Friday, December 30, 2005
I will consider today to be the end of the fall semester. I'm not certain when the fall semester ends. Certainly not when classes end, because examinations remain to be taken and graded. Perhaps on the last examination day, even though grades are not due until weeks into the spring semester? For me, because I am finished grading, and immersed in preparation of my spring courses, it suffices to treat today as the end of the fall semester.
So with the fall semester finished, at least as far as I am concerned, that means I have completed twenty-five, yes, 25, years of law school teaching. Or, if it seems more impressive, 50 semesters. I started when Jimmy Carter was serving the last days of his presidential term. I have worked through 191 legislative enactments that amended the Internal Revenue Code. I have taught the basic income tax course, under a variety of names, 28 times. I have taught Partnership Taxation in the Graduate Tax Program 45 times, and in a J.D. Program 12 times. I have taught Introduction to Taxation of Business Entities 13 times. I have taught Decedents' Trusts and Estates 16 times. I have taught some sort of Computers and the Law course 6 times. I have taught a half-dozen other tax courses anywhere from once to 6 times. I have taught Legal Writing and delivered Legal History lectures during law school orientation. The best estimate is that at least 4,000 students have sat in one or more of my courses. It has been a rewarding experience, especially when students who graduated 3, 5, 10 years ago contact me to tell me they finally figured out what it was about, that they've come to appreciate what I was trying to do to their brains, and that it eventually worked.
I'm sure you're wondering, so here's the answer. I had not yet reached the age of 30 when I began teaching law school. That doesn't set me apart, but it's somewhat unusual. I'll continue with my standard, though surprising, reaction of silence when people comment, "Oh, you must have started teaching in your early 20s." Right. The biggest dose of reality is the realization that, with a few exceptions, the law students now in my classes were not alive when I started teaching. That, according to my children (and others), makes me old.
I would be the person most surprised if I teach another 25 years. Theoretically, it could happen. Theoretically, I could be elected President. Theoretically. As a practical matter, since I don't expect to "celebrate" a Gold or Diamond Anniversary of teaching, I figured I'd make the most of this one and pat myself on the back. I'd buy myself a gift but I don't know what to get. :-)
As for professional writing, it is somewhat more likely that I might make it to a Gold Anniversary, depending on which publication counts as the first one. I'll ignore the student writings and start with the 1978 article about the election by nonresident aliens to file joint income tax returns. That puts me at 27 years, with 23 to go. It's possible.
Now let's see if MauledAgain can find its way to a Silver Anniversary of Blogging. Considering how I enjoy writing and talking, it could happen.
8. Best Law Professor Blog - Jim Maule's Mauled AgainThanks to Dennis Kennedy and to all the readers and subscribers who make it all worthwhile. To everyone, a happy New Year.
As Professor Maule says, his blog features "more than occasional commentary on tax law, legal education, the First Amendment, religion, and law generally, with sporadic attempts to connect all of this to genealogy, theology, music, model trains, and chocolate chip cookies." His blog also shows that you can write engaging and helpful commentary about the U.S. tax system. Mauled Again is a great read on any topic; I really enjoy the writing. Two other law prof blogs earn an honorable mention from me because I enjoy reading them so much: Paul Caron's TaxProf Blog and Tun Ying's The Yin Blog (among other things, we like some of the same TV shows).
Thursday, December 29, 2005
So what DO you get that tax practitioner in your life? Well, if he or she does not have a blog, and has hesitated to enter the tax blogosphere because the technical part is daunting, there is an alternative. [redacted], a former student who graduated ten years ago from Villanova's Graduate Tax Program, has come up with a turnkey solution. The tax practitioner does the writing and [his] solution takes care of the rest of it. Visit him at [redacted], which offers [redacted].
Because I find the technical part so easy, I too often forget how intimidating it is, even to tax folks. And I'm still mulling over the fact that Scott graduated ten years ago. An entire decade? Whew.
And, no, don't ask me how to wrap this sort of gift. I'd probably write a note and then get all sorts of comments about my lack of creativity. :-)
[Note: redactions made 12 Aug 2010 at request of former student]
Let's start with a little background.
These two phaseouts were enacted in 1990 as part of a Congressional subterfuge, or deceit, foisted upon the American citizenry. When public officials deceive citizens, problems arise. In this particular instance, Congress wanted to raise taxes without raising tax rates, because it concluded that it could tell Americans that it did not raise taxes by pointing to unchanged tax rates. However, "clever" minds figured out that if deductions, in this case itemized deductions and the deduction for personal and dependency exemptions, were reduced, the effect would be an increase in tax revenues. In other words, Congress "discovered" that it could raise taxes without raising tax rates and thus trumpet a self-serving proclamation that it had not raised taxes. The simple word for this is lying.
The mechanics of these hidden tax increases was not so simple. In fact, it added bucketfuls of complexity to the Code. As a taxpayer's adjusted gross income increases above a specified threshold, an increasing percentage of the particular deduction group is reduced. The word for this nonsense is phaseout. The phaseout of the personal and dependency deduction (called PEP) begins at one set of thresholds, but the phaseout of itemized deductions (called Pease after the foolish member of Congress who let his name be forever attached to this travesty of complexity and deception) begins at another set of thresholds. There are four thresholds for the PEP phaseout, depending on filing status, and there are two thresholds for the Pease phaseout. The mechanics of the phaseout differ. The Pease phaseout, which requires an entire Code section, is based on 3 percent of the amount by which adjusted gross income exceeds the applicable threshold. The PEP phaseout, which somehow fits into a mere Code paragraph is based on 2 percentage points for each whole or multiple $2500 contained within the excess of adjusted gross income over the applicable threshold. No, I'm not making this up. Take a look at section 68 and at section 151(d)(3). The Pease phaseout does not apply to certain "protected" itemized deductions, whereas the PEP phaseout applies to all personal and dependency exemption deductions. The Pease phaseout is cut off once 80 percent of unprotected itemized deductions have been denied to the taxpayer, whereas the PEP phaseout can wipe out all of a taxpayer's personal and dependency deductions.
