A Massive Giveaway to the Tax Preparation Industry
April 9, 2019 10:44 AM   Subscribe

ProPublica reports on the Taxpayer First Act, which, far from putting the taxpayer first, permanently blocks the IRS from providing for free taxpayer filing of income taxes. This is one of the few bills in the House with actual bipartisan support, including such liberal lights as Ron Wyden and John Lewis.
Experts have long argued that the IRS has failed to make filing taxes as easy and cheap as it could be. In addition to a free system of online tax preparation and filing, the agency could provide people with pre-filled tax forms containing the salary data the agency already has, as ProPublica first reported on in 2013.

The Free File Alliance, a private industry group, says 70% of American taxpayers are eligible to file for free. Those taxpayers, who must make less than $66,000, have access to free tax software provided by the companies. But just 3% of eligible U.S. taxpayers actually use the free program each year. Critics of the program say that companies use it as a cross-marketing tool to upsell paid products, that they have deliberately underpromoted the free option and that it leaves consumer data open to privacy breaches.
Planet Money reported on the issue in 2017, with a followup last week. ProPublica has been reporting on the battles over this issue since 2013.

Previously.
posted by suelac (67 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
Since moving to the UK I've been blown away by how much easier and less oppressive it is to file taxes here than with the IRS, and how weird this is considering why we broke off the Colonies.
posted by johngoren at 10:52 AM on April 9 [26 favorites]


how weird this is considering why we broke off the Colonies

In my opinion anti-tax campaigners want filing taxes to be as painful as possible, to make people resent the government. If it were easy and frictionless, people wouldn't notice taxes as much, the tax filing deadlines wouldn't be in the news every year, etc. It's the same logic that puts sales tax on after the listed price instead of pricing it in like VAT does.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:54 AM on April 9 [96 favorites]


Somehow I forgot the link to the Vox article, which points out that Grover Norquist supports the act, for the same reason you point out, BungaDunga. If paying taxes is easy, people won't bitch enough about it.
posted by suelac at 10:57 AM on April 9 [5 favorites]


This is one of the few bills in the House with actual bipartisan support, including such liberal lights as Ron Wyden and John Lewis.

Glad to see bipartisanship alive and well when it comes to the dismal neoliberalism that immiserates the already miserable.
posted by Ouverture at 11:08 AM on April 9 [50 favorites]


That Planet Money link above references this (superb!) article at Pricenomics about the effort to get California's ReadyReturn/CalFile system up and running, in the face of intense pushback from Intuit, Norquist, et al.
posted by notyou at 11:15 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]


I am a bit confused about how this works in practice. When I used to do my taxes (now my spouse does them because he likes them done immediately, as in, the day we get our W-2s) I could file for free but the part that cost money was filing with the state. I was a cheapskate so I filled out a paper form for the state and sent it in, basing it on the numbers in my federal return done for free by TurboTax or H&R Block.

Is that the program people aren't using? It would muddy the numbers somewhat if the "add-on" people are paying for is filing state taxes. In that case, the 3% number could look much different in terms of whether or not people are filing their federal claims for free. And then the states would need to have an answer to this problem as well.

Not that I support this legislation at all, I am just confused.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:15 AM on April 9


In Poland I've gone through all the phases from "WTF is an income tax" in 1991 (yay math practice and filling forms with pencil!) through introduction of various deductions, the first private filing software (so buggy and data-stealing and actual viruses masquerading as tax files) to the current system where the Ministry of Finance gets off its backside, compiles all the data it has from employers and other sources already, and fills the form in for me - for the last few years they've been doing it earlier and earlier. This year they were ready by end of February for an end of April filing deadline, and since I wasn't changing the non-profit I support with 1% of my tax, my filing literally took the two minutes I needed to check all data matched the paper forms I got from my employer.

Aren't you guys supposed to be a little more advanced than us?
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:16 AM on April 9 [12 favorites]


Aren't you guys supposed to be a little more advanced than us?

The US went from "we're #1 because we take the best ideas from everywhere in the world" to "we're #1 because of dogma and we won't take any ideas from anywhere else in the world" somewhere around the 1960s.

We've been in decline since, really.
posted by explosion at 11:19 AM on April 9 [101 favorites]


Reminds me of the point that somebody made about American healthcare: There is so much more bureaucracy and paperwork involved than in any other developed country. Private businesses do some things well, governments do some things well, but putting private businesses between citizens and government somehow turns into a paperwork nightmare.
posted by clawsoon at 11:19 AM on April 9 [13 favorites]


This sort of shit is why I've been pirating TurboTax for the entire time I've been filing and paying taxes, and I have no plans to stop now. I have precisely zero guilt about stealing from Intuit if the money they get goes towards lobbying Congress to make paying taxes harder.
posted by SansPoint at 11:19 AM on April 9 [15 favorites]


Aren't you guys supposed to be a little more advanced than us?

