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Learning to Love Form 1040

Two Cheers for the Return-Based Mass Income Tax

No one likes paying taxes, much less the process of filing tax returns. For years, would-be reformers have advocated replacing the return-based mass income tax with a flat tax, federal sales tax, or some combination thereof. Congress itself has commissioned studies on the feasibility of a system of exact withholding. But might the much-maligned return-based taxation method serve an important yet overlooked civic purpose?

In Learning to Love Form 1040, Lawrence Zelenak argues that filing taxes can strengthen fiscal citizenship by prompting taxpayers to reflect on the contract they have with their government and the value—or perceived lack of value—they receive in exchange for their money. Zelenak traces the mass income tax to its origins as a means for raising revenue during World War II. Even then, debates raged over the merits of consumption-based versus income taxation, as well as whether taxes should be withheld from payroll or paid at the time of filing. The result is the income tax system we have today—a system whose maddening complexity, intended to accommodate citizens in widely different circumstances, threatens to outweigh any civic benefits.

If sitcoms and political cartoons are any indication, public understanding of the income tax is badly in need of a corrective. Zelenak clears up some of the most common misconceptions and closes with suggestions for how the current system could be substantially simplified to better serve its civic purpose.

168 pages | 5 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Economics and Business: Economics--Government Finance

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Economics


“Beyond a mere ode to the current tax system, Lawrence Zelenak’s book also suggests legal reforms to reinforce the salutary effects of taxation, as well as changes that would make returns more effective as an educational device. No one, to my knowledge, has examined this argument from as many perspectives nor in such depth. Learning to Love Form 1040 will be welcomed by anyone seeking to understand the stakes in the current tax policy debate—and one hopes that members of congress will be in that audience.”

Julie Roin, University of Chicago Law School

Learning to Love Form 1040 is a stirring and highly persuasive defense of our federal tax system. . . . Zelenak takes on the task of defending a simplified version of our present tax system—no easy endeavor given the overwhelming and widespread animus toward our current income tax regime. Zelenak is up to the challenge. . . . The book convincingly reveals the underappreciated social, cultural, and political benefits of a return-based mass income tax.”

Michigan Law Review

Table of Contents

1. Tax Returns and Fiscal Citizenship
2. What’s So Special about a Return-Based Mass Tax?
3. Tax Protests, Tax Resistance, and Tax Cheating
4. Tax Expenditures and Fiscal Citizenship
5. The World War II Origins of the Return-Based Mass Income Tax
6. The Return-Based Mass Income Tax in Popular Culture
7. Simplify, Simplify


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