Wednesday, June 19, 2013
My fourth-grade teaching experience originates in the challenges I posed to my elementary school teachers. I knew the answers, I was bored, and I wanted to help my classmates. So it was not unusual for me to give the answer to get a classmate off the hook. The teachers were unsure what to do. The teachers who were nuns gathered for lunch and dinner in the convent, and my guess is that at one point my fourth-grade teacher made some sort of comment or request for advice about an annoying, rarely silent, but intelligent youngster. My guess is that one of the eighth-grade teachers, a nun with a reputation of being tough, said, “When you’ve had enough of him, send him to my classroom.” And so she did.
One day, after I had blurted out answers to a series of questions, Sister Mary Josetta sent me off to one of the three eighth-grade classrooms. I remember being greeted by Sister Anna Marita with something along the lines of, “So you think you’re smart? Let’s see what you know.” I was first asked to give what could be described as a lecture on world geography, a topic not in the curriculum for the first four grades. After I did an overview of the continents, the various countries, and their capitals, the teacher invited the students to quiz me about geography. Not fourth-grade geography. Eighth-grade geography.
There’s a twist to the story. My older brother was in that class. He and his friends were delighted with the chance to go after “Eddie Maule’s little brother.” So out came the questions. And I dished back the answers. I was having a grand time. The questions became increasingly technical. I was asked to name the principal products of various countries, to select from a list of several randomly named countries the one with the largest land areas, to provide the names of mountain ranges and lakes, and to describe a variety of other things within the scope of geography.
When I returned to the fourth-grade classroom, I was asked to give a report on what had transpired in the eighth-grade classroom. I did. I mentioned that I had enjoyed the experience. So it was not long before I made another journey to visit the eighth graders. Though I do not remember how many times I did that, I do remember the subject matter changing from geography to history, arithmetic, and a few other things.
Two things stuck with me, aside from my discovery that being in the front of the room was much more fun than sitting at one of the desks. First, from that time forward, my brothers’ friends treated me with a strange sense of awe not often bestowed on younger children. Second, the boys grilled me and the girls pretty much remained silent.
Monday, June 17, 2013
The stories I share are about me. There’s probably more to the answer, lurking somewhere in my genetic ancestry. Descendants of my ancestor Thomas Maule of Salem, Massachusetts, are disproportionately represented in what I call the “expressive” careers, such as preaching, teaching, lawyering, acting, and writing.
Friday, June 14, 2013
Now comes news from the United Kingdom that the cost of damage caused by potholes exceeds the cost of fixing the potholes. One-third of drivers belonging to the Automobile Association reported that their vehicles had been damaged by potholes.
In Los Angeles, according to this report, city council is considering a plan to repair potholes that are causing an average of $750 each year on car repairs for each driver. A proposed increase in real property taxes would cost property owners $35 per $100,000 of assessment. The problem, of course, is that some homeowners don’t own vehicles, but all homeowners rely on someone’s vehicle to take them places or to deliver goods and services to them. So which is better, $750 a year in car repairs or $35 in additional real property taxes per $100,000 of assessed value? My guess is that most people think, “Oh, my car won’t be damaged by potholes.” And in the United States, the chances of getting governments, that is, other taxpayers, to pay for front-end alignments, or worse, are very low.
By failing to increase taxes or road charges to deal with potholes, the U.K. government has left itself open to paying damages that cost far more than those taxes or road charges. Eventually, taxes will need to be raised to fund the payments being made to those whose vehicles are damaged by potholes. It isn’t rocket science to figure out that by successfully blocking tax increases, the anti-tax folks have succeeded in generating increases in government spending, thus requiring increases in taxes or increases in deficits. Those two outcomes are situations that the anti-tax folks claim to dislike, so the ultimate conclusion is that the anti-tax folks are working at cross-purposes with themselves. That comes as no surprise to me. Hopefully it comes as a wake-up call surprise to those seduced by the pied piper claims that people save money when they pay fewer taxes. The choice is easy to understand. Pay a little bit now or pay much more later.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Dr. Travis notes that it’s not a matter of lawyers lacking relationship-building skills, but that because they are “overworked, overburdened and squeezed by time,” they “exhibit communication and intimacy breakdowns peculiar to their education, their professional training and work environment.” She explains that “the same traits that bring lawyers success in the workplace also interfere with their achieving meaningful, intimate relationships in the home.”
There is one point made by Dr. Travis with which I quibble. She notes that “The biggest obstacle is the so-called lawyer personality. . . . And it’s not something that happens only after a lawyer passes the bar. It goes all the way back to law school, where one learns to argue, cross examine, stonewall, delay, outwit, and avoid showing weakness to opposing counsel.” My disagreement is that the factors she lists as part of the so-called lawyer personality – “ambition, narcissism, skepticism, defensiveness, perfectionism and the need to be in control” – are not learned in law school. They are part of the individual who arrives in law school. Law school polishes those traits, it sometimes helps a person understand that they have one or more of those traits, it does little to mitigate the impact of those traits, but it’s not as though law school can take someone who does not have the so-called lawyer personality and replace their character with another personality. Think of how many times when interacting with one’s child or another youngster that an adult mutters, “It wouldn’t surprise me to see this one in law school someday.”
