Each year, over a hundred million American taxpayers file tax returns, collectively spending hundreds of millions of hours and dollars every year. It's such an immense burden that when people think of the burden of paying taxes, they don't think of the money withheld from each paycheck, but of the hours they have to spend meticulously copying and tabulating information from W-2 and 1099 forms and double checking that everything was copied and added correctly. It seems like such an inevitable slog, an unfortunate but immutable consequence of living in a developed country with income taxes.
Income taxes are progressive (ie, the rich chip in a lot more than the middle class, and the middle class chip in a lot more than the poor), and they provide a lot of revenue to fund government programs. Those are probably the primary reasons conservatives hate income taxes. But when they talk in public, conservatives frequently couch their objections to the current income tax in terms of how complicated it is. They use "tax simplification" as a code for making taxes less progressive. Many of them even recommend replacing progressive income taxes with flat sales taxes, which hit the poor hardest and the rich least.
Progressives can perform a good government initiative and take the "tax simplification" mantle away from conservatives by simplifying tax returns for all Americans... by having the IRS fill out our tax returns for us!
In the US, the way taxes currently work, tax information reporting forms such as the W-2, 1098, 1099, and 5498 forms that are filled out by employers and financial institutions are sent both to taxpayers and to the IRS. Taxpayers copy and tabulate income and tax withholding from the various forms they receive into their tax return forms to determine their tax liability, for which most Americans use specialized software or paid tax preparers. If withholding is lower than total liability, the taxpayer pays the difference to the government, and if withholding is higher than total liability, the government pays the difference to the taxpayer as a refund. The IRS separately calculates the same information from the identical tax reporting information it receives in order to verify that the information in the tax return is correct.
The biggest burden in this process is in aggregating the information from the various tax information reporting forms into tax preparation software or paper return forms. There is a huge number of information that needs to be copied and tabulated without any mistakes. The forms themselves can be confusing and difficult to read. As a result, it can take hours to prepare taxes, even though with modern computer software tax preparation is mostly just data entry.
This whole process should be completely unnecessary. Instead of aggregating all this information from scratch, the IRS should provide every American with employment or investment income with a pre-filled provisional tax return, either by mail or online or both, containing all information aggregated from the tax reporting forms and using the standard deduction and exemption, and could be immediately filed as the final tax return (or even automatically filed for the taxpayer) if he or she does not file an amendment by the tax return deadline. The provisional tax return could be amended with corrections and with deductions or credits that were not available to the IRS. In fact, the IRS is already required to tabulate your tax liabilities for you to catch any mistakes you make in your filing, so this would require almost no changes other than allowing the IRS to release all this information to you instead of forcing you to duplicate its work. For most Americans who aren't self-employed and don't claim complicated itemized deductions, a quick check of the provisional return for obvious errors would be sufficient.
To be clear, this proposal will not modify tax liability one bit. Everyone would still pay the same amount of taxes. Rates and deductions would remain the same. The only difference is that we would spend five minutes filing our tax returns instead of two hours.
Think this is some pie in the sky fantasy that could never be done in practice? Guess again. In the UK, most taxpayers don't even need to file a tax return unless they're self-employed or in the top 5% of earners. In the US, we already have all the same mechanisms in place: income from most employment and investment is reported directly to the IRS and employers withhold money as we earn it. So why not save Americans hundreds of millions of hours and dollars, and have the IRS release our tax returns for us?
This is a simple, good government tweak to existing policy. It is unobjectionable enough that we might be able to build bipartisan support for it. So if you support making taxes quick and easy, please contact your house representative and senators, and sign my petition to the White House.