Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘taxes

Sunak and the silence

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Here I have been writing about Liz Truss once every few days, and still nothing on her successor, Rishi Sunak?

For now, this will likely remain so: Firstly, it is yet to be seen how long he remains in office. The time I spent on Liz Truss might, with hindsight, have been better spent on my backlog. Secondly, what I have read and seen so far has been contradictory, with claims by others ranging from “Socialist” to “Thatcherite”, and his own actual record seems inconsistent to me. Here, too, time will tell.


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October 26, 2022 at 3:57 am

Addendum: Liz IV / What is wrong with lower taxes?

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As I forgot to mention in my previous post: A significant portion of the so called tax cuts intended by Truss were, in fact, cancellations of planned tax raises. This puts another question on the table, namely how it can be a bad thing to not raise taxes during an economic crisis. Certainly, the burden of justification must be on those who do want to raise the taxes—not on Truss.

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October 24, 2022 at 9:35 am

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Liz IV / What is wrong with lower taxes?

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In the wake of my short writings on Liz Truss and the recent chaos around her, I have also done some readings, notably of the Telegraph.

There has been much said in various sources about why she failed, including speculation about poor communication and timing, but a recurring, disturbing, idea is that lowering taxes would be bad. This with many variations, from those who seem to consider it bad, period, to those who want lower taxes “but not until we have a budget surplus/have beaten inflation”, to those who consider expectations of positive effects from lowered taxes naive. In contrast, her meddling with the energy markets typically goes unmentioned or is outright lauded.

This really irks me, as lowering taxes was the main advantage that Truss had to offer. Notably, there is considerable empirical evidence that lowering taxes in a high-tax country is beneficial—and that this often hits through in a comparatively short term. For instance, Trump was already seeing major positive effects after his tax cuts before the COVID-countermeasures artificially tanked the economy. Even if we look just at tax revenue, not the economy as a whole, high-tax countries gain or lose-less-than-expected* by lowering taxes—the Laffer curve really does work.

*This is an important point usually missed in discussions of the Laffer curve, which seem to be dominated by an attitude of “either we get a revenue increase or the Laffer curve has been discredited”. Even long before the critical tax pressure where the curve “turns”, we have tax pressure where the revenue decrease is significantly smaller than would be expected from a naive calculation. This while the people, the industry, the whatnot, all enjoy the full effects of the tax cut. (Moreover, we have to differ between various time frames: it might well be that a tax cut today leads to a short-term reduction of revenue but to a long-term increase.)

Inflation is a major threat and, yes, it might be more important to beat inflation than to lower taxes, but the right way to beat inflation is not to keep taxes high—the right way is to stop handing out money (especially, freshly printed, money-supply-increasing money) and to stop messing with markets. Her energy-market-meddling was an example of what not to do on both counts; her tax cuts were not. Indeed, a likely future side-effect of lowering taxes is a reduction of handouts, which would stop the artificial push on inflation and give incentives to work for money, instead of waiting for the next government cheque.

Budget surplus? Another fine thing. However, tax revenue is not the issue here—half the revenue would easily be enough to run a slimmer and more efficient British state. The issue is handouts, waste, undue spending, and unjust redistributions. The NHS alone wastes billions every year—billions that would be much better spent on tax cuts. Again, energy-market-meddling, not tax cuts, was were Truss went wrong. And what about all the COVID-related spending that had gone before Truss and been so ill-advisedly welcomed? And how many of those who oppose tax cuts “for the sake of the budget” would be quite willing to increase government spending “because Keynes”?

At the end of the day, however, the main reason why Truss was right in pushing ahead with tax cuts was the simple fact that tax cuts tend to be rarer and smaller than tax increases. The Left is usually outright keen on raising taxes and the Right is usually too hesitant to cut them, often applying exactly excuses like “not until we have a budget surplus”. If Truss had failed to go ahead now, chances are that the tax cuts would never have happened anyway, be it because Labour gained power again* or because she was succeeded by some Tory** without the guts to push forward.

*The UK election system has a history of unpredictable timing relative e.g. the Swedish system, and I cannot predict when the next (parliamentary) election will come. However, I do note that there were elections in 2015, 2017, and 2019; and that there was a political chaos even before Truss resigned. Correspondingly, working under the assumption of a Thatcher-length reign would have been foolish.

**Looking at May and Johnson (and, maybe, Cameron), the position as head Tory was not the safest in the world even before Truss. Factor in how soon Truss was forced to leave and there is no guarantee that she would have remained in charge for long, even without suggesting tax cuts.

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October 24, 2022 at 8:34 am

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The Liz is dead; short lived the Liz / Not an auspicious ending

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I have so far written two (short) texts on Liz Truss. The first played on the transition from one Liz (Queen Elizabeth II) to another (Liz Truss)–the Liz is dead; long live the Liz.

