Measuring tax complexity

You hear people say the Tax Code is complex because it has so many words. Good article here.

But to measure tax complexity, don’t count words in the statute; count

— the number of lines in forms you have to fill out.

— the hours it take to figure your taxes.

— the days until you know for sure the amount you owe.

Tax complexity lies not in a statute with many words, but in uncertainty and lack of clarity.

In 1986, there was willingness at the Congressional Member level to do something about transfers of intangibles abroad, but just what a solution might be was not clear.  Not naming names without consent of those named, but Joint Tax Committee staff found a thesaurus, looked up “equal,” and found the word “commensurate.”  So the Tax Reform Act of 1986 eventually said, “In the case of any transfer (or license) of intangible property, . . . the income with respect to such transfer or license shall be commensurate with the income attributable to the intangible.”

That’s just a few words, so if you’re counting words, the statute gets a good score. But it often takes taxpayers and the government a long time to agree on or litigate about the amount of tax due on income “commensurate with the income attributable to the intangible.”

Anyway, counting words in the Tax Code leaves aside the number of words in the Regulations.

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Author: patoglesby

From 1982 to 1990, I worked in tax policy for Committees of the United States Congress. In recent years, I was Adjunct Lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill's Business School and then Adjunct Professor at its Law School.

1 thought on “Measuring tax complexity”

  1. Charlie Kingson made an excellent point years ago about the size of the Code. We only care about those provisions that relate to our financial world. The other complex provisions do not complicate our lives.

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