Friday, May 31, 2013


As I understand it, the recent scandal involving the IRS is about applications for a particular kind of tax-exempt status, not about audits.  But people have started to talk about audits.  For example, at the recent Republican state party convention in Virginia, Bobby Jindal said "By being here today, every one of you has just signed up for an audit by the I.R.S.”  That was probably meant as a joke, but Peggy Noonan didn't seem to be joking when she said  "The second part of the scandal is the auditing of political activists who have opposed the administration." Of course, there's no data on the political views of people who have been audited, but I thought it would be interesting to see if conservatives were more likely to think that they might be audited.  It turns out I had to go back to 1997 to find a survey with suitable data (sponsored by CBS News and the New York Times).  This survey asked people whether they thought it was "very likely," "somewhat likely," "not very likely," or "not at all likely" that they would be audited by the IRS in their lifetime.  (About 6% of people said that they had already been audited--there was no significant difference by political views, which isn't surprising given the small numbers involved).

There was a pretty strong correlation between general views of the tax system and the perceived chance of being audited: 15% of the people who thought that the system was "quite unfair to people like yourself" thought they were very likely to be audited, while only 2% of the few who thought it was "quite fair" thought they were very likely to be audited.  However, there was no significant correlation between general political views, views of Bill Clinton, or vote in the 1996 election and the subjective probability of being audited.

Since nothing much seemed to be coming up with political views, I looked at a few other variables.  The survey, which was taken between April 2 and 5, asked people if they had filed their taxes yet.  This turned out to be strong predictor:  people who hadn't filed yet were more likely to think that they would be audited.  In fact, when you controlled for views about the general fairness of the system, whether you paid more than your fair share in taxes, and whether you itemized deductions, it was a still statistically significant predictor.  Of course, that raises the question of causal order--did people who thought they were likely to be audited put off filing to delay the unpleasantness?  Or maybe both the expectation of being audited and late filing reflected having complicated finances.

1 comment:

  1. David Cay Johnston's books and writings suggest that the IRS is basically "handcuffed" and has devoted very little to auditing the very rich. Most time and bureaucratic incentives are focused on auditing EITC recipients.