Monday, September 15, 2014

Leaving money on the table to avoid extra paperwork

Economist Youssef C. Benzarti has recently posted an article on SSRN, How Taxing is Tax Filing? Leaving Money on the Table Because of Compliance Costs, in which he that "taxpayers forego $800 on average to avoid the cost of itemizing."

Can this really be true? It is hard to imagine given that for resident filers, at least, plenty of cheap tax help is available all around, and itemizing is merely a question of gathering receipts and punching in numbers (If the sample includes a lot of US persons permanently living abroad who don't understand their US tax filing obligations, I could understand the choice to bear higher taxes out of a fear of getting things wrong). It's not like most people are sitting around their kitchen tables calculating things out themselves; but even if they are, it's not really THAT hard, is it? In any event, here is the abstract, worth a closer read. If the analysis is correct, it bolsters the case for worrying about complexity as a second level of tax that is allocated without regard for ability to pay.
I use a quasi-experimental design to estimate the burden of complying with the tax code. Employing a sample of US income tax returns, I observe the preferences of taxpayers over itemizing deductions or claiming the standard deduction. Treated taxpayers forego $800 on average to avoid the cost of itemizing. A revealed preference argument implies that itemizing deductions is as painful as working more than 17 hours at one’s regular job. The amount of foregone benefits is larger for richer households, consistent with the fact that the value of time increases with income. I explore two explanations of the magnitude of the estimates. First, it could be due to an extreme aversion to filing taxes. Such aversion implies that itemizing deductions imposes an aggregate compliance cost of 0.24% of GDP and an extrapolation to filing federal taxes implies that the overall cost of compliance is 1.55% of GDP. Second, if taxpayers are time-inconsistent the revealed preference argument fails, introducing a wedge between foregone benefits and compliance costs. Being present-biased leads taxpayers to forego large benefits even when compliance costs are relatively small. I provide evidence of taxpayers being present-biased. Both explanations - whether driven by preferences or mistakes - suggest that the burden imposed on society by tax compliance is significantly larger than previously estimated. I discuss policy implications of the result.

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