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Monday, April 18, 2005


This year's tax deadline provoked a flurry of commentary about the impact of consumer technology on the tax system. A noteworthy thread came from some taxpayers who (like myself) pay (and dislike) the alternative minimum tax (AMT) as part of their federal income tax. One of them complained that the AMT was TurboTax's fault.

TurboTax is one of the popular personal computer programs that help taxpayers with the awful chore of filling out their forms. It is a godsend, and once a taxpayer uses it, the likelihood of going back to a pencil and paper on the kitchen table slips to nil. The program does all the math for you, it updates everything as you add new data about your income and expenses, and it remembers you from year to year. That last feature is particularly neat. Not only do you not have to re-key your address, dependents' names and i.d. numbers, and favorite charities every year, but you can also hold up your tax results from the last five years side by side to see how you're doing.

So how is TurboTax responsible for the perpetuation of the AMT?

Well, according to the critics, taxpayers who use this program (or a similar program, or who use professional return preparers who essentially charge you to run the same programs) may not even know that they're paying the AMT. And they don't suffer from the complexity of the AMT (which would be a real headache to figure by hand) because the program does all the thinking for them. Thus, there is far less likely to be a groundswell of outrage over the AMT than there would be if the taxpayers had to compute it manually.

They're certainly right about the outrage factor. Without TurboTax or something similar, most taxpayers wouldn't even realize they owe the AMT. They'd send in their tax returns, and get a rude surprise several weeks or months later, when they got a bill from the IRS for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. That would send them storming over to the phone to call their representatives in Congress, all right. In contrast, with TurboTax flagging the issue in a timely way (as it did for me), there's still indignation, but without the elements of shock and awe, and without the hassle factor accompanying manual calculations.

In that sense, the AMT really is being helped along by TurboTax. The complexification of the tax system lumbers on, and it's unlikely to get fixed, because, folks, Congress knows we either have TurboTax or are going to H. & R. Block. Congress knows that as long as the people at Intuit who are writing the TurboTax program can figure out the tax laws, Congress doesn't have to write a tax code that anyone else can fully understand.

This phenomenon is not entirely new. For example, a couple of decades back, the tax laws got much more complicated when Congress discovered the sheer beauty of cheap, handheld financial calculators, such as the classic Hewlett-Packard 12C. Once the tax staffers on Capitol Hill saw how easy it was to figure out compound interest, many important tax calculations suddenly required that such calculations be made. As one tax pro put it to me over the water cooler back in my practicing lawyer days, "The 12C created the O.I.D. rules."

And it's no news that the computer is affecting the way the world works, is it? Let's face it, in the end, Bill Gates killed the music industry. For most consumers, the purchase of music at a retail store appears to have become a quaint relic of a bygone era, due entirely to the power of the home computer. In that sense, it's Gates as much as Intuit who's responsible for the persistence of the AMT.

A few years back, a bright student and I were conversing about this very topic when she made an intriguing suggestion. Instead of Congress writing tax laws in a legal form of English that mere-mortal accountants and attorneys can understand, and then having Intuit put it into computer code, why not have Congress simply pass the computer code itself? In other words, rather than say, "Your tax is your income minus these deductions, multiplied by these tables -- now go buy a private computer program to try to get it right," Congress could simply say, "Your tax is what this computer language says you owe after plugging in the income and expense information that it calls for."

I laughed when she said that. But then again, I laughed years ago at the Charlie Chaplin commercials that promised a computer in every house some day.

In any event, there are plenty of reasons not to like the AMT. It takes away deductions for things like supporting dependent children, and paying income taxes to the state and local governments. If Congress really believes that those expenses decrease one's ability to pay, and therefore shouldn't go into the federal tax base, it ought to be sincere enough not to "sneak-tax" them through the back door of the AMT.

With TurboTax in the picture, the upcoming AMT battles will have to be fought out on those terms. "It's easy to overlook" and "I couldn't figure it out" are not going to be valid arguments.

Comments (18)

I capped off my tax day by visiting my local post office at five minutes to five. Then an hour later, on the way to rescue my wife and daughter (bringing her home from college for the weekend) from their inadvertent out of gas adventure near Wilsonville, I got popped for supposedly speeding.

What a perfect end to three days of tax hell.

Top that.

[Comment originally left on a Saturday, 4/16/05, post that consisted only of the photo shown here, under the title "The morning after." --JB]

That whole blog wouldn't have been necessary if the US would get rid of income tax in favor of the Fair Tax Act now being proposed in Washington. There wouldn't BE a tax day. Sure it's a radical idea, but one whose time has surely come. Or do you enjoy poring over the current tax code's 55,000 pages! Do you enjoy cowering in fear of an audit? By paying your taxes as you buy stuff, no more audit needed!
Check it out, and if you find a down side, let me know!

