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How on earth does one learn about this stuff?

An interactive and non-intimidating way is to use Turbo Tax or other tax software. While not perfect, they are very convenient. I don't mean to suggest you should leave everything to the software. Start taking the full interview offered by the S/W and notice (and think about the questions) how the path of the interview changes if you change your choices or amounts. It'll begin to give you a general idea of the factors involved. At most places, you'll see links to definitions, IRS guidelines (usually rewritten in English,) suggestions and nuggets of hard-earned wisdom gleaned from practicing tax professionals (like what might trigger an audit.)

The tax code is way too complicated for the average American.

*** Part *** of the reason is the need to be precise and the desire to be fair. (Imagine that!) AMT itself is an effort to be fair; built-in Cost-of-Ling-Adjustments -- among other things -- might have made it better.

This is not directed at you, but I flinch whenever people unfairly blame the IRS or INS for everything wrong with the tax code or immigration policy. Congress produces huge, ugly, complicated laws and entrusts enforcement to these agencies and then proceeds to underfund them.
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