In recent weeks President Obama has been on a quixotic search-and-destroy mission for the few remaining millionaires who aren't already paying a huge pile of taxes. Meanwhile, the rest of us face the real-world struggles of filing our IRS returns and dealing with the hugely complex tax system that the president has done nothing to fix.
The federal tax code is getting uglier every year as politicians from both parties add more credits, deductions and other special breaks. In the first year of the income tax in 1913, the 1040 tax form came with just one page of instructions. This year the instruction book for the 1040 is 189 pages long.
That's just one IRS tax form, but there are more than 500 others. Consider, for example, that the number of special tax breaks for energy has soared from 11 in 1995 to 26 today, and each break has separate tax forms, instructions, regulations and other paperwork.
The total quantity of federal tax rules is gigantic. Tax publisher CCH collects all the paperwork in one volume, and it currently spans 73,608 pages and covers nine feet of shelf space. That is more than triple the volume of tax rules as recently as the 1970s, as shown in the chart.
In a recent report, the IRS Taxpayer Advocate said that the compliance or paperwork costs for the federal tax code are more than $160 billion a year. That cost represents pure waste to the economy — it's like throwing in the trash the entire retail sales of Target, Home Depot and Safeway every year.
In addition to being complex, the federal tax code is constantly changing. The Taxpayer Advocate found that there have been 4,428 changes to the tax code in just the last 10 years. Those changes stem not just from a hyperactive Congress, but also from the constant gushing forth of new tax regulations from the Treasury. The result is growing tax instability, which undermines financial planning, business investment and other decision-making in the economy.
Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, and editor of www.DownsizingGovernment.org. Before joining Cato, Edwards was a senior economist on the congressional Joint Economic Committee, a manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and an economist with the Tax Foundation.
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