If it's a retail sales tax, it taxes poor and rich at the same rate on purchases of many types of necessary consumer goods. That's not as fair as an income tax.

Hi Jack,
I'm heading to the Tax Court Judicial Conference in a few days, and one of the topics to be covered in great detail will be Michael Graetz' proposal for changing the tax code. Any comments on that proposal?

It's here though I suspect you've seen it already http://www.law.yale.edu/outside/html/faculty_home/graetz/extra/Public%20Interest%20Tax%20Plan.pdf

Gee, Jack...a tax that taxes poor and rich at the same rate isn't fair? You mean that it doesn't stick the rich with more than their fair share.

A tax that hits everyone at the same rate is fair; all else is socialist redistribution. You socialists seem to like that just fine, as long as you perceive that "someone else" is paying for it.

A downside to the proposed "Fair Tax Act"?

Well, it's more complicated than most state sales tax systems. Typically a state will exempt certain items (necessities) from the tax in an effort to reduce the burden on the lowest-income citizens. The proposed system, however, as far as I can tell would not exempt any items from the tax and would instead refund families an amount equal to the sales tax rate times the monthly poverty level. So poor folks are still out-of-pocket for the sales tax (initially at a whopping 23%) and must wait to be reimbursed. I'm not opposed to the amount of exemption under that system, just the mechanism (take the money first then give it back).

Plus, that 23% rate sounds awfully steep. Of course, that's a smaller percentage than the amount taken out of my paycheck for federal tax + FICA combined, so once you get over the "sticker shock" it's actually a substantially better deal, at least for me. But then I wonder, if I'm putting less money into the system, one of two things must be happening. Either someone else has to put in more to make up the difference, or the system will get less money overall.

I'm all for someone else making up the difference, there are a number of "fairness" issues with our current income tax system even among taxpayers at the same income level let alone between income groups. But the advantage to me in a 23% rate is that it's lower than my combined rate now. The higher the combined current rate is for someone, the greater the advantage in switching to the sales tax. Which tells me, the folks above me on the income scale are getting an even better deal, and the folks below me are getting a worse deal. Of course, there are lots of people at my level that are paying less than 23% combined now, so I wouldn't mind if they started paying their share too.

Or, we end up with lower federal revenues, which may in fact be the ultimate goal here. "Starve the Beast" of funding so that the government is forced to collapse those elements of the bureaucracy that are not absolutely critical to survival.

I happen to agree that a flat tax is inherently more fair than any other. I question whether the income tax can simply be swapped straight across for a sales tax to achieve that goal. I'd rather see a flat income tax rate with a reasonably generous exemption and no special deductions. Take the same percentage of everybody's income over $X, regardless of the source of that income (wages, interest, cap gains, etc.) That, to me, sounds fair.

And it'll never happen. Ah well...

I disagree with you on what is fair. I also disagree that this makes me a socialist.

The progressive rate structure assumes (rightly so, I believe) that those with greater incomes gain a disproportionate amount of benefits from the State. Ad valorem taxes on property being the most obvious example of this priniciple in application. Gosh, I guess socialists have been in power since Roman times.

Note that Graetz does suggest a basically flat rate on income in his proposal. 1st 100K exempt; remainder taxed at flat 25%; exemption begins phase out for incomes over $100K (reduced by $20 for each $100 over 100K). It will be interesting to see whether Treasury does anything with this proposal.


Taxing people who earn more at a higher rate is not fair by any measure, and expecting more "contributions" (always at the point of a gun) from those who work hard and create more wealth is a fundamental tenet of socialist states. So, it is not fair, and you probably are a Socialist. But hey, in P-town, that's a badge of pride, right?

Wealthy people get wealthy because they work hard, not because they get benefits from the state.

Rome was not an exemplar of sound fiscal and tax policy. Among other things, they started to overtax the various peoples in their empire, adulterate their currency (does all this sound familiar?)and we all know their empire did not last. Where are they now? (Actually, that reminds me of a funny line from the Sopranos...)

Wealthy people get wealthy because they work hard, not because they get benefits from the state.

Bwaaaahahahahahahaaaa! Go easy on the Kool Aid!

Jack, I'll leave the Kool-Aid to you and your merry band of socialist whiners. "Whaaah! The rich have everything."

The only rich people I know who really don't work very hard are tax professors and other academicians. Give a few lectures, write a few papers...what a life! And they make a lot of money...and most of them work for the state! So may be the rich really do get benefits from the state...at least in the halls of academia. In the real world, though, those of us who have worked for it.