These phaseouts are excellent examples of how the tax law becomes complex. In this instance, the complexity arises not from the nature of the underlying transaction subjected to taxation but from the unwillingness of members of Congress to be honest with the American citizen. Nor was it accidental complexity. Members of Congress were told that the complexity was required in order to mask the tax increases. Nonetheless, Congress went along with these amendments because their political aspirations were more important to them than were the values of truth, integrity and decency. Understand that not all members of Congress at the time bought into this charade, and also understand that Congress finally decided to eliminate the phaseouts as part of an attempt to simplify the Code.
In the interest of disclosure, I have campaigned against these phaseouts from the start. For example, take a look at my letter to the editor, "Author, Don't Phase Out the Phaseouts, Kill Them," 70 Tax Notes 911 (1996). From July of 1996 through July of 1999, I chaired the Phaseout Tax Elimination Project of the American Bar Association's Section of Taxation Committee on Tax Structure and Simplification. The major accomplishment of that Project was the Report of the ABA Tax Section Committee on Tax Structure and Simplification: Phaseout Tax Elimination Project, issued in July 1997. Almost a year later, the elimination proposal found light of day in H.R. 4053, introduced by Mr. Neal, for himself and Mr. Rangel (June 11, 1998), and eventually found its way into enacted legislation through a path too long and tortured to recount in detail.
Let's turn now to why the report of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is flawed. There are five major deficiencies in its reasoning.
First, the hidden tax increase does not fall solely on the "wealthy," unless one's definition of wealthy is anyone earning more than $145,950 a year (or even less for married taxpayers filing separate returns). That may sound like a lot of money, especially to those earning $60,000 a year, but people earning $150,000, $200,000 or even $300,000 are in a totally different economic world than those earning $1,000,000, $10,000,000 or $100,000,000 a year. People earning $150,000 a year, who are trying to support a spouse and raise several children, share with those earning $60,000 a year a need to budget their money carefully, whereas those earning in the millions annually rarely if ever count their pennies and dollars. If $150,000 of annual income makes a person "wealthy," then the term "ultrawealthy" gets tagged onto those earning $500,000 or $1,000,000 a year, leaving us at a loss for words to describe the celebrities, athletes, corporate executives and others who pull down tens of millions of dollars a year.
Second, the PEP and Pease phaseouts exacerbate the marriage penalty. Assume two single individuals, each with adjusted gross income under the applicable phaseouts, decide to marry. Their combined adjusted gross income makes them subject to phaseouts that cause their tax liability to increase disproportionately. Of course, this impact also strengthens the marriage bonus, the tax savings that arises when one spouse earns little or no income compared to the other spouse. In fact, one of the several reasons that the PEP and Pease phaseouts were scheduled for elimination was the attempt to eliminate the marriage penalty. There are other contributing factors to the marriage penalty, such as the adjusted gross income limitation on deduction of active management passive rental losses, which have not yet been "repaired," but that's no reason not to fix the mess that the Congress created in 1990.
Third, the PEP and Pease phaseouts contribute significantly to one of the three major "bubbles" in the effective income tax rate array. A "bubble" is a range of taxable incomes that encounter higher effective tax rates than do incomes higher than taxable incomes in that range. For example, if a person earning $120,000 would incur an additional $4 of tax by earning an additional $10 of income but a person earning $1,000,000 would incur an additional $3 of tax by earning an additional $10 of income, there is a "bubble" in the chart mapping the effective tax rates, because the person with the lower income is being taxed at a higher rate than the person with the higher income. This phenomenon is a feature of a regressive tax. The three bubbles incidentally, are those caused by the earned income tax credit phaseout, the phase-in of social security benefit taxation, and the PEP/Pease deduction phaseout. Features of the tax code that cause bubbles are regressive and need to be repealed. Ironically, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report claims that the scheduled elimination of the PEP and Pease phaseouts is regressive, but the flaw in that argument is that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report begins its analysis with PEP and Pease phaseouts as status quo, rather than using a baseline that reflects undistorted taxable income computation. The truth of the matter is that the PEP and Pease phaseouts are tax increases on those in the middle of the effective tax rate array and not on those in the upper reaches of income, because those taxpayers encounter lower effective tax rates on marginal income thanks to the "completion" of the phase-out.
Fourth, PEP and Pease add boatloads of complexity to the tax law. Not only are the phaseouts themselves complicated, one requiring a full Code section and the other generating a long and byzantine Code paragraph, the interaction of the phaseouts with other areas of the tax law generate all sorts of issues. For example, application of the tax benefit rule to refunds of state and local taxes, or similar returns of itemized deductions, stymied the IRS and commentators until, finally, a "workable" solution was ascertained. When the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report claims " In fact, complying with Pease and PEP involves a few simple arithmetic calculations," it honors the tradition of deceptiveness associated with the enactment of the two phaseouts. The complexity is much, much more than "simple arithmetic" and this sort of thinking is what happens when a tax law provision is analyzed in isolation rather than in the context of the entire tax law. In all fairness, there are few people left on the planet who can grasp the entire tax law, let alone analyze one provision in the context of the entire array. Worse, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report claims " Moreover, to the extent that the provisions do create complexity, they impose it on those households that are typically best able to cope with it: high-income taxpayers who most often have professionals calculate their taxes or use a software package that would automatically handle the Pease and PEP calculations." This perspective, that complexity is acceptable because there are people who can be paid to cut through the thicket, is thoroughly unacceptable as a matter of public policy, not only on the basis of efficiency and utilitarian choice, but also on the basis of moral integrity.
