Intuit’s parasitic business model

turbo-taxWe all know Intuit. Many of remember keeping track of money with Quicken. That’s kind of passé now, but there’s Mint, which is like Quicken except it’s easier and uses all your data to sell you stuff. And of course, there’s Turbotax. Raise your hand if you fire up Turbotax ever spring! (Mine is raised.)

Funny thing though: people outside the U.S. don’t do this. In fact, it’s pretty weird to them, for reasons that are obvious when you think about them. The IRS already has all the information that we are putting into our tax forms. TurboTax just applies the rules of the IRS to that data set, and spits out a return for us. Then we pay them to file it.

So the very obvious questions is… why? Couldn’t the IRS just spit out the same form for us, let us review and correct or amend it as necessary, and then let us file it? Without paying for it, since we’re already all paying for their operations with our taxes?

Intuit, not being a bunch of dummies, figured this out and took care of through lobbying to keep the IRS from being allowed to do this. So our all-American rite of anxiety is safe, along with the people who stand at the side of the road dressed like the Statue of Liberty holding signs to promote tax prep services. (I have never actually understood the connection there.)

Of course, they had to give something, and that was the Free File service – basically Intuit and other tax preparers agreed to create a free filing option for people with lower incomes and simple returns. And they did that, which sounds like a happy ending (sort of), right? Except they then went to enormous lengths to make it nearly impossible for anybody to use the service, things like lying to people asked about it, designing the UI on the web products to steer everybody to a paid option, sticking the word “Free” into the names of other products that weren’t free so nobody would know what the fuck they were buying, and a personal favorite of mine: setting up the robots.txt file on free filing option page on their site to instruct search engines to ignore the page, so that nobody would accidentally find it on a Google search and actually get to file for free.

(ProPublica has done a lot of great reporting on this and I recommend you check it out, especially if you enjoy being irritated.)

All that’s pretty bad, and enough reason to conclude that Intuit is a pretty shady company. But it gets better, thanks to Trump’s tax cut for rich people:

But the hits keep on coming! Last year, Trump and the Republican legislature passed the #TaxScam, which gave away trillions to the richest people in America and did away with the need to itemize deductions for for mortgage interest and charitable donations if you’re making more than $75k/year.

This presented a problem for Big Tax Prep. Services like Turbotax charged extra to complete the itemized deduction forms, pushing its most affluent customers out of the Free File and into its premium products. Now that these forms were no longer required for wealthy people, how could Turbotax and its ilk find customers for its premium product?

Simple: they moved the forms that students, poor people, elderly people and disabled people need to complete as part of their tax returns out of their Free File offerings. Now, if you paid student loan interest or if you’re unemployed or hav ea disability, the forms you need to complete to file your taxes are only available through Turbotax’s deluxe product.

Nice! (Intuit CEO Mister Burns Sasan Gadarzi explained that they weren’t steering people away from the free filing product to get money out of them, oh heavens no; they were just trying to give them helpful educational content!)

There are many ways of making money. Some include exchanging goods and services that are valuable or desirable to the customer for a payment. That includes things that we don’t particularly like buying; for example, I don’t like buying car insurance, but it is valuable and legally required so I buy it, and appreciate a company that makes it a good experience.

Then there are the parasites: those who start by making a good product to do a necessary thing (and yes, TurboTax is a really good product). But then, realizing people might figure out there’s a better way to do things, decide that laws are needed to prevent that from happening. And when they are stuck offering something they don’t want to sell, they make it hard to buy.

Intuit has been a consistently bad actor around this for years. We use their product every year, but I find myself pretty determined to find an alternative next time around, because I really don’t want to support them in any way.

What I’d really prefer, of course, is if we did things in the U.S. the way so many other countries do and let our tax department show us the data they have, let us fix it as needed, and then take that and call it done. We have a whole industry that involves taking information that both the taxpayer and the IRS have, organizing it, and moving it back around when it was already everywhere it needed to be in the first place. That’s a business that produces nothing of value and I’m sorry, Intuit, it deserves to die.

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