To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose. When our purpose is filing income taxes, our season is right now. And our time ends on Tax Day.
Thus saith the Internal Revenue Code Section 6072(a).
It’s now time to cast away that season altogether and abolish Tax Day.
For most of us, tax season runs from mid-January to mid-April (this year, April 18 for federal taxes and April 19 in Massachusetts). In 2015, 132 million returns were filed by the due date, approximately 88 percent of the total number of individual returns filed for the whole year.
Like other holidays, tax season creates its own peculiar set of rituals. Commercial tax preparers set up shop temporarily in vacant commercial spaces in January and vanish by the end of April. We go to IRS help centers for assistance and wait in lines out the door. We call the IRS hoping for live assistance but have only a 37 percent chance of getting through. We wait in line to mail our tax forms at the post office, which hopefully has extended hours.
Ending all this silly scrambling is as simple as discarding a universal tax day and allowing everyone’s taxes to be due on a different day, such as the taxpayer’s birthday. We could get rid of the bottlenecks. We could all prepare our taxes in peace (sort of). We wouldn’t have to fight with each other to access IRS help, professional tax assistance, or the post office.
Our Tax Day rituals are not just unnecessary; they are inefficient. It is wasteful for the IRS to hire enough people to assist taxpayers before April 15, only for them to be underemployed during the rest of the year. Instead of hiring enough people, Congress has cut the IRS’s budget so deeply that the agency doesn’t have enough agents to handle tax season. This leads to miserable and overworked IRS agents and cranky taxpayers who cannot get help when they need it. Making every day Tax Day would mean we’d have enough IRS agents to handle a steady flow of requests for tax advice throughout the year.
Similarly, it’s both cruel and inefficient for commercial tax preparers to hire temp workers for tax season, only to lay them off after Tax Day. As soon as employees get experience calculating income tax liability, they get laid off. As a result, mass-market commercial tax preparers offer little expertise to the trusting souls who pay for their services. If everyone’s taxes were due on different dates, however, then mass market tax companies could hire permanent employees, train them properly, and feature preparers with better experience and training who work in permanent offices.
Tax Day does have some virtues. It’s a shared communal experience — the price we pay for a civilized society. And many other holidays cause overcrowding and temporary labor shortages — Thanksgiving traffic, Christmas shopping. But spending time with loved ones is an important shared holiday experience. Doing your taxes is not.
Tax Day also has a weaker tradition behind it than other holidays. The Pilgrims established Thanksgiving in 1621; Christmas was set (according to believers) by the birth of the son of God; Tax Day only exists because of Section 6702(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. I, for one, revere the Internal Revenue Code, but still.
Of course, if we don’t want to ruin birthdays by binding them to tax preparation, then we can make taxes due on everyone’s half-birthday. Either way, we all still have to pay.
As a tax law professor, I’d miss tax season because it’s the one time of year when people actually like to talk to me. But I’ll move on, safe in the knowledge that someone will want to talk to me throughout the year — on their half birthday — for there is a time for every purpose and for every work.
Yair Listokin is the Shibley Family Fund Professor of Law at Yale Law School.