(Mary Ann Chastain/AP)

“Central to my plan is giving every American the option of throwing out that 3 million words of the current tax code and, I might, add, the cost of complying with all of that code in order to pay a 20 percent flat tax on their income. You know, the size of the current code is more than 72,000 pages. That's represented by this pallet right over here and the reams of paper. That's what the current tax code looks like.”

— Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Oct. 25, 2011

Rick Perry, trying to relaunch his sagging campaign, on Tuesday announced that he would push for an optional 20-percent flat tax. We will leave the merits of such a system to other analysts, but the key to his argument is that such a system would be so simple that taxpayers could file their return on a post card.

So we were struck by his use of two figures — 72,000 pages and the 3 million words of the tax code — as a way to illustrate the complexity of the current system. He even pointed to 72,000 pages of paper before holding up a post card he had stuffed in his jacket pocket.

We are always suspicious when politicians mention page numbers. Are these numbers correct?

The Facts

Anyone with basic math skills would instantly notice there is a disconnect between those numbers. If you divide 3 million words by 72,000 pages, that would mean 42 words per page. That’s rather big type.

It turns out that Perry is talking about two different things — and one of them is wrong. The 72,000-page figure comes from the number of pages for something called the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter, a 25-volume set of binders with loose-leaf pages.

The Tax Reporter includes the tax code but also regulations, court rulings and analysis by CCH editors discussing the impact of those laws and regulations. Court rulings still in effect from 1913 would be there, as would any new case law. Every year, new pages are added as new court cases and statutes affect the current tax law.

“It is much more than the code,” said Mark Luscombe, principal tax analyst at CCH.

CCH, the company that publishes the Tax Reporter, does publish a chart showing that the “tax law keeps piling up.” But, again, that’s not the tax code.

The “tax code” is Title 26 of the United States Code, which is the codification of federal laws. There are various organizations, including CCH, that publish the code, often in small type with double columns. The CCH version is 5,280 pages, another version by RIA is 4,052 pages. The number of pages really depends on the size of the type and the pages. (UPDATE: Robert J. Wells, former editor of Tax Notes, says even this page count is misleading. See his article below.)

According to an on-line version of Title 26, the tax code totals about 3.4 million words.

We sought a comment from the Perry campaign but did not receive one.

UPDATE: Perry spokesman Mark Miner said Wednesday morning that the campaign obtained the 72,000 figure from the Cato Institute, which republished the CCH chart. But Cato at least recognized this is a compilation of “federal tax code rules, regulations and IRS rulings”--not just the tax code. Still, Cato overstates the meaning of this figure because it does not mention the pages also include analysis by CCH editors. In essence, the CCH page count almost always is going to climb, even as pages are removed as cases are overturned or repealed, because it is cumulative list of changes in tax law.

The Pinocchio Test

We’re always suspicious when politicians start talking about how many pages are in a law. It’s really pretty meaningless, and dependent on so many factors. And, let’s face it, the United States is a big country and is likely to have a complex tax code. It certainly can be made simpler, but a word count and page count is not an indication of complexity.

In this case, Perry also managed to mix up his facts, taking a word count for the tax code and then a page count for something completely different. The overall effect is pretty misleading. Even a relaunched campaign needs better staff work than that.

Three Pinocchios

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Tax Notes article from 1997

Tax Notes Today
Watch Rick Perry talk about words and page numbers in the tax code