The 4809 “Informational” Letter Campaign

Throughout the month of November, tax preparers across the nation will be grumbling about having received IRS Notice 4809, some under their breath, and some publicly.

One of the gripes I am seeing is that people don’t appreciate feeling like the target of some IRS sting operation. The letters were meant to be informative, but the tone of the letter comes across a little accusatory and condescending.

Funny how 4809 is indicative of a broader problem with our nation’s tax system, one which the Commish touched on in his recent speech to an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Much of his speech focused on the need to simplify the tax code:

[M]aking the tax code less complex is the single most important thing that could be done to improve taxpayer service and boost compliance.

~ IRS Commissioner, Douglas Shulman


Changes to the tax code, even for the goal everyone agrees on – simplicity – are hard because inevitably it means more money for some and less for others.

~ IRS Commissioner, Douglas Shulman

The problem is that “to simplify” usually means “to generalize,” and when you generalize, some people get the shaft. I think that’s what the Commish is saying here. These 4809 letters are no different. The IRS could have made this campaign very complex: it could have conducted extensive research to determine which tax preparers are complying with the law and which are not. The Service could have spent a huge amount of time and money on this project. But instead the IRS decided to simplify and send them out in a “shot gun” strategy to all return preparers who may ever remotely encounter the issues that they wanted to emphasize. In the process, some top notch, extremely competent return preparers are going to be insulted and offended. And, unfortunately, many of those who should be paying attention to the contents of these letters will toss them aside without giving them a second thought.

What we have these days is a tax system that tries to be tailored to every individual and situation, but it’s way too complex. As policymakers consider making drastic changes to the tax code, hopefully they can achieve the desired simplicity without lumping everyone together unfairly.

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