With hindsight, this title borders on dramatic irony, as the exceptionally long reign of the Queen was followed by what appears to be the shortest stint as prime minister in British history.

Indeed, in the second text, just a week ago, I noted her problematic early days, and how she failed at being a second Thatcher. (And Thatcher, in another contrast, was one of the longest serving prime ministers.)

In both texts, I spoke of “Not an auspicious start.”, which must now be complemented with “Not an auspicious ending.”, as the chances of sensible politics in Britain have grown that much dimmer and as the Tories risk coming to an end as a major force, between, on the one hand, the fiascos of Johnsson and Truss and, on the other, the Tories’ poor record of actually implementing Tory politics. A future return of Liz Truss, leaving unstated whether this would be a good or bad thing, seems quite unlikely.

Had it not been for the greater disappointment, it would be with satisfaction that I point to something from the beginning of my first text:

[The choice of Liz Truss] first left me highly sceptical, as Margaret Thatcher seems to a shining exception to major* female political leaders. I have, it must be said, not acquainted myself in detail with the work and opinions of each and every one of these, but where I have, excepting Thatcher, they have invariably ranged from mediocre to disastrous. This including the highly disappointing Angela Merkel, who once seemed posed to be a second Thatcher, and Ursula von der Leyen.** The same has typically applied to the “almosts”, e.g. Mona Sahlin (almost-PM of Sweden; absolute horror show) and Hillary Clinton (almost-POTUS; absolute horror show).

*Prime Ministers, Presidents, and the like.

**See a recent text on von der Leyen and energy politics ([1]).

Liz Truss has done nothing to improve this impression. She might or might not have had the right political ideas, but she did not stick to them, she was unable to implement them, and, again, her stint as prime minister was the shortest in British history. To boot, it was likely one of the most chaotic and controversial.

I also point to my notes on Swedish politics from two days ago, specifically the portions on the failure of Magdalena Andersson, the first female Swedish prime minister. (However, as she is a Social-Democrat, “sensible politics” was hardly on the agenda to begin with.)

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October 21, 2022 at 1:20 am

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Follow-up: The Liz is dead; long live the Liz / First impressions of Liz Truss

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A little more than a month ago, I wrote about my first impressions of Liz Truss ([1]). Here I noted that “she might have a much more common-sense and well-informed set of positions than is typical of politicians, much like Thatcher once did”.

However, I also noted that Thatcher seemed to be a shining exception among women, and that Truss had turned straight around and sabotaged the energy markets.

Today? Truss has almost been dethroned; she has sacked her chancellor; she has gone from promises of lowering taxes to increasing, considerably, the corporate* tax; and with apparent large needs for cut-backs, I suspect that other taxes will follow over time. (Politicians tend to take the easy way out; cut-backs tend to lead to more protests than tax increases, which can always be painted as “increases for the rich”; and recent events make me doubt how much spine Truss actually has—assuming that she even remains in office in the long term. Note the contrast with Thatcher, who seemed to focus on doing what she felt was right, even at a political cost to herself.)

*Which, of course, is just a corporate tax by mechanism. In its effects, it is ultimately paid by the people.

“Not an auspicious start.” was my conclusion to [1]—words worth repeating.

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October 14, 2022 at 10:59 pm

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Tax filings for 2020 / The German IRS and Elster (again)

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And again fucking, unusable Elster!

Among the problems encountered:

  1. I began the process in (likely) July, by creating the needed documents and making some preliminary entries. With one thing and another, the rest of the job had to wait, which should have be no problem in light of a COVID-related and blanket three-month extension of the deadlines.

    But no: A few months later, I received emails that some of these documents would now be automatically deleted by Elster, because they had gone unedited for too long. I wrote back and forbade this deletion, while pointing out that this was an inexcusable act of user hostility. (Even by the standards of Elster and the German “IRS”.) I note that there is no advantage to such a deletion, but potentially enormous disadvantages.

    They were deleted nevertheless.