Fifth, the PEP and Pease phaseouts are the offspring of deceit. Even though the deceit was no secret at the time Congress engaged in it, it is deceit nonetheless. Those who justifiably complain about surreptitious behavior by public officials surely must include the supporters of PEP and Pease phaseouts among those whom they criticize. And unlike some of the secretive and deceptive behavior that is the target of the critics, PEP and Pease do not involve national security. There is no justification at all for PEP and Pease other than the desire of Congress to raise taxes in a manner that permitted it to claim that the untouched section 1 tax rates meant that it had not raised taxes even though it had raised taxes.
Here's the solution. If Congress chooses to impose progressively higher taxes on persons with progressively higher incomes, do so in the tax rate schedules. Using phaseouts injects regressivity ("bubbles") into the effective tax rate array. A truly progressive tax requires that the rates be in the progressive tax rate array. Once this is understood, it is easy to see why the phaseout elimination proposal found support among members of Congress who genuinely support progressive tax rate structures.
It may well have been that in 1990 a majority of the members of Congress figured they could fool most of the people most of the time when it comes to gaming the tax code, but unfortunately there are a few of us around who have seen through the deception from the start. Here's hoping that this short commentary will add to the list of those who understand what's going on. As for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, my guess is that it reflects good intentions framed in a bona fide misunderstanding of what the Pease and PEP phaseouts do. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report appears to support progressivity, and hopefully the Center will re-think its position rather than continue to be sucked into the whirlpool of clever deceit that causes the super-duper-ultra-pick-a-big-word-wealthy to get away with lower effective marginal tax rates than do those with far less income than those on the top of the income array. It would be a shame if the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continued to be duped, especially now that the PEP and Pease phaseout scam has been exposed and is on its way to a well-deserved but unfortunately slow-in-coming death.
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Last month the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) issued its annual report on the tax gap. Yes, this is another one of those posts that has been waiting in line to get some attention. To be fair (to myself), although it carries a November date it actually was made available in early December and came to my attention just a little more than a week ago.
The tax gap, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the difference between income that is reported to the IRS and income that should have been reported to the IRS. The BEA uses economic data from other sources, such as payroll information provided to state and federal agencies, to determine how much income of a particular sort was derived by taxpayers. It then uses IRS data to determine how much of that income was reported.
The tax gap for calendar year 2003, the latest year for which sufficient statistical information is currently available, is $1.0417 trillion. Yes, more than $1 trillion. Compute the tax on that amount, pay it to the Treasury, and re-determine the budget deficit. Of course, if the tax on $1 trillion is paid to the Treasury and not on consumer purchases and business investments, the economy might shrink and reduce the amount of income earned by those who are reporting properly to the IRS. On the other hand, perhaps much of the tax on the $1 trillion that hasn't been paid to the Treasury instead has been sunk into off-shore investments or otherwise removed from the economy. The reality most likely is some combination of the two extremes I've just described.
It's interesting to ponder the BEA's breakdown of the gap. According to the report, the largest gap, $407.7 billion, is non-farm sole proprietorships. The second largest gap, $346.9 billion, is wages, followed by $145.7 billion of interest and dividends, and $102.9 billion of taxable pensions and annuities. The rest is distributed among farm income ($20.3 billion), taxable unemployment compensation ($9.8 billion), and taxable social security benefits ($8.4 billion). The surprise is the gap for wage income. What ever happened to withholding, and could it be that the high compliance rate for wages is no longer valid? I'm not surprised that huge amounts of sole proprietor income or even interest and dividend income goes unreported.
One must wonder what motivates noncompliance. Perhaps some psychologists will conduct surveys to determine if it simply greed, or a growing rebellion in which people are "voting with their feet" by appropriating unto themselves their own special tax break that they cannot get through the Congress because they lack the clout of the lobbyists who have managed to reduce the tax on capital gains to extremely low levels. How much of the noncompliance is simple ignorance, stupidity, carelessness, or confusion? How much of the gap arises from people trying to hide information about the activities generating the income?
Some people may not realize they are contributing to the tax gap, because they are making good faith efforts to comply with an absurdly and unjustifiably complex income tax system. Others know full well what they are doing when they engage in "pay cash, pay less" schemes, launder money, or simply fail to file. I suppose this reflects our culture, for surely it resembles what one finds on our highways: drivers who try to comply and succeed, drivers who are ignorant, stupid, careless and confused, and drivers who think they are so much more important than or better than everyone else that they flaunt whatever rules get in the way of their own self-centered approach to life.
A fun calculation is to determine how much tax has not been paid on the tax gaps for 2002, 2001, 2000, and earlier years, add interest and penalties, and imagine what happens if Treasury had the ability to collect the total amount due. The shock to the world economy might be staggering. We'll never know, because Treasury lacks the ability to collect even a minute fraction of this amount. Why? Because Congress has not implemented a system that ensures all taxpayers pay their fair shares.
Until Congress does two things, the tax gap will continue to grow, and the ultimate outcome might be far worse than the impact of quadrupled prices for oil and gas, shortages of concrete, or devastating hurricanes. Congress must reform the income tax system so that it is easy to understand, inviting of compliance, and difficult to evade. Congress must also put in place safeguards that prevent noncompliance and punish tax evaders. Ideally, a well-designed system that prevents tax evasion will reduce the number of tax evaders and thus reduce the need for prosecution of tax evaders. Law enforcement could then redirect more resources to the prevention of, and prosecution of, other crimes.
Oh, yes, the tax gap as a percentage of what should have been reported? 14.4 percent. That means one of every seven taxable income dollars in the economy during 2003 went unreported and untaxed. I'll venture a guess that when the 2004 analysis is reported next year, the gap will be at least 15 percent.
One last way to think about the tax gap. Of every dollar in taxes that a compliant taxpayer sends to the Treasury, approximately 15 cents is to cover the taxes not paid by someone who is deliberately or accidentally not paying tax. At what point will the outcry of disapproval motivate Congress to act, and act sensibly?
