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The Government’s Taxes on Citizens’ Free Time

The Trump administration's latest shenanigans add to the growing, everyday burden of being an American.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When will workers see the fruits of the recently passed Republican tax bill? In just a few weeks, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Last Thursday, the agency released updated tax withholding tables for employers, so that the amount taken out of people’s paychecks aligns with the new law. But some Democrats worry that the Trump administration may game the system by taking less than necessary in withholding, giving workers larger paychecks—for now. Workers would have to pay back the IRS in the next tax filing season, which comes after the 2018 midterms.

As Politico reported earlier this month, the IRS “is under pressure to take as little as possible so people will see big increases in their take-home pay ahead of this year’s midterm elections.” The fact that IRS Commissioner David Kautter is a temporary political appointee, not confirmed by the Senate, has fed these suspicions. “We oppose any attempts by the administration to systematically under-withhold income taxes during the 2018 tax year, knowing that in 2019 taxpayers may find they owe taxes when they were expecting a refund,” Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Richard Neal wrote to Kautter.

In a press conference last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called these suspicions “ridiculous,” insisting that the agency would never fiddle with the withholding system. However, he added that workers would need to use an IRS calculator to ensure that the correct amount of money was being withheld from their paychecks.

The online calculator, which isn’t available yet, would be particularly important for those who itemize their tax returns. Workers would have to input various information about themselves and their pay, and the calculator would spit out an approximation of withholding. The worker would then have to compare with their paycheck to see if they were over- or under-paying. If there are inaccuracies, then they would have to tell their employer. “This will provide [Americans] with certainty so they are neither over-withheld or under-withheld,” Mnuchin said.

In other words, the Trump administration is shifting responsibility from the government to taxpayers. Rather than be held accountable for the accuracy of people’s paychecks, the IRS and Mnuchin are imploring taxpayers to double-check the government’s work—or risk owing hundreds or thousands of dollars in 2019.

This burden adds to a growing pile of menial tasks that Americans have to perform for the price of being a citizen. In many industrialized nations, bureaucrats fill out tax returns with information the government already collects, and taxpayers only have to review the return to verify the amounts. In America, not only must people file their own taxes, but have to ensure the accuracy of their paychecks by inputting their financial information and running the numbers themselves.

Why must Americans become part-time accountants, just to follow the rules of society? Both parties are responsible for layering these responsibilities on citizens, choosing complication over simplicity and offloading that complexity onto the individual.

With the Affordable Care Act, for example, those eligible for insurance exchanges are encouraged to be “smart shoppers” by checking every year to see if they’ll get a better deal with a different insurance plan. Finding the right plan has become a constantly moving target, creating stress and hours of due diligence during the now shrunken open enrollment period.

Once insured, Americans must make sure their health care providers, from primary care physicians to specialists, are in-network. There are reimbursement claims and deductibles and co-pays to be aware of. Those who have a health savings account have to file their receipts to use their own funds to pay for health care, which sounds simple but can be a bureaucratic nightmare, if some horror stories can be believed.

Speaking of special saving accounts, parents must think about using them to pay for college practically from the moment their child is in the womb. There are tax-advantaged 529 accounts that must be opened and managed. That’s not to be confused with all the retirement savings accounts, from 401(k) plans at work to various types of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) to self-employment plans (SEP). Plus there are ABLE accounts for people with disabilities, and 457 plans for certain state and local government employees.

Since Americans switch jobs so often and these plans aren’t portable unless rolled over by the individual, one can accumulate an untold number of them. I have four: two separate self-employment plans, an IRA from an old job, and a personal IRA I used before the SEP. All carry different rules and contain different investments to be managed, determinations I have to periodically make.

Instead of everyone lugging around a dozen different special accounts and tax-preferred programs to pay for school and retirement and medical bills, the government could just give universal health and education and retirement benefits that Americans all pay for with taxes. And then people can ditch these accounts and go read a book or take a walk instead, rather than spending days investigating plans and filling out unnecessary forms.

Americans don’t talk enough about these hidden taxes: the taxes on their time, which the government has no problem raising year after year. A politician that actually strives to make their constituents’ lives less of a hassle would have a much more potent argument for election than they realize. The Tea Party stood for “taxed enough already.” When it comes to juggling accounts and receipts and related nonsense, many liberals would agree.