Tax forms: shorter, more complicated

As presented in an earlier blog post, I’ve written a web page to graph the flow your taxes. I’ve updated it for the new tax forms just put out for tax year 2018. Everything seems to work now, but it was an emotionally jarring experience. And not because of the tax reform, which had at least one nice addition to help struggling parents, but because of how it was presented to those parents on the forms.

The online path not taken

First, when I talk about tax forms, a lot of people immediately reply well I don’t see why everybody doesn’t just use TurboTax.

But a lot of people don’t: 15.5 million people filed a return without using any e-file options in the first half of last year. For comparison, the LA metro area has around 4.6 million households.

In case you’re one of the 15.5 million, TurboTax is a product from Intuit, a company which spends millions of dollars a year trying to prevent the implementation of simplifications like the postcard return (discussed below). The IRS has a no-compete clause that bars the IRS from implementing its own tax calculation software.

One of the e-file options is to use Free File Fillable Forms, operated from servers at, which it brags is available for free to 100% of filers. It provides pictures of the tax form for you to fill in on-screen, so if we hope to live up to Intuit’s promise, we still have to understand the tax forms. [As an aside, FFFF as software basically works but is somewhat un-automated and dysfunctional. I use it, but in tandem with the Python version of the tax calculator linked above.]

Finding Programs

There are some social services attached to the tax forms, including the Earned Income Credit (EIC) and child tax credit (CTC). At the end of 2017 CTC was expanded to the Additional CTC, which, like EIC, is refundable: even if you have zero taxes, if you are eligible for EIC or ACTC the government will send you a check. In other contexts, this would be called welfare, but given the efforts to make that a dirty word, perhaps the right place for these programs is the tax form, where it is a little more sanitized. The American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits are also in this basket.

Yes, these laws are complicated, and you can see the legislative back-and-forth in the eight pages of the EIC instructions. One side wants to keep it open, the other says that if you got rental income you might not fit the image the legislators had in mind (but fill in a 16-line form in IRS publication 596 to see if you are). The Alternative Minimum Tax shows the back-and-forth in even greater force, with one side proposing the basic concept and the other side inserting an exception and the first side inserting an exception to that exception. But today’s discussion isn’t about the laws themselves, but changes in how the forms are displayed to the public.

Consider a family who is the target of these programs. They’re going to school, raising a kid, and aren’t making a lot of money in what time is left. They’ve heard of these programs and are maybe seeking them out. They skim the tax forms hoping for a big red arrow saying CLAIM ACTC HERE, but no such luck. For example, here is the text they would read on line 17:

17. Refundable credits: a. EIC (see inst.), b. Sch. 8812, c. Form 8863. Add any amount from Schedule 5

Did you miss it? Schedule 8812 is the form where they would calculate the additional child tax credit.

Maybe they can check the instructions, but the HTML version of the instructions for the IRS’s 1040—its flagship form—has trouble printing tables in a legible form and is currently missing the CTC worksheet entirely. I feel for the people at IRS who are trying to keep these things afloat despite constant budget cuts and a new tax law that went from introduction to passage in about 100 days. But this essay isn’t really about the people who are given the orders and, because everybody hates the IRS, starved of staffing and funding to fulfill those orders. We can go a step or two higher in the decision making process.

How did a major new program wind up as “b. Sch. 8812”?

Another major priority this year was to get the form onto a postcard. Where did this goal come from? Some countries have a postcard return, in which the government prepares a postcard telling you their estimate for your taxes, based on all the information they already have from your employer, your bank, and so on. Most people have straightforward enough taxes that they can just sign the postcard and be done with their taxes; the option exists to send in forms for people with odd situations.

Somehow, in the last election cycle or two, this got corrupted into your tax form which you prepare and send to the IRS should be small enough to fit on a postcard. And that got taken to heart, because the 1040 is 22 lines, down from 79 last year, and would now fit onto a 5×7 inch card.

They achieved this by adding six new schedules. Legal reforms were not huge for individual tax procedure, so the new 1040 with its six backup schedules are a rewrite of the same 79 lines, plus or minus. The new schedules even retain the numbering from last year, so for example, Schedule 5 runs from lines 66 to 75.

There are exclamation marks, so it’s fun.

And now that we have a modular 1040, why bother with the simpler 1040EZ and 1040A? In years past, the 1040EZ was targeted at low-income people like the family above, whose sole interest outside the bare basics would be EIC and child care. That form and the 1040A have been eliminated. After all, if you don’t need Schedule 2—which is three lines long, asking for two tax elements and their sum—then don’t file Schedule 2.

I can’t conceive of any motivation for eliminating the 1040EZ and adding six new schedules other than the political, the desire to have a small piece of paper to display. But it creates problems.

