Imagine if you didn’t have to file a tax return. Imagine if, come T-day, the only thing you needed to do to comply with your tax obligations was to sign a form and mail it. And imagine if this could be done without changing a comma of the tax code. This is not a pipe dream—millions of citizens in different parts of the world already do it.
Austan Goolsbee, professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and head economic adviser to Barack Obama, is proposing to let the Internal Revenue Service, America’s tax man, put together drafts of individual tax returns and mail them to taxpayers. Experts know the system as “Tax Agency Reconciliation” (TAR). Goolsbee has had the good sense to re-baptize as “Simple Return.”
Tax collection agencies receive all the information they need to fill out the returns of many taxpayers. By law, employers and financial institutions send the data to them. The time spent by filers collecting statements, putting the numbers in the right boxes of the tax form, figuring out the standard deductions and exemptions, and calculating the tax bill--not to mention the fees paid to tax prepapers--are thus a waste.
Sweden and Denmark use the system. In Spain, with seven years of TAR experience, some filers can even request and confirm their pre-filled tax returns by sending a text message. Some Spaniards don’t even have to sacrifice precious TV time: they can do their taxes through their interactive, digital TV sets. (I encourage readers who know of other countries in the EZer Club to let me know in the comments or by e-mail. I’d like to make a list. If you respond, please specify whether the country does TAR or exact withholding.)
The obvious benefit of pre-filled tax returns is the time savings for filers. In the U.S., the average compliance time for the 1040EZ form, the simplest there is, is three hours and 46 minutes. The other types of tax form take over ten hours. Goolsbee estimates that, if his Simple Return applied to 40% of taxpayers, it would save 225 million hours and more than $2 billion in fees.
The fiercest opposition to TAR would thus come from tax preparers. Thousands of jobs, they’ll clamor, will be lost. For an economist, this is the easiest criticism to counter. Those jobs are not providing any service other than helping to comply with a pointlessly dense tax code. Let tax shops fold, and their workers will find jobs producing goods and services that actually add to social welfare. Creating employment by keeping an unwieldy tax code makes as little sense as digging a hole in the desert and then employing jobless people to fill it. If only Congress were brave enough to hold this argument against lobbyists… (Regarding this topic, I believe there was a lively discussion in the comments following Steven Levitt’s post . Read my own rant about the broken windows fallacy.)
Mailing pre-filled tax returns is not an intrusion on private business either. As Goolsbee argues, governments allow online filing and provide printed tax tables, and nobody opposes to those services on the grounds that they undermine the tax preparation business.
Receiving a pre-filled return in the mail does feel a bit imposing though. Some people will see TAR as an intrusion on individual freedom. It doesn’t need to be. Individuals will be allowed to scrap the return prepared by the government and fill out a new one. And if the taxpayer ignores the pre-filled return, and doesn’t fill out her own, her taxes won’t be filed, so TAR doesn’t infringe on voluntary compliance. The key is to disclose, every year and to every taxpayer, that the return sent by the government is not a tax bill, but a draft that can be turned into a final return if the individual chooses to do so.
To be sure, TAR would not eliminate the need to file a tax return for everybody. People who itemize their deductions, or who don’t have all their earnings reported to the government by a third party, cannot use the pre-filled form. Goolsbee estimates that, at most, 40% of all taxpayers could benefit from a TAR system; and that’s only if the Alternative Minimum Tax is reformed. In Spain, 30 to 40 percent are eligible. Taxpayers who don’t qualify tend to file more complicated tax returns, and thus spend more time and money on filing, than those who are eligible. So the benefits of TAR go mostly to people with low-to-middle income or simple household finances, who spend most of their tax preparation time (or money) gathering and filling out documents, not mining the tax code for deductions.
The best way to reduce the cost of compliance for everyone is to simplify the tax code. This can be done by scrapping the income tax as we know it today, or by eliminating tax deductions, exemptions, and exceptions for special groups. But such changes face even taller political obstacles than TAR. So, since the tax-instructions booklet is not going to get thinner any time soon, let your tax man deliver a pre-filled return—and spend some more quality time with your TV.
economics, tax agency reconciliation, TAR, tax compliance, taxes