America is indeed very advanced in turning free and simple things into something complicated and expensive for the poor.

See our "healthcare" system.
posted by Ouverture at 11:20 AM on April 9 [50 favorites]


Here in NZ the tax system is deliberately simple, virtually no deductions, most people don't need to file because with a single employer their employer will just get it correct, most others can file online by filling out a 2 page web form.

This year the IRD is taking a further step, they're just going to start just mailing out tax refunds without you doing anything ....
posted by mbo at 11:24 AM on April 9 [14 favorites]


Is that the program people aren't using? It would muddy the numbers somewhat if the "add-on" people are paying for is filing state taxes. In that case, the 3% number could look much different in terms of whether or not people are filing their federal claims for free. And then the states would need to have an answer to this problem as well.

I don't think so. What this is talking about is the fact that, for example, TurboTax offers two separate products - their Free File program which complies with the IRS freefile program, and a "Turbo Tax Free Edition" that they offer to everyone but they charge for basically any form beyond a basic W-2. So when a tax filer below the income threshold starts with the latter program, they don't know they are using the wrong service and they end up paying for software that they could actually use for free.
posted by muddgirl at 11:25 AM on April 9 [17 favorites]


I'm actually doing my taxes by hand this year for the first time since the 90s, partly because fuck Intuit. When I first started using Turbo Tax, it seemed to be the tax equivalent of a WYSIWIG Web Design Tool that also let you look at the underling forms and explained things -- I could easily switch back and forth between their wizard and the forms, I felt like it augmented my understanding of the underlying process. Sure, I can print my forms at the end now, but the UI along the way is heavily wizard-ified and channeled, and as far as I can tell, they want *anything* but the user developing some kind of model of the underlying process along the way.

And on top of that, of course, they want anything but the government... just making the process smoother, too. And lobby against that. Which is another way of saying that they know, that if it comes down to it... they're not *really* adding any value, they can't add any value over a public entity that has a free hand to make things better, so rather than finding something genuinely more productive to do with their capacity, they're gonna see if they can stop that from happening and capture a nice rent.

It isn't just Intuit, of course, a significant chunk of the accounting industry is like this.

I'm absolutely flumoxed that any politician who has a vision of any tax-funded program, of a society supported by everyone paying their dues, would support this. I have a lot of time for Wyden, but this seems so utterly foolhardy. It puts money in the hands of people large and small who are temperamentally likely to oppose progressive agendas, it is handing a gift to the Grover Norquists of the world, it is reinforcing his messaging every tax season, and it is enshrining a handicap to progressive agendas.
posted by wildblueyonder at 11:25 AM on April 9 [11 favorites]


Disgusting. When politcians conspire to keep afloat detrimental industries, we all lose. We saw them fight to keep parasitic insurance companies afloat and subsequently punished the poor for existing. Looks like they didn't think poor people had it rough enough and that exploitative tax preparers weren't milking us enough.
posted by GoblinHoney at 11:36 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]


I got pretty incensed this year when the company I "free" filed with for the past seven years asked me how I wanted to pay the $9.95 fee they charge, so I said take it out of the refund. Now in order to determine if there would be sufficient funds to cover the $9.95 "free" filing fee in my refund, they charged me $50 to have a bank look at the amount of the refund to confirm that it would be enough to cover the filing fee. Yes, just that circular. Then when the direct deposit arrived, it was from that bank, not the Federal Government (less $59.95, of course.)

I know the State's Attorney here, so I called to ask for a review of that practice, and she just laughed and told me I should have read more carefully, and no they can't do anything about it if people don't read what they are looking at. So, read carefully.

Until this year, I have recommended this company to everyone I know, met or worked with because I thought
that they were great. Now it sounds like they have gone down the same road these guys are travelling on.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 11:40 AM on April 9 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, the new W-4 (currently slated for 2020) also ups the complexity factor, which I'm sure the industry will be happy to develop products for.
posted by AndrewInDC at 11:42 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]


As Intuit and HR Block pay both Democratic and Republican politicians to take over this profitable aspect of the IRS, other pieces are also slowly being privatized, including debt collection and auditing. These get farmed out to private contractors and legal firms with predictable outcomes, including cronyism, punishment of low-income taxpayers, and costs that cause the public to actually lose money [1] [2].

At the root of this is that politicians from both parties take campaign donations from the companies that benefit from these laws and policies, under the pretext of "free speech". I'm not sure what it will take to forcibly separate private businesses from the function of government. A Constitutional convention? Repubs will do what they do, but Dems as a party need to stand up and stop exchanging money for laws.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:43 AM on April 9 [14 favorites]


Well, there's a bit of something good in the Act (and to which Wyden's spokesperson may have pointed when they described the bill as a compromise ): "The Taxpayer First Act also includes a provision that would restrict the IRS’ use of private debt collectors to those above a certain income."
posted by notyou at 11:51 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]


In fairness, the IRS finally woke up and turned the 1040EZ into the main 1040 this year. That was nice for me at least.