These and the other thoughts shared by Dr. Travis in her article are worth reading. Who should read? Lawyers, of course. And the people who teach lawyers. But perhaps, in light of the survey results discussed in Parents to Children: Be a Lawyer, Marry a Lawyer, the parents who want their children to marry lawyers. It is possible, Dr. Travis explains, for lawyers to learn to be more than lawyers.
Also coming my way was a link to Low-Divorce Jobs. The post links to a spreadsheet that ranks the rate of divorce among 512 professions, occupations, and careers. The post also contains a similar list compiled for the year 1900. Lawyers aren’t even on the 1900 list. But they are on the 2010 list. There are 70 professions, occupations, and careers with higher divorce rates than the lawyer rate. But to return to a concern I mentioned in Parents to Children: Be a Lawyer, Marry a Lawyer, should we translate divorce rate into the inverse of a “happiness rate”? I think not. All sorts of factors influence divorce rates, and unhappiness is but one.
The bottom line is that parents ought not suggest that their children marry someone of a particular occupation, height, ethnic background, or eye color. They ought to be suggesting that their children be concerned about how a person’s honesty, dedication, perseverance, kindness, and how the person treats others, to mention but a few of the things that truly matter.
Monday, June 10, 2013
Another report can be added to the list. It is troubling because of the source, as was the case with the reports discussed in Code-Size Ignorance Knows No Boundaries.
It consists of what CCH calls The Tax Law Pile Up. It’s a graphic that purports to show the number of pages of tax law. Unfortunately, as I have pointed out in previous posts, the 70,000-plus pages include not only tax law but substantial amounts of annotations, commentaries, charts, indices, and similar helpful guides that do not constitute law. CCH surely has the resources to share the number of pages of code and the number of pages of regulations without producing a misleading report on a lumping together of dissimilar items.
A glimmer of hope showed up, however, when Kelly Phillips Erb commented on the CCH release, in Keeping Up With IRS: Tax Updates On Twitter, Facebook And More. Rather than referring to the 70,000-plus pages as “the tax law” or “the Internal Revenue Code,” Kelly wisely referred to it as “CCH Report downloads.” And that is the correct characterization of the 70,000-plus pages. CCH reports. Not the Internal Revenue Code, though the Code is a small part of the 70,000-plus pages. Not “the tax law,” although some tax law is within the 70,000-plus pages. Kelly does refer to the pages as being 11 by 8.5 inches though the CCH reports are printed on pages smaller than that.
At the rate that the erroneous claims about the size of the Internal Revenue Code are growing, it won’t be long before reports about the size of the Code exceed the size of the Code, and eventually exceed the absurd 70,000-plus page claim. Would it not be so much better if the folks who have fueled the misinformation come forward, admit their mistakes, correct the record, and turn their energies into something more productive? They face one of the few times where admitting a mistake does not risk arrest, litigation, imprisonment, job loss, or eviction. To the contrary, the tax world will bestow respect on those who can put aside the ignorance.
Friday, June 07, 2013
What is surprising is that at a time when J.D. graduates are pounding the pavement and beating the bushes looking for employment there are people, and a lot of people, who want their children to join the tens of thousands who are unemployed law school graduates. Perhaps what is unspoken is the sense by many of these parents that although there are troubles in the market place, some graduates are finding jobs, and their children surely will be among those who get jobs because their children are, well, special.
What is not surprising is that many parents want their children to be lawyers. In fact, many parents push their children to be lawyers even when the child does not want to be a lawyer. Having taught thousands of law students, and having met parents at 33 graduations, I have heard on more than a few occasions the words, “We’re [or I’m] so glad [insert name] is a lawyer,” while watching the student cringe. In some instances I already knew that the student was not reaching his or her potential because he or she did not really care that deeply about law study. In a feeble attempt at being diplomatic, I did not say, “Your child is not yet a lawyer; there is the small matter of a bar exam.” I could not bring myself to tell them the stories of law graduates who did not sit for the bar examination, not because they wanted a legal education to enhance another profession, but because they did not care to be a lawyer.
The survey also revealed what I consider to be an anachronism, but perhaps I’m missing something. Of the mothers who were surveyed, 55 percent expressed interest in their children marrying attorneys. Yet only 38 percent of fathers shared that view. Is it a matter of bragging rights? I’ve heard plenty of people brag about their children. Goodness, I’ve done that. I’ve also heard people brag about the fact that their child married a person of a particular profession. Perhaps it’s a matter of having someone in the family to do the estate planning, handle the real estate settlement, or defend someone charged with a crime. At a discount, I suppose. I thought we had moved past characterizing someone by the occupation of a spouse and were concerned more with caring about someone being in a happy relationship.
