How to create a really useful tax calculator
Fortunately, Bui had spoken to the Internal Revenue Service about acquiring more detailed taxpayer data. At the beginning of December, we received a file of more than 150,000 actual tax declarations. Now we could see how Americans – even the richest – made their money, how much they paid in taxes, and what deductions they took.
(Don’t worry, the IRS is mixing and matching information from different returns to avoid revealing personally identifiable information.)
In assembling the calculator, we have made some important decisions. Most people, we figured, haven’t memorized all of their financial information, and they probably won’t have last year’s 1040 handy when they visit The Times website. So we’ve decided not to ask too many detailed questions about specific deductions or sources of income. Instead, we stuck with five basic questions that just about anyone can answer without giving too much thought.
This decision led to another. Since we weren’t asking people a ton of financial details, we couldn’t figure out exactly how their taxes would change. Instead, we provided a range of results and showed that range visually – fiscal volcanoes have made a triumphant return. (Creating an interactive graph with tens of thousands of dots is no easy task, especially if you don’t want it to take forever to load. So we enlisted Adam Pearce and Blacki Migliozzi from our graphics office to help us out. make it work. And by “help us” I mean “build it all.”)
We wanted to release the calculator as soon as possible after the final tax bill details became public. So we built a dummy version of the calculator using our best guess of what the final bill would look like, and updated it whenever our colleagues in Washington learned a new detail. Then last Friday night, the House-Senate conference committee finally released the text, and Bui and I stayed in the office until 1 a.m. to put the finishing touches on the story. For a headline, we used the question we were asked over and over again: “Will your taxes go up or down?” “
The calculator comes with a few important caveats. It only covers changes to personal income tax, not corporate tax. As a result, he underestimates how many wealthy taxpayers would benefit from the scheme.
And it covers what would only happen in 2018, not what would happen after 2025, when most of the personal tax changes in the bill expire. With the votes in Congress that brought the bill closer to signing, we may try to address these shortcomings in the future. There is always more work to be done.