Great idea: Gov't should publish free software for calculating taxes

Every few years, I search for a quality, free, open-source accounting program that runs on Linux. About five years ago, I started keeping my small publishing company books on SQL-Ledger, which has worked out OK. But after I started using SQL-Ledger, its creator basically reneged on the open source model. Jake Edge explains:

“SQL-Ledger is tightly controlled by its creator, Dieter Simader, and he has not encouraged a developer community to spring up around the system. This has caused some users to become frustrated with the pace of development; it doesn’t help that the suggested way to get features added more quickly is to pay Simader’s company to develop them. In addition, the documentation, user forums and wiki are only available to those who pay for them”

There’s still no obvious solution. GnuCash has improved but has many quirks and still isn’t really good enough for small businesses. While reading about GnuCash, I came across this great idea:

After reading many grumpy editor articles seeking replacements for QuickBooks (how many years has it been?) and why QB has a lock on the market, I have a possible, if not probable, solution. It seems to me that the big problem is that somebody needs to be paid, every year, to translate legalese like the 1099 form into code. And, for some strange reason, there aren’t a lot of hackers volunteering for that fun, fun project.

I think a neat solution which would end up saving everyone (except Intuit) money would be if there was a meta-law stating that

any law which can be implemented algorithmically, must provide a reference implementation in machine-readable source code

For example, much of the barely-English verbiage in the US tax code could be implemented as a spreadsheet. English is not a programming language and shouldn’t be abused with grotesqueries like, “If line 38 is over $109,475, or you provided housing to a person displaced by Hurricane Katrina, see page 37. Otherwise, multiply $3,200 by the total number of exemptions claimed on line 6d.”

There’d be a cost for the government to write the reference implementation, but that cost would be miniscule compared to what’s already being spent creating a new law.

Of course, companies making a fortune helping us do our accounting and taxes fight against such obviously beneficial ideas in D.C., and Congress listens to Intuit and H&R Block, not the hacker community. But a guy can dream about a government that actually governs in the people’s interests, can’t he? Companies could still publish software that improves the user experience on top of the free government-provided software algorithms. But the nuts-and-bolts algorithm should be free. This would probably save the government billions by closing all sorts of creative loopholes individuals and corporations take while interpreting/deciphering our absurdly complex (and sometimes blatantly contradictory) tax code.

Posted by James on Saturday, June 19, 2010