What the survey does not disclose is whether lawyer is the favorite occupation desired by parents for their children, or by mothers as the career of potential children-in-law. Turning again to my anecdotal experiences, it seems that putting someone into medical school comes first, with law school as the destination of the second child, or the first one if medical school is beyond reach. Perhaps not much has changed, other than the details, from the days when the first son inherited the land, title, or business, the second went to the military, the third went to the church. I wonder how many of those children were happy about where they ended up.
Wednesday, June 05, 2013
The latest group of erroneous Code-size claims to come to my attention is particularly troubling. Journalists, tax professionals, and even a tax law professor can’t get it right.
In The Tax-Code Mess, Chris Edwards, associated with the Cato Institute, asserted that the “total quantity of federal tax rules is gigantic” and that CCH “collects all the paperwork in one volume, and it currently spans 73,608 pages.” When Andrew Sullivan commented on Edwards’ post, one of Sullivan’s readers criticized Edwards’ 73,608-page claim. He wrote, “The ‘tax rules’ do not span 73,608 pages . . . The standard CCH edition of the Code is 5,500 pages long, but that is highly misleading. That volume is targeted at tax practitioners and includes old statutory provisions that have been repealed or revised.” Edwards was offended. In Tax Complexity: Am I a Liar?, Edwards offered this rejoinder: “I don’t understand why people make such snarky comments when they clearly haven’t done their homework. . . . Now, about those “lies.” CCH itself publicizes the data I used showing federal tax rules spanning 73,608 pages. The CCH folks have been publishing information on federal taxation since 1913, so they know what they are talking about. Note that I said tax ‘rules’ not tax ‘code.’ The total rules that tax practitioners have to take into account are lengthier than just the code and regulations, and that’s what the broader CCH publication captures.” Good try, Mr. Edwards, but here is some homework review for you. The 73,608 pages in the CCH publication contains not only “rules” but also huge amounts of material that do not qualify as rules, such as annotations, obsolete and amended provisions, commentary, planning tips, visualizations, citation histories, and a variety of other useful information that are simply not rules. Chris Edwards is an economist, who serves as Director of Tax Policy Studies. As a tax professional, he owes it to his readers to understand the difference between rules and things that are not rules.
In The Irony Of An Internet Tax That Demands Simplification, Steven Malanga not only tells his readers that the Internal Revenue Code contains nearly 4 million words, but also calls it the “IRS code.” If someone with as extensive a resume as Malanga, associated with the Manhattan Institute, can’t get it right, who will? And how much confidence should anyone place in anything else that is being asserted? As someone writing about tax issues, Malanga owes it to his readers to get it right.
From P. J. O’Rourke in Taxes Are a Fraud!, we get the news that according to the Government Printing Office, the Internal Revenue Code fills 16,845 pages. To that claim, someone submitted a comment stating that O’Rourke was wrong because the Code fills 72,000 pages. So, doing the research that someone apparently did not do, I went to the GPO website and downloaded the Internal Revenue Code. This version also contains substantial annotations, including amending acts and other extraneous information. The number of pages is 3,837, not 16,845, and certainly not 72,000. Take out the material that is not part of the Code and that 3,837 number shrinks quite a bit.
From Frank Gillispie comes this quip: “But I recently found a statistic that boils my blood. Did you know that the Internal Revenue Service now has 73,554 pages of rules and regulations about our taxes?” Where did you find this “statistic,” Mr. Gillispie? Any chance of a link? And, did you know that the “rules and regulations” come from Congress and the Treasury Department? And that 73,554 pages claim? That includes all sorts of material that doesn’t qualify as a rule or as a regulation. As a journalist, you owe it to your readers to do more than pass on misinformation.
In 3.8 Million and Counting: The Complexity and Wordiness of Tax Law, Marjorie Gell, a tax law professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, repeats Tax Advocate Nina Olson’s claim that the Internal Revenue Code contains 3.8 million words. She concludes it would take 212 hours of reading, at 300 words per minute, to get through the Code. As I pointed out in Tax Ignorance Gone Viral, Olson’s conclusion reflects some sort of number that ignores reality. It most likely was generated not by Olson but to an underling to whom she assigned the task. All one needs to do is to obtain a copy of the Code itself, examine it, and figure out it does not contain 3.8 million words. The annotated Code, which comes in at roughly 2,000 pages, would need to have 1900 words per page in order to reach the 3.8 million mark. But let’s face it, anyone who has read the Code cover to cover, as I have on several occasions, knows that it takes far fewer than 212 hours. That alone is a huge clue that something is wrong with the 3.8 million claim. Every tax professional needs to read the entire Internal Revenue Code, at least once in his or her professional career. Yes, it’s long. No, it doesn’t take 212 hours.
