Federal Tax Laws and Regulations are Now Over 10 Million Words Long

October 8, 2015

In a recent Pew poll, 72 percent of Americans said that they were bothered by how complex the federal tax system is. These taxpayers are justified in their complaints: as of 2015, federal tax laws and regulations have grown to over 10 million words in length.

This figure includes the federal internal revenue code (2,412,000 words long) and federal tax regulations (7,655,000 words long). It does not include the substantial body of tax-related case law that is often vital to understanding the tax code.

The length of the federal tax code and regulations has grown steadily over the past sixty years. In 1955, the two documents were 1.4 million words in length. Since then, they have grown at a pace of about 144,500 words a year. Today, the federal tax code is roughly six times as long as it was in 1955, while federal tax regulations are about 2.5 times as long.

The length of the federal tax code is a good stand-in for the overall complexity of the federal tax system. After all, the more there is to know about federal tax law, the harder it is for Americans to file their taxes quickly or correctly.

Tax complexity creates real costs for American taxpayers and the U.S. economy. Americans spend 6.1 billion hours and $233.8 billon complying with the tax code. Due to increasing tax complexity, over 90 percent of taxpayers now hire professional tax preparers or use tax preparation software.

Why is the federal tax code so complex? In part, it’s because politicians have used the tax code to administer dozens of areas of federal policy – from healthcare to energy to education. In part, it’s because defining income and determining tax liability are inherently difficult tasks. And, in part, it’s because politicians have not made any serious effort to simplify the federal tax code for at least thirty years, instead adding on new provisions on top of one another.

To get a sense of exactly how complex the federal tax code is, I’ve selected 100 words at random from the middle of the code:

(A) In general

The net surrender value of any contract shall be determined—

(i) with regard to any penalty or charge which would be imposed on surrender, but

(ii) without regard to any market value adjustment on surrender.

(B) Special rule for pension plan contracts

In the case of a pension plan contract, the balance in the policyholder’s fund shall be treated as the net surrender value of such contract. For purposes of the preceding sentence, such balance shall be determined with regard to any penalty or forfeiture which would be imposed on surrender but without regard to any market value adjustment.

Now, multiply that selection by 100,000 – and you have the federal tax code. Tax complexity creates an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, and simplifying the tax code should be a major priority of any tax reform.

Note on methodology:

For years between 1955 and 2005, we used figures from the West Publishing Company provided to us in this report. To arrive at 2015 figures, we first took a simple word count of the text of Title 26 of the U.S. Code (about 3.8 million words) and Title 26 of the Code of Federal Regulations (about 14.7 million words). However, these figures overstate the length of the tax code, as they include tables of contents, appendices, references, amendments, and effective dates. To capture the number of words in the main body text of each of these documents, we also took a simple word count of the 2005 code, and deflated the 2015 figures by the proportion by which our 2005 count exceeded the 2005 West Publishing Company figures.

Regarding the number of pages in the tax code, see this post.

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