  2. The field for messages to the IRS still (!) does not take line-breaks.
  3. That I had added such a message brought Elster into a destructive loop, where (the German version of) “check document” led to a semi-error page that pointed out that I had left such a message (and why?!?!), which repeated again and again on subsequent attempts. The document was still sendable, but this broke the apparently preferred-by-the-IRS workflow of check-and-send-from-the-results-page. (Cf. an older text for these absurdities.)
  4. The “check document” for the main document originally failed on the claim that I needed to indicate whether I had received COVID support—even when I had not. There was no obvious field for this anywhere, there was no indication of help on how to do this, and only an internet search revealed that I needed to add an entire new attachment to the document, which then contained two fields, one for yes/no on whether I had received help, and another for the amount for those who had.
  5. Generally, “check document” is extraordinarily incompetent at indicating where an error (real or imagined by Elster) is located and makes odd jumps. (And there is not or only rarely a visual indication which fields are mandatory in advance.) For instance, in the EÜR document, there are two fields that seemed irrelevant to me, but where “check document” insisted on an entry. I made one entry (indicating 0) and clicked the confirmation button for that entry. Now, I obviously wanted to continue with the second field, which was immediately below the first. But no: Elster took me back to “check document”, forcing me to go back and find the relevant field again.
  6. Did I mention that mandatory fields are usually not marked as mandatory? (Yes, I did.)
  7. I copied a calculated-by-Elster value from one document to another (and why is this not handled automatically?!?), because this value was needed as an input in the second document. The output value contained both a thousand separator and decimal places (and a decimal separator). The input field required a value in whole Euro (no decimal places) and could not cope with the thousand separator, giving me two separate error messages.
  8. A great help in filling out the EÜR could have been pre-filled fields based on last year (which works well with the other documents, where the advantage is lesser), so that I could e.g. see where I had put postage and where train rides and where this-and-that. Specifically in the EÜR, this does not seem to work, however, as only trivial fields (like name and identifiers) are filled out. Then it is down to guesswork or Internet searches to find the right fields.

And to this a few things I might have forgotten, the great many problems discussed in earlier entries, the incomprehensible German tax system, …

Fucking amateurs!

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October 29, 2021 at 10:35 am

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Tax filings for 2019 / The German IRS and Elster (again)

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Earlier today, I filed my (German) taxes for 2019—and, for once, with a few days to spare. This through a combination of a general increase in the last date for filing (July 31st; previously, Mai 31st), my less stressful workload, and the fact that I had less positions to file.* It still cost me several hours distributed over two days, to get everything in order and to use ElsterOnline, that utter bullshit tool that the German “IRS” has forced down the throat of the users.

*I spent half of 2019 on a sabbatical and then switched from IT consulting to writing novels, with no bills issued, no income, and much less costs for e.g. hotels and travel than in previous years.

I am not going to give a complete overview of Elster, as I have discussed it repeatedly in the past.* However, a few new (?) observations:

*Search for “Elster”, “IRS”, and/or “Finanzamt”.

  1. There is a new free-text field where the user can add a message to the IRS within the filing—finally: this has been years overdue.

    But: It is not possible to add line-breaks in this message. This repeats an inexcusable error, hostile to both the user and the IRS staff that later works with the filings, which was previously present in the specialized form for sending (external) messages. In that separate form, this error has been fixed—but it is still repeated here. Absolutely incredible!

  2. On several occasions, I tried to run my mouse over a field with outdated values to mark the contents, hit backspace, and then enter the new data. This was simply not possible, which is absurd for a functionality that works out of the box with a regular HTML form—unless somehow sabotaged, be it out of incompetence or malice. Instead, I had to click into the field, right-arrow until I was at the end, and then hit backspace until the field was empty.* This is the more annoying as the form based input and the structure of the forms more-or-less forced use of a mouse for tasks like navigating. This way, the user is forced to constantly switch between keyboard and mouse in a manner that goes too far. (And does it for no legitimate reason.)

    *In my impression, I was always, by force, put at the beginning of the field, with no ability to “click” to another position; however, I did not verify whether this was true. It is also conceivable that I could have “deleted” my way backwards with the “delete key”, but it is awkwardly placed and requires a simultaneous “shift” on my notebook, so that would have been more work—if it actually did work at all …

  3. One of the forms had two (times three; cf. below) fields for the Steuernummer*, one in a “cover” part, one in a content part. The latter was correctly imported from last years forms; the former had to be entered manually. WTF!

    *An identification number used by the IRS.

    To make matters worse, the forms insist on dividing the Steuernummer into three parts, each with a field of its own, which implies that a simple one-step copy-and-paste is not possible. To copy it within a form, with no additional sources, the tax payer then has to go forward one (or more?) page(s?), copy part one, go back to the original page, paste, go forward again, copy part two, etc., until all three parts are filled. (Personally, I committed parts one and two to memory and copied just the third part, trading a slight risk of errors for a reduced work load.)

  4. The data import from my previous filing was not complete. At least the VAT portion likely had not one single data field filled, which makes the new filing harder: there are a great number of obscure, poorly named, and poorly explained fields, and having the ability to just look at the old fields makes it much easier to identify which to use this year. Moreover, when I cannot rely on the old fields being pre-filled (if with outdated values), I do not just have to identify the correct fields, I also have to go through the sum of all fields on a just-in-case basis.
  5. While data import from the old filing was possible, I had no way of actually looking at the old filing, e.g. for comparisons per the previous item. For some reason, likely an arbitrary, unnecessary, and destructive time limit, they cannot be opened.