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
There is nothing in the article about taxes. It's all about entertainment, and things such as "welcome baskets in their hotel rooms, multiple parties, tours of the city, and post-wedding brunches." If the right location is chosen, guests can be treated to a fine view of the midnight fireworks, the New Year's Day Mummers Parade, and an elimination of worries about not having a date for New Year's Eve. The New Year's Eve wedding business, according to the establishments hosting them, is booming. Topping it off is this sentiment, "And the symbolism of starting a new life together in the new year is sooo romantic."
I suppose that folks in a position to handle the additional cost, reflecting markups as high as 20 percent, might not be too concerned about marriage penalties and marriage bonuses. Love, I guess, is so blind. Ha. So few people talk with their tax advisors BEFORE doing things like getting married, starting businesses, buying out shareholders, or engaging in transactions accompanied by serious tax planning issues.
The article, by the way, doesn't mention if the folks who are booking New Year's Eve wedding dates at what no longer are open public admission celebration venues are tax practitioners. Nor does it mention if these are weddings between people one of whom is in a much higher income bracket than is the other, thus accelerating the potential marriage bonus and demonstrating good tax planning. I wonder how many of these couples face marriage penalties, and will get a rude shock a few months later when they discover that the withholding and estimated tax payments done at unmarried rates are very inadequate for joint returns. Oh, who cares? Love conquers all, right?
The kicker is this quote from one of the grooms mentioned in the story: "I'll never forget my anniversary." The best anniversary remembrance story in a tax context I ever heard was from a fellow who married on April 15. That, he explained, was a date that had been etched in his mind for years. He is NOT a tax practitioner and never had been. He's a very successful business entrepreneur. And he says he never forgot his wedding anniversary. His wife agreed.
Hint to all wedding planners: become friends with a tax type. It may be worth it in the long run. And you'll discover that tax types can make good friends, once you get past the stereotype. And then you can give back all these New Year's Eve party locations to the general public. And if you still need a holiday for a wedding, as if the wedding itself is insufficient reason to celebrate, I suggest that if Valentine's Day is too cliched and too booked, try Thanksgiving or Labor Day (pun intended). And steer clear of Independence Day (pun also intended and I'll duck for cover on this one, ha ha).
Monday, December 26, 2005
Trains aside, Philip John was responding to a comment made by Nakul Krishnakumar as part of that long exchange he and I had a few weeks ago, reported in its entirety back on December 14 of this year. Nakul had explained:
My argument is simply this: In the long run, private industry will better be able to provide services such as highways (even snow plowing), education, etc and will do so in more cost effective manner - because they have more of an incentive to do so.Philip John shared these thoughts:
Being an Australian and having visited America a number of times (my girlfriend is currently doing her doctorate at Ball State, Indiana), I would like to add a point of view. Comparing Australia to the USA, I would have to say those free market forces have not served the USA well and have created a more highly stratified society. In Australia, the rich are not as rich (perhaps with the exception of Rupert Murdoch). However, the poor are nowhere near as poor. The last time I was in the USA (4 months ago) was the first time I have ever been really shocked by poverty.Getting a focus on these issues through the lens of someone from another nation is helpful, and I appreciate Philip John's comments. There's something to be said for injecting into the teaching of just about any subject the perspective of people who live in nations, states, and cities other than our own.
While I would agree that the private sector does provide a better service in some instances, it generally fails abysmally in those areas where profit competes with the good of society. For example, on average I believe Americans spend more on health care but receive very poor service compared to Australia's government Medicare service. The cost of private health insurance here is also much lower. While Australia has waiting times for elective surgery, emergency cases are seen immediately and at an essentially no-charge basis. My father has recently received two hip replacements under private health insurance and the total cost for his coverage would be in the order of AU$1000/year. This is only possible because private health is subsidised (i.e. supported) by the government / public sector.
As a second example, the proliferation of expensive private universities in the USA is a situation where free market forces provide, at best, a range of service levels. I have never seen an advert by an Australian university for an online degree for $x. The motivation of a private market university is to make money. The motivation of a government funded university is to teach students. I attended public primary schools, high schools and universities and received a world standard level of education. The evidence I have seen suggests the private sector charges more and delivers less. There is less focus on the quality of delivery when compared to the brand / marketing of the university, the profit per student and the drive for growth. Under the private sector, there would be no allowance for research universities. There is no profit in providing scholarships to PhD students, waiving fees and then paying for equipment, supplies and supervisors.
As a third example, private companies have little understanding of environmental impact. Mining companies in Australia do not rehabilitate the land out of a sense of civic duty, but rather because they are required by law and overseen by a governmental body. Without government regulation and control, intangible benefits to society are not included in the private sector profit equation. Australia is presently facing big salinity and water problems due to deforestation at the hands of the private sector. Government regulation has slowly forced the establishment of a renewable timber industry.
As a last example, I believe the deregulation of the electricity market in California resulted in price hikes from $40 to $1000. As this demonstrates, the profit motive is much stronger than the desire to provide a high quality service to society. I previously worked at a public run electricity plant during my university breaks. Prior to its preparation for privatisation, 'preventative' maintenance was carried out - fix it before it breaks. As privatisation is occurring, repairs are carried out as items fail. While this is more efficient / cheaper / lowers costs, the result has been a larger number of blackouts and business losses due to an irregular power supply (I have learned it is hard for bakeries to bake bread without electricity).
While I understand the importance of the free market, I believe essential services required by the vast majority of members of society must be overseen and regulated by the government. At the very least, privatisation must occur with regulation by the government which specifies maximum price and/or minimum service delivery levels. Key infrastructure (roads, railways, air space) must be controlled by the government and access provided to all. Unfortunately, I believe many in America cite 'free market forces' as dogma, yet fail to realise we do not live in a society with perfect competitive forces.
