Superficial Proxies for Simplicity in Tax Law

Emily Cauble*

Simplification of tax law is complicated. Yet, political rhetoric surrounding tax simplification often focuses on simplistic, superficial indicators of complexity in tax law such as word counts, page counts, number of regulations, and similar quantitative metrics. This preoccupation with the volume of enacted law often results in law that is more complex in a real sense. Achieving real simplification—a reduction in costs faced by taxpayers at various stages in the tax planning, tax compliance, and tax enforcement process—often requires enacting more law, not less. In addition, conceptualizing simplicity in simplistic terms can leave the public vulnerable to policies advanced under the guise of simplification that have real aims that are less innocuous. A perennial example involves lawmakers proposing a reduction in the number of tax brackets under the heading of simplifying tax law. In reality, this change does very little, if anything, to simplify law in a meaningful sense, and its truer aim is to reduce progressivity in the tax code. Although the tax legislation ultimately enacted in December 2017 did not change the number of brackets applicable to individual taxpayers, political discourse preceding its enactment once again touted a reduction in the number of tax brackets as a simplifying measure.

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* Professor of Law, DePaul University. The author would like to thank Jordan Barry, Jennifer Bird-Pollan, John Brooks, Steven Dean, Wendy Netter Epstein, Miranda Perry Fleischer, Brian Galle, Heather Field, Will Foster, David Herzig, Sarah Lawsky, Daniel Morales, Susan Morse, Leigh Osofsky, and David Walker for their helpful comments on this article.

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