Why Are Taxes So Complicated and What Can We Do About It?

William G. Gale
William G. Gale The Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Federal Economic Policy, Senior Fellow - Economic Studies, Co-Director - Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

December 1, 1999

The time, money, and aggravation that tens of millions of Americans expend to understand and comply with the income tax is, it turns out, nothing new. In his 1776 The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith noted that “subjecting the people to the frequent visits and the odious examination of the tax gatherers…may expose them to much unnecessary trouble, vexation, and oppression: and though vexation is not, strictly speaking, expence, it is certainly equivalent to expence at which every man would be willing to redeem himself from it.” For Americans today, the “expence” includes maintaining records, learning the law, preparing the return or hiring a preparer, corresponding with the IRS, and learning how to reduce (or cheat on) taxes.