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How To Make Tax Forms Easier? Break The Math Up, One Step Per Line


OK, it's easy to moan and groan over your tax form, but believe me, it could be worse. Jacob Goldstein of our Planet Money podcast introduces us to one of the unsung people who spend their professional lives laboring over every word on those forms.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: If you find your tax forms hard to understand, don't blame Bob Erickson. He did work at the IRS for decades, but he was just a messenger who had to deliver a very complex message.

BOB ERICKSON: My job was to make sure that the tax forms and the instructions were clear and as easy to understand as the law will allow. I didn't say easy to understand period because Congress - in many parts of the law, they make it very complicated.

GOLDSTEIN: There were a few things Erickson and his coworkers did to make things easier. One - don't make people do lots of math all at once.

ERICKSON: People were saying that our instructions were too complicated. They were very short, but they were too short because we expected people to do maybe three different kinds of math all on the same line.

GOLDSTEIN: You know, one of those things that's like, take A, multiply it by B, divide by three and then subtract seven. And it feels like one of those magic tricks where whatever number you start with, you end up with nine. The solution Erickson discovered? Break the math up, one step per line.

ERICKSON: Little baby step by baby step.

GOLDSTEIN: Besides making the numbers simpler, Erickson made the words simpler - sort of.

ERICKSON: To bring something down from the 12th grade down to the eighth grade - this is a true story - we changed the words self-employment tax to just the initials S.E. tax 'cause if you call it S.E. tax, there are fewer syllables and letters. So it lowers the grade level, believe it or not. It's easier to pronounce, and once you're told what it means it may be easier to recognize it.

GOLDSTEIN: Also, acronyms save space, and space can be tight. On the 1040, the basic tax form that about 150 million people file every year, there are these lines where it looks like they're making the font just ever so slightly smaller.

ERICKSON: Yeah, that's called condensed font. It's the same height, but the width is narrower. We're squeezing it.

GOLDSTEIN: The 1040 just barely fits on two pages. Erickson says that is by design.

ERICKSON: You could make the form a lot longer, but it would certainly require a lot more paper. That's going to cost a lot more money to the taxpayers printing something out on their computer.

GOLDSTEIN: Millions of people do still print out paper tax forms and, Erickson points out, printer ink is expensive. Jacob Goldstein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.

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