Each tax season, tens of millions of American households have a decision to make.
A) They can collectively spend hundreds of millions of hours preparing tax information that the federal government already has.
B) They can pay other people billions of dollars to do it for them.
But let’s add a choice C: They go for a walk. Or, they have a nice dinner. Basically, they do whatever they want with those millions of hours and billions of dollars. Because their taxes are done for them, for free. They receive a document from the government with all of the relevant information already filled out, and they check a box to say, “okay!"
In the United States, the third choice sounds like a fantasy. But the excruciating pain of tax season is just another example of negative American exceptionalism. In fact, about one-half of American taxpayers earn all their income from one employer’s wages (which the IRS can see) and interest from one bank (which the IRS can find out without much effort). The IRS could easily send tens of millions of individuals their nearly completed taxes by mail—or even, by text.
“Rather than some crazy, wild idea that’s never been tried before, this is doable and a lot of countries do it,” said William Gale, a tax expert at the Brookings Institution. Eight OECD countries, including Finland and Norway, fully prepare returns for the majority of its taxpayers. In Estonia, it famously takes the average person five minutes to file taxes.
In Sweden, the vast majority of taxpayers don’t do battle with tax documents and fine-print questions about itemized deductions. They just get a document from the government with all the relevant information already filled out. Some even get a text message with their prepared tax information, and if they respond “yes,” their taxes are done. Andreas Hatzigeorgiou, a chief economist with the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, told PRI that individuals with more involved filings can always spend more time on their taxes, if they like. “If you don’t have any complicated things that you want to do”—like listing business expenses from a sole proprietorship —“it takes you five seconds,” he said.
In the United States, however, taxes are tortuous—for those who pay them as well as those who collect them. Compliance costs are 10 times higher than in most European countries. Poor Americans in particular suffer for the time and money it takes to fill out what are essentially redundant documents. "These taxpayers are just copying into a tax return information that the IRS already receives independently,” the economist Austan Goolsbee wrote in a Brookings paper.
In 2006, Goolsbee proposed a "Simple Return” that would pre-fill forms for workers with the most straightforward taxes. California tried something like this in 2004, when it sent 50,000 single taxpayers a European-style "ReadyReturn.” Ninety percent of users said it saved them time. The median cost of completion? Zero dollars.
The Simple Return could proceed in several steps. First, the IRS could start with a pilot program for the most straightforward tax returns: single, low-income taxpayers who don't itemize their deductions. There are about nine million such people in the U.S. They would get a document from the IRS early in the year showing total income earned and total taxes owed. They could check a box saying "Okay,” make changes, or—if they insist—burn the page, throw the ashes in the trash, and log onto TurboTax.
If millions of people seemed happy with the streamlined one-pager, the IRS could expand the program to the millions of people with the second-easiest returns, like married couples who don’t itemize their deductions. “We might never get everybody in the system, because some people’s tax situations are quite complicated,” Gale said. But step two of the Simple Return could still reach about 17 million taxpayers.
What’s stopping the Simple Return? There are three barriers, and appropriately, since the issue at stake is taxes, they are all fundamentally about money.
First, changing the tax-payment system for tens of millions of people would require resources for the federal government, and the IRS is already squeezed. Its budget has fallen in the last decade and Congress hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for making their jobs any easier.
Second, America’s federal income tax system is byzantine—a messy reflection of the messy will of the people. "A simpler tax code is everybody’s second priority,” Gale said. Their first priority? That would be to keep the tax breaks they already have—or even to create new ones. It’s often said that Americans love their congressman but hate Congress. It’s the same with tax breaks: Everybody loves their tax benefit and hates the tax system. Without a simpler tax code, it’s hard to imagine a Simple Return working for more than the low- and middle-class Americans with the most straightforward earnings.
Third, the opposition to simpler taxes unites two unlikely allies. First, Grover Norquist and other conservatives who want to cut taxes don’t want tax collection to be more efficient. They’re afraid it will be easier for the feds to raise revenue if taxes feel effortless and people spend less time considering them. Second, tax preparers like H&R Block and Intuit,the company behind TurboTax, have spent millions of dollars lobbying against painless taxes, since those companies are in the business of pain relief. It’s a rich irony that the coalition against simpler taxes creates strange bedfellows: Those who want more tax complexity and those who want the simplest tax code of all—one that doesn’t exist.
Even if the Simple Return became a reality, some Americans would still have to deal with their deductions. For example, donating to charity reduces a person's taxable income. If I donated money to the Red Cross, how would the IRS know to withhold less money from my paycheck?
Once again, perhaps the U.S. could take a lesson from the world. An American donating to charity takes a deduction at the end of the year. But a British resident donating to charity can simply leave out the amount of the tax deduction from her charitable gift; then the UK’s tax collector pays the charity the equivalent amount. To put it another way: Rather than donate $100 in December and get $10 back from the government in April, she gives $90 in December and the government pays the charity the final $10. This essentially makes charitable donations a kind of government matching program, but it has the same effect: helping charities by rewarding donations.
Several years ago, the White House estimated that American taxpayers spend 7.6 billion hours and $140 billion a year figuring out what they owe the government and paying people to help them owe less. Those who want to play the game—and have the money to do so every year—are welcome to continue. The rest of the country deserves a 21st-century approach to taxes.