The Internet kills another civic ritual: Tax Day

NPR notes that 80 percent of federal tax forms are now filed electronically, killing “the annual Tax Day frenzy at the local post office.” The New York Times’s City Room blog also marks the passing of the spectacle, if not celebration, of Tax Day at the city’s main post office on Eighth Avenue. “We had the H&R Blocks set up on the steps helping customers, soda companies giving out free soda, massage companies giving out free massages for the stress,” recalls the city’s postmaster.

Now, “most of the magic is gone,” writes the City Room’s Andy Newman. “So are the boxes of 1040 forms by the door, the whole shebang just another communal ritual done in by the Internet.”


The Tax Day reports bring to mind the complaints about early voting and mail-in ballots eroding the civic spirit of Election Day. What’s democracy without people waiting in line for hours? (At least you can give up and not cast a ballot if you need to go to work or pick up your kids; you can’t legally abstain from taxes.)

At least it can still take hours to file a tax return electronically. The investigative website ProPublica reports that TurboTax and other makers of tax preparation software have helped to block “return-free filing might allow tens of millions of Americans to file their taxes for free and in minutes.”

With return-free filing, the federal government could calculate tax bills and refunds using income information from employers and banks; depending on the proposal, taxpayers could appeal the government’s calculation or bypass the system and file the old-fashioned way. The system is already used in parts of Europe and was endorsed by presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

But TurboTax has been busy seeding a “grassroots” campaign arguing that return-free filing is a conflict of interest (i.e., the government deciding how much it is owed — which it does by setting tax rates in the first place) that would prey on low-income people without the services of accountants and lawyers. TurboTax’s lobbying has gained traction through letters to Congress and newspaper columns using similar language. ProPublica’s Liz Day writes:

So, where did the letters and op-eds come from? Here's one clue:

Rabbi Dorff says he was approached by a former student, Emily Pflaster, who sent him details and asked him to write an op-ed alerting the Jewish community to the threat.

What Pflaster did not tell him is that she works for a PR and lobbying firm with connections to Intuit, the maker of best-selling tax software TurboTax.

“I wish she would have told me that,” Dorff told ProPublica.

Vox’s Ezra Klein writes that TurboTax is not solely to blame for keeping the pain in paying taxes. Return-free filing “offends the anti-tax activists, like Grover Norquist, who want taxes to be a difficult as possible,” and “then there’s the IRS, which in the manner of so many government agencies, doesn’t want to take on a new, difficult task.”

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