Complex Tax Legislation in the TurboTax Era

Zelenak, Lawrence

When tax returns were prepared with pencil and paper—in an era now gone forever—Congress did not impose income tax provisions of great computational complexity on large numbers of taxpayers, in the belief that it was unreasonable to require average taxpayers (or their paid preparers) to struggle with computationally complex provisions. As return preparation software gradually replaced the pencil in recent decades, the complexity constraint weakened and eventually disappeared. Congress has responded by imposing unprecedented computational complexity on large numbers of taxpayers—primarily through the expanded scope of the alternative minimum tax and the proliferation of phase outs of credits, deductions, and exclusions. This response would not be problematic, if the only objection to computational complexity were the difficulty of performing the calculations—a difficulty overcome by the widespread adoption of software. Unfortunately, computationally complex provisions generally constitute bad tax policy, even apart from computational concerns. For taxpayers faced with a welter of computationally complex provisions, the income tax is a black box, the inner workings of which are beyond their comprehension. This undermines both the political legitimacy of the tax system and the ability of taxpayers to engage in informed tax planning. In response to the demise of the complexity constraint, argues this Essay, Congress should develop a self-imposed constraint against the enactment (or survival) of computationally complex provisions of widespread applicability.


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Columbia Journal of Tax Law

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September 24, 2015