Tax Day comes every year, inevitably and unpleasantly, sneering at you from the calendar. Ha ha, it screeches, you have to do your damn taxes. It knows that to do this you’re probably going to fork over some cash to someone, be it an accountant or the makers of some online tax software, like TurboTax or H&R Block, and it finds that very funny.
With this annual tradition comes another: several new articles in major media outlets informing readers that these tax software companies spend millions of dollars every year lobbying the government to keep your taxes complicated. Every year, the media reminds us that other countries don’t make you do your own taxes, that it doesn’t have to be this way here, that there are proposals for making the IRS develop its own free tax filing software or simply fill out your damn taxes for you, and that, despite all these good ideas, we cannot have this beautiful world because of Big Tax.
The story has been written so many times—including by me, at a site that had already done the story in years past—and yet every year it remains relevant, meaning Vox can just update its post from last year with a dab of fresh information and a new publication date. Almost every outlet has covered this racket at some point: NBC, CBS, the Los Angeles Times, The Week, ProPublica, Mic, NPR. The list goes on.
I regret to inform you that, despite the stream of annual reportage, the situation remains exactly the same this year. Intuit, the company that sells TurboTax, spent more than $2 million on lobbying in 2017; the issue of “voluntary compliance,” a deeply shitty euphemism for opposing automatic tax filing, appears on dozens of their lobbying reports for 2017. They also lobby to keep the “Free File” program, where the IRS directs taxpayers to a complicated array of free versions of private filing products for people with lower incomes. Less than 3% of eligible taxpayers use the program and, per the Wall Street Journal, “firms are allowed to carve out their own niches, serving some taxpayers but not others,” meaning it’s very likely that some people will enter the government’s Free File site thinking they can file for free and end up forking over payment to a private company anyway when it turns out they aren’t eligible.
I am certain that other articles about this terrible situation will appear today, as they should; as members of the Fourth Estate and mothereffin’ News Doers, it’s our duty to report on this insane failure of government and policy, regardless of how little it changes. But it’s a sad testament to how broken this nutty country’s politics are that such an obviously disgraceful arrangement—where huge companies that make billions off Americans with no real alternative to using their products then spend a relatively small fraction of that cash to preserve their market position—can be pointed out repeatedly, every single year, and nothing changes. Reporting the damn news can and does spur policy change, but this is one of those areas where the media is overmatched, and Goliath wins every time.