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Parkinson’s Law and the Peter Principle: Understanding Business and Politics Using Business Axioms
What business axiom or management principle have you discovered that helps you live better, work smarter, or understand organizations in a way that is unique, funny, or provides that rare but special “ah ha” moment?
An example of a well-known business axiom is the famous “Peter Principle” (1), which states: “People rise to the level of incompetence.” Explaining how incompetent people can rise to leadership and high-level political positions with no management or leadership skills can give some insight into why so many businesses and governments fail. This interesting concept has several implications that may explain the poor performance of government and business. Perhaps even the most important decisions reach their incompetence. That is, the more critical a decision is, the more likely it is to be lost from the people in the know, and decided either in a steering committee (to avoid accountability) or at the C-Suite or Cabinet level, where truly terrible decisions are sometimes made out of ignorance. While this principle is meant to promote discussion about the follies of some bureaucracies, we can all relate to the big business blunders caused by managers who thought they knew better. Remember New Coke, Edsel, and the infamous business failures of Enron, Arthur Anderson, Lehman Bros., and Bear Sterns? Government failures are even more common, as evidenced by the Arab Spring uprisings, and much of Europe is facing severe budget deficits and even a currency collapse in the European Union.
In a conversation with a high-level bureaucrat who wanted to announce the immediate closure of a large call center, I replied that determining future call distribution would be critical since the location had nearly 400 employees. He replied that I was wrong and no one was working there. Shocked at the lack of knowledge, I replied that I had just returned from a visit last week and that we have over 400 active staff working there. A bureaucrat at a distance and especially at the center can be very dangerous to sound decision-making!
My personal favorite business axiom is Parkinson’s Law, written by C. Northcote Parkinson (2) in 1954: “Work expands into available time.” This is the only management principle that I remember clearly during my four years of college administration studies, because I found the relationship between work and time to be flexible and unpredictable. It’s an irreverent but insightful view of how workloads are out of proportion to the size of bureaucratic organizations. It reminds us that in our world, we need to understand human behavior, recognize humor, and recognize people’s tendency to make stupid decisions, especially when emotions take over from basic common sense.
All students recognize the value of Parkinson’s Law. It is very important to determine how much time a task takes, or, of course, double, triple, or multiple times the time it actually takes. As students, we quickly learned this fact after working on an essay for several days, in our senior years, we started a project two hours before the deadline with surprisingly positive results. Although this working time relationship is well known, fewer people use it in their organizations. Most business schools, businesses and certainly almost all governments have forgotten the importance of the working time relationship. One only has to look at the state of governments around the world to realize that the tendency for bureaucracy to grow is fundamental, as growth ignores any workload or cause. Greece is currently facing severe financial ruin because the expanding state bureaucracy has become unsustainable. Thus, the savvy bureaucrat is not rewarded for keeping quiet and working on downsizing, but is expected to continue functioning regardless of the increase in workload. An incompetent bureaucrat can achieve nothing but a poor result, but his constant complaints inevitably lead to additional manpower. He continues to complain, and soon he’s running a department twice the size of the office manager down the hall. The bureaucratic nature of the local Department of Motor Vehicles shows that the work is stretched over the available time, as these organizations, despite years of practice and computerized conversions and upgrades, still demonstrate a complete lack of logic and efficiency. It is legendary that they avoid all levels of customer service.
Another more serious and insidious example of Parkinson’s Law is the bureaucrat’s tendency to create complexity. Take the process of how American laws are codified and regulated. Whether it’s the new health care law now under constitutional review, the new Dodd-Frank banking law and its thousands of pages of regulations, or amending the highly complex tax code, it has become a tool of lawmaking in America. the epitome of bureaucracy and unintended consequences. This explains why there are so many lawyers and accountants and how American society creates enough jobs for them all to administer laws that are too complicated for the general public to understand.
The complexity of government is probably due to the fact that there are many legislators who have to find something to do with their time. Instead of looking for ways to make work easier, they seem to want to pass more laws and make life even more complicated.
Parkinson’s Law explains why the two most basic functions of government, tax collection and public health care, continue to become more complicated and expensive. Just try explaining to a European how Americans calculate their taxes or how to choose their employees’ health care. After spending two hours trying to choose a health plan and explain income taxes with my Belgian daughter-in-law, it became clear that our systems are truly irrational.
Downsizing government offices, simplifying the tax code or making health care more manageable is said to cause a huge blow. Our federal government has yet to embrace the austerity plans of European and local and state governments and always seems to find a reason to ignore its committee recommendations and delay decisions by sidelining the most difficult and important issues. This ability to ignore responsibility is probably why there is friction between American business and government. In most societies, the sovereign bureaucracy joins and supports business. America has a distrust of government going back to the Revolutionary War and protecting our individual liberties. Government work also has different incentives. Civil servants are not supposed to be resource efficient, but they are expected to spend all the money in their budget or face draconian cuts in funding and resources next year. Government growth requires more revenue to operate, so higher taxes are needed. Businesses seek to make a profit, so they work diligently to avoid taxes and focus on efficiency and cost reduction, so the goals of the two institutions are traditionally at opposite poles. The incredible growth and overspending of global, federal, state, and local governments proves Parkinson’s thesis that bureaucracies and agencies will proliferate even when they no longer have a reason to exist.
In our business and government experience, we find many examples of the Peter Principle and/or Parkinson’s Law. Many hope for some simple solution to inefficient governance and increasing complexity in society. Perhaps if Congress passed a law stating that all laws and regulations must be limited to one page, we could begin to unravel the complexities of our health care system and tax code. Of course, lobbyists, departments, and stakeholders who profit from such inefficiencies will prohibit the movement toward simplicity.
The hope that technology will solve bureaucratic problems only makes it easier to “cut and paste” more information into the process, making law and compliance take more pages to argue a simple point. The environmental impact report for a new soccer stadium in Los Angeles, for example, was more than 10,000 pages long and cost $27 million to produce. Interestingly, the original Los Angeles Coliseum was built in 1923 for just $950,000. Here is another example of a regulatory process without restrictions and reasonable limits. The typical LA resident probably won’t be able to afford to attend a game when soccer returns to Los Angeles in 2020, 2030, or…
But the costs of future soccer in Los Angeles pale in comparison to the waste and expense of administering America’s complex tax code or managing our fragmented and complex health care system. Unfortunately, this complexity of health care puts the burden on the people most at risk, without the ability to navigate and find optimal care: the uninsured, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and children. The tragedy of a systematic, fragmented and deeply uncoordinated health care system is that the quality of care has seriously deteriorated and is unequal. We are informed by letter that our doctor will no longer accept our PPO health insurance, that he cannot use the local hospital, that the lab is not a licensed provider, and that our fees have increased again.
Although the impact of the complicated tax code is not so serious for the health of the citizens, it certainly causes unnecessary fiscal stress to a people and a country that can no longer live within its means. It seems like every year there is more uncertainty, more interaction with our tax accountants, the state IRS and the IRS as they add more complex rules to the process. Managing our financial lives has become increasingly difficult, and the end result is more stress and doubt. So stay healthy so that you have time and energy to calculate and pay taxes! Just remember Parkinson’s Law and don’t start your tax preparation too early or you’ll lose weeks of exercise and staying healthy.
1. Peter, Laurence J.; Hill, Raymond (1969). Peter Principle: Why do things always go wrong? New York: William Morrow and Company.
2. Parkinson, C. Northcote; (1954). Parkinson Law and Other Studies in Public Administration, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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