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Lately I’ve heard people complain bitterly that their federal tax refunds will be smaller this year. It’s as if they expected the 2017 tax package to lead to a larger refund on taxes paid in 2018, rather than a lower tax liability. Yes, those are two different things. About 80% of U.S. taxpayers are expected to see a net reduction in their federal taxes for 2018, but they might or might not receive refunds. Was your withholding reduced by the new tax law? Then you might receive a smaller refund even if your taxes are lower. Likewise, if you reduced your withholding too much, you will receive a smaller refund. Did your income rise? Then maybe you’ll pay more taxes and see a smaller refund.

The withholding tables were adjusted by the IRS in early 2018 based on the changes dictated by the tax package. Lower withholding was applied to many taxpayers, but it is often possible to manage one’s withholding rate within certain limits. How many of those pining for a refund took action to preserve a higher level of withholding? Let’s hope it was zero, for their sake.

Don’t get me wrong: if you’re not sure whether you’ll owe taxes when you file, it’s always nice to hear that a refund is coming. Moreover, the withholding allowance calculation is a very imprecise guide to one’s tax liability. Clearly the tax package did not benefit every taxpayer, especially high earners and small business people. Those in high-tax states lost a chunk of their state and local tax deduction. And another thing was somewhat irritating: continuing high compliance costs. Even under this so-called tax simplification, it remains necessary for many taxpayers to collect information related to potential deductions. After all, how else would you know whether it makes more sense to itemize rather than take the larger standard deductions now available? Small business people have some other compelling reasons to complain about this “simplification”.

Jazz Shaw at Hot Air observed that this Washington Post article about reduced tax refunds was crafted as if to inflame resentment among taxpayers:

“This is certainly a clever bit of ‘coverage’ of a story based primarily on people bitching on Twitter. Notice how the WaPo manages to promote a hashtag denigrating the tax cuts in the second paragraph. [#GOPTaxScam] The premise here is clearly that the tax cuts reduced some people’s refunds, only Republicans voted for the tax cuts, therefore the tax cuts must be bad and so are the Republicans.”

I don’t have the link now, but yesterday Alex Tabarrok had this sarcastic reaction to the WaPo article:

Voters irate because the government didn’t force them to give it an interest-free loan…”

Perhaps no explanation is required, but the government has free use of your funds whenever too much is withheld from your regular paycheck — it pays you no interest on the “loan” as part of your ultimate refund. If getting that refund is the only way you can save, you’re doing it wrong.