Here's the rub. You say you want more jobs, right? Welp, tax preparation and making/selling tax software involve a ton of jobs and Congress does not want to be seen as an arbitrary destroyer of jobs in a sector it inadvertently created. I also recall that some US gov- developed scientific / IT software with commercal competition cannot be sold or given away outside of the government for the same reason.

This is also in line with the business mantra, 'If you make the rules and act as umpire, you can't also compete in the game.' Of course they've captured the umpire but he'll be fair, he promises.

So if you want to get more jobs, this is how you get more jobs.

Politics is like having a trickster genie, you will never get what you want, only what you ask for.
posted by zaixfeep at 12:12 PM on April 9 [7 favorites]


The full text of the bill is here, though it's difficult to understand without referring to the provisions of the U.S. Code that it's amending (and may not be easy to understand even if you do so!).

The section on private debt collectors appears to be Sec. 1204, which (read in context with the provision of the U.S. Code it's proposing to amend) would prevent the use of private debt collectors to collect tax debts from (i) taxpayers whose income nearly all comes from Social Security disability or Social Security supplemental security income benefits, and (ii) taxpayers whose adjusted gross income is less than 200% of the federal poverty line. For 2018, that 200% threshold is $24,280 for individuals and obviously goes up with household size.

I can't quite put my finger on the provision that would ban the IRS from providing its own free tax prep software, though I'd guess it's in sec. 1102. It's pretty subtle if it is in there.
posted by burden at 12:20 PM on April 9 [3 favorites]


I've been a Tax Help volunteer for the past five years and I highly recommend it for both low income/senior taxpayers and anyone who is interested in seeing firsthand how taxes work in real life, for real people.
posted by olopua at 12:43 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


This is where i plug: FREE FILLABLE FORMS, which is where the IRS pays? a 3rd party group to post all of the forms FOR FREE so you can submit your return electronically FOR FREE, no matter what your income. I hope that's not going away with this bill! (grumble grumble).

Basically, if you're going to fill out your forms by hand as an FU to Intuit/HR Block, you might as well do it with the Free Fillable Forms. You fill in the fields, and it does some very basic math. I've done it for the past 10ish years, and you get a day turnaround with filing and knowing that the Feds have accepted the return. Any refund comes faster too, and if your return gets rejected, you usually get a code that you can google to help you fix it. Most states also have their version of FREE fillable forms, too.

I'd love fewer deductions, and an actual streamlined format instead of having to pull all my forms together (selling 9 years of ESPP stocks, sigh), but I do learn a lot from the changes every year, and have gradually built my knowledge as our taxes get more and more complex.
Use FREE FILLABLE FORMS NOW!
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 12:56 PM on April 9 [50 favorites]


Burden,

Sec. 1102 of the bill (HR 1957) as introduced in the House states:
"The Secretary of the Treasury, or the Secretary’s delegate, shall continue to operate the IRS Free File Program as established by the Internal Revenue Service and published in the Federal Register on November 4, 2002 (67 Fed. Reg. 67247), including any subsequent agreements and governing rules established pursuant thereto.

67 Federal Register 67247 is the initial agreement which is when the IRS went into the alliance with the Free File Alliance (that consists of H&R Block, Intuit, etc) which
directly states:
"The Agreement and during its term, the IRS will not compete with the private sector by providing free on-line tax preparation and filing services to taxpayers" (emphasis mine).


*IANAL, IANACPA*
posted by fizzix at 1:07 PM on April 9 [8 favorites]


Back in the day, TurboTax didn't bother to point out that one could avoid AMT by altering your deductibles, which could work to your advantage. (Not that we ever trip that wire, or use TurboTax, but I've been told. Tried that FreeFile thing, but it's more trouble than it's worth. )

Assuming even moderately complicated finances, one can never be quite sure if one has done it right (nor can professionals, btw) so maximum anxiety for the great middle class, and room for congress to grant the odd favor for large donors. Thus, more power for congress, less for you. Such, at least, is one theory.

Time was - and I wish I could find a cite - congressfolk could have the IRS do their taxes for them, no cost, presumably no threat of audit. Myself, I think they should all be forced to do their own, by hand, no life lines. I also tend to think they should all release their final returns (though I'm open to argument on that one).

A man can dream.

(Thumbs up, olopua. My aging parents used to do that.)
posted by BWA at 1:08 PM on April 9 [3 favorites]


Once again, I must plug the free Excel 1040. It's better than ever this year!
posted by polecat at 1:14 PM on April 9 [16 favorites]


P.S., if any of you foreigners would like a glimpse of how bananas it is to fill out the US tax forms, downloading and perusing the spreadsheet should give a good idea.
posted by polecat at 1:16 PM on April 9


So if you want to get more jobs, this is how you get more jobs.

