Should We Blame TurboTax for Tax Code Complexity?

After another grueling tax season, my colleague Howard Gleckman is understandably frustrated with America’s complex tax code. And with instructions like this, who can blame him?:

Your ATNOL for a loss year is the excess of the deductions allowed for figuring the AMTI (excluding the ATNOLD) over the income included in the AMTI. Figure this excess with the modifications in section 172(d), taking into account your AMT adjustments and preferences (that is, the section 172(d) modifications must be separately figured for the ATNOL).

So who is to blame? Feckless politicians? High-priced lobbyists? Social engineers?

Well, yes, yes, and yes. But Howard looks deeper and asks why Americans don’t rise up against the scourge of needless complexity. Why are we so complacent?

His answer: TurboTax. By buffering us from complexity, tax preparation software allows that complexity to persist:

[T]echnology both inoculates us from much of the complexity of tax filing and reduces compliance costs. But, more importantly, it immunizes the politicians from the consequences of their decisions that lead to this madness.

Taking this to its logical extreme, Howard calls (tongue-in-cheek) for a one year moratorium on tax preparation software and, for good measure, paid preparers too.

I’m not ready to go that far. But I would like to point out that the dynamic Howard points out is everywhere around us. Give people cellphones that make it easier to call for help, and they will get into more trouble in the wilderness. Offer people low-fat cookies, and they will eat more. Put people in more fuel-efficient cars, and they will drive more. Give people software to do their taxes, and they will accept greater complexity. It’s practically a law of nature.

P.S. Over at Republic Report, Matt Stoller levels a more serious charge at Intuit, the producer of TurboTax. Quoting from its SEC filings and lobbying data from Open Secrets, he argues that the company has been lobbying against efforts to make it easier for citizens to file without the help of software.