In closing, my belief is that the focus should not be "how do we privatise the public sector", but rather "how do we ensure the public sector functions efficiently while delivering quality services to society".
It was not news to me that in Australia the distribution of income and wealth is different from what it is here in the States. What fascinated me, though, was understanding the reaction of someone accustomed to a different situation than exists in our nation and who encounters the reality of that difference. What is it about the application of free market capitalism in Australia and in the United States that generates such different outcomes? When it comes to healthcare, could the difference be the litigious nature of American society? Could it be that Americans have been raised, during the past half century, with such an expectation of "paradise on earth" that the least little problem, which people in most other cultures would take in stride, triggers the "sue 'em all" mentality? What is the impact on the a free market health care system of having the risk of litigation hovering over one's shoulder waiting for the least little error? This is something worth investigating, and perhaps someone already has.
Philip John's comments about education deserve some clarification. He separates education providers into government and for-profit sectors. I see a third group, namely, non-profit non-governmental institutions. There is much to be said about the impact on the quality of education when the institution has profit as its primary goal. This sort of arrangement easily leads to the creation and operation of a "learning factory" in which large quantities of "educated people" are cranked out at a low per-unit cost. Ironically, though, most of the large factory educational institutions in this nation are the huge state-funded schools, where size alone defeats quality in many instances. The other day someone mentioned having taken a course at a state university, in which there were hundreds of enrolled students and the professor, who wrote the book, appeared once, on the first day, leaving the teaching to a group of graduate students only a year or two older than the undergraduates supposedly getting the advantage of low-cost taxpayer-funded education. The issue here is accountability, which does not corroborate uniformly across the great expanses of a free market. In contrast, non-governmental non-profit schools have as their primary focus educational goals tied to the philosophy of the institution's larger affiliation. For example, at least in the United States, a substantial number of private schools are associated with, and usually funded by, religious organizations. The quality of the education varies widely. At the K-12 level, there are many places where parents prefer to enroll their students in private, religious schools, even though they are not members of the denomination in question, and even though they need to fork over some money, because the quality is so superior to the local publicly-funded government school. Why? Again, it is a matter of accountability. Even though I advocate government as a more efficient provider of certain services, for the reasons I explained in my discussions with Nakul, and for some of the reasons Philip John articulates, I also advocate infusing government bureaucracies with some semblance of accountability as found in the free market system. My concern is that influence has been flowing the other way, as the sort of entrenched, safe-from-dismissal public employee mindset has infiltrated the management levels of some private enterprises operating in a so-called free market that no longer is truly free. At least it's not free of incompetence, greed, cronyism, politics, and excuse manufacturing.
As for Philip John's last point about environmental concerns, he makes a good point. Private enterprise had several centuries to demonstrate what it thinks about fouling its own nest. It demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to nurture the golden goose that lays the dollar egg. Yes, the planet needs to be in good health for the free market to flourish. Who wants to go shopping in a cesspool? His point about utilities deserves one further comment. What we have with most utilities, especially cable, is a deregulated, and thus supposedly free-market industry, operating with a monopoly license. In other words, the worst of both worlds.
As best as I can tell, the cross-country train in Australia, unlike most of the train service in this country, continues to operate. When I get there, I want to ride that train. And I'll stop by to see Philip John in Perth. I'll have a chance to see how things are, and will share the impressions made on this visitor. I'll let you know about it. Someday.
Friday, December 23, 2005
First, the United States Congress whiffs on reform of the alternative minimum tax that would prevent 15 million more taxpayers, mostly from the middle class, coming within its reach for the first time in 2006, even though the tax was designed to prevent the wealthy and ultrawealthy from using deductions to lower their tax liabilities below a specified minimum. According to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, as reported by a number of sources, including this Los Angeles Times story, earlier this week asserted that Congress "had run out of time" to finish work on the proposed legislation fixing the problem.
Second, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pennsylvania legislature failed to finish work on local property tax reform. Both the House and the Senate approved separate bills by overwhelming votes, but the two plans are very different. Despite the efforts of the governor, who called House and Senate leaders to a meeting, a problem that the Pennsylvania legislature has been trying to solve for three decades (yes, you read that right, three decades) will continue to vex taxpayers, particularly those on fixed incomes. Yesterday, legislators announced that nothing more would happen this year. The Senate wants to fund property tax reduction with gambling revenue and increases in local income taxes. The House wants to fund property tax reduction with gambling revenue, an expansion of items subject to the state sales tax, and an increase in the state income tax.
Third, as also reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, even though Philadelphia City Council voted 9-6 to cut the business-privilege tax from 6.5% to 6.3% over five years, in an attempt to stem the exodus of business from the city, the mayor has promised to veto the legislation. Considering that he has vetoed similar legislation several times in the past, it's safe to conclude that this is one promise by a politician that will be kept. There are insufficient votes in Council to override the veto. An illustration of the insanity that has gripped tax reform in the city is evident from the vote against the tax reduction plan by a member of council allied with the mayor. This member of council then introduced a plan to cut taxes by almost 10 times the plan that the mayor promises to veto.
They're out. Actually, we're out. Out of luck. Out of patience. Maybe even out of chances.
The Congress claims it ran out of time. The Pennsylvania legislature ran out of time. City Council has run out of time. It's the clock's fault. Or the calendar's fault.
No, it isn't.
Back in March, everyone knew that December 16 would follow December 15. It's not as though December 15 was followed by December 23, and whoa, time disappeared. Good planning, good project management, good time budgeting, and common sense tells everyone that if something is to be finished by December 23, it needs to be started sooner. Much sooner if the issues are complicated, controversial, and time-consuming. These are elected public officials, who owe it to their constituents to do their jobs. It's not enough to issue platitudes about tax reform and then to go home because time ran out. They let time run out. And if someone said they did so deliberately, I would not argue.
