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If you’re an accountant, it’s crunch time, and I hope the next few months pass expeditiously. But it’s also a busy time of the year for Joseph Bankman, a business law professor at Stanford University and also a clinical psychologist by training. “What an interesting intersection of expertise!” you may be noting to yourself. “I wonder what one would do with that!?” Glad you asked.
Since 2004 and earlier, Bankman’s been on a Don Quixote-like quest to make filing taxes not suck. After all, the government has most of the information on your tax return already, meaning that when it comes to filing taxes, we could also, like, not.
Bankman’s devised a number of tax-filing systems that would work a lot better, though only one state, California, has actually come close to adopting them. And for this contribution to society, Bankman hasn’t gotten any parades. Instead, he’s actually made some enemies.
Thanks to everyone who sent in your biggest pet words last week! Favorites include: “apparently,” “quintessential,” and “expletives.” Also, special thanks to Maya for sending in an entire pet sentence she uses to always stick the landing on an A paper; your secret’s safe with me. This was fun, and our audience team informs me I can start sending out goodies, so shoot me an email with how you’re spending your tax refund this year for a chance to win some Inverse swag. Or just to chat. W/e.
Let’s Do Our Taxes
It’s true that people in most Western democracies tend to pay more in taxes than we do. But the process of paying those taxes is much, much easier.
Americans spend about 17.8 hours, more than two full work days, doing their taxes. In many advanced economies, citizens don’t have to spend much time filing taxes at all, because their governments do it for them through a system called “return-free filing.”
Should Americans ever adopt a similar system, Bankman should be at the top of everyone’s thank-you notes list.
Here’s the New York Times article from 2010, when they called Bankman’s idea “stunningly reasonable.” So why, you may ask, are you presently digging through 20,000 emails to try and find that 1040 so you can then laboriously copy-and-paste those fun lil’ numbers into TurboTax? There are a few reasons, not least of which is that reading about taxes is boring as shit (except when I do it, right? mom?).
“Tax policy isn’t like abortion or gun control,” he tells Inverse. “It’s not a high-profile subject that you’re going to learn on your own.”
It’s true that people care a lot about how much tax they pay. But the act of how they fill out the forms themselves? It’s just not an issue that looms very large in people’s minds, though there are other reasons filing taxes is so terrible.
Some people got skin in this game, so to speak. After all, if filing taxes wasn’t a huge pain in the ass, then companies like TurboTax wouldn’t nearly as much reason to exist in the first place. And wouldn’t ya know it, between 2011 and 2016, the company behind TurboTax — Intuit — spent about $11.5 million in lobbying fees, according to a canonical ProPublica investigation.
That’s more than Apple spent at the time, which, at around $600 billion in 2014, was worth about 24 times as much as Intuit was, according to historical data about the two companies’ market cap. That combination of lobbying power, plus being a boring-ass issue people don’t enjoy reading about, is why our present system remains despite a massive overhaul of the tax system that took place in 2017.
“This is a classic case of a concentrated group with a lot to lose vs. everyone else who has no knowledge,” Bankman explains. “Industry is pretty well-entrenched, and they’re entrenched in both parties. They’re able to hire terrific lobbyists who are close to both parties. And [people like me] can work with staffers and write an occasional op-ed, but that doesn’t begin to get us the kind of person-to-person access that Intuit’s lobbyists have in almost all states.”
Convinced that a lack of lobbying was the problem, Bankman actually tried hiring a return-free filing lobbyist of his own with more than $30,000 of his own money. That was in 2017, and it almost worked: A measure to bring his version of the policy, dubbed ReadyReturn, to California failed in the state legislature by one vote. That’s about when I would have thrown in the towel, but Bankman says he remains optimistic.
“What I’m hoping to do in the near-term, and what I think would be great in the near-term, is if the IRS could work with the preparers around the country to give them access to the kind of data I’d like all tax-payers to get,” he explains. “So, imagine going to your account of whoever does your taxes, you could authorize them to get the information directly from the government, and so when you go to file, you can download all the figures you needed. It could download the wage data.
“If we could do that, filing taxes would be a lot easier. It wouldn’t be free; you’d be using your accountant. It’s not a dream idea. But I think a lot of people would be willing to pay for that and be really happy.”
Translation? Make tracking down the information on that 1040 TurboTax’s problem. They’re a capable bunch. And no one knows this better than Bankman.