Taxes: Sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s the rules

In software, I’ve always felt that if an application needs really long instructions, it’s probably just got a crappy user interface. Obviously a complex application needs complex instructions, but any given task within it shouldn’t require more than a few words of basic introduction. And sure, if one user makes a lot of dumb mistakes again and again, it’s both easy and often correct to blame the user. But when lots of users, even the really skilled ones, keep making the same dumb mistakes, it’s probably the software’s fault.

That thought came to mind today when I read about yet more tax problems facing cabinet nominees. Given that politicians are so prone to public and embarrassing tax problems involving “honest mistakes,” you’d think they would have simplified the tax code to avoid them.

No, it wouldn’t avoid Daschle’s troubles with unreported income but it might avoid some problems. If so many very smart people are making “honest mistakes” on their taxes, maybe the national tax code really is so complex that it’s too easy to make mistakes, especially when they’re in your favor.

Or maybe the tax code is complex enough that it’s easy to hide cheating unless you’re facing dramatic scrutiny. That’s also possible. In which case the argument still stands: Simplify.

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