Donald Morris is a Professor of Accounting at the University of Illinois and the author of Opportunity: Optimizing Life's Chances, co-author of Accounting Desk Book, and has published papers on tax, business ethics, investing, and business strategy. He has a PhD in Philosophy from Southern Illinois University and a Master's in Taxation from DePaul University in Chicago.
Morris is here today to talk about his latest book, Tax Cheating: Illegal — But Is It Immoral? which I had the opportunity to review this week.
Thanks for this interview. What made you decide to write this book?
The goal of writing about the ethical dimensions of tax cheating grew out of my reaction to a public opinion poll I read in 1999. According to the poll, 87 percent of Americans believe that tax cheating is always wrong. That level of agreement among Americans led me to wonder what forces were at work — was it a high level of patriotism, a belief that the government employs its scarce resources wisely, or an acknowledgment of the value of the tangible and intangible benefits we receive in return for our tax dollars? I wondered how such a distasteful process as filling out a tax return and writing a check to the treasury could possibly strike such a powerful moral chord in that many people.
Who is your target audience?
Individuals interested in tax reform and a tax system that is more transparent and less open to the influence of lobbyists and special interests.
What is it about filling a tax form that strikes such a powerful moral chord in so many people?
I think people are very conscious of being cheated, whether it is being short-changed by a sales clerk, knowing politicians wasting tax funds, or believing that they are paying more taxes because someone else is not paying what the law requires. The belief that we are being cheated, either by other taxpayers or by the government strikes a powerful moral chord in many people.
Why is there so much confusion about taxes?
The income tax system was introduced 100 years ago and it applied to less than five percent of the population. The tax return was a simple one page form. The tax rates were modest, with the highest under 10 percent. During the intervening 100 years, Congress has added exceptions and exemptions to make some aspect of the law more fair to some group of taxpayers. With each new Congress, new exceptions were added on top of the old with no attempt to coordinate the overall result. The end-product is a tax law that is complex and which results in most people hiring someone else to prepare their return or purchasing software to help them resolve uncertainty. In attempting to engineer exceptions benefitting increasingly narrow constituencies, Congress has unwittingly produced a law that makes it impossible for anyone to judge if they are paying their fair share or their share plus part of someone else’s.’