Taxes

You Want the IRS to Tell You How to Navigate Complicated Tax Forms? That'll Cost You.

There are rules, you know. And they'll tell you what they are for 23 bucks.

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The income tax code being just a tad complex, the general rules explaining tax law to Americans who are compelled to spill their financial guts to the feds every year run to almost 300 pages. Ouch. And happy reading.

Happy reading, that is, if you can get your hands on Publication 17, in which those almost 300 pages reside. The Internal Revenue Service used to freely distribute printed copies of the rules of the road for not getting fined or arrested over matters tax-related. But taxpayers this year looking for copies of that breezy guide to filling out legally mandated tax forms find that the federal government now charges $23 for a printed copy.

The guide is still available for free in electronic form on the IRS website. Cuz…maybe it just hasn't occurred to them to charge? Whoops.

PDF files can be easier to handle than print, if you're tech savvy. But not everybody is tech savvy. Even today, not everybody even has Internet access. Ken McEldowney of Consumer Action points out that "women, minority groups and low-income households make up the lion's share of the 25 percent of American households without regular Internet access. Analysis of census data shows that households with incomes below the national average are 18 percent less likely to have Internet access."

Nice move. The folks least likely to have access to the electronic publication are those for whom purchasing a physical copy is the biggest hit in the wallet.

And, once again, Publication 17 is effectively the instruction manual for tax forms that the government requires us to file under penalty of law. Want to know how to fill them out or what all of that impenetrable language means? Log on a computer at the library and take notes, buddy, or buy a copy from the U.S. Government Bookstore. Because, if you get it wrong…

Now, that's an effective revenue-enhancement scheme.

The federal government supposedly eliminated the free printed version of Publication 17 to reduce costs associated with rolling out all of those dead trees, but eliminating the explanation of how to do something that the government forces people to do seems like an odd and cruel cost-saver. Unless, that is, there's a benefit for government officials to keeping the tax code obscure to the people who suffer under it. Hmm…

Speaking of obscurity… If your income tax code is so complicated that the "general rules" run to hundreds of pages, you're doing it wrong to begin with. Maybe the better cost-saving measure is to simplify the rules—with a machete—so the explanation doesn't require the mass printing of Russian novel-length explanations. That would save not just cost, but aggravation.

That's my suggestion, which government officials may read for free.