Transparent Tax Law

By chromatic
January 13, 2009 | Comments: 3

Three ideas related to technology, transparency, and governence have converged for me today.

Before an OSCON strategy meeting yesterday, I had lunch with government gadfly Carl Malamud. Carl spends a lot of time making sure that government-created public information is freely available. For example, he's trying to get HD video from Congressional hearings available.

At dinner last night, Silona Bonewald came up, in the context of her Transparent Federal Budget project. (It's looking for hosting; we ran the idea past Deb Bryant from the OSU Open Source Lab.) As we discussed in How Techies Can Improve Democracy and Governance, putting the federal budget online in a searchable, annotatable, diffable format can enable all sorts of transparencies and goodness. Where did a budget item come from? What effects will it have on its constituents? What are the implications or omissions?

Today, I read an LWN article by Jonathan Corbet about accounting software and taxes. As Jonathan suggests:

Your editor believes that it would be entirely reasonable to require governments to provide free software which interprets its tax codes for ordinary citizens, along with a guarantee that, as long as said citizens fed honest numbers to the system, they would not be subject to penalties if the resulting tax calculation were incorrect.

Few other government projects affect citizens so directly every day. I suspect that making tax information clear and obvious might expose the true cost of government... but effective democracy and citizen participation requires freely available and accurate information.

"Should budget and tax information be freely available in reusable formats" is the wrong question. The right question is "Why not?" How can we make this happen?

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If you think getting the laws are bad, try getting income, property, or sales tax rates from the states.

The tax preparation industry is HUGE. Something like this would be a crushing blow. Their lobbyists would be working *overtime* to keep this from happening.

Heck... I doubt even the IRS would want to cut half of its workforce ("loss of jobs! oh no!").

It's a political question, not a "how to" question.

Just three days after President Barack Obama's health plan was signed into law, AT&T announced that due to an obscure tax change in the bill, the nation's largest telephone company would take a $1 billion hit to its bottom line this quarter. According to health benefits analysts this tax debt relief law would shave as much as $14 billion from U.S. corporate profits. While it would have been better had these tax losses been made more public before Congress voted, at least these tax charges are transparent and easily quantifiable enough to get noticed by the American people. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the hundreds of new regulations that the federal government will enforce as it tries to implement Obama's redistributionist health agenda.

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