Tax filing: Is there a better way to do it here in the United States?

untitledTax filing day has come and gone, and for millions of Americans, it’s another reminder of how complicated and convoluted our current tax collection system is.

For some of us, it means setting aside a couple evenings or an entire weekend to collect receipts and other relevant documentation, work through the filing documents and prepare tax information — most of which the federal government already possesses.

For many others, trepidation — or just the sheer irritation of preparing their tax returns — means paying another person or a tax preparation service to do it for them.

The amount of hours and dollars spent on tax preparation is rather astounding; according to a White House estimate published as far back as 2010, collectively it amounts to over 7.5 billion hours and ~$140 billion each year.

Thus, the current lay of the land should make considering new alternatives just the thing to do.

Along those lines, in a recent article in The Atlantic, senior economics editor Derek Thompson posited a “third way”:  Why not receive a document from the government with the relevant information already filled in, and all the taxpayer needs to do is confirm the documentation?

It seems like a cross between Pollyanna and a pipe dream … until one begins to realize how neatly this approach aligns with the financial lives many people lead.

According to the Atlantic article, about half of American taxpayers earn all of their earned income from a single employer’s wages along with interest income from just one financial institution.  This is information the government already collects, which would make it possible for the IRS to send nearly completed tax forms to these individuals.

Some Scandinavian and Baltic countries have been doing this for years.

In fact, a full decade ago economist Austan Goolsbee proposed this very thing for the USA.  In a paper published by the Brookings Institution, Goolsbee advocated adoption of a “simple return” that would involve sending out pre-filled documents to those taxpayers who have the most straightforward taxes.

Those who qualify would include approximately 9 million single, lower income taxpayers who work for a living and don’t itemize their deductions.

An additional 17 million taxpayers have returns that are nearly as simple — including married couples who don’t itemize deductions.

Alas, as with any problem, there is a solution that’s “simple, elegant … and wrong.” Barriers preventing the adoption of a new, streamlined tax filing process include three big ones:

  • The current federal income tax system is not just complex, but also riddled with special interest protections. While in theory, a powerful argument for simplification falls on receptive ears, ultimately it fails when people begin to realize how the reform will reduce their own personal tax benefits. Too often, it’s “Tax simplification for three but not for me.”

 

  • The cost to overhaul the tax collection system isn’t chicken feed — and as we all know the IRS isn’t exactly swimming in excess funds after having raised the ire of Congress through its targeting of not-for-profit entities (not to mention the not-so-trivial cost of implementing Obamacare compliance enforcement).

 

  • Resistance is also coming from two other quarters. Tax preparation services are fundamentally opposed to simplification of the process because their very raison d’être depends on the continuation of a complex system that most people cannot or will not deal with on their own.

[On this last point, unlikely allies of the tax preparation services are political conservatives who may hate the current tax code, but who are suspicious of any remedies that might make tax collection become any “easier” for the government.]

Still … it would seem that any serious effort at rethinking the current tax filing system should be given all due consideration, as I have yet to meet anyone who is satisfied with the way things are today.

Where do you come down on the issue? Please share your observations with other readers here.

Now that April 15th is behind us …

While we’re all catching our collective breath after filing our 2008 federal and state tax returns … it’s a good time to consider the most recent findings on Americans’ tax preparation behaviors.

You might expect that a significant portion of tax filers are now using “cheap ‘n easy” computer software programs like TurboTax to complete and file their tax forms.

Well … not so fast. A just-released survey conducted by Mediamark Research & Intelligence finds that only about 20% of U.S. tax filers used software programs. Another ~13% prepared their own returns the traditional way — by hand.

But fully half of respondents relied on outside professional help from a CPA, tax preparer or national chain resource like H&R Block — despite the fact that such services cost much, much more.

Why would half of all adults who file personal federal taxes feel the need to pay a lot more for professional assistance rather than take advantage of affordable software programs? There are a number of reasons: the complexity of the federal tax code … intimidating tax forms and instructions … concern about the safety and security of computerized software programs and electronic filing … and, not least, fear of retribution from the IRS for making an error.

The fact that many of the tax returns completed by professional preparers still contain errors doesn’t seem to make much difference. Many taxpayers would rather shift the responsibility of “filling out and filing” to somebody — anybody — else.