Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

German taxes and Elster

with 5 comments

Germany, like so many other countries, is plagued by bureaucracy, incompetent civil servants, and a general governmental attitude that the rights and interests of the citizens do not matter.

The area of taxes is particularly egregious—even apart from issues like the undue proportion of income paid in taxes*.

*When I spend a day at work, the government often earns more than I do, when all factors are considered. The nominal marginal income taxes tops out at less than 50 %, but then there are various other complications, like the VAT that applies when I actually use my money (privately), or the VAT that my clients have to pay on top of my bills (on the business side). (However, on the business side it is tricky to say exactly what the effect is in what direction. If the client earns well enough, he can deduct all of the VAT of my bills and go scotch free—but then again, since my bills could drive his prices up, the overall VAT amount might still increase. If the client earns poorly, he might not have enough own VAT to offset mine and needs to pay the difference out of his own pocket… That I alone will have a major impact is of course unlikely—but then I am not alone. There are other contractors, service providers, and whatnots that also have to charge VAT on behalf of the government, and the marginal effect of my working an extra day could, in a worst case scenario, be that the client has to hand over another 19 % to the government on top of what it gives me.) The situation is similar for very many regular employees, because there are various “social” fees that the employer has to pay on top of the salary—and, again, when the employee uses his money, he must pay VAT.

Problems include severe competence issues, an extreme lack of transparency*, an “IRS” that sets its own rules without always paying attention to the law (preferring to wait until a judge strikes a rule down—and even then the precedence set for other cases is often ignored…), and what might be the most complicated tax system in the world. In fact, the tax system is so complicated that I have long felt that any tax payer should have the right to hire a “Steuerberater” (“tax advisor”) at the cost of the government**. (Given that they refuse to simplify the system, which would be the by far preferable alternative.)

*Communications often include merely a decision and/or a result description, without in anyway explaining e.g. why a certain deduction was not approved—worse, whether it was approved is typically not clear without careful comparison of input and output. Requests for clarifications have, in my admittedly limited experiences so far, typically either gone unanswered or resulted in what amounts to a repetition of the claim without the requested explanation of the why.

**Merely hiring one, at ones own cost, is of course a right—but for most people this will simply not pay: Most of the additional tax return (if any) and the time saved will be eaten up by the Steuerberater’s fees. In other words, the tax payer is, in most cases, little or no better off than before, while some amount of money has moved from the government to the Steuerberater. To boot, some of even this effect is neutralized by the fact that Steuerberater pay taxes too…

The possibly worst thing, however, is Elster: Tax payers are no longer allowed to use paper forms, instead being reliant on either an utterly, utterly inexcusable web-interface* or various less-than-impressive applications. (Not to be confused with a situation where good applications have been provided!) Said applications are not available “natively” for Linux, effectively forcing the user to also have a Windows license—even when he does not use Windows for anything else. And, no, Wine has not proved a viable work-around to me**, even if some people have reported success. Of course, very few of the applications are free-of-charge, causing yet another cost. All this provided that he already has a computer—while the opposite might be very rare today, it is not something that can actually be assumed with certainty. As a result, Elster often brings more work, cost, and frustration than the paper forms did, leaving the tax payers worse off than before, while the government reaps all the benefits through a more automated processing on its end.

*Likely the worst I have ever worked with in the 23 years I have been on the Internet. The usability is horrible in virtually every regard, including intuitiveness and consistency, it relies on technologies (notably “DOM storage”) which are highly problematic from a security and anonymity point of view, and parts of it must simply be deemed broken. For instance, if the initial capabilities check complains that JavaScript is turned off, it is not sufficient to just activate JavaScript and reload the page—no, the user has to activate JavaScript and go back to the start page in order to try again. Today, not even this helped: The web interface complained again and again and again that JavaScript was turned off, despite it most definitely being turned on. Or take how some amount fields require inputs like “123,45” (note that Germany has a decimal comma) and others “123” (even when the actual amount is not “round”)—and insist on this format even when no information changes: Not only is “123,45” not automatically turned into “123”, but the same applies to “123,00”! Vice versa, if “123” is entered in a field expecting a comma, this is not amended to “123,00” (why would I type those redundant places myself?!?). No, this is considered another input error. Or consider the download functionality for sent and received messages: Half the time it downloads, half the time it does not—and there is no error message when it fails…

**For instance, I gave it a try with the “official” software provided by the government it self, after today’s problems. I got it up and running, tried to familiarize myself with the interface (second rate, at best), moved over some information, and tried to give my monthly VAT forecast (“Umsatzsteuervoranmeldung”). The program promptly crashed, and nothing I could obviously do, including trying to start the program again and using the virtual re-boot, got anything other than an error message. (Which is not to rule out that someone more familiar with Wine would have been able to fix it, nor that I would have, had I been willing to put in enough time.) Easily an hour, likely more, wasted and nothing gained—on top of the time I had already wasted with the web-interface…

This is an absolutely and utterly inexcusable way to treat the tax payers—especially since it’s their money that has been wasted providing these highly sub par solutions. Effectively, tax payers are mandated by law to perform certain actions electronically—but the government provides no reasonable manner in which many of them (including Linux users) are able to do so… Consider a law forbidding automobiles: This will be next to no problem for those who live and work within the same major city, it will be tolerable to many commuters, and it will be an utter disaster for those who are used to riding twenty miles from their country house to their city office every morning and the same distance back every evening—now they can ride a bike for several hours a day or move somewhere else…

A particularly infuriating aspect is that most or all of what needs to be input could be input simply through using a text file in a suitable format*, possibly with some small program to do consistency and format checking. While this would be of little interest to the average citizen, it would make life so much easier for people like me, and it would imply that there is automatically and at very little cost a way to perform these tasks on any platform, using any OS. But, no, instead it is bloated, user-unfriendly or outright user-hostile GUIs. Hell, even PDF forms would work better!

*Even something as simple as a long lines of rows, each consisting of “field name: value to be input” would cover all or almost all needs. (And imagine how much easier it would be to re-use data from the one month/quarter/year to the next.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 9, 2017 at 12:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. […] forced* to spend several hours in one of my least favorite ways: Doing my taxes and using Elster, one of the most horrible web interfaces I have ever encountered. It is quite clear that the makers know nothing of good usability and standard UI paradigms, that […]

  2. […] a telling development of what prompted my original post (that I just had wasted several hours trying to use the third-rate Elster products to file my […]

  3. […] a previous post on a late fee and another discussing the original VAT issue. On a positive note, my complaint against the late fee was approved; on a negative, I strongly […]

  4. […] my experiences demonstrated further problems with the inexcusable Elster interface (also see e.g. [2], [3], [4], […]

  5. […] far as I can tell (without making a detailed check) all the old problems remain (cf. e.g. [1], [2]). This includes the inability to edit multiple forms in parallel and the arbitrary […]

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