    And, no, there appears to be no way to save them locally in a reasonable format. (Something that I tried with my new filings, and likely last year too.) The only possibility to download the data, short of taking screenshots or saving countless individual HTML files, is a “save as PDF” functionality. This is sub-optimal and limiting to begin with, but, worse, this does not work at all on my computer (for reasons unknown). Odd: This should be a trivial task if implemented correctly: generate the PDF file server-side and then just let the browser download it. Possibly, the idiots are actually stupid enough to try generation client side, which is a recipe for unknown errors.* If it is server side and they still have bungled it, well, that is even worse.**

    *No, it cannot be justified by data protection. Such concerns are often legitimate, but here we had no data that was not already present and (at least somewhat) permanently stored server-side.

    **Software errors happen even to competent developers, but here we have a system that has been handling the 2019 taxes for almost seven months and is now in a high intensity phase. Not having fixed the problem by now, or having introduced it in the last few days, would be horrifyingly negligent. I also note that there was no error message of any kind, which would have been a must, had there been e.g. a temporary back-end problem, say, due to a temporary overload or system failure.

  6. Two fields were mandatory despite my having no value to provide (regarding transfer of assets from the private to the business sphere and vice versa). Here I had to add two entries of “0’, for no good reason. And, no, I could not just pick an existing field and enter the value “0”: these fields (in a wide sense) contained lists of fields, where each entry had to be manually added. Presumably, the IRS expects a detailed and enumerated list of each individual asset transferred, and it would then make sense to allow an empty list when no transfer has taken place. (This is indeed the case with other “list fields”.) But, no, an empty list was not allowed, and to signify that I had transferred no assets, I had to create two single list entries with the value “0” and an additional dummy “reason” (“name”, “details”, or whatnot).

    This is a “Software Development 101” mistake.

    (I have no recollection of this problem from prior years.)

I can only reiterate my yearly observation that this tool moves on a level of incompetence that is mind-numbing, including obviously faulty behavior, a complete disregard for established conventions, an extremely confused (and confusing) user interface, etc. As a former software developer, it boggles my mind that this type of shit can be made by (alleged) professionals—and while wasting tax payers money. Yes, I know, the government and incompetence, but still …

Written by michaeleriksson

July 29, 2020 at 6:34 pm

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A survey by the German IRS

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Earlier today, I was notified of and participated in a German “IRS” survey by my local Bundesland* (NRW).

*Roughly the German equivalent of a U.S. state.

This survey, it self, displayed many problems and is unlikely to be of much help with improvements. If in doubt, it was more suited to detect angles of attack through public-relations work than through actual improvements… It does, however, reinforce my opinion of the low competence level of the German civil service. Consider, in a likely highly incomplete discussion:

  1. It required use of unnecessary technologies*:

    *I tend to surf with minimalistic settings and turn functionality on-and-off as it is actually needed. This includes defaults of images off, because most images on most websites make surfing less pleasant and the time to load a page longer; JavaScript off, because JavaScript is a major security risk and (also) makes most websites less pleasant; and cookies reduced or turned off to avoid privacy invasions, unethical tracking, and similar. And, yes, both JavaScript and images are also often abused for unethical tracking and similar.

    I needed to turn on images to get past a CAPTCHA, but the actual survey did not need images (and there is no reason why it should have). The CAPTCHA, a simple addition of numbers, could equally have been done in text, if need be verbosely (e.g. “What is five plus three?” instead of “5 + 3 = ?”). The risk of an automatic access is low; and, if it did occur anyway, it might be a more useful information than the survey provided. (For instance, if someone were to submit the same answers repeatedly through automatism, it is clear that someone feels very strongly. Ditto, if a denial-of-service attack takes place.)

    Early information implied that it might (!) be impossible to submit the survey without JavaScript, so I duly turned JavaScript on. The survey, however, contained no functionality, beyond mere nice-to-haves*, that could not have been done without JavaScript.

    *For instance, some minor changes of questions (depending on prior answers) without switching pages.

    Early information also spoke of cookies, but was vague on their use/necessity (including combining claims like we-use-cookies and here-is-how-you-disable-cookies). I left my settings unchanged (accept sites’ own cookies; deny third-party cookies) and got through without problems, but there was no part of the survey that could not have been implemented with e.g. URLs instead of cookies. The cookies that I found in my browser, after submitting the survey, were few and trivial.*

    *I cannot speak as to their exact role, because they contain no plain-text, but the low amount of information of the four cookies makes this clear. This with one exception, a “PHPSESSID”, which implies that PHP was used (another sign of great lack of judgment) and that my session was tracked by this ID.