There are those who wonder why I persist in criticizing ignorance, especially on the part of tax professionals. Three things come to mind. First, if we tolerate, and thus enable, ignorance on something this simple, we will end up tolerating ignorance on more serious issues. Wait, we already are. Ignorance is an infection, and if it is not confined and eliminated, it spoils entire systems. Second, many of the people making these outlandish claims are doing so to emphasize the fact that the Code is a mess and the tax law needs to be fixed. I agree that the Code is a mess and needs to be repaired, but making ignorant claims in support of the position weakens the credibility of those advocating tax reform. The outlandish claim suggests that there is little confidence on their part that they can succeed if they stick to the facts. One can show the mess that the tax law has become without dishing out ignorant statements. Third, if we fail to stand up to ignorance, we let despair triumph over hope. Once upon a time, almost everyone in Europe was convinced that the world was flat, and that someone sailing west would fall off the edge. Once that foolishness was disproven, somehow we arrived at the point where almost everyone knows that the world is a globe. If we can remove flat-earth ignorance from 99.999% of the world, we surely can remove the 70,000-page Internal Revenue Code ignorance. And we ought to do so, before ignorance becomes the defining characteristic of the species.
Monday, June 03, 2013
Another issue was presented to the court. The corporation claimed a deduction for all of the compensation that it paid to its employees. The corporation did not claim any general business credits, including the section 45A Indian employment credit. The IRS concluded that the corporation was entitled to that credit, reduced by the section 38(c) credit limitation. Accordingly, under section 280C(a), the IRS reduced the amount of the corporation’s compensation deduction by the amount of the section 45A credit. The reduction in tax liability caused by the credit was less than the reduction in tax liability caused by claiming all of the compensation as a deduction rather than the reduced amount of the compensation.
The corporation raised two arguments in opposition to the IRS position. First, it argued that the section 45A credit is not mandatory. Second, it argued that if a reduction in the compensation deduction were appropriate, the reduction should be the amount of the credit after application of section 38(c)(1) and not the gross amount of the credit before application of section 38(c)(1). It is the first argument that most interests me.
Six years ago, in No Thanks, Uncle Sam, You Can Keep Your Tax Break, I addressed the question of whether deductions and credits are mandatory or optional. I concluded that they are optional, unless there is specific statutory or other authority reaching the opposite conclusion with respect to a specific deduction or credit. In this case, the Tax Court’s specific holding was that the corporation’s compensation deduction must be reduced, under section 280C(a), by “that portion of the wages or salaries paid or incurred for the taxable year which is equal to the sum of the credits determined for the taxable year under sections 45A(a), . . .” The Court emphasized that the key word is “determined” and that it means something other than claimed, allowed, or allowable. The Court pointed out that section 45A itself does not “allow” a credit, but simply provides for an “amount . . . determined” which in turn is part of the section 38(a) general business credit. The Court also pointed out that other elements of the section 38(a) general business credit, in other words, other credits, are permissive.
Technically, the issue was whether the compensation deduction should be reduced under section 280C(a). The answer clearly is that it must. That issue, however, is a different issue from whether the section 45A credit must be claimed. In this instance, the corporation, compelled to reduce its compensation deduction, relented and accepted the use of the credit because at that point there was no advantage in forgoing the credit. Perhaps under other circumstances, a taxpayer will reduce the compensation deduction and yet conclude it is better off not claiming the credit. The Uniband decision does not prohibit taking that return position. It simply mandates the reduction of the compensation deduction.
Interestingly, the corporation pointed out that it would have been better off, tax-wise, if it had hired fewer Indians. The Court agreed. The corporation also pointed out that because Congress intended the section 45A credit to encourage the hiring of Indians, the Court’s interpretation of section 280C(a) conflicted with that Congressional purpose. The Court, however, explained that because the language of section 280C(a) is unambiguous, the intent of Congress is overshadowed.
Once again, better drafting by the Congress would have better served this corporation, and Indian tribes generally, but once again, the statutory framework is unnecessarily self-conflicted. If the goal is to maximize Indian employment, then taxpayers ought to be given the flexibility necessary to make that goal attainable. Worse, one wonders why the Congress insists on using the tax code rather than direct spending grants to encourage its goal of maximizing Indian employment. The cynics would answer that it permits Congress to spend money while claiming that it is reducing taxes and not spending money. And I would agree.
Friday, May 31, 2013
An Indian tribe, together with a domestic corporation, formed a corporation. Eventually the Indian tribe came to own all of the stock of the corporation. The corporation filed a consolidated return with the Indian tribe. The IRS issued a notice of deficiency on several grounds, including the unavailability of the consolidated return for an Indian tribe and a corporation. The corporation argued in response that it was tax-exempt because it was owned by an Indian tribe.