Good time management is not some elusive goal such as time travel. As I tell law students who fall into that end-of-semester trap, where they have far more to do before a final examination than they have time to do it (because they wasted time earlier in the semester), time is like money. There are 168 hours in the week. Decide beforehand how they will be used, and allow some cushion for the unexpected emergencies. I see the same lack of time sensitivity when I sit in meetings that are scheduled for two hours, with 10 items on the agenda, and participants devote 80 minutes to the first item. Simple math tells us that instead of 12 minutes per item, the remaining 11 items now must share 40 minutes. That's less than 4 minutes. And, in most instances, the first item was trivial compared to those either tabled or rushed through without appropriate thought.
At the beginning of each semester, I warn my students about the need to budget their time. I explain that through all their years in the profession, the requirement that they account for their efforts in 3 or 5 or 6 minute intervals on billable hour software (or, horrors, "time sheets") will be an unescapable reality that shadows them without respite. Most of us, not just students, lawyers, law professors, and tax practitioners, would like to suspend time, turn back the clock, or even to pull the Congressional stunt of "deeming" it to be one minute before midnight until as long as it takes to finish work on legislation. We can't. We may want it, but we won't get it. But compared to tax reform, sometimes it seems as though there's a better chance we'll learn to suspend time before we learn how to compel legislators to act in the best interest of their constituents.
Can we get what we want? The phrase of warning and reality, at least as sung by the Stones, continued, "You can't always get what you want but if you try sometimes well you just might find you get what you need." We want tax reform. We need tax reform. We have tried. We are still waiting. Like Charlie Brown's baseball team, and like the child who discovers that no one lives or works at the North Pole, we are in danger of becoming so accustomed to legislative tax reform disappointment that we might end up thinking it is impossible.
But so long as there is a chance, I will keep asking. And writing. And proposing ideas. And criticizing. And insisting. I hope you do, too.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
This legislation creates a Gulf Opportunity Zone not unlike the New York Liberty Zone that was created after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Individuals and businesses in the zone are eligible for a variety of tax benefits, including more favorable depreciation, expanded eligibility for tax credits arising from hiring employees, and greater availability of tax-exempt bond financing. GOZA includes an increase in the amount of low-income housing credit available in the zone, a deduction for certain clean-up expenses, and other tax benefits.
A group of legislators, however, were appalled at the thought that tax benefits would be available to certain businesses. "Horror!" they cried. Led by Representative Frank Wolf from Virginia, 65 members of Congress wrote letter to the President, opposing the extension of GOZA benefits to the gaming industry. These legislators argued four points. First, denying special tax breaks to casinos "has been routine." Second, the casinos in Mississippi are planning to rebuild and thus do not require any incentives to rebuild. Third, casinos in Mississippi were excluded from previous state economic development incentive programs. Fourth, high budget deficits demand that tax dollars go "to those who truly need the government's help," namely, "the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable," which does not include the gaming industry.
These legislators prevailed. New section 1400N(p) of the Code will deny GOZA tax benefits to any property that is "used in connection with any private or commercial golf course, country club, massage parlor, hot tub facility, suntan facility, or any store the principal business of which is the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption off premises," and it also denies the benefits to "any gambling or animal racing property."
It is true that golf courses, country clubs, massage parlors, hot tub facilities, suntan facilities, liquor stores, race tracks, and casinos have "routinely" been set apart and treated differently for income tax purposes. These restrictions apply to business deductions, depreciation, empowerment and enterprise zone benefits, and other provisions. This policy reflects an attitude not mentioned in the letter written by the 65 legislators.
Let's look first at that letter. It justifies excluding casinos from GOZA benefits because the casinos plan to rebuild even without tax incentives. I like that as a test. The statute should read, "Any business that plans to rebuild even in the absence of tax benefits is barred from these benefits." Why is that language not acceptable? Theoretically, it simply would encourage businesses to claim they don't plan to rebuild. The casino industry, being honest, admitted that it was planning to rebuild, and was rewarded for that honesty. Practically, it would deny tax benefits to businesses such as Walmart, Exxon-Mobil, and hotel chains, which also would rebuild in the absence of tax benefits. So why not deny the tax benefits to Walmart, Exxon-Mobil, hotel chains, and all the other businesses that would have rebuilt even without tax incentives? So this aspect of the letter is nothing more than a smokescreen.
The letter then takes the position that because the state of Mississippi did not assist casinos with economic development monies in years past, it is acceptable and even essential that the casinos not be assisted this time around. The difference is that this time around, it's a matter of destruction by a hurricane with the force of dozens of megaton nuclear weapons. It's a different ball game. Let's face it. This, too, is a smokescreen.
Then comes the clincher. Casinos don't deserve the tax breaks because they are not "the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable." That's true. Again, though, if other businesses qualify for the tax breaks even if they are in fine financial shape, for example, Walmart and Exxon-Mobil, why not deny tax benefits to businesses with taxable incomes exceeding some dollar amount separating the needy and vulnerable from the wealthy? Again, it's a smokescreen.
The reality is revealed by the list of businesses that are targeted for benefits denial. It's not just casinos and race tracks. It includes other businesses. Liquor stores. Hot tub establishments. Oh, my, massage parlors. And even suntan salons. Wow. I guess the owners of those places were planning to rebuild even without tax incentives. I guess they were omitted from previous state economic redevelopment programs. And I'm sure they're not needy or vulnerable. Their owners are rolling in the cash just like casinos, oil companies, and, of course, Walmart.
This is nothing more than imposition of a particular moral code on America through use of the income tax law. Now, I understand the theological arguments that some make against drinking alcoholic beverages and gambling. But hot tubbing and massages? Oh, perhaps Congress thinks these are fronts for some other activities? Hogwash. I understand that absent careful use, artificial tanning and hot tubs can cause health problems. But that can't be the justification because I don't see denial of GOZA benefits for establishments selling cigarettes. No, it's not about physical health. It's imposition of a particular moral code.