    I strongly suspect that both the CAPTCHA and the use of JavaScript would have caused great problems for those relying on e.g. screen-readers. So much for accessibility…

    Better would have been to have no image dependencies whatsoever, to use no cookies at all, and to leave JavaScript entirely optional.

  2. The survey, by its own bullet list, presumes to automatically collect data that is of no relevance to the survey and most* of which the makers have no legitimate reason to know, including:**

    *Three-through-five from below are potential exceptions. The rest have no legitimate bearing on anything, and might even serve to worsen future work, through the temptation to write browser or device specific code, assume a certain screen size, or similar. Good web-design tries to be agnostic of such information. On the other hand, such information is popular among e.g. profile builders and trackers…

    **Texts in square brackets are my approximate translations, where needed; the rest is the original text.

    • Website von der der Besucher kam [website from where the user came]
    • Browser
    • Provider
    • Betriebssystem [operating system]
    • Gerätetyp [type of device]
    • Gerätemarke [brand of device]
    • Gerätemodell [model of device]
    • Bildschirmauflösung [screen resolution]
    • Standort (Land/Region/Stadt), von dem aus teilgenommen wurde [location (state/region/city), from where participation took place]
    • Dauer des Aufenthalts auf der Webseite [time spent on the page]
    • Anzahl der durchgeführten Aktionen [number of actions performed]
    • Zeitpunkt und Seite im Fragebogen, zu dem / auf der die Befragung ggf. verlassen/abgebrochen wurde [Time and page in the survey, at / on which time the survey was left/interrupted]
    • installierte Browser-Plugins [installed browser-plugins]
    • Browsersprache [browser language]

    I note that some of these items are vague or hard to interpret. For instance, “Provider” is probably intended to be the ISP, but it might be something else. For instance, “Browser” could be anything from the mere name of the browser (e.g. “Firefox”) to the full user agent.

  3. The design was highly sub-optimal, including use of non-standard checkboxes that made it hard to tell when a checkbox was actually checked.*

    *The rendition (and behavior) of checkboxes and other control elements is best left to the browser. If it is not, for whatever (most likely ill-advised) reason, a check should result in a check-mark or, on the outside, a cross of some type. Here the checkbox was merely colored differently… What bad idea such manipulations are, is shown by a recent visit to another website (which, I do not remember), where radio-buttons had been re-designed to look like checkboxes—leading to my trying to leave several of the pseudo-checkboxes checked at the same time (which checkboxes allow), and just seeing my check mark move from box to box (because radio-buttons do not allow simultaneous checks).

    Another annoying issue was text fields that (a) had a limit of 250 or 300 characters of input, (b) were considerable larger than this limit. This made it very hard to judge by eye how many characters were left. A counter was not present, despite being a near standard by now (a JavaScript nice-to-have that was not implemented). Moreover: When the limit was reached, the field just swallowed any further characters with no type of error message (another unimplemented JavaScript nice-to-have). Moreover, a so narrow limit is problematic, because if a user does have something to say, this few characters are often insufficient, especially if he wants to provide context, argumentation, or another high-value answer (as opposed to e.g. a mere “You suck!”). (As a comparison, I ran the draft version of this single paragraph through a word count. It contains roughly 900 characters…)

  4. A number of questions inquired about the latest this-or-that. This is negative on at least two counts:

    Firstly, experiences with the latest this-or-that are not necessarily representative, remarkable, or what the user would like to mention. For instance, my latest tax filing has (to date—knock on wood) been comparatively painless. The one before that was a horror, including an absurd delay in processing by the IRS, the charging of interest due to the late end of processing (which was largely caused by the IRS, it self…), and a late fee based on the incorrect claim that I had not filed in a timely manner.* The result included the need for several letters to the IRS, a (hopefully temporary) loss of money, and a considerable insecurity, seeing that I still have not received a conclusive answer—after roughly half a year… Because only the latest counts in the survey, all of this will fly under the radar.

    *Specifically, ignoring that I had a dispensation to file late.

    Similarly, what does it matter how the latest contact with the IRS was? What about a typical contact or the worst contact?

    Secondly, the survey period overlaps strongly with the normal period for tax filings, implying that the latest for some will concern what they did in 2018 for the year of 2017, while for others it will concern what they did in 2019 for the year of 2018.

  5. At least some of the questions only allowed a very rough guesstimate. For instance, how would I know in May how much effort I spent on filing my taxes in December? How this time was divided on parts like filling in forms, sorting through invoices, and researching how data should be correctly aggregated and entered?
  6. Generally, the questions were vague and too abstract, e.g. in that the user was allowed to enter how (dis)satisfied he was with some things through a rating scale*—but not why. It would be better to find a smaller sample group and to study their grievances more in detail. Of course, this applies to a great many other surveys: Making a survey takes comparatively little work, making a good survey (which this was not) takes a lot more work, and actually finding out something worthwhile (which surveys rarely do) through other means can be quite a lot of work. But, hey, we did a survey—now we have proof that we are doing something!