If the IRS had to hire developers to create and maintain a public equivalent to TurboTax, that would also create jobs. Intuit could continue to hire people to constantly make their offering better than the government's.
posted by tofu_crouton at 1:18 PM on April 9 [20 favorites]


For all of my fellow US taxpayers and readers, I really want to plug T.R. Reid's two books about taxes and healthcare, written for the popular public. In them he examines the US tax/healthcare systems and then takes a global comparison (looking largely at other developed countries, though also looking at a handful of developing countries for balance).

In his tax book, he touches on this exact issue in the front post as well as why New Zealand's tax system is virtually simple. I remember some statistic like a Dutch executive making a 6-figure salary will spend an average of 15 minutes -- 15 minutes! -- per year on her taxes. It was the first tax book I read that finally clearly explained the differences between deductions and credits to me and the very real policy implications of choosing one, among many other important tax facts.

(And I know this is a tax thread, but not a healthcare thread, but if anything I think Americans need to read the healthcare book even more -- the US talks about single-payer healthcare/"socialized healthcare" as if it's all the same, but Reid looks at the British, Canadian, French, German and Japanese systems. They're all different, and none of them are perfect, but they're all universal, and if we implemented literally any of them in the US we would be better off than we are today.)

I really recommend his books!

- A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System
- The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care
posted by andrewesque at 1:24 PM on April 9 [14 favorites]


So if you want to get more jobs, this is how you get more jobs.

These jobs are the equivalent of digging a ditch and filling it back up. It is the government purposefully creating an inconvenience so that tens of millions (if not more) hours of effort are wasted every year, and you have the option to pay someone else to enjoy the hassle. We would all be better off if the feds skipped the "create an inconvenience" step and required us to donate time or money to a charitable cause.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:34 PM on April 9 [10 favorites]


Aren't you guys supposed to be a little more advanced than us?

If we were more advanced than you DJT would not be our president.
posted by notreally at 1:42 PM on April 9 [10 favorites]


notyou: "Well, there's a bit of something good in the Act (and to which Wyden's spokesperson may have pointed when they described the bill as a compromise ): "The Taxpayer First Act also includes a provision that would restrict the IRS’ use of private debt collectors to those above a certain income.""

I'm not sure that's really a good thing -- why above a certain income? It's ok to keep being predatory on the poor, but if you make enough you get to escape the private debt collectors?
posted by crazy with stars at 1:44 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


Someone needs to shove a microphone into Wyden and Lewis' faces and ask them to point to exactly what part of the "Taxpayer First" bill actually puts the taxpayer first.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:48 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]


Basically, if you're going to fill out your forms by hand... you might as well do it with the Free Fillable Forms...

That's what I've been doing in recent years, because the amounts of money are so small, we have no stocks or bonds or rental property or anything that would complicate matters, and I don't mind playing around with numbers. Having said that, the newly designed forms are terrible – my wife and I have to fill out 11 different forms this year, 3 of which (Schedules 2, 4, and 5) include a single number.

In an ideal world, legislators wouldn't be allowed to give any bill a name like the Taxpayer First Act, when the point of it is to make taxpayers lose out. Like the name Free File Alliance, which aims to make sure people have to spend their money unnecessarily.

p.s. I wrote down the freefilefillableforms url from last year wrong, and when trying to get back to it last night thought the service had disappeared. Thanks, Hermeowne Grangepurr.
posted by LeLiLo at 1:53 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


Living abroad, it’s always fun to remember that America is one of two countries in the world that requires citizens not residing in the states to file taxes. Sure, there’s an income exception, where if you make less than a certain amount (I believe it’s up to $100,000, which I’ll never make), you don’t have to pay, as you’re already paying taxes locally, or should be.

The year that the IRS stopped sending their book of forms out, I had a vague recoil in terror moment at their list of private companies from which to file taxes with online. The list was absurdly long, with nothing to recommends one above another, and I picked one, hating the whole thing. It was taking me much longer than normal, and the. I got to the point where I needed the form (2555) to claim my foreign exception, only to find out that the company is chosen, and submitted my private information to, well, sorry, they just didn’t have that form available. Better luck elsewhere. That’s why I print out the forms every year and fill them out myself, because seriously, removing a public service without having verified that the private service was up to the task, apart from being the common standard of American government, is beyond fucked.

Jump ahead a couple years, and I find out that the foreign income exception supposedly only applies if you work overseas as an employee, and that Americans who own their own businesses abroad are required to file (and pay) business taxes on their overseas business, regardless of taxes they pay in their country of residence, and honestly, it made me realize that maybe someday, I might become a citizen in Japan (though you have to evidently pay the American government over $6000 for the privilege of relinquishing citizenship).