Good grief.

And to suggest that anyone who advocates graduated tax rates is a socialist might be the stupidest thing I have ever read on this site. Is Bill Gates' daddy a socialist? Because Bill Gates' daddy is active in tax policy studies for the state of Washington, and he says not only that the wealthy should pay more, but that, by doing so, they forward the same grand system that also (surpassing "their hard work") made their great wealth possible.

"Socialist whiners?" How old are you? But this is where I came in .... good grief.

Bart: I've already blogged a little about "Big Mike's" plan, here.

"The only rich people I know who really don't work very hard are tax professors and other academicians."

Thus the reality show, "Shoveling Coal With Paris Hilton."


"The progressive rate structure assumes (rightly so, I believe) that those with greater incomes gain a disproportionate amount of benefits from the State."

Can you elaborate on what benefits the rich get per tax dollar more than lower incomes? I disagree since higher income types use:
1) Less welfare (I hope this is obvious)
2) Less public medical services (usually have private insurance and better health)
3) Less police (since most crime victims are lower incomes, I know, I am not mentioning white collar crime)
4) Less school (higher usage of private schools)

In a perfect world, maybe progressive taxes work, but rich people have better tax accts and take advantage of every loophole to lower their rate anyways.

I know it is hoping against hope, but tax simplification or flat tax is probably the fairest real world way to levy taxes.

Flat tax rates and whining about socialism are red herrings. The complexity does not come from the progressive rate structures, but rather:

(1) What is income and when is it counted as such?

(2) What is allowable as a deduction and when?

(3) What anti-abuse rules control (2)?

(4) Who qualifies for tax credits and what are their ramifications?

(5) What are allowable as adjustments to income (and when)?

Once you've nailed down the answers to these questions, a progressive rate structure does not add much more complexity, save rare instances where rate structures can be taken advantage of, e.g. a closely held C corp. (That is, rare for most taxpayers.)

If you look at a progressive income tax as an excise tax on a person's opportunity set, you don't worry about the redistributive effects so much. However, it could lead you to favor certain consumption taxes, (not sales taxes).

top earners and wealth accumulators should not be denigrated for their status. It's not wrong to be rich, but while viewing progressive tax as punishment is tempting, it's not an accurate frame IMO. Why is it fair? Because well-paved roads bring down the cost of transport. Because educated workers bring down the cost of labor. Because adequate police and fire services (and on a national scale, the military) protect your high-value property. Because that cheap Bonneville power is running your factory.

I'm sure we can come up with more examples. The point is, a prosperous business environment is not free of cost. If none of these things mattered, Intel would be moving to Baghdad.

And I don't think one has to back ashamedly away from the merits of redistribution. A wider commerce is a healthier commerce, and one that provides better opportunity for profit by business in the long run. Gates needs to have people with enough money to buy Windows CrapP.

Poor benefit more from police power because they are more likely to be victimized by crime? Are you nuts? When I call police to report suspicious vehicle in my neighborhood, there was a squad car there in 10 minutes. My call prevented a burglary. But by your logic, my neighbors and I didn't benefit from the cops because nobody got ripped off.

LOLIRL! You all are FUNNY!

Yes, taxes are a drag. Yes, attempting to learn the tax cod so you can do it yourself is akin to picking up a copy of Gray's Anatomy to teach yourself surgical dissection. Taxes suck and without them this country would go to hell in no time flat. If you think things are bad now, imagine how they would be in twenty years without any source of income to maintain roads, sanitation, etc.

To get back to the original point of whether or not it is fair everyone the same regardless of income is, to me, unfair – however, I see the logic.

A person who makes $1.5 million taxable income and a person who makes $2,500 each get taxed, say, 35%. Of course, the person making $2,500 will pay considerably less than those making seven figure incomes but the true issue becomes who can afford it? It places an unfair burden on those unable to make larger incomes.

As far as an income tax, I’m all for it. Moreso, I would readily exchange an income tax for a sales tax. I strongly believe that a sales tax would help Portland in the long run. Even more than an income tax. The issue is, as far as I’ve seen it for the past few years, is that Portland has one outstanding issue that will constantly stand in the path of progress concerning taxation: A large portion of the population are N.I.M.B.Y.s (Not In My Back Yard). They want everything fixed but aren’t willing to lift a finger (or dollar) to get it fixed. Then they complain and point fingers at the government spewing things like “You need to manage your money better” or “Stop spending our taxes on !”

Get a grip, people. A so-called equal tax would cause more harm than good. All in all, I have to agree with Jack and Torridjoe on this one.

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