    *Another complication with such ratings is that people tend to rate on the kind side relative their true opinions. Adjusting the scale by subtracting one step from each vote of average or better will usually improve the estimate. (In some cases, notably ratings on merchant platforms, the inflation can be so bad that a five-out-five is positively expected for an average performance, which would normally be given a three-out-five; while a mere four-out-five is reserved for problem cases. Cf. e.g. a money.com article on reviews.)

  7. At the same time, the set of questions was highly limited and bound to give an incomplete view. For instance, there was no question about VAT filings, which are a PITA to the many free-lancers (of which I am one). For instance, there was no question on deadlines. For instance, there was no question on whether information from the IRS was correct (e.g. in response to an inquiry).
  8. An interesting constellation is a set of mutually dependent* questions on how much time was needed for tax filings, how much the filings cost (e.g. through use of a Steuerberater**), and whether a Steuerberater was used. Because there were no sign of causal connections and context, these questions could be abused to divert criticism: “Yes, there were many who complained that it took too long, but few of those used a Steuerberater, so they have only themselves to blame!” resp. “Yes, there were many who complained about the cost, but they all used a Steuerberater. They should drop the Steuerberater and do the job themselves, and save all that money!” Good questions would have probed the “why”, e.g. whether someone who would like to file himself sees himself forced to use a Steuerberater for reasons of time or complexity, or whether someone who would like to use a Steuerberater does not due to the cost.

    *Behind the scenes, not necessarily in the survey.

    **Roughly, tax consultant.

The worst thing, however, is how both the notification about the survey and the survey it self, utterly inexcusably, had the audacity to ask for participation to make the services even (“noch”) better. This adds insult to injury, because the quality of service is very poor, the unnecessary (!) efforts needed by the tax payers are considerable, etc. This includes problems like the low usability of Elster*, a low competence level and poor attitude among the civil servants, and a tax system that is a horror. (Cf. a number of earlier texts, e.g. [1].) Indeed, this audacity alone should rightfully lead to a summary firing of the responsible party.

*The main tool for filing taxes and doing various other works.

A similar user-despising attitude was displayed by the sub-domain used for the survey: ich-mache-mit. An English translation that preserves the subtext is tricky, but consider an “I participate”, lowered in register*, with implications of enthusiasm**, and being an advertising phrase. Indeed, outside of advertising, this phrase is most likely to be spoken by children who want to join in a game or similar. In advertising, it usually has very cheesy and unrealistic implications of “I, too, am one of the cool/righteous/whatnot!”, used to manipulate*** the most stupid sections of society to “want” to participate in something.

*If not for the recent twitter campaign, I might have tried a translation of “me too” to catch the register. In contrast, “ich nehme teil”, would be roughly the same register as “I participate”.

**I am little tempted by the vision of Katniss’ and her “I volunteer!”, but that scene is contextually inappropriate.

***Or at least try to manipulate. Whether it actually works even on the stupid, I leave unstated.

Excursion on improvements:
On the upside, it appears that Elster is going through changes that allow a greater amount of automatic import of data from the IRS, which will reduce redundancies and efforts. The lack of this obvious functionality has annoyed me for years—but better late than never…

Excursion on surveys:
The low value of surveys might be cause for a future text of its own. In a nutshell, however: They force the opinions of the survey-taker through a narrow filter that gives a highly simplistic view of his opinions, be it through leaving important aspects out, forcing a single choice instead of a multiple, requiring making a choice where he has no strong opinion,* loss of context, … Bigger picture issues including survey makers often (and often incorrectly) assuming that they are smarter than the survey takers, deliberate attempts to fix a certain result through leading questions, a greater wish to get machine-readable data than valuable data, and similar.

*In all fairness, the survey above usually contained a “no answer” option. This is highly unusual, however. (An example of such forced questions is “Do you prefer (a) politician A, (b) politician B, (c) politician C”, where many of the survey takers might not care, not have a fixed opinion, think very negatively of all three, or similar. The effect of forcing a choice is highly misleading data.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 4, 2019 at 12:47 am

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Tax declaration for 2017/More on Elster etc.

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My second go at the tax declaration was more successful than the first. A few, likely incomplete, remarks, however:

  1. As 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 number-format issues, both of which were big annoyances. The latter includes complications like that copying “11,30” into the one field leads to an error message that decimal positions are forbidden, while copying “34” into another brings the error message that two decimal positions are mandatory (even though an exact number was intended—not a rounded “34,25”). Never mind that all other tools I use follow the convention of a decimal point while Elster strictly uses the German convention of a decimal comma
  2. The handling of VAT (not Elster specific) is an unnecessary cause of complications and not very logical: Despite* VAT merely being collected by businesses on behalf of the IRS**, it counts as income when collected and as cost when either paid out the IRS or paid to other business (based on their bills). This introduces several pointless fields and the need to copy*** data from the one form to the other, where the net result should be 0.**** Really, this should not be income and cost—but positive and negative cash flow: There is no* change, even temporary, in terms of overall net assets and the “accounting balance” —only temporary fluctuations in the bank balance.