And that’s the thing that’s fucked about this. I’m coming off like some asshole who starts screaming that taxation is theft, which I do not believe . I believe in paying taxes and being a contributor to the basis of society and public good. However, the American system is run so (intentionally) poorly that it stirs up this sort of feeling.

Here in Japan, most companies file for employees. If you’re self employed, or working more than one job, you go to the tax office. For me, not knowing tax office level Japanese, it’s not a lot of fun. You wait in line (an hour and a half for me this time), but then when you get in the room, a tax office employee checks your documents for you, to make sure everything is all right. Then they send you to another spot with banks of computers. At each one, another employee, and they’ll ask you “is it okay if I do the data entry?” to which I say “oh god yes” and they whip through the forms that need filing, for free. While you stand there. An hour and a half. It’s not fun, but they take me, a foreigner whose Japanese is no where near up to the task, and walk me through it, polite and helpful the whole way.

The American system does not have to be the way it is. As mentioned above, it is kept the way it is through a combination of graft/lobbying by large industries that have no reason to exist, and by people in the government who wish to foment hatred of civic duty and then fundamental concepts of society as a thing we build together.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:36 PM on April 9 [17 favorites]


Here in NZ the tax system is deliberately simple, virtually no deductions, most people don't need to file because with a single employer their employer will just get it correct, most others can file online by filling out a 2 page web form.

And that is the way it should be in the U.S. It is dirt simple to just add up your income and pay a percentage as tax. But the U.S. tax code is about 10,000 pages. And all of those 10,000 pages are ways for, primarily the rich, to avoid paying taxes.

Get rid of all deductions. Get rid of all the different classes of income - earned income, ordinary income, social security income, qualified dividends, capital gains. Get rid of depreciation. Get rid of tax credits. Get rid of deductible IRAs and 401(k)s.

Get rid of it all and replace it with lower tax rate brackets. All of those gimmicks work primarily to the benefit of the rich. They may save you a few dollars here and there, but they save the rich thousands and millions. Better a simple, lower tax rate than all that grief.

U.S. taxes are only complicated because the rich have made it that way for their own benefit.
posted by JackFlash at 2:49 PM on April 9 [5 favorites]


Ugh. I have a check I need to send to the Federal government next Monday I really didn't want to think about today....and no idea if my state refund which is essentially the same amount almost to the dollar will hit in time to fund this grand shuffling of money between tax departments. So thanks for this post.

I like taxes - I guess I'm simply not smart enough to think about it deeper than "we pay tax, we get to have/use nice things like roads and national parks". I've lived for several years in a true tax-free jurisdiction (Cayman Islands) and I'd rather have a fair tax system rather than none and have the govt find the revenues by fees and charges and import duties and having to stand in a line to pay to have the post-office open and inspect your kid's Christmas presents that arrive by mail in front of you so they can be taxed (no, really!). You never now how much you've been taxed and it seems so piecemeal.

But the thing that gets me every year in the US is the fact that I never have less than 3 returns (federal plus at least two states, sometimes three or four). That multiplication of effort, and the fact you may be waiting for State A to refund before federal or State B wants their check is the worst. Or having to pay someone to help work out which school district code applies for those 5 days you worked on that one project in Wisconsin - just so you can get the State the $4 you owe them.

The total cost of having my returns prepared in person this year (because the online tools all flip out without fail every year) is approx 5x the total net tax liability I have. Good job US tax system. I'd rather just donate the cost back to doing something worthwhile

TL;DR I really miss NZ.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 3:13 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]


crazy with stars, I think you've read that backwards. See burden's reading here - it prevents the IRS from using private debt collectors on SS recipients and the poor, but they're free to sic them on the rich and middle class.
posted by hanov3r at 3:13 PM on April 9 [4 favorites]


inflatablekiwi: sadly it doesn't end when you move back, I lived in the US for 20 years, much of my retirement is still there which means I have to file in the US too (1040NR, just 5 pages thank goodness), because of that I'm one of the few kiwis that actually have to file in NZ (the tax treaty between the US and NZ means you are not taxed twice, but it does complicate stuff)
posted by mbo at 3:44 PM on April 9


I'm confused by Wyden's stance: his statement on twitter. But the senate bill clearly echoes the house bill regarding 67 Fed. Reg. 67247. Does it make sense for him to introduce the bill and then to "continue to push" for a pre-filled simple return?
posted by bread-eater at 4:17 PM on April 9


Use FREE FILLABLE FORMS NOW!

Is that the one that returns error messages as raw XPath validation errors? So you basically have to get everything right or you'll get an incomprehensible error that may stop you filing. It's utterly useless.

Because ms scruss is from the USA and our very meagre finances are intertwined here in Canada, we have to spend roughly 2½% of our gross income on complicated tax prep for effectively no US income. Thanks, America!
posted by scruss at 4:23 PM on April 9




Here in Japan, most companies file for employees.