The Tax Court held that although Indian tribes are tax-exempt, corporations owned by Indian tribes are not tax-exempt unless they are an integral part of the tribe. The Court expressed doubt that the “integral part” test applied, but rather than resolving that issued, determined that the corporation was not an integral part of the tribe. The Court rested its conclusion on six points: (1) the corporation is a commercial venture and does not perform government functions, (2) the corporation functions in its own name and on its own behalf, (3) the corporation was not solely owned by the tribe during its first three years and nothing prevents its shares from being sold to owners other than Indian tribes, (4) the tribe lacks the right to manage directly the corporation’s operations, (5) the tribe’s ability to liquidate or indirectly control the corporation arises from the tribe’s position as sole shareholder and not from statutory authority, and (6) the corporation does not lack financial autonomy from the tribe nor depend on it for payment of operating expenses.
The Tax Court also rejected the corporation’s assertion that it has sovereign immunity and thus cannot be taxed. The Court concluded that the corporation failed to establish that it has sovereign immunity, and also failed to demonstrate that having sovereign immunity would make it an integral part of the tribe.
As for the consolidated return, the Tax Court held that the Indian tribe is not a corporation with which the corporation could join in filing a consolidated return. The court also held that even if the tribe were considered to be a corporation, it did not make a consolidated return, did not consent to the consolidated return, and did not report its items on the consolidated return.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Had the reader who did the computations used 5 pounds instead of 20 pounds, he would have concluded that the Code weighed 20 pounds. He had used my estimate of a 2,000 page Code, which he treated as equivalent to 4 reams, and multiplied 4 reams by 20 pounds, to reach the 80 pound conclusion. Multiply 4 reams by 5 pounds generates a 20 pound conclusion.
Even so adjusted, the reader’s estimate is double what I measured using a bathroom scale. The difference reflects the fact that 2,000 pages requires 1,000 sheets of paper. There also is the difference in paper thickness, and a difference in size, with my Code being 7 inches by 10 inches and not 8.5 inches by 11 inches.
Is it possible to compute the number of pages in the annotated Code that I weighed by using its weight? I think a fairly good estimate can be obtained. If a standard ream of 8.5 inches by 11 inches weighs 5 pounds, then a ream of paper that is 7 inches by 10 inches weighs 3.75 pounds ((70/93.5) x 5). Thus, the 10-pound annotated Code uses 2.67 reams of 7 inch by 10 inch paper. But that paper is thinner, so to weigh 10 pounds, the annotated Code must contain closer to 3 reams, which is 1500 sheets. With two-sided printing, that is the equivalent of 3,000 pages.
If there are 3,000 pages in the annotated Code, there surely are fewer pages in the actual Code after the annotations are stripped out. The annotations are roughly one-third to one-half of the text. They contain effective date and other provisions not in the Code itself, text of the Code as it existed before amendment, and editorial notations, along with editorial “front matter” and an index. Thus, the Code itself would contain roughly 1,500 to 2,000 pages.
That this approach generates a conclusion very much in the ballpark with my earlier conclusion (discussed in Bush Pages Through the Tax Code?, Anyone Want to Count the Words in the Internal Revenue Code?, Tax Commercial’s False Facts Perpetuates Falsehood, How Tax Falsehoods Get Fertilized, A Slight Improvement in the Code Length Articulation Problem, and Tax Ignorance Gone Viral) of a 2,000-page Code is not surprising, and it corroborates my conclusion that the claims of a Code containing tens of thousands of pages indeed are the erroneous assertions that I have demonstrated them to be. What remains is for this information to be circulated in the same viral manner as have what I will generously tag as “mistaken” Code-length claims.
Monday, May 27, 2013
Undoubtedly, though some disagree, taxes are the price paid for civilized society. And civilized society is something more than grabbing all that one can grab, yelling “It’s mine,” and looking for ways to use others as stepping stones for entry into an artificial economic elite.
But none of the discussion would or could take place were it not for the sacrifice of those who paid taxes in a different currency while purchasing civilized society for this nation. They paid with lost limbs. They paid with lost sight, and lost hearing. They paid with lost dreams. They paid with blood.
Previous Memorial Day posts:
Free, Freedom, Fees, and Taxes
Memorial Day, Taxes, and Remembering the Future
Memorial Day: Why a Holiday From Taxes?
Honoring Those That Serve
Memorial Day: How Important are Taxes Really?
A Memorial Day Essay on War and Taxation
Gasoline and War
Friday, May 24, 2013
Several days ago, this reader shared with me his experiment with determining the size of the Code. He had purchased 500 sheets of 8.5-by-11-inch copy paper. He noticed that the package indicated it weighed 20 pounds. Using my estimate that the Code is about 2000 pages long, and not the absurd claims of 50,000 or 75,000 pages, he calculated the weight of the Code at 80 pounds (the equivalent of 4 500-sheet 20-pound packages of paper). He concluded that if the Code weighed 80 pounds, he would not be able to pick it up to read. So he did some more research. He determined that a piece of paper weighs .16 of an ounce. Thus, 2,000 pages would weigh 20 pounds (.16 x 2000, divided by 16). He then suggested that I go to the post office or the meat department at a grocery store to weigh my copy of the Code.
