How to Fix America’s Cruel and Unusual Tax Code

It probably escaped your attention, but the Internal Revenue Service recently piloted a program to help Americans cope with their notoriously complex tax system. Direct File was meant to help taxpayers in 12 states prepare and submit their returns electronically. Some 19 million people were eligible to use it. Thanks partly to a rollout late in the tax-preparation season, fewer than 1% of them actually did.

The IRS was pleased with the results nonetheless: Taxpayers who used the system said they liked it, according to a survey, and the idea all along was to “start small, make sure it works and then build from there.” Fine. So what about next steps? “No decision has been made about the future of Direct File at this time,” the agency says.

Dull as the topic of tax administration might seem, it demands far more ambition and urgency. Each year Americans spend roughly 2 billion hours and more than $30 billion on personal tax-preparation fees. This compliance burden falls disproportionately on the less well-off. The system’s complexity also means that credits often go unclaimed; again, in relative terms, the lower-paid suffer the biggest losses. At the top of the income scale, in contrast, complications yield loopholes — and every loophole dictates higher taxes for the rest.


A working Direct File system would be a start, but it’s the least of what’s required to disentangle the mess Congress has created. Next year, legislators will have to think about tax reform as changes in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expire. They should use the moment to simplify the system and follow the example of many other advanced economies: Spare taxpayers the need to fill out any return at all.

Two complementary strategies would make this feasible.