In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, Austan Goolsbee suggests that the IRS send out pre-filled tax forms to qualifying taxpayers. The idea would be that these "Simple Returns" would have the information filled in that the IRS already knows (since, after all, much of what we have to fill in by ourselves has already been reported to the IRS). Having recently done my tax returns, I have to agree with this idea. A great many of us whose taxes are simple, but who nevertheless have to fill the numbers into the right places, go through tedious worksheets, and compute bizarre formulas would appreciate something that already has the data in and the computations done, and needs only our review and signature.
But why do we have tedious worksheets and bizarre formulas in the first place? We take deductions for this and that, but only if this exceeds 3.14159265% of our gross income, and if that exceeds 2.71828% of it. We get tax credits for various things, which require worksheets and secondary forms to claim. If we earn more than a certain amount we have to deal with limitations on decuctions, alternative minimum tax, and other such complexities. If we have capital loss, we factor that into the tax computation in a complex way, using another worksheet. Why?
We should have a flat tax. Pick two numbers: "x" is the minimum income that's taxed (below that, you don't earn enough to be obliged to pay income tax); "n" is the flat tax rate. Here's how it'd work:
- What is your total income?
- Is it under $x? If yes, stop here.
- Otherwise, send us n% of it.
The charitable contributions are the difficult bit here, since charities might easily be the "collateral damage" of a system like this. Would people still contribute to charities if they didn't get a tax break for it? Some would, surely, but some probably would not. I have no good answer for this, except for the vague statement that we must find other ways to encourage charitable contributions.
Our tax laws, and the forms and computations that go with them, are far too complicated and far too prone to abuse. Scrap them. Go with a loophole-free flat tax system.