When the reader suggested I weigh the Code, I used a trick I learned when I needed to weigh a suitcase. I weighed myself on the bathroom scale. I then picked up my 2-volume CCH Internal Revenue Code, and weighed myself again. The difference? 10 pounds, or roughly 5 pounds for each volume. Keep in mind that the 2-volume CCH version of the Code includes not only the Code, but a huge amount of amending acts, text of the Code as existing before each amendment, and effective date information.
Why the difference between my 10-pound outcome and the reader’s 20-pound result? There are three reasons. First, 2,000 pages require 1,000 sheets of paper because both sides are used. Second, the weight of the paper in the CCH volumes is lower than the weight of copy paper because the paper is thin. It’s almost onion-skin paper, which many people probably haven’t ever experienced. Third, the reader was weighing paper that is 8.5 by 11 inches. The CCH code pages are 7 inches by 10 inches. The CCH pages, at 70 square inches, are 25% reduction from the 93.5 square inches of letter-sized paper.
So, when someone says that the tax code weighs heavily on them, they surely aren’t intending to be literal. Unless, of course, they are foolish enough to continue believing the absurd claim that the Internal Revenue Code contains tens of thousands of pages.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Napolitano begins, in his very first sentence, with the nonsense claim that the nation has “a tax code that exceeds 72,000 pages in length.” Even though I don’t expect Napolitano to have read posts such as Bush Pages Through the Tax Code?, Anyone Want to Count the Words in the Internal Revenue Code?, Tax Commercial’s False Facts Perpetuates Falsehood, How Tax Falsehoods Get Fertilized, A Slight Improvement in the Code Length Articulation Problem, and Tax Ignorance Gone Viral, which explain why that claim is wrong, I do expect someone with a law school education to have the ability to determine the length of the tax or any other legal code, and to get it right. As I tell my students, it’s not a disaster if you can’t figure something out, but it becomes a catastrophe when you don’t bother to ask for help in figuring it out.
Napolitano then claims that social security and income taxes are nothing more or less than theft. Somewhere he missed the class in which it was explained that without taxes there is no government, without government there is no civilization, and without civilization there is no justice. The notion that taxes constitute theft reflect the mindset of someone who is accustomed to getting and taking, without paying. That is what infants understandably do, but at some point infants need to mature and understand that highways, police protection, health, retirement security, and national defense don’t just appear without payment the way baby bottles and baby food is handed to the infant. Folks like Napolitano, who worked hard to get where there are but who think they did it all on their own, fail to acknowledge the contribution that everyone else has made to their success.
Napolitano then describes social security as a Ponzi scheme. He claims it was intended to cause voters to become dependent on “Roosevelt’s Democrats” and to provide “minimal financial assistance to those too old to work.” He claims – and this canard has gone viral – that because average life expectancy was 61 years of age but social security was not available until age 65, that the system “was geared to take money from the average American worker that he would never see returned.” Here’s how it works, your honor. It’s called insurance. In fact, the official name is Federal Insurance Contributions Act. The “I” in FICA is for insurance. And how does insurance work? It’s one of the few things in life where we really don’t mind paying and not recovering. I’m confident Napolitano has paid homeowner’s insurance premiums. I don’t know if he has collected, and with any luck and care he hasn’t. And that’s good. To collect on homeowner’s insurance, automobile insurance, or any other liability insurance, something bad has to happen. In the case of social security, the bad that happens is that a person lives past the point of working age without having amassed sufficient financial resources, perhaps because of bad health, perhaps because of being laid off, or perhaps because a corporate employer breached its promise to pay a pension, which is not unlike what happened when in the 1920s. Insurance is not a Ponzi scheme. Everyone in the insurance pool pays, but not everyone collects. Is social security perfect? No. Should it be paying benefits to those who don’t need the insurance? Probably not. Should the retirement age be increased in light of longer life expectancies? Probably. But the fact that it – like every other insurance program has required from time to time – needs to be tweaked does not make it theft. But perhaps Napolitano and his ilk think that people who pay fire insurance premiums and who do not collect because their properties have not burned down have been robbed by the insurance company.
Napolitano claims – in another assertion gone viral – that Roosevelt designed social security using “a system established in Italy by Mussolini.” Actually, long before Roosevelt was elected and Mussolini came to power, social justice advocates had advanced the notion of financially secure retirement, along with other horrifying ideas such as fair wages, safe working conditions, social justice, and full employment. The fact that Roosevelt and Mussolini each adopted some pieces of this worldview doesn’t make social security a creature of Mussolini anymore than Napolitano’s purchase of an automobile model favored by criminals an indication that Napolitano bases his policies on decisions by wrongdoers. This sort of twisting of facts is a long-established, clever, but wickedly inappropriate debating technique.