Yeah, the first year after my wife moved to the US from Japan, I told her "I need to spend the weekend doing taxes" and she was just like ???. The idea you have to do anything at all was a surprise, and then finding out how complicated it is was a real shock.

If we end up moving to Japan it's just going to get much much worse (since I'll have to deal with even-more-complicated US taxes, on top of being an edge case there).

[And I'll acknowledge that one reason this is complicated and annoying is I do make more money than most people. So in that sense I don't want to complain too much, but it's still one of those things that basically only America does, and for stupid reasons]

Also this year I somehow deleted my first attempt at doing taxes, and when I redid them the amount was different by like $20. Hopefully the mistake was the first time, as I went over them like 3 times as a result of this and can't figure out what caused this. But it doesn't inspire confidence.
posted by thefoxgod at 5:29 PM on April 9


In the article posted by ContiuousWave above, there's some more about the politics of this from the left (e.g., why this passed so easily)
But defenders of the measure have argued House Democrats scored significant victories in the legislation such as new rules for private debt collection agencies that sometimes obtain debt payments from low-income taxpayers. The legislation also provides up to $30 million in matching grants for a program that provides help to low-income taxpayers.
I'd like to hear more about the other provisions in the bill that made it worth it for liberal dems to swallow the pill.

Even ...
Reps. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who had criticized the provision over the IRS’s software, said in speeches before the measure passed that the package overall was worth supporting.
posted by spbmp at 7:01 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]


posted by tofu_crouton at 1:18 PM on April 9

Tofu, I like your idea, it makes sense in theory. In practice, I imagine it would play out like this (I could be wrong!)

First, I know no one who comparison-shops for tax software. They buy the cheapest app and assume if it's shrink-wrapped or downloaded from their bank, it will work.

So the IRS hires a team. Add the likely perennial congressional IRS budget starvation, and undelivered tax software becomes a political football.

Let's assume they succeed. From the business side, a public option would be considered government unfairly competing in the marketplace. The definition of 'baseline' functionality would be a political issue and could be changed at any time. So the playing field is unstable and unpredictable. The rich will continue to go to CPAs anyway, and Intuit, HRBlock, small-scale CPAs etc. will drop their products/services and deploy their capital and (what's left of their) labor pool where the govt isn't - unless the govt incentivises (subsidizes) them to stay.

How about the IRS contracting with TurboTax to create baseline software? Wait, HRB says, "The government is choosing winners and losers in the marketplace". Monopoly gravy train for Intuit as everybody gravitates to Gov-boTax and the other guys layoff their teams. So that's a no-go too.

Or the govt could put the job of producing each year's tax software up for bid. Experienced govt bidder/contractor Giant Federal Systems swoops in and buys TurboTax and Humongous Services Co. Federal Division buys HRB and we have a Taxation-Industrial Complex with parent company coders taking the jobs from the acquisitions.

And that's why we can't have nice things.

I think the FreeFile certified folks are the best we can do given the perverse incentives baked into the system.
posted by zaixfeep at 7:11 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


God this enrages me so much. You can't even count on the fucking Democrats to take a stand that would benefit a vast majority of the country and disadvantage just a handful of corporations. Vox mentions tax preparation firms spent $6.6 million this year on lobbyists. That isn't even much money in the grand scheme of things. How cheap are these bastards anyway?
posted by great_radio at 7:19 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


You can't even count on the fucking Democrats to take a stand that would benefit a vast majority of the country and disadvantage just a handful of corporations.

You can't pass a bill that you can't get through a Republican majority senate - with a filibuster, no less - plus a signature from Donald Trump.

So you have to compromise on the best deal you can get. Even AOC agreed. That's reality.

The tax software situation doesn't really change from status quo, so Democrats aren't really giving up anything in exchange for some restrictions on bill collectors.
posted by JackFlash at 7:35 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


Eh, then don't pass a bill.
posted by great_radio at 7:41 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]


So you don't care about relief for poor people from abusive bill collectors?
posted by JackFlash at 7:44 PM on April 9


posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:34 PM on April 9

Robot, I hear you. I offer these points for consideration:

You're arguing that the govt adding inefficiency/inconvenience to the economy should be avoided. That's the same basic argument small-govt proponents use -- we're just quibbling over which inefficiencies and inconveniences are righteous to keep and which naughty chidren get to go on unemployment.

OK, so we make taxes easier in exchange for mandatory charity. Leaving aside the awful libertarian duckspeak that 'enforced charity is soshullizm', you really want the govt to require everybody to do free work? Isn't that, like, a draft?

And if you're required to work, why do you assume you'd get to choose what/where rather than report where the charity work board desides to send you?
posted by zaixfeep at 8:04 PM on April 9


On tax prep software, what the government could do is publish full machine-readable descriptions of all tax law and forms, under a free software license that requires any improvements to it and any software based on it be released as free software. They could further mandate that the IRS use it for all auditing of tax returns (aside from the meatspace stuff), to give the IRS an incentive to keep it up to date.

That is exactly what Intuit et al are continually lobbying for tax law changes to prevent being built and maintained.

Pipe dream of course, but if it existed I'd build a SAT solver or something with it to find the optimal solution to my taxes.
posted by joeyh at 8:39 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]


Checking in from 3rd World South Africa - eFiling takes me an hour. All my work details are filled in automatically by my employer and I just have to double check contact details, put in medical and other deductions and hit submit. If there's a refund it's deposited straight into my account within a few weeks.
posted by PenDevil at 3:31 AM on April 10 [1 favorite]


I strongly disagree with the argument that being against regulatory capture is equivalent to right wing small government rhetoric. The statement "we're just quibbling over which inefficiencies and inconveniences are righteous to keep" presupposes that everything the government does is an inefficiency or an inconvenience, which is not true. Rather, we are quibbling over which things are inefficiencies and which are useful services, which is exactly what we should discuss.

In a sense, it is correct that this is a jobs program. The government makes tax preparation more difficult, so people need help, either from an accountant or from commercial software. It's just a very bad jobs program, because there are no metrics and no controls that prevent the majority of the subsidy from being siphoned off as corporate profits.
posted by Nothing at 3:39 AM on April 10 [1 favorite]


The Australian Tax Office provides MyTax, which works pretty much as PenDevil describes eFiling above. Every year they improve it by extending the range of income sources it will pre-fill for you by cross-checking other data sources. Works well, no charge.
posted by flabdablet at 3:47 AM on April 10 [1 favorite]


I use FreeTaxUSA - at least I will until its illegal.
posted by bendy at 5:12 AM on April 10 [3 favorites]


posted by Nothing at 3:39 AM

Excellent counterpoints!

Rather, we are quibbling over which things are inefficiencies and which are useful services, which is exactly what we should discuss.

Indeed. Thing is, one taxpayer's pork is another worker's lifeline. The fat cats who run Intuit will take a bit of a hit (they can afford to) and move on, while the workers like you and me will lose their paychecks. Too bad they chose to work for took the only jobs they could find from EvilCorp. They're bad and they should feel bad, amirite?

It's just a very bad jobs program

Yep. Compromise, it is a hell of a thing. Say what you want about our lawmakers, at least it's an ethos :-)
posted by zaixfeep at 5:52 AM on April 10


. . . permanently blocks the IRS from providing for free taxpayer filing of income taxes.
I had to RTFA to understand they were talking about free online taxpayer filing of income taxes.
I have never personally filed online. Is there any reason to do that besides getting a return faster? Do you have to file online now? Can you not still get paper forms at the Post Office or from the IRS website?

I used to do our taxes by hand before my spouse became self-employed. Then it became a lot more complicated, but was a tax-deductible expense to have an accountant do it.
And now she has several jobs, most of which are self-employed, and it gets more complicated every year.
The idea that your employer would handle most of it sounds like a good idea to me, unless (as in the health care case) you are your own employer.
posted by MtDewd at 6:33 AM on April 10


The advantage to an online form is that it would be more than a form; it could walk filers through the process.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:43 AM on April 10 [3 favorites]


. . . permanently blocks the IRS from providing for free taxpayer filing of income taxes.

I had to RTFA to understand they were talking about free online taxpayer filing of income taxes.
I have never personally filed online. Is there any reason to do that besides getting a return faster? Do you have to file online now? Can you not still get paper forms at the Post Office or from the IRS website?


I'm the opposite. I have never not filed online. No one is required to file online. Here are some benefits:

- You don't have to pay for stamps (minor, but still a cost)
- Many online tax filing programs can automatically import your previous year's tax info and some will even automatically import your W-4's, which makes completing the form much much easier.
- It's way, way faster than paper filing. Usually my returns are accepted the same day I file them online, and this year I got my refund within a week of filing.

The other thing to note from the article is that while you can file for free online right now, the companies fighting to ban the IRS from offering their own free filing services use deceptive practices to push non-free filing options. From the propublica article:
The Free File Alliance, a private industry group, says 70% of American taxpayers are eligible to file for free. Those taxpayers, who must make less than $66,000, have access to free tax software provided by the companies. But just 3% of eligible U.S. taxpayers actually use the free program each year. Critics of the program say that companies use it as a cross-marketing tool to upsell paid products, that they have deliberately underpromoted the free option and that it leaves consumer data open to privacy breaches.
I stopped using TurboTax for just this reason. I now use creditkarma.com to file for free and it's 100% free. Though I believe they use your credit and income info to offer you credit cards and such.

Also, a private industry consortium permanently banning the US from offering a competing service is just a bad idea in principle. It's sort of like if the health insurance industry wrote a bill to permanently ban the US from offering public health insurance.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:20 AM on April 10 [8 favorites]


No one is required to file online.

