Why isn't there more support for a simple tax code?

A poll, taken in the midst of tax season, finds that 58 percent of those surveyed think filling out their tax forms is “easy.” Only 38 percent say it is “hard.” Here's the catch: more people are filing their taxes with the help of a professional service.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
A PC displays a TurboTax online tax computer program in Palo Alto, Calif. 4 in 10 tax filers say they use software to fill out taxes.

One of the biggest  selling points for tax reform is the claim that a new and improved revenue code would be easier for taxpayers to manage. Along with economic growth and fairness, simplicity has been a watchword for reform for decades.

But a striking new survey by the Associated Press-GfK  has me wondering whether anybody cares. The poll, taken in the midst of tax season, finds that 58 percent of those surveyed think filling out their tax forms is “easy.” Only 38 percent say it is “hard.”

The poll provides one big clue why: The vast majority of people don’t actually fill out their tax returns. More than 4 in 10 said they use software and nearly half reported using a professional preparer. Only 7 percent said they fill out forms by hand. Btw, actual filing data this year are close to this, though somewhat different: About 11 percent have filed by hand.

For the vast majority of taxpayers, filling out their returns really is easy. More than two out of every three take the standard deduction. The vast majority report only wage income. Only about one in ten report capital gains or losses (you can learn more about who claims what with TPC’s new interactive tool).

More than 4 in 10 taxpayers don’t even file the Form 1040—they use either the easy 1040A or the really easy 1040EZ. Life isn’t so simple for everyone with only wage income and the standard deduction. For instance, the instructions for the Earned Income Tax Credit (an important subsidy for low-income working people) can be a minefield.

But even those with uncomplicated lives have turned to software or walk-in tax prep services such as H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt. So whether you only have to keep track of your W-2 and count up the members of your household, or have a shoebox full of 1099s and K-1s, tax filing has come to this: You spend time assembling paper and either plug the numbers into little boxes on your computer screen or shlep the whole business off to your tax preparer, who plugs the numbers into little boxes on his computer screen.

This is tedious and often annoying. But it isn’t hard. Nobody has to do the math any more. And no longer do they have to follow those IRS instructions that get you to the right answer even if they seem downright bizarre.

There is a fascinating paradox to tax filing: The rules got so complicated that they created the booming tax-prep business. Once we took the leap and paid TurboTax $59 for its software, or paid a CPA or storefront preparer, we became immune to the code’s increasing complexity. And the less we cared, the more complicated Congress was willing to make it.

For example, I’m convinced that the Alternative Minimum Tax would have been repealed years ago if people had to fill out the Form 6251 by hand. But if Turbo or Block does it for you, who cares how incomprehensible it is?

This phenomenon—sometimes called the Turbo Tax effect—is hardly new. But the Ap-GfK poll confirms its importance.

This may not be the end of the story, however. There is still a price to complexity:  A complex law is almost by definition opaque.  And people who don’t understand the tax code often believe it is unfair. They think they are getting the shaft while their neighbor is driving his new BMW through some lucrative loophole.

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