The growing complexity of the US federal tax code

by Ironman

Reproduced with permission from Ironman’s blog, Political Calculations, which has interactive options for calculating the number of pages required for the tax code in a given year and the tax code level of complexity for a given year.

CCH Size of U.S. Tax Code in Pages, Selected=How many pages does it take to record the US federal tax code?

It’s often been remarked that the growth in the complexity of the

US tax code can be measured by how many pages it takes to document

all the things that specify how much federal taxes any single

individual, household or business in the United States may have to

pay. Kay Bell recently featured the chart we’ve presented here from the

CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter, which

illustrates just how many pages of the CCH Standard Federal Tax

Reporter would be required to contain all of the U.S. federal tax


Growth of the Complexity of the U.S. Federal Tax Code, as Measured by Number of Pages*, 1913-2010

But that wasn’t good enough for us, so we created our own graphical version of the chart’s data, so we can better see how the US federal tax code has changed since the US implemented the income tax in 1913, when the entire federal tax code could have been contained in a single 400 page textbook.

What we find is that the tax code really didn’t explode in complexity until World War II, which we observe in the large jump from being just 504 pages in length in 1939 to 8,200 pages in 1945, the final year of the war. Since then, we find that the number of pages in the US federal tax code have grown at a near-steady exponential rate of 3.28% per year, which as of 2010, means that the US tax code has ballooned to be 71,684 pages in length!

But wait, there’s more! Because the tax code has grown consistently at this steady rate since 1945, we can project how much the complexity of the federal tax code can be expected to grow in the future.

Using this information we can create a tool that can either estimate the number of pages in the U.S. federal tax code between 1945

and 2010 or project how many pages can reasonably contain the federal tax code in the future, provided that US politicians and bureaucrats continue to add to its complexity at the same rate they averaged from 1945 up to 2010.

Using the default data in the tool above, where we’ve projected forward to the year 2012 when the next U.S. presidential election is

scheduled to occur, we find that the U.S. tax code will have grown to be approximately 74,994 pages in length, an increase of 7,388 pages, or 11%, from the 67,506 page long U.S. federal tax code of 2008.

That assumes though that today’s politicians and bureaucrats aren’t compelled to do something radical that might cause the complexity of the US federal tax code to really explode, much like what happened back in the 1940s because of the requirements of funding World War II.

Just what radical change that might be we’ll leave as an exercise

to our readers….

Update 11 March 2010: One of our

readers makes a good point:

The CCH reporter is not a good metric because it accumulates. It

has repealed and replaced statutes, cases and rulings from all levels,

so that an over-ruled case may still be noted.

You would need a non cumulative source like the United States Code,

and the Code of Federal Regulations.

We’re of two minds here. While our reader is correct that the

functional portions of the U.S. federal tax code would occupy fewer

pages, the cumulative nature of the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter

makes it a good measure of the extent to which the various portions of

the federal tax code have been modified or altered over time. As

such, our thinking is that its length better communicates the degree

to which the the U.S. tax code has been affected by the series of

complex changes that have taken place within the code through the


After all, given how tax law works, it’s not like a previous

version of the statutes or how they’re interpreted just disappear when

they’ve been modified or superseded. The ghosts of tax law past can

haunt for decades….


  1. Ok i agree with you but what is the exact federal tax rates for 2010 taxes? I think e filing is the best suitable way for state taxes and federal taxes.