It certainly is acceptable for the voters of a state or county to decide that gambling will be prohibited. Or that it will be permitted. Why should the federal government use its income tax club to punish states and localities that haven't conformed to the moral principles of these 65 legislators? Why should a member of Congress from Virginia get to second-guess the voters of Mississippi? Casinos brought business to Mississippi. They brought tax revenue. They created jobs. There are good arguments for and against legalizing gambling. Ditto for massage parlors, hot tub facilities, and liquor stores. But once the voters of Mississippi spoke, what gives Washington the right to make it more difficult for these enterprises to do business?
Worse, these legislators don't have the courage to try to enact legislation that imposes fines and penalties on voter-approved casinos. That would be too obvious, too blatant, and too risky. Voters might figure out what these members of Congress are doing, and replace them when they go to the polls. Instead, they put this provision, and for years have been putting provisions like this, into the tax law. It's the equivalent of a fine or penalty, because it economically disadvantages these businesses as contrasted with other businesses. These are stealth fines and stealth penalties. After all, how many people have read section 1400N(p) or its counterparts throughout the Code?
I can understand, and even support, a restriction of GOZA benefits based on taxable income, that excludes the wealthy from participation. I can understand a limitation of GOZA benefits to businesses that otherwise would not rebuild although I am unlikely to support it in such a form because the practical logistics of making that sort of limitation work are almost impossible. I can understand the denial of deductions to illegal businesses even though I think it's sad that the government must use the tax law in its efforts to enforce criminal law. But singling out particular industries, that are legal and acceptable to the citizens of a state or locality, and denying them tax benefits simply because they engage in activities that violate some particular moral code to which those citizens have not subscribed is nothing short of federal tyranny.
Let's take this New Prohibition out of the tax code. Let's leave it to the voters in our states and localities. Their votes on matters of state and local concern should not be diminished in effect by the Congress in Washington. After all, for these 65 legislators, and their philosophical predecessors, it's casinos, suntan salons, and liquor stores. For others, it could be cigarette retailers and video games. For still others, it could be rock 'n roll or rap music vendors. Perhaps stores that sell meat should be denied these benefits, for surely there are folks who consider the eating of meat to be at least as horrific as gambling or the drinking of alcoholic beverages. Or, goodness, getting a suntan or sitting in a hot tub.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Paul Caron reports in TaxProfBlog that Argentinian tax inspectors are dressing up in Santa Claus outfits as part of a campaign to increase tax compliance. People are being stopped on the street and presented with reasons to pay overdue taxes. They call it "Holidays without Debt."
Don't they know that the end of December is a principal reason so many people are IN debt? Do they understand that in many places dressing up as Santa Claus and stopping a perfect stranger on the street is unwise, dangerous, and perhaps stupid? Now perhaps if they had a reindeer or two in tow..... Perhaps the one named Vixen. Or the one named Cupid? Ha.
What's next? Frosty the Levyman? Rudolph the Pencil-Nosed Taxhound? The Deduction Elf?
Of course, there's nothing new under the sun. Years ago, someone came up with a name to describe what Congress does to tax legislation when it tacks on all sorts of goodies for favored constituents, special interest groups, and heavy-handed lobbyists. It's called a Christmas Tree Bill. Don't believe me? Check out this story.
Monday, December 19, 2005
The story is short. According to the MSNBC account, tax authorities in Rajahmundry, a city in India's Andhra Pradesh state, send groups of 20 drummers to play outside the homes of tax delinquents who ignore demands to pay overdue property taxes. They play continuously until the taxpayer drums up the money. The revenue officials resorted to this tactic after it failed to make a dent in the $1.15 million tax backlog by waiving interest and penalties. The incessant drumming has had an effect, clearing 18% of the delinquencies after one week.
I suppose the theory is that if you can't beat the taxes out of them, you beat the message into them. Literally.
But in practice, it has to be uncomfortable for the delinquent's neighbors. Imagine this drum corps showing up next door because the next-door neighbor hasn't paid her taxes. Do they manage to keep the sound from pounding into the eardrums of the innocent residents? HOW? Perhaps what has happened is that the rest of the people living on the block passed a high hat around to raise funds that could be used to pay the delinquent tax bill. Then the collector could stuff that into the pocket.
This is the time of the year when "Little Drummer Boy" gets airplay. If the tax folks in India sent along a chorus, would it sound like this?
Come they told me
Pa rum pum pum pum
A new tax cheat to see
Pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest noise we bring
Pa rum pum pum pum
To pound around the house
Pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum
So to annoy Him
Pa rum pum pum pum
When we come
Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too
Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no other way
Pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to get the tax
Pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you
Pa rum pum pum pum
On my drum
Neighbors cried no
Pa rum pum pum pum
The government paid us
Pa rum pum pum pum
I beat my drum all day
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played all night as well
Pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum
Then he handed me cash
Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum
This is one of my mother's favorite Christmas carols. She will not be amused. Oh, well. I think it's clever. See what living in a tax world can do?
So, please, my wish for the season is two-fold. One, don't let anyone in the IRS or state revenue departments get any bongo ideas about collecting taxes. Two, please, folks, if you're not going to pay your taxes, don't live next door to those of us who do.
Friday, December 16, 2005
When I first started teaching I was told that by grading exams, law professors learned not so much whether their students understood, or did not understand, the material, but how much the students had learned that wasn't there to be learned. Principles of black letter law never before articulated on the planet show up as settled doctrine. Facts are invented that conflict with the facts presented. Indecision is evident on examinations where crossed out answers are in turn crossed out and then circled with an arrow pointing to the word "keep." Fortunately, as the years passed, I learned how to identify which students had any bad test taking habits before the examination, and I've had some success persuading some students to break those bad habits. The exams are a much more pleasant experience to read.