Individuals are not required to efile, but any tax preparer who submits more than 10 returns a year for individuals must submit them electronically.
posted by JackFlash at 8:40 AM on April 10 [1 favorite]


In a sense, it is correct that this is a jobs program. The government makes tax preparation more difficult, so people need help, either from an accountant or from commercial software. It's just a very bad jobs program, because there are no metrics and no controls that prevent the majority of the subsidy from being siphoned off as corporate profits.

More like a wealth transfer program.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:44 AM on April 10


Can you not still get paper forms at the Post Office or from the IRS website?
No, Post Offices or Libraries don't carry forms like they used to. It was decided that was a waste of paper. Yes you can print out the forms, but you need a printer. Many people who don't have one at home use the library printers. I think you can also request a booklet be mailed to you.

I volunteer with TaxAide through AARP and we now use TaxSlayer. I do this because I firmly believe the tax prep industry is not playing fair. Offering your expertise to people who need it is just fine, but lobbying to increase the number of people who need it is scummy.
posted by soelo at 9:10 AM on April 10 [4 favorites]


I use FreeTaxUSA - at least I will until its illegal.

I love FreeTaxUSA. I'm a former licensed tax preparer, with a post-bac in accounting. Up until 2015 I did my taxes myself, by hand, on paper forms, which were then mailed to the IRS and my state. I'm frugal by nature and can't justify paying for software to file my tax returns when I'm perfectly capable of doing them myself. I prefer doing them myself; it helps keep my skills and tax knowledge up to date. But because I'm a self-employed freelancer, it's very time-consuming, so I decided to look into filing electronically at long last. In 2015 I started reading tax software reviews to explore my options. I was super annoyed at how limited they were if I wasn't willing to pay $80 to file a damn Schedule C, and if I wanted to be shown what the software was doing "under the hood" so I could verify everything myself along the way.

In 2015-2016 I tried FreeFillableForms, had an extremely frustrating tear-my-hair-out experience with the "error messages as raw XPath validation errors" that scruss mentioned above, and finally started looking into paying for tax software just to save me time and frustration.

FreeTaxUSA was the only one that let me file a 1040 with Schedule C online for free. They charge for state returns, though; mine was $14.99, which I consider money well spent as it let me avoid the time and frustration of all the other options.

The interface is well-designed and easy to follow; it imports all your info from the previous year, and you can download free copies of your returns at any time during the preparation and afterward. You can file the returns early, but schedule payment for April 15, and it's very reliable. I checked over the finished returns several times, and found no mistakes. I completed the entire process - federal return + state return - in a couple of hours.

(Then I had to handle my city's transit self-employment tax, business income tax, and arts tax filings separately, on the city's websites. But while I'm annoyed at the inefficiency - and the regressive flat taxes - at least that process wasn't as onerous after I found FreeTaxUSA, because I'd already saved so much time on the federal and state returns.)

Even the thought that FreeTaxUSA could become illegal makes me extremely irate.
posted by velvet winter at 10:44 AM on April 10 [2 favorites]


So you don't care about relief for poor people from abusive bill collectors?

If you think legislated regulatory capture of the IRS by the big tax-filing companies is a worthwhile trade for that relief, then you can make that case, but "you must not care about poor people" is just abuse, not argument. It's not like all those surcharges and upsales are good for poor people, either. If the bill is just symbolic, and marks no change in the status quo, by which logic you argue that the cost of debtor relief is no cost at all, then why have the tax-filing companies lobbied so hard for it? Even granting that the compromise was favorable, why should it be bad to express frustration at the cost, and at the willingness of some Democrats to sign onto such an illiberal idea? It's not as though they had to haul every single Democrat in the House on board kicking and screaming.

With any luck, in 2020 the party in the White House and the Senate will be different, and then we'll see whether repealing the bad part of this compromise makes the party's list of priorities. I hope it does, and I expect the tax-filing business to spend a lot of money to make sure it doesn't.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:11 PM on April 10 [6 favorites]


Slate argues that the bill probably doesn't bar the IRS from setting up a public filing system, as it only extends the existing Free File system. Said existing system can be terminated by the IRS, who could then set up their own system, as long as they give the participants a year's notice. Wyden seems to believe that this won't prevent the IRS from setting up their own system, but will likely look to amend the bill to clarify this.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:32 PM on April 10 [4 favorites]


The American system does not have to be the way it is. As mentioned above, it is kept the way it is through a combination of graft/lobbying by large industries that have no reason to exist, and by people in the government who wish to foment hatred of civic duty and then fundamental concepts of society as a thing we build together.

@interfluidity: "A ubiquitous tool of American misgovernance: Define a two-tier system that segments affluent, influential citizens into a private tier. Watch the public tier languish and fail. We've done it with housing, transportation, education, medicine, now tax-filing"
posted by kliuless at 12:42 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]




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