The Tax Gap's Many Shades of Gray
The “tax gap”—the difference between the amount of “true tax” and the amount of tax actually paid—has garnered widespread attention in recent months. Much of the commentary on the subject equates the tax gap with “tax evasion,” a term broadly understood to connote intentional (and potentially criminal) under reporting. This paper cautions against conflating the tax gap with tax evasion. The tax gap includes substantial gray areas where the law is ambiguous and the IRS’s determination of “true tax” is debatable. On top of that, the IRS’s methodology for measuring the tax gap includes upward adjustments that are recommended by front-line examiners but reversed on administrative appeal or judicial review. Moreover, a substantial portion of the estimated tax gap is derived from a statistical technique called “detection controlled estimation” that potentially magnifies the impact of later-reversed recommendations on the ultimate tax gap measure. Weighing in the opposite direction, the IRS’s approach to measuring the tax gap excludes some amounts that clearly constitute tax evasion (most significantly, under reporting of tax on illegal-source income).