Filling in taxes is a two-way search, where you have in mind a list of rules you know apply to you that you need to find on the form, and are also aware (worried?) that there may be parts in the forms you didn’t know about that apply to you. You don’t know if you need Schedules 1 through 6 or 8812 until you pull them out and skim them to see what you need. Above, line 17 said to add the total from Schedule 5. Check the HTML or the paper/PDF instructions for line 17, and you’ll see there’s no mention of the schedule at all. The only thing to do is find Schedule 5 and read through it.

And, by design, there’s more paper. Sure, each schedule is as short as three lines long, but when one form sends me to another form, which may send me to another form yet, it feels like bureaucratic runaround. And tax law is unconcerned with encapsulation. In preparing some parts of this year’s tax calculator I sometimes found myself with two forms, a schedule, and possibly two instruction booklets open at the same time. With the 79-line 1040, I’d at least have one fewer schedule and possibly one fewer instruction book. FFFF, by the way, only lets you see one form or schedule at a time. As somebody who has helped a good number of people fill in their tax forms, who remembers one or two of them breaking down weeping over how daunting even the 1040EZ is, I view these additional levels of redirection that 15 million individual filers will have to go through as  a real harm.

Let’s return to the parents trying to raise some kids and get an education at the same time. These are the heroes of the story, for whom the system was designed. There were people in Congress who wanted them to receive benefits, reserving thousands of dollars for each of tens of millions of such people. But there were also people whose goals were elsewhere, including some legislators who overburdened the law with baroque details, whoever came up with the idea for Schedules 1-6, and evidently Intuit. Who won? Click through to the tax graph, check the box for student loans and expenses, and add a kid or two in the appropriate box, and have a look at the flow of taxes our family has to work through.


To encourage production of new terrain, a tax subsidy for maps


This is a post about a paper I just put out to Elsevier’s SSRN, because I believe every academic paper should have a blog post explaining why it is useful.

The paper is about the intellectual property (IP) box. The proposal is to provide a lower tax rate to profits associated with a patent or other IP. IP boxes currently exist in a few countries, and a few bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress to set up an IP box.

The bills proposing IP boxes—which they refer to as innovation boxes—could possibly be traced to a measurement problem. Innovation is hard to define, let alone measure, so many academics will use patent rates as a proxy, in a classic case of looking under the lamppost and replacing a complex concept with something that can be counted and looked up in a database. This seems to have become ingrained, and arguments about patent boxes seem to depend upon the assumption that patents==innovation. This column traces where that substitution leads us.

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The problem of incentivizing nothing

Maybe this will sound obvious, but it is impossible to offer a tax credit on money nobody spends. This basic fact creates noticeable distortions in the landscape of the tax code.

Say that the Planning Committee has determined that sugary drinks are bad for you. One approach (`the stick’) is to tax drinks with high sugar content. One (`the carrot’) is to give a tax credit or subsidy for buying drinks that substitute away from sugary drinks, like low-calorie soda or carrot juice.

Setting aside Tang,  sugary drinks do not live in a vacuum. Perhaps last year the Planning Committee initiated another set of tax subsidies to handle malnourishment, and recognizing that carbohydrates are a necessary nutrient and that sugar is a pure form of carbohydrate, set up a tax subsidy for sugar.

At the end of it all, the only people not getting some sort of tax subsidy are the people who don’t buy drinks. If you’re drinking tap water, buying two boxes of tea a year and calling that your beverage budget, growing carrots and juicing them yourself, then you are outside of the economy, and there’s no way for a tax subsidy to reach you.

To give another example, my local electric company will pay a not-negligible subsidy to people who agree to install a smart thermostat that slows down their air conditioner during peak demand periods. Except I’m ineligible, because my house doesn’t have an air conditioning unit at all. It may be cost-effective for me to install a cheap unit I never use so I can score the subsidy.

In those situations where there is a `sinful’ form of consumption, the first best outcome is to simply not consume, but not consuming can’t receive a subsidy. The second best is lite consumption, and this is where the tax code is able to nudge people.

Last time, I went over some of the more interesting credits on Form 3800 (PDF), but the bulk of the credits are energy-related:

1f renewable electricity, refined coal, Indian coal production
1l biodiesel, renewable diesel
1m low sulfur diesel
1o nonconventional source fuel
1p energy efficient home
1q energy efficient appliances
1r alternative motor vehicle
1s Alternative fuel vehicle refueling property
1y Qualified plug-in electric drive motor vehicle
4c Biofuel producer
4e Renewable electricity, refined coal, and Indian coal production again

There are a lot of fuel taxes (Form 720), but use Form 4136 to get a zero tax rate for certain uses of gasoline, undyed diesel, undyed kerosene, kerosene used in aviation, liquefied petroleum gas, compressed natural gas, liquefied hydrogen, Fischer-Tropsch process liquid fuel from coal (including peat), liquified fuel or gas from biomass, liquified natural gas, and diesel-water fuel emulsion blending.