Napolitano claims that over time the social security system “was paying out more money than it was taking in.” That’s just flat-out false. Social Security has collected far more than it has paid out, in anticipation of payments to be made in the future, just as insurance companies establish reserves. What is true is that if things continue as they are, at some point in the future the system will reach the point of having paid out what it has collected and then having no funds to make further payments. But it’s also possible – though unlikely – that some new avian flu would wipe out so many people that social security will be relieved of a good portion of the actuarially expected future payments. What needs to be discussed is the fact that the social security system has invested those reserves in federal debt obligations issued to fund the deficits amassed by the geniuses who cut taxes while authorizing trillions in spending on undeclared wars (including not only Afghanistan and Iran, but also Vietnam, Grenada, and a long list of military actions undertaken by politicians of both political parties).
Napolitano then worships at the feet of Ron Paul, thrilled with the latter’s response to a young man who asked “If I earn a dollar, how much of it am I entitled to keep?” Paul responded, “All of it.” But why didn’t Paul, or the young man, or anyone else ask, “If I drive on a street, how much am I obligated to pay? If I put trash out at the curb and it disappears, how much am I obligated to pay? If I go to a public park, how much am I obligated to pay? If my house is being robbed and I call for help, how much am I obligated to pay?” Napolitano, in league with those who denounce so-called “takers” and who criticize the entitlement mentality, is paying homage to a question resting on entitlement and ignoring the value of obligation and responsibility.
Napolitano argues that “government exists to work for us.” True, and it works fairly well – though not perfectly – for many people. But if it were to work well for Napolitano, it would be working badly for millions of Americans. The issue, of course, is that “us” is a very slippery word, and has no real meaning when held up against the philosophical, theological, economic, and social divisions that divide this nation. Napolitano’s reliance on the Constitution to prove that taxation is illegal ignores the fact that the Constitution contemplates and permits taxation, and has done so since its first draft.
When Napolitano likens tax collection to home invasion robberies, he demonstrates either that he totally misunderstands taxation, or that he likes taxation so long as he and his friends get to dictate what happens with tax receipts. He wasn’t writing like this five, seven, or ten years ago. He makes that clear when he deals with the Sixteenth Amendment, and instead of recognizing it as part of the Constitution, as it is, he condemns it as the work of “progressives [who] took over the government in the first decade of the 20th century.” You know. Progressives. Those awful people who believe in financially secure retirement, along with other horrifying ideas such as fair wages, safe working conditions, social justice, and full employment.
Napolitano and his friends argue against a process that they enthusiastically use when they are in full control of government. Why? Because if they shifted their focus to the substantive issues, they would fail miserably in trying to defend the things that they and their friends have done. And when they try to criticize substantive decisions, they end up looking foolish because for every instance they denounce, they and their friends are responsible for five, ten, or twenty as many. Thus the retreat to an attack on government and taxation, because to them, government is wonderful when they are in control, but an awful thing when the people speak and someone else is in control. Taxation is not theft, Napolitano knows that, and hopefully soon everyone else will also know that he is preaching what he knows is incorrect.
Monday, May 20, 2013
The challenge with taxes on activities or things that can disappear, such as a tax on cigarettes, is that they themselves can disappear. To the extent that a tax on a socially, medically, and economically disfavored practice has the effect of diminishing or eliminating that practice, the revenue raised by that tax will be diminished or eliminated. Whether such a tax should be used in lieu of more direct means of eliminating behavior detrimental to society is one question. But surely using such a tax as a reliable source of revenue is questionable. Some smokers interviewed for the article suggested that they, and others, would cut back or stop smoking if the tax were to be approved.
Interestingly, though opposition from smokers to the cigarette tax would be expected, at least one person changed his mind after he learned the purpose for the proposed tax increases. He noted that the schools “need help” and suggested that “They should raise it up even more.”
Of course, there is opposition to the tax. One opponent suggested that it is wrong to tax “something that someone has the right to” because “[i]t’s not illegal.” If taxation were to be limited to illegal activities and things, government would disappear. In the long run, that would free illegal activities and things to flourish, bringing demand for government intervention, and its accompanying need for revenue.
Friday, May 17, 2013
Julian Block Looks at Marriage, Divorce, Affairs, Engagements, and Cohabitation in the Shadow of Tax
The title of the book is somewhat misleading. Though Julian talks about the tax consequences of marriage and divorce, he also talks about other aspects of relationships that aren’t within the bounds of those two events. For example, he discusses the tax challenges facing gay and lesbian couples, pointing out that having their relationships treated as marriages for federal tax purposes isn’t necessarily the best outcome in every instance. The tax consequences of marriage can be good or bad for a heterosexual couple, depending on the circumstances and income levels, and the same variation in treatment awaits married gay and lesbian couples once their marriages are recognized. I could quibble with Julian’s predictions of whether that will happen, but in all fairness, he and I are tax guys and if we start making predictions with respect to other areas of the law, we’re both skating out to thinner ice. As another example, Julian addresses the tax issues that arise when “women . . . receive currency, cars, clothing, dwellings, furs, gems and other valuables from men with whom they are amorously involved.” He has such a nice way with words, Julian does.
