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If Fairness Is Our Goal, Let's Simplify The Tax Code And College Admissions

This April 13, 2014, file photo shows the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) headquarters building in Washington (J. David Ake/AP)
This April 13, 2014, file photo shows the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) headquarters building in Washington (J. David Ake/AP)

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The college bribery scandal provoked torrents of punditry about how college admissions are rigged to favor the wealthy, even without law-breaking. But the biggest thumb on the academic scales for the well-heeled isn’t intentional rigging, but rather the same reality that will permit the rich to game the tax code next week when returns are due: systemic, needless and harmful complexity.

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat had it right when he said the college scandal isn’t about the advantages of wealth. If Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and the rest were so rich and powerful, why did they have to scam the system? Answer: Because they feared their kids were so dumb that all that privilege wasn’t enough. Say what you will about academia; in this case, the powerful felt they couldn’t scale the meritocratic ivied walls.

But they routinely hurdle a wall that’s unscalable for poor families, one built with bricks of complexity. Starting with financial aid.

In this April 3, 2019 photo, actress Lori Loughlin, and husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, depart federal court in Boston after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (Steven Senne/AP)
In this April 3, 2019 photo, actress Lori Loughlin, and husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, depart federal court in Boston after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (Steven Senne/AP)

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid “can be numbingly complex for families without a high level of financial literacy — which was also the case for nearly everyone in my high school,” Enoch Jemmott, a Queens College senior from a low-income family, wrote in a recent Times op-ed. “The Fafsa is pages upon pages of details about your parents’ finances. I had never filed taxes, so I didn’t know what half of the terms meant. It was scary because there was so much at stake.”

The truly rich, of course, don’t need financial aid, while those who are merely upper-middle class can afford consultants to help them with the paperwork, or else tap guidance counselors in quality high schools. By contrast, low-income students often are herded into under-resourced schools that lack any counselors at all.

For those students, baffling obstacles to college can arise even before calculating financial aid. The Washington Post’s Meghan Kruger, who first connected the dots for me between academic and tax-code complexity, writes about needy students:

[they are confronted] with endless decisions about which classes to take [that are necessary for college admission], which tests to sit for, and which extracurriculars to pursue. … Add to that the questions of which essays to write, which recommendations to solicit, which deadlines to aim for …

With many poor students’ parents lacking college educations and unversed in the applications ordeal, Jemmott notes those students are on their own when it comes to things like preparing for the SAT.

If college admissions is especially troubling for lower-income people, the annual ordeal of tax prep is more egalitarian; it gives headaches to us all, forcing many Americans to open their wallets, either for a professional preparer or migraine medication (if they’re brave enough to wade on their own through the jungle of deductions and credits accompanying the tax return).

Thoreau offered the cure for this convolution, in academia and government revenue-collecting, 165 years ago: “Simplify, simplify.”

Those loopholes often benefit the better-off (as with the sacrosanct home mortgage interest deduction). Can you name five common tactics the rich employ to cut their tax bills? They can, or at least the experts they pay to game the byzantine rules are able to.

Even tax breaks intended to help those of modest means come wrapped in rules so complicated that, for example, one-fifth of eligible workers don’t claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, a subsidy for the working poor. The Child Tax Credit and the American Opportunity Credit (the latter helping pay for college, as it happens) also go unused by many.

Thoreau offered the cure for this convolution, in academia and government revenue-collecting, 165 years ago: “Simplify, simplify.” On the education front, hundreds of colleges, elite and otherwise, have adopted a Common Application that a student fills out, once, to apply to any school that accepts it.

Kruger suggests states adopt “a clear-cut standard for college admission,” like the law in Texas that ensures acceptance at state-funded universities to the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class.

... demystifying loophole-closing would raise more money than Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wildest dreams

On taxes, simplification gets little heed from progressive pols, who focus on raising taxes on the rich to fund public assistance. But progressive and center-left thinkers point out that demystifying loophole-closing would raise more money than Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wildest dreams, some of which could pay for social programs.

There are instances in which simplicity must take a back seat to other interests. I’m a skeptic of Medicare for All, notwithstanding its undeniable administrative simplicity, because advocates low-ball both the tab and the political obstacles. (Public support for the scheme melts when people learn it would abolish private insurance, most of whose patrons are satisfied with their coverage.)

And for all the stress of Tax Day, Boston University business lecturer Jay Zagorsky scoured the historical record to see if taxes contributed to insanity — really — and found just one instance. It had nothing to do with complexity: Before the Revolution, Massachusetts lawyer James Otis protested taxation without representation so vociferously that a tax collector for the crown beat him, aggravating Otis’s already evident mental instability.

But tax simplification would hit the trifecta of ending the code’s wealthy-favoring bias; raising money to pay for lower rates, social needs and, perhaps, some deficit reduction. It would make April 15 (extended this year to the 17th in Massachusetts, due to the Patriots Day holiday) so much more pleasant.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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