Why Closing the Tax Gap Won’t Solve America’s Budget Crisis
According to reports from Washington, instead of raising taxes or cutting spending we could solve America’s debt crisis simply by going after uncollected taxes. It’s claimed that over $400 billion dollars a year go uncollected. The difference between what is actually collected on time and what the IRS believes should be collected is referred to as the “tax gap.”
While I am quite certain that there is a gap between what is owed and what gets paid, I am equally certain that the tax gap is significantly under $400 billion per year. Working from the other side of the table, I find it very rare that the amount the IRS claims someone to owe in debt is accurate.
One case I worked on involved a young woman who received an IRS notice stating that she owed over $2 million in taxes. Yes, two million dollars! Clearly, there was a mistake. Once we sorted the whole thing out, it turned out that she owed $13. That’s not a typo; the IRS said she owed $2 million when she really owed $13. How many more mistakes like that are out there?
Although the $2 million case is an unusual example, the taxpayers I work with who receive collection notices from the IRS often wind up receiving refunds after I’ve finished processing their paperwork. This is not because I’m some kind of master tax genius (although I‘d like people to think so), but merely because I’ve done the paperwork correctly.
The tax code has become so complex that even college educated professionals have trouble navigating the tax code. This is my job, I have training and experience, and it’s not always easy for me to interpret the tax code. Sometimes, even IRS personnel have trouble interpreting the tax code. I recently represented a taxpayer at an audit that was very focused on one item on the tax return. Although it was implied that the taxpayer had prepared the information “wrong,” there were no guidelines as to how to do it “right.” I asked the auditor, “Tell me how you want this done. I will do it.” She couldn’t answer me. Not because she was stupid or incompetent, but because there are no IRS guidelines for that particular issue (Yes, we won that audit).
One particularly galling point in the “tax gap” argument is a claim made by Benjamin Harris, a research economist at the Brookings Institution. He was recently quoted in an article in the St Louis Post Dispatch, “You kind of feel like a sucker as a wage earner. Here you are paying taxes because someone else is paying you, but if someone else is getting paid on their own, they pay taxes at half the rate.” As a self-employed business owner, this makes me furious. First, I pay taxes at a higher rate than Harris because I have to pay my self- employment tax over and above my regular tax rate. Additionally, as an employer, I pay my share of my employee’s FICA taxes, a benefit that Mr. Harris receives but appears to be blind to. To see the entire article, here’s a link: http://www.stltoday.com/news/national/article_890fa85f-c788-5a96-978c-d90edae37593.html?print=1
Are there people who cheat on their taxes? Certainly, and they should be caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. However, do not assume that all business owners cheat on their taxes. They probably don’t owe what the IRS says they do.