Following his introduction, Julian provides a series of questions and answers that focus on concerns that are more likely than not to affect large numbers of couples, married or otherwise. By putting the questions and answers in conversational rather than technical language, Julian makes his book readable by the audience he is attempting to reach. Topics include not only the obvious alimony and property settlement concerns, but also filing status, child support, personal and dependency exemptions, and medical expense deductions, to name several.
Julian then turns to the topic of filing status, picking up on issues such as the marriage penalty and marriage bonus, death of a spouse, personal and dependency exemptions, and joint liability on joint returns. He discusses the tax treatment of legal fees, which can arise not only with respect to divorce but also when prenuptial agreements are being negotiated and drafted, and when child custody and support disputes arise whether or not the parents ever were married. He also provides a down-to-earth discussion of the tax problems faced by same-sex couples. He correctly points out that if the Supreme Court axes DOMA, same-sex couples need to visit their tax advisors sooner rather than later. Julian’s discussion of annulment contrasted with divorce is important. He uses the Kim Kardashian story to illustrate his point. For example, if an annulment was granted, any joint returns that had been filed need to be undone. Though, as I pointed out, Julian is a tax expert, he, not unlike yours truly, does not limit his intellectual pursuits to tax. His commentary on how the 72-day period of Kardashian’s marriage ties in to cabalistic methods of Scriptural interpretation should get the reader’s attention.
Ever aware of the practical side of tax, Julian again explores how a person can use tax returns to “unearth hubby’s hidden assets.” My quibble here is that there are times when it’s the wife who has assets that are squirreled away somewhere. But in his defense, “unearth hubby’s hidden assets” has a much better ring to it than “unearth spouse’s hidden assets.” Julian also provides some advice on dealing with the financial challenges of divorce, aside from the tax ramifications.
Because divorce often involves sale of the family residence, Julian includes a chapter on the tax consequences of home sales generally. He discusses the 3.8 percent surtax that applies to the unexcluded portion of home sale gains. He points out that this makes it even more important to dig out evidence of expenditures that increase adjusted basis in the residence. Because most married and divorced couples, and pretty much everyone else, eventually will receive social security benefits, Julian discusses how they are taxed, and how those computations come into play if the marriage or divorce takes place after one or both of the individuals has started receiving social security benefits.
What can I say that isn’t already evident in the title of the next chapter, “Having an Affair Can Be Taxing”? The stories, based on news reports and court cases, aren’t products of Julian’s imagination. As I tell my students, “We don’t need to make up this stuff.” Julian discusses not only traditional affairs but also the tax treatment of unmarried couples.
As he does with some of this other books, Julian appends several chapters dealing with issues that come up whether or not the primary transactions, in this case, marriage and divorce, are in play. He advises his readers how to deal with withholding computations, how to go about amending a return, how to make use of IRS publications, and how to get tax help. All of these situations affect huge numbers of taxpayers, many of whom can use the advice.
Not surprisingly, I recommend this book. It’s not the first book of Julian’s I’ve recommended, and I doubt it will be the last. He’s a prolific writer. I add this book to the list of his previous ones, "MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE: Savvy Ways For Persons Marrying, Married Or Divorcing To Trim Their Taxes - And They’re Legal," which I reviewed in Tax and Relationships: A Book to Read and Give (Feb. 2006), "THE HOME SELLER’S GUIDE TO TAX SAVINGS: Simple Ways For Any Seller To Lower Taxes To The Legal Minimum," reviewed in A New Book on Taxation of Residence Sales: Don't Leave Home Without It (Aug. 2006), "TAX TIPS FOR SMALL BUSINESSES: Savvy Ways For Writers, Photographers, Artists And Other Freelancers To Trim Taxes To The Legal Minimum," reviewed in A Tax Advice Book for People Who Write and Illustrate Books (Dec. 2006), "Year Round Tax Savings," reviewed in Another Tax Book for Tax and Non-Tax People to Read (Feb. 2007), "Travel and Moving Expenses: How To Take Maximum Advantage Of Every Tax Break The Law Allow," reviewed in Tax Travels and Tax Moves: Book It with Block (Sept 2007), "Ultimate Tax-Saving Resource '08," reviewed in Helping Tax Clients Understand Taxes (June 2008) and "Julian Block’s Tax Tips for Marriage and Divorce," reviewed in Julian Block Talks Tax with Married, Divorced, and Other Couples (Jan. 2011), “Tax Deductible Travel and Moving Expenses: How To Take Advantage Of Every Tax Break The Law Allows!,” reviewed in Julian Block: On the Road Again (July 2011), “Julian Block’s Easy Tax Guide for Writers, Photographers, and Other Freelancers,” reviewed in A Tax Book for Writers (and Others) (Oct 2011), and "Julian Block’s Tax Tips for Year Round Savings," reviewed in Tax Planning: A Chore That Never Sleeps (Jan. 2013).