    *Looking at practical intent and logic: The formal system might be different, which would explain the illogical procedure.

    **I refer to the German Finanzämter and the general system by “IRS” for convenience and understandability. The correspondence to the U.S. entity is not perfect, however.

    ***It remains the case that data input or calculated in one form cannot be automatically synchronized with other forms referencing the same values, introducing manual steps and potential errors. This is especially absurd, seeing that these values do not really benefit the other forms—a good system would require the IRS to input the values (preferably automatically) based on the forms.

    ****At least once the yearly VAT declaration has lead to a correcting payment over the monthly pre-declarations and pre-payments.

  3. My VAT calculations were partially foiled by some older submitted forms no longer being readable—for no discernible reason.
  4. Various copy actions were made the harder through Elster somehow (likely not deliberately) disallowing the copying of calculated values from the forms. Whereas it is normally not a problem to copy any piece of text from an HTML page, this was simply not possible here. (I did not investigate in detail why this was so, but a brief look at the HTML code makes me suspect that the values were somehow displayed through CSS instead of normal text.)
  5. I tried to save* the EÜR-form with dummy values of “TODO” for some fields where I did not have the values at hand,** wanting to complete the rest and come back to these fields later. This with the particular point that I had now identified all the fields that I needed, allowing me to target these specific fields later—without having to go through the entire document again, costing me additional effort and introducing the risk of missing a field the second time around. Alas, not only were these fields marked as containing errors, but it was impossible to save the form without correcting these errors. (Note: Not send the form, which would have been OK—merely save the form.) Imagine if a code editor refused to save code that did not compile, a text editor text with spelling errors, or a spread-sheet fields with invalid formulae.

    *Thinking back, I am a little uncertain whether I tried to save, just move to the next page of the form, or both. Whichever applies does not alter the idiocy, however.

    **Including some of the aforementioned VAT fields.

    As a workaround, I filled these fields with absurdly large values that would have caused correspondingly absurd totals to appear, (a) giving me a chance to see what fields were picked, (b) making it obvious if a field had been missed. Still, this is suboptimal and introduces a further moment of risk.

    Needless to say, the nifty feature of being able to mark (e.g. through a check-box) what fields are relevant-but-still-incomplete is not present.

  6. Many of the forms could be made a lot easier by adding a few central switches that suppress irrelevant parts (“married yes/no” e.g.—someone not married has no possible use for half the “Mantelbogen”; with some reservations for when circumstances change during the year).
  7. The form to send a free-text message to the IRS is particularly idiotic (also see previous discussions for other problems): A reasonable form would have one page, with three fields, viz. identification number, subject, and body. The actual form has several pages, including requests for information like address, company address, data about a spouse, …
  8. Some of the problems (including the previous item?) could be explainable by a conceptual flaw: Instead of Elster being connected directly to the IRS (just like my online banking is connected directly to my bank), it is a “service” provided by another governmental organization that merely sends the data to the IRS in a manner similar to offline tools by third-parties. Without this conceptual flaw, a number of simplifications, e.g. with regard to data input and changes of address, would be possible.
  9. Elster is excruciatingly slow. For instance, to close the one form, open another, copy a value, close the second form, open the first form, and paste the value, takes ages. (And remember that it is not possible to have two forms open in parallel.) Even switching from the one page of the same form to the next, an operation that should be almost immediate, causes a very noticeable delay. (I never timed these operations, but on some occasions it might have been as much as ten seconds.) All in all, I spent several times longer waiting for Elster than I did actually interacting with it.
  10. The German tax system makes a great use of “Freibeträge”, amounts that the tax payer can deduct without e.g. providing receipts. In some cases, e.g. for relocation costs, this can be an advantage when the overall costs are small enough. In others, it is more or less fraud. Notably, there is a blanket amount that any employee can deduct for “Werbungskosten”*, which is painted as a great service towards the people—as if this was a tax break. In reality, it is nothing but an invalidation of all deductions smaller than this blanket amount: The overall amount of money needed by the government is not magically reduced, implying that the same money is collected through a higher overall tax rate. The blanket amount then merely means that “if you have Werbungskosten below this amount, you cannot deduct any Werbungskosten”, very similar to the deductible of an insurance policy. A further complication is that many with somewhat higher actual costs will not bother to state these costs—finding all** the receipts and making all the checks needed to claim, say, an additional 50 Euro will be more effort than is worth the trouble. To boot, this system is unfair in as far as even those with considerably lower Werbungskosten can use the full amount, causing a flow of money from*** those with higher Werbungskosten to those with lower…

    *I am uncertain what a good English translation could be. The general meaning is costs related to work and that only arose through work. Examples include e.g. special clothing (mostly blue collar) and professional literature (mostly white collar).