And lest you worry that only the petroleum alternatives are getting the credits, I enjoyed this overview of the subsidies that oil extraction companies receive (PDF).

At this point, it is hard to imagine a U.S. motor whose operation is not somehow subsidized by the federal government.

Of course, if you run a fleet of bike taxis in San Diego, where the weather is always so perfect that your office needs neither a/c or heating fuel, there are no credits for you.

In total, the incentives on Form 3800 are consistent with the story I told above: you can’t incentivize doing nothing, but you can incentivize consumption lite, like buying efficient appliances and renewable diesel. More on reading these incentives next time.

The commune

An alternative hypothesis is that the goal of the code is not to shape society for some undefined better, but to push its members to move.

In a world where the only businesses are wholly self-sustaining yogic meditation communes, where everybody drinks juices made from fruits and veggies in the garden and they burn the cow’s manure on chilly nights, no money is exchanged and so GDP is zero. If your goal is maximum GDP growth and all you have are people who are blissfully self-sustaining, you have to find a way to get people to move. To modify a standard example, if you can get the people in commune A to water the plants in commune B for $10,000/year, and get the people in commune B to water the plants in commune A for $10,000/year, then the commune members are doing no additional work besides walking next door, but GDP is up $20,000/year (and tax rates follow accordingly).

My commune example may sound far-fetched, but more and more of the economy is about information, which is relatively costless to move, using open source or free-to-use software. The person who runs Pinboard broke down what he pays to run the web site that is his livelihood. He pays for four Amps a month. Doing some back-of-the-envelope math, four Amps at 110 volts for a month comes out to 317 kWh. For reference, my household of four people used 185 kWh last month, so this person’s entire business uses as much energy as two residential households. He’s not running a commune off the grid, but just about any business based on moving physical objects or maintaining a storefront or sending people around on frequent flights will show a greater mark on the GDP accounts.

By this reading, the basic message of the tax code is not that you should use energy efficiently, but that you should use energy. Form 3800 is consistent with this story as well.

Fun with Form 3800

This is part of a series on Form 3800. I started with this piece about how much the public can or should learn about obscure details of law, followed by this piece about laws that divide the population between people who directly benefit from the credit and people who have never heard of the credit. This section provides examples of such laws, diving into Form 3800 (PDF) itself.

The first two pages Form 3800, General Business Credits, are largely an equation stretched out over two pages, because IRS assumes that everybody does their taxes with an abacus. Skip to Part III on page three, which is the list of tax subsidies.

Each line is its own story. If I had a class of 36 or fewer students, I’d give each student one line to dig into.

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Why failing startups that do stupid things get bought for millions

Year zero. Your hip new startup—it’s like Uber, but for trees—just got off the ground, and lost a million dollars. On the plus side, it had no taxes. Year one: it took off, and made three million bucks. Your company is allowed to carry over the losses from the prior year, so that the reported taxable profits in the second year are only two million. This story of a company that loses in its first years and then starts gaining is a common one, but any year that a company records a loss means that next year’s taxes will be a little lighter.

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Why people tip in US restaurants

Here, I’ll discuss a tax incentive by the federal government to encourage bosses to have employees paid via tips instead of a typical wage.

The waitress is the only person who knows how much she got tipped. [I flipped a coin to write this example, and she came up female]. And, unless she’s in the narrow band where EIC (earned income credit) kicks in, she pays out a tax on those tips and so wants to understate her tip income.

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The time I went to see a House Ways and Means Committee tax hearing

At this session, the Ways and Means Committee was hosting a show and tell, as roughly forty Congresspersons took three minutes each to talk about their favorite proposal for tax reform. Here, I’ll talk about one common pattern for single-industry reforms.

I went to the hearing partly for serious purposes that are off-topic here, but also as a bit of tourism. Most of the work of Congress happens in committees that conduct business in the office buildings that flank the Congress building itself. You’re free to attend. Security-wise, there’s a metal detector at the building entrance, but it’s much easier to enter the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room than, say, your flight to Chicago.

The House Ways and Means Committee hearing room

The House Ways and Means Committee hearing room.


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The time I saw Ezra Klein talk about presenting research

This post and the next are leading up to a discussion of IRS Form 3800. Why should you care about Form 3800, a form you likely have no personal dealings with? Because a form nobody cares about is a great place to hide a lot of things.

I’ll start the story by telling you about the time I saw Ezra Klein, the head of an increasingly popular news outlet. Somebody in one of the World Bank’s research groups invited him to present an explainer to the researchers about how they can get their news out to the public. Continue reading