Is Simplicity Superior: Will a Simplified Tax Code Really Benefit the Middle Class?


On September 27th of this year, the Trump administration unveiled its “Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code[.]”[1] The nine page outline promises bigly: a “Zero Tax Bracket[,]”[2] “[t]ax relief for middle-class families[,]”[3] and “[t]he simplicity of ‘postcard’ tax filing for the vast majority of Americans[,]”[4] to name a few.

National Economic Council Director and White House chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, claims that a simplified tax code—one shorn of a myriad of deductions and loopholes—will benefit the middle class.[5] The plan will reduce the number of income tax brackets from seven to three: 12%, 25%, and 35%.[6] Although this slashes rates for those in the top bracket—down from 39.6%—it actually increases the rate for those in the bottom bracket, bringing it up from 10%. Cohn believes that the result of the Trump administration’s slimmed-down tax code will produce higher effective rates for high earners, even if their actual tax rate decreases.[7] The plan also includes a possible fourth bracket that “may apply to the highest-income taxpayers to ensure that the reformed tax code is at least as progressive as the existing tax code and does not shift the tax burden from high-income to lower- and middle-income taxpayers.”[8]

While a postcard tax filing and fewer brackets at first sound impressive, the utility and practicality of these measures is up for debate.

First of all, the idea of a postcard filing is deceptively simple. The “Simple, Fair ‘Postcard’ Filing” mocked up by the House Ways and Means Committee has only 14 slots to fill in,[9] far fewer than on the standard 1040 U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.[10] However this form is impractical. Notice how there is no space for the taxpayer’s name, address, or social security number. In addition, the form will likely move calculations to other forms. Listing one’s “wage and compensation income” is fairly simple, unless the taxpayer has multiple employers. If the taxpayer does have multiple employers, he or she will have to add together the earnings listed on his or her W-2s, which would likely require a separate worksheet.[11] Similarly, having joint custody of a child complicates the computation of the “child credit.”[12]

Also, despite what postcard filing backers claim, they haven’t broken new ground with their form. For those with simpler tax situations, ones which don’t involve claiming credits or contributing to special tax-preferred accounts, there is an existing form—the 1040EZ—which looks similar to the postcard.[13] It’s a single sheet that is essentially the postcard form, but with added spaces to fill in personal details and declare joint filing.[14] While the proposed postcard form makes for a fun prop, it’s more of a rehash than a revolution. In fact, publishing mogul, Steve Forbes, wrote a book titled Flat Tax Revolution: Using a Postcard to Abolish the IRS back in 2005.[15]

As for sheering down the number of tax brackets, this too is a false labor-saver. A taxpayer would still need to consult a tax table to determine his or her proper bracket.[16] Accordingly, the number of brackets is insignificant: the process is the same if there are three brackets or seven.[17] Consolidating brackets will not have a significant effect on taxation.[18]

One pillar of Trump’s tax plan buttresses the postcard scheme by nixing most itemized deductions and doubling the standard deduction.[19] While this may seem like a win for most taxpayers, about 30% of filers itemize their deductions.[20] Thus, those in this 30% could lose out on some large deductions. That’s quite the price to pay for simplicity.

Also, filing via postcard is a bit . . . analog. Most people don’t file paper returns anymore, choosing instead to use software like TurboTax or CPAs to electronically file their applications.[21] “Not only could millions of Americans file on a postcard, but they could probably file on an app,” says Leon LaBrecque, CEO of LJPR Financial Advisers.[22] Seeing as many Americans already use software or a tax service to do their filings, perhaps this whole debate about simplicity is more about style than substance.

[1] U.S. Department Dep’t of the Treasury, Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code (2017) [hereinafter Treasury].

[2] Id. at 4.

[3] Id. at 3.

[4] Id.

[5] Jeff Cox, Trump Advisor Cohn: Simplifying the Tax Code Will Tax the Wealthy at a Higher Rate, CNBC (Sept. 1, 2017, 9:39 AM),

[6] Treasury, supra note 1.

[7] Alexis Leondis, Cohn Says Top Earners May See Higher Effective Rate in Tax Plan, Bloomberg Politics (Sept. 1, 2017, 12:00 PM),

[8] Treasury, supra note 1.

[9] The Committee on Ways and Means, Simple, Fair ‘Postcard’ Filing (2017).

[10] I.R.S., Form 1040 (2016).

[11] Bob Bryan, Republicans Want to Make Filing Taxes as Easy as Mailing a Postcard — but There’s a Flaw in the Plan, Business Insider (Apr. 26, 2017, 10:01AM),

[12] Id.

[13] Matthew Yglesias, Paul Ryan’s Postcard Tax Return is Really Dumb, Vox (Aug. 30, 2017, 9:00 AM),

[14] I.R.S., Form 1040EZ (2016).

[15] Susan Tompor, Send Postcards to Friends and Family, Not the IRS, USA Today (Sept. 28, 2017, 4:36 PM),

[16] Yglesias, supra note 11.

[17] Id.                                                                                                                                                   

[18] Id.

[19] Julie Hirschfeld Davis & Alan Rappeport, Trump Proposes the Most Sweeping Tax Overhaul in Decades, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017),

[20] Carolyn Y. Johnson, Why Some Middle-Class Families Could Face a Tax Increase Under the GOP Plan, Wash. Post (Oct. 6, 2017, 12:55 PM),

[21] Tompor, supra note 16.

[22] Id.                                               


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Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law