    **Note that it is not enough to find the receipts for those 50 Euro—the entire amount, blanket + 50 Euro, needs to be covered.

    ***Measured against the baseline of a sound deduction system. Compared to a system where Werbungskosten are not deductible at all, however, the flow still benefits the people with higher Werbungskosten.

    The true reason for this blanket amount is likely that the IRS wants to avoid additional work on its own end, notably checks of receipts* and the like.

    *However, the last few years, receipts have grown less important and are no longer collected by the IRS by default. Obviously, the tax payers still need to keep the receipts in case of e.g. an audit.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 2, 2018 at 8:27 pm

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More on the German IRS

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And my problems with the German IRS and the inexcusable Elster tool continue:

  1. I have written about technical and other issues forcing me to make repeated unnecessary visits to Elster to file my preliminary VAT ([1])—unnecessary, because I am on a sabbatical and have a preliminary blanket 0 for the rest of the year. The idiocies of Elster and the IRS have already extended the one visit that should have been necessary to four, as discussed in [1]. Come early August, I tried again, found that my Steuernummer and whatnot now were available for automatic use, and opted to minimize the additional effort by pre-declaring my VAT in two quarterly forms—stating 0 for the third and the fourth quarter. Alas, a few days ago, I received a note from the IRS claiming that my submission for the third* quarter had been rejected on the grounds that I was not eligible to file quarterly… In other words, these nitwits actually consider it reasonable that I should use even more of my spare time to file individual 0s for every individual month of the year… All in all, I would be better off just terminating my status as a freelancer. (Of course, if do, they will probably shove yet another Steuernummer down my throat—and another one after that, when I terminate my sabbatical and start working again… Cf. [2].)

    *I have as yet no word on the fourth quarter, but the outcome seems predictable…

  2. End of May, I explicitly contacted the IRS about a stay on my tax filings for 2017, due to the urgent need to handle other IRS related matters, including entirely unwarranted additional fees imposed upon me for errors that the IRS had committed. (Some of them are covered in earlier posts, but I will likely write a larger one later on.)

    This is normally no problem whatsoever, for the simple reason that it is good for the IRS when tax declarations are delayed: They can divide their own work more evenly over the year without being bogged down around the deadlines and they have the interest advantage (because most German filers see a tax return).

    Standard procedure is to simply request a stay under the assumption that no answer means consent—and while rejection likely can happen, I have personally never heard of it. In this specific case, I would not even consider the matter negotiable: I had to take action to compensate for errors by the IRS; ergo, the IRS has only it self to blame. (And, no, I did not receive a rejection notice.)

    Nevertheless, I recently received another letter complaining that I had not yet filed for 2017, setting me a deadline for 2018.09.24—six (!) days before the end of the stay…

    This is so unbelievably pointless and idiotic that I am starting to doubt whether incompetence is enough to explain the behavior of the IRS…

  3. My complaint concerning the main points behind the previous item is as yet unanswered, close to three months afterwards…

    Considering the quite obvious situation behind these complaints, which should allow the matter to be decided in five minutes by an intelligent reader (barring the need for checks and verifications that under no circumstances should take more than a few days of waiting time), and considering that communications in the other direction regularly come with very short deadlines*, my enthusiasm over this delay is limited.

    *I have not kept statistics, but, going by feel, I would say that most deadlines set by a government agency towards me have been fourteen days after some reference event—and often an event taking place before I actually receive the corresponding message.

    The only message I have as yet received in return appeared* to merely state that my complaint had arrived and been sent back to the local IRS office, rather than being treated by the recipient, the Oberfinanzdirektion**. This too was highly annoying, because I had explicit chosen the Oberfinanzdirektion as a suitable escalation—high enough to avoid the worst incompetence and partiality of the lower levels of the governmental hierarchies, but not so high as to seem like overkill. By sending the matter back to the local IRS, they still expose me to the exact problems I wanted to avoid, and I consider it highly likely that I would*** be forced to escalate the matter again, making the this action a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

    *Unfortunately, I cannot find it on short notice to verify the details, and there was no reason for me to pay attention to said details at the time.

    **A mid-level supervisory agency within the overall IRS system.

    ***At this juncture, and in the light of the additional issues discussed in the first two items, I will escalate pre-emptively.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 26, 2018 at 8:25 am

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