Some students, particularly accountants in both the Graduate Tax Program and in the J.D. program insist on setting forth tax law principles without appropriate citations to authority. Most leave out any citation, as though the fact they wrote it should somehow earn credit for creativity. Sometimes, though, students will cite me, or a statement I made in class, as the authority. Thanks, but I'm not the authority on the matters tested by the exam. If I read a portion of a Code section in class to emphasize a particular drafting concern, or a semantic twist, that does not make me the authority. The Code section is the authority. The impression I have is that some students deluded themselves, in college or perhaps high school, into thinking that tossing flattery at the person grading the exam would somehow better their grade. I'm guessing that this approach has worked once or twice for some students, giving them incentive to try it yet again. No, it doesn't work. Not with me.
Many law faculty claim that the least enjoyable part of their academic responsibilities, setting aside administrative and committee tasks, is grading examinations. It can be depressing to read examination answers that tempt responsible faculty into thinking that their teaching somehow caused the problem. Yet in the same batch of examinations one can find brilliant answers, as close to the model answer as students get, and that is, at least for me, a most joyous occasion. It confirms that the course was packaged and delivered well, for in the hands of a diligent, responsible, and interested student, the exam provides the opportunity to generate an answer that is exciting and satisfying to read.
The most difficult part of this process is finished. Creating an examination, or a semester exercise or in-class quiz, is far more challenging than taking the examination. I speak from experience. As difficult as it may be to do a crossword puzzle, it's even more difficult to create one. Again, I speak from experience. Curious? It's what parents and teachers do with a young child who needs to be kept busy so he stops talking and doesn't wander into other trouble. Yes, I speak from experience.
Now let me go find a red pen.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
It appears from our discussion that Nakul and I agree on zero-based budgeting. That is, an annual government budget should not be constructed by allocating increases to the previous year's budget, but should be determined by examining each expenditure and determining its appropriateness. Of course, there may be instances where previous year decisions constrain the decision making with respect to certain items, such as interest on government debt, but that ought not create a blank check for every program in the budget.
There's no question that Nakul and I are not the first, and will not be the last, people to sit down and ponder the appropriate role of government. Even where we agree in a general sense, such as the appropriateness of defense spending as part of a federal budget, we haven't focused on the details. After all, we haven't accomplished much merely by accepting the idea of national defense as an appropriate federal function. Questions such as weapons systems procurement, policy decisions such as those concerning the use of troops overseas and in humanitarian efforts can be resolved in ways that would require significantly higher or lower spending levels. In turn, this would affect the tax policy analysis.
Nakul and I also brushed aside the important question of whether an appropriate government function should be conducted by the federal government, a state government, or a local government. We also paid little attention to the question of whether a state or local government function should be funded at the state or local level or wholly or partially through the use of federal revenues. We also left to another day the issue of whether an appropriate government function should be funded through user fees, income taxes, consumption taxes, sales taxes, or some other one or more of the seemingly infinite collection of taxes that exists in the modern public arena.
Our discussion when I replied to Nakul's email that pointed me to the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that I critiqued on Monday. I commented that the piece presented "regurgitated arguments" and mentioned the possibility of the post that I did in fact write and publish Monday. I noted that one flaw was "that the op-ed argues for a low rate on the deferred stuff, which is not as beneficial to Joe as a low(er) rate on the current (wage) income." Nakul responded, "Personally, I think the answer is a lower marginal tax rate on income for everyone who pays taxes, followed by a lower tax rate on capital gains. This should be financed by massive cuts in needless and/or wasteful government programs. But I doubt that will happen." Interestingly, in his last email, Nakul noted that I had "convinced" him on the capital gains issue. That leaves, however, the proposition that there can be "massive cuts in needless and/or wasteful government programs."
So I challenged Nakul: " I'd be interested in your candidates for spending reductions and the amounts to be cut (so we could then figure out how much of a tax cut could be implemented)." Nakul's response was philosophical:
In terms of "what is that something" that we should limit government spending to, I think that requires a philosophical/political argument as to what is the role of a government in a free society. I submit that the only proper role of government is the protection of individual rights - which means that the government has a monopoly over the use of physical force. Thus a government in a free society should be limited to a police force to protect individuals from criminals, a military to protect us from foreign invaders (or terrorists) and a court system so that we can resolve disputes (and seek damages for torts) and protect our intellectual property. Other than that, I don't really see much of a role for government. As the Declaration of Independence says (I'm paraphrasing): governments are instituted among men to secure these interests. A society where a government doesn't have a monopoly over the use of physical force is anarchy. A society where the government has a monopoly over the use of physical force, but does not recognize individual rights, is a dictatorship. A proper society must have both: (1) Government monopoly over the use of physical force; and (2) a clear and unequivocal recognition of individual rights. America is the first nation to ever attempt this.In turn, I posed this question to Nakul:
Obviously, we don't live in that world right now -- and so applying these principles to our current situation, I would slowly start to phase out lavish entitlement programs such as Social Security (the President's plan is a start), welfare, Medicare and Medicaid. I believe these entitlement programs alone make about 40-50% of our national budget (as compared to national defense which is a little less than 20% - I believe). Phasing these programs out would allow for a significant reforming of our tax code. Obviously, there is a lot of other government waste that can be cut out once we've determined what the proper role of government is. That should be our primary debate.
Without taking a position on any of these at the moment (for in some instances I'm not sold one way or the other, nor am I focused on a federal v. state differentiation), what of....Demonstrating that his law school education had been assimilated, Nakul artfully answered some of my questions and sidestepped others:
Health and rescue squads?
Protection from hazardous spills, etc?
Disaster prevention and relief?
Control of airspace for airplanes?
Construction and maintenance of highways, bridges, