           the effect on holders of municipal bonds.

Let's take them in order:

o           The Armey flat tax proposal isn't the only plan for massive tax                simplification. The real issue here is how strong is public                support for a simple tax system? The answer: Very.

o           While some homeowners, particularly in the expensive Northeast                and West coast, would lose some of the benefit from high mortgage                interest deductions, research I've done indicates that most                homeowners don't enjoy major tax savings from itemized deductions                because of the rising standard deduction. This has been                repeatedly demonstrated in reader letters wanting their ownership                benefits analyzed.

            My guess is that loss of deductions would reduce the value of some             expensive houses... but it wouldn't be the End of Homeownership. What             it WOULD do is put a lot of downward pressure on interest rates,             nullifying some of the tax effect.

o         If you take a close look at the IRS figures on charitable giving,              people don't give more of their income as they rise from the 15              percent bracket to the 28 or 31 percent bracket. People give because              they want to give--- and that's at ALL levels of income.

o         Tax-free bonds would fall in value as investors decided   they'd just              as soon own taxables and pay the (smaller) income tax. The decline,              however, would probably be offset by gains from an overall decline in              interest rates that would make ALL existing bonds more valuable.

Many readers wanted to go beyond a simple flat tax and abolish the personal income tax altogether. Several sent copies of the January 8th article in Parade magazine on Representative Bill Archers plan for a consumption tax. The idea here is to collect taxes at the cash register, not at the paycheck, rewarding those who save and invest while collecting taxes from those who consume. A consumption tax would, advocates say, increase taxpayer "compliance" and extract taxes from the underground economy.

Whatever. The main message, one often lost in the inevitable   counting of angel toes, is that present system has become intolerable.