STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Hey, Stacey here. Thank you for listening to PLANET MONEY. If you like the show and want to help us out, I have an easy way that you can do that. We want to better understand who is listening to the show and how you are using podcasts, so we're asking you to complete a short anonymous survey - if you've got time - at npr.org/podcastsurvey - one word. It takes less than 10 minutes, and it really helps support the show. That is npr.org/podcastsurvey - one word. Now onto today's show. Today's show was originally reported in 2017, but, you know, it is about taxes, and what is more timeless than taxes? Also, we've got an update for you at the end.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
VANEK SMITH: One of our producers here at PLANET MONEY, Elizabeth Kulas, recently moved here from Australia. And she got kind of an initiation into American life. She did her taxes. At first, she and her husband, Matthew Harding, tried to do it on their own. But then the taxes kind of took over their apartment.
MATTHEW HARDING: On our dining room table, we have a pile of W-2s, five 1099s, and then there's some other forms like a 1095-C.
VANEK SMITH: Elizabeth and Matthew realized they were going to need some help, so they hired an accountant.
HARDING: It could easily be $500 that we're going to spend at the accountant.
ELIZABETH KULAS, BYLINE: Wait - what did you said to me the other day? You would be happy if it was less than a thousand dollars that she charges us.
VANEK SMITH: And this is all kind of blowing their minds because there is nothing like this in Australia. In Australia, paying taxes is really fast and easy. In fact, Elizabeth and Matthew couldn't even tell me when Australian tax day was.
So is there an equivalent of April 15 in Australia?
KULAS: Not really, yeah?
HARDING: No, there is, yeah.
KULAS: But I don't remember it being such a thing.
HARDING: I think it's, like, February or March.
VANEK SMITH: It's October 31, actually. But in most of the rest of the world, they don't know when tax day is either. All of the crazy stress around taxes - the 24-hour hotlines, the software, the accordion folders full of receipts, the lines down the street at H&R Block - that is pretty much just a U.S. thing.
So we have it the worst? Our taxes are the worst taxes?
JOSEPH BANKMAN: Our filing system is the worst.
VANEK SMITH: Like, objectively?
BANKMAN: Yeah, objectively.
VANEK SMITH: Joseph Bankman is a professor of tax law at Stanford. And he says, collectively, we spend billions of dollars and billions of hours every year filing our taxes - not to mention the emotional angst. And Joe says it does not have to be this way. And in most of the world, it's not. And Joe knows exactly how to fix this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW PETER KINGSLOW AND JAMES KNIGHT'S "HELLO GIRLS")
VANEK SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. And with me today is Alex Mayyasi.
ALEX MAYYASI: Hey, Stacey.
VANEK SMITH: And, Alex, you brought us this great story of Joe versus the tax system.
MAYYASI: That's right. It's the story of this lovable professor who believes that paying taxes does not need to be so difficult. He goes on a year-long quest to make filing taxes easier for everyone.
VANEK SMITH: And you might be wondering - but who would want to keep taxes complicated? Well, I will tell you who - a multibillion-dollar corporation and one of the most important power brokers in Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW PETER KINGSLOW AND JAMES KNIGHT'S "HELLO GIRLS")
VANEK SMITH: So, Alex, Joe Bankman does not look like your typical warrior hero. What's the best way to describe him?
MAYYASI: When Steven Spielberg inevitably directs a blockbuster movie about taxes, Joe Bankman will be played by Tom Hanks.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
MAYYASI: Mind you, it's a Tom Hanks who's been teaching tax law at Stanford for 30 years.
VANEK SMITH: Also, a very dressed-down Tom Hanks because, Alex, when we talked to Joe Bankman at Stanford, you remarked that, you know, nobody was very dressed up.
MAYYASI: Joe and I are both pretty casual, I suppose.
BANKMAN: Alex is being very sweet. But as I look at these pair of slacks...
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).
BANKMAN: ...I notice there's a stain on one of them, and the cuffs are frayed.
VANEK SMITH: So most of us really hate taxes, but Joe Bankman loves taxes.
MAYYASI: Joe loves taxes so much that he thinks about them in his spare time. In fact, he spent time when he's not in class or on campus helping the state of California work on tax policy.
VANEK SMITH: Back in 2003, Joe was part of this little team that was working with the state to help take down tax shelters.
BANKMAN: We had just done a bill to penalize a form of tax shelter, and it raised a lot of money for the state. And we're all out to lunch at a mediocre restaurant in Sacramento.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, you were, like, celebrating.
BANKMAN: Yeah, we were celebrating.
VANEK SMITH: Joe and his California tax team are eating lunch and talking shop. And they tell Joe they have this idea, an idea they think would save California a bunch of money and time and help taxpayers. They say, most people in California have really simple taxes. They get all of their income from a regular paycheck, and taxes are already withheld from those paychecks.
BANKMAN: So their idea was - why don't we start off giving them a tax return that's already filled out with the income we know they have, and then they can make corrections on it? That was their idea.
VANEK SMITH: Basically, the government would send you a tax return that was already filled out. It would include all of the income that the state knew about, all the taxes that had already been withheld from your paychecks. And you would look it over and mail it in.
MAYYASI: Joe knew this was how taxes worked in most countries. It's how it works in Europe, parts of Asia, Scandinavia, Australia. And so he thought, why not here?
BANKMAN: The way I think of it is, imagine if the credit card companies acted like the IRS. Each month, you'd get a Visa bill, and it'd be a blank piece of paper. And you'd have to write down all of your purchases and add it up. And if you did it wrong, you'd face a penalty. So the IRS could act like Visa.
VANEK SMITH: And paying taxes would be like paying a credit card bill. And we could be like Elizabeth and Matthew, our first-time taxpayers, and not know when our tax day is either.
So now Joe and his team had this idea, but they still needed to make it real. They had to figure out what this form would be and what it would look like.
And so, Alex, we have it right here in front of us. It does not look like a tax form (laughter) I've ever seen.
MAYYASI: Yeah. You know, it's just one page. It looks pretty friendly. It's not a bunch of legalese. You know, it says easy as 1-2-3. Step one - review your return. Step two - make any changes. And step 3 - send it back. That's it.
VANEK SMITH: I know. There's something so friendly about it. At the top, it says filing your taxes just got easier. And then it has the name that Joe and his team gave to this form and to this whole project.
BANKMAN: We called it a ReadyReturn.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, I like ReadyReturn. It's snappy.
BANKMAN: It's snappier, isn't it?
VANEK SMITH: Now Joe and his California tax team have this form ready, this very friendly form. But they still have to see if ReadyReturn is actually going to work - if taxpayers would use it, if they would like it. So they did a pilot program in California. In the 2004 tax season, they sent ReadyReturns out to about 11,000 taxpayers along with this little survey.
BANKMAN: So we asked people, do you think you'd like to use this again next year? And 99 percent of the people said yes. Ninety-nine percent of people don't say yes to anything.
VANEK SMITH: Ninety-nine percent is sort of amazing.
MAYYASI: I talked to someone else who was involved in ReadyReturn. And what he told me is, when you work in government, nothing gets reviews like that. He said you don't get 99 percent satisfaction rates with the polio vaccine. It's just unheard of.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Probably true.
And it wasn't just the survey either. The thing that Joe was actually the proudest of were the comments that people had written in on their surveys. And he actually brought a stack of these printed-out comments in to talk with us.
BANKMAN: What I do is I rifle through some of the pages, and then I ask people to tell me when to stop because I don't want anybody to think I'm cherry-picking. So tell me - here, Alex can see me. Tell me when to stop.
MAYYASI: Flipping through the pages - and I will tell him to stop right now.
MAYYASI: He's on a random page.
BANKMAN: I'm on some random - and the first one, (reading) thank you for allowing me to participate. Second, (reading) this was very easy and convenient, third (reading) no problems, I loved it. I think this is..
VANEK SMITH: Someone said, I loved it?
BANKMAN: Here's one that says (reading) P.S. - is this same service available for federal tax returns? This is all capped.
MAYYASI: Someone used all caps positively?
MAYYASI: And there was one comment that really stuck with Joe.
BANKMAN: Finally, government's doing something to make my life better for a change.
VANEK SMITH: What did you think when you read that?
BANKMAN: I was really touched. I mean, I was really moved. I'm even moved as I think about it now. 'Cause it - for someone like me, that's your dream, right? You know, if you think about filing taxes each year, it's one of the most important interactions you've got with your government.
And how does it make you feel? It makes you pissed. You can't understand it. You're anxious. You're worried about screwing up. And we make 160 million people go through this every year. That's really bad.
VANEK SMITH: Did you think that - if we improved that, did you think it would, like, help improve people's relationship with the government?
VANEK SMITH: Joe thought his little ReadyReturn form could make a big difference in the country. Of course, first, ReadyReturn had to pass the California State Legislature in Sacramento. But Joe wasn't that worried. I mean, everyone who had tried ReadyReturn had loved it. And California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was also on board. So Joe started making the two-hour car trip from Stanford to Sacramento every week to talk with legislators.
BANKMAN: Well, I thought that if I just talked to people, they'd understand. I was kind of naive. I thought, well, I get it that people are conservative or liberal. But since this is a nonpartisan issue, I'll just talk to all of our representatives in Sacramento and explain things to them. I'm a talker. I thought I could do that.
MAYYASI: Joe's a talker.
VANEK SMITH: He is a talker. And he made a list of all the legislators who would be voting on ReadyReturn. And he just started calling up their offices and asking for meetings.
BANKMAN: I wasn't getting enough meetings. People would put me off, or they'd say, we'll get back to you.
MAYYASI: And even when Joe did get a meeting, it didn't always go so well.
BANKMAN: Well, one meeting, somebody said - I've been warned about you. That was what it started with.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) What did they mean?
BANKMAN: They meant that the Intuit lobbyists had already been in.
VANEK SMITH: Intuit is the company that owns TurboTax. TurboTax is, of course, the very popular tax preparation software. It is a multibillion-dollar business, a multibillion-dollar business that was now staring down the barrel of Joe's ReadyReturn plan.
And if you look at this from TurboTax's point of view, this is not good. I mean, ReadyReturn is all about making taxes easier. And if your taxes are easier, you're a whole lot less likely to spend a hundred bucks on tax preparation software.
MAYYASI: So Joe started hearing that Intuit was asking around about his plan. He would give these little talks, you know, for legislators about ReadyReturn. Or he'd give an academic talk for students and professors. And he started noticing something odd. Whenever he gave a talk, he would always notice someone from Intuit in the crowd.
BANKMAN: They would show up at talks I would give.
VANEK SMITH: How would you know it was them?
BANKMAN: I give a lot of talks. And I'm only going to get, like, 10, 30 people. And everybody looks like an academic. But one woman comes in, and she's kind of looking a little corporate. She's, like, dressed better than the rest of us, right?
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
BANKMAN: And so that's a tip-off right away.
MAYYASI: Tax academics are not the best-dressed people in the world?
MAYYASI: Intuit didn't want to talk to us for this piece, but they sent us a statement. It said that they have long advocated for tax simplification but that ReadyReturn, quote, "minimizes taxpayer engagement." They think that's a bad thing.
VANEK SMITH: Joe discovered that Intuit had been very busy in Sacramento - meeting with politicians, giving money. Intuit gave a million dollars to a PAC that supported one of the key politicians on the ReadyReturn issue. And this kind of thing happens all the time when you have a little group that is very invested in an issue that affects a lot of people.
I mean, the little group, in this case Turbo Tax, is willing to spend tons of time and tons of money making something happen. And the large group of people that might benefit a little bit are not willing to spend that time and money. For instance, I would love it if filing my taxes were easier, but I haven't called my congressman. I'm not really willing to spend a whole bunch of money to make that happen. Then again, I am not Joe.
BANKMAN: So that's the point where I decided to hire my own lobbyist.
VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I've never even heard of someone hiring their own lobbyist.
BANKMAN: It was really fun. I really enjoyed hiring a lobbyist. I hired a guy named Mike Robson who is smart as a whip, really likable, kind of looks like a more svelte James Gandolfini.
MAYYASI: But that lobbyist - he didn't come cheap.
VANEK SMITH: How much did that cost?
BANKMAN: They gave me a deal because they thought it would be kind of fun to work for this crazed professor.
VANEK SMITH: They were working for you, just you?
BANKMAN: Yeah. They were working for me. And so the normal price, I think, would have been $140,000 to get Mike's services. But he gave it to me for only 35. So I paid 35,000, I believe.
VANEK SMITH: Like, of your own money?
BANKMAN: Of my own money.
VANEK SMITH: Like, your savings?
VANEK SMITH: Why did you spend that money that way?
BANKMAN: Well, I felt lucky, again, to be able to do - it's a great cause. And everybody, I think, has some causes they think are good causes. And this was a cause that was really good, and nobody else was going to do it but me.
VANEK SMITH: And making that investment, hiring Mike, it paid off.
BANKMAN: With Mike Robson, everybody would talk to me.
VANEK SMITH: Why?
BANKMAN: Well, they had relationships with him. Legislators kind of liked that I was with Mike because they also - it kind of legitimated me. They figure, if you're with Mike, you're probably sensible. You probably are going to get good information. If I have a question, I can call your lobbyist if I can't get hold of you.
MAYYASI: The meetings start to go a little better. Legislators started listening to Joe, telling him - you've got my vote. But Joe says he noticed it was hard to get Republicans to back ReadyReturn. It wasn't just Intuit or campaign money. It had to do with a pledge.
BANKMAN: And privately, I should say, a lot of the Republicans told me, well, this just sounds like a no-brainer. I just can't do it because Grover Norquist has opposed it.
GROVER NORQUIST: Hello. My name is Grover Norquist. I am the president of Americans for Tax Reform. We fight for taxpayers, try and keep taxes low.
VANEK SMITH: Grover Norquist is a famous anti-tax crusader. He heard about ReadyReturn and sprang into action.
NORQUIST: So it is a way to raise taxes, a way to send people a bill for more taxes than they owe. And they're unlikely to contest it. People don't fight the IRS.
VANEK SMITH: Norquist thought ReadyReturn is tantamount to a tax hike because once the government has taxpayers on autopilot, just sort of signing and sending, they'll start sneaking things in, like how cellphone companies sneak in little charges. And you look at them and sort of wonder about them. But in the end, you just pay because it's easier.
MAYYASI: And Norquist has this famous pledge. Republicans all across the country take it. And the pledge basically says, I will not support any plan that raises taxes. And that was a problem.
VANEK SMITH: What happens if people break the pledge?
NORQUIST: When somebody breaks the pledge, their opponents in the next election tend to remind voters that they lied their way into office. And the press tends to focus on it.
MAYYASI: Norquist put out the word to California Republicans - if you back ReadyReturn, you have broken the pledge.
VANEK SMITH: So Joe Bankman, this tax law professor, and his lone lobbyist are now battling not only a multibillion-dollar software company but also one of the biggest names in U.S. politics.
MAYYASI: Joe kept telling everyone, this won't raise taxes. It will just make it easier to pay them. It will save everyone time and money. But Joe says he talked to a lot of small-government types. And actually, they wanted paying taxes to be difficult. Their logic was, if paying taxes is difficult, people will hate taxes and vote against them.
VANEK SMITH: But Joe and Mike kept going. And they started gaining ground little by little with Democrats and Republicans, locking down votes. And a couple weeks out, they needed just one more vote - one more vote - to make ReadyReturn happen in the entire state of California.
BANKMAN: I found a Republican that was going to support it.
VANEK SMITH: Joe convinced a Republican legislator to back the plan - ignore the pledge, ignore the campaign money. After a year of taking on corporate lobbyists, political power brokers and so many talks - after spending $35,000 of his own money, this was it. ReadyReturn looked like it was going to happen.
MAYYASI: Just before the vote, Joe had to drive back down to Stanford. But he asked some of the politicians who supported ReadyReturn to keep him updated. The day of the vote, Joe remembers getting a call.
BANKMAN: I could tell by the tone in his voice what the answer was before he said anything. And he said, so and so - I've even forgotten the legislator's name - is not with us. It looks like we're going to be one vote short.
VANEK SMITH: One vote short. The Republican had changed his mind, and Joe had lost. And all of the other states that had been calling Joe asking how they could implement a plan like this, they kind of dropped away.
BANKMAN: It was a little bit crushing to lose like that.
VANEK SMITH: How much time had you invested in this?
BANKMAN: You know, in a way, it was a year of my life. It was a pretty big blow.
MAYYASI: So Joe went back to teaching full time. But he kept pushing ReadyReturn. A version of it did survive in California. It's buried in the state's tax site, but it's there. A few hundred thousand people use it every year.
VANEK SMITH: And ReadyReturn has had a pretty interesting legacy. In 2016, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that looked a lot like ReadyReturn last year. They referenced Joe's pilot program. It didn't end up happening.
MAYYASI: But Joe says, we keep getting close. Eventually, he thinks it's going to happen.
BANKMAN: My fantasy is that, at some point, it just makes so much sense. We'll join the rest of the world, and we'll do it. And I don't know how that's going to happen with our current political climate. Maybe some mid-level bureaucrat will just make the change herself, and it'll go through. It'll kind of fly under the radar. That's what I think will happen sooner or later - somehow.
VANEK SMITH: In the meantime, people like Elizabeth and Matthew, our first-time U.S. taxpayers - not to mention all the rest of us - are stuck spending hundreds of dollars and many, many hours filing our taxes. But it is not without its upsides.
KULAS: And there's a little bit of a sense of, like, accomplishment when we get through it now.
HARDING: Yeah, it's like - I think - I was saying to Ellie (ph), like, if we can do this, like, we can do anything. This is probably the most daunting task that we've come across - filing a tax return.
KULAS: Stacey, some couples go to Ikea to put their relationship to the test. We file our tax return.
VANEK SMITH: Welcome to America. We've got an update after the break.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW PETER KINGSLOW AND JAMES KNIGHT'S "HELLO GIRLS")
VANEK SMITH: Stacey here. It is now 2019. And I've got an update about the tax story. Our very own tax hero, Joe Bankman, is still teaching at Stanford. He has not given up on trying to simplify our tax system. He is seeing some changes, he says, but not exactly in the way he wanted.
BANKMAN: My talks are now less well-attended because Intuit doesn't send its representatives anymore.
VANEK SMITH: OK. So Joe is not striking fear into the tax lobby as much as he used to. But, he says, he is still making progress little by little.
BANKMAN: Maybe one step forward and two steps back. The IRS is moving ahead with a plan to modernize data collection and make more of that data available in a timely manner to your tax preparer.
VANEK SMITH: So it would be easier for your accountant, at least. But for regular people who'd like to get their tax forms just all filled out automatically, well, that is not going to happen because of this one line that keeps getting added to the appropriations bill.
BANKMAN: The industry has put a rider on a bill that would make it illegal for the federal government to do the kind of return prepopulation that is the basis for ReadyReturn and that California's doing.
VANEK SMITH: Still, Joe remains optimistic. And he says he is waiting to see if a new Congress or the next presidential election might shake that rider off the appropriations bill.
BANKMAN: Hope springs eternal.
VANEK SMITH: Special thanks to Larry Zelenak and to Alex Mayyasi, who originally brought us this story. Today's rerun was produced by our intern, Rachel Cohn. And we always love to hear what you think of the show. We are on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram - @planetmoney. Or you can always send us an email, email@example.com. If you liked this episode, like PLANET MONEY in general, please leave us a rating or review in your favorite podcast app. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith, and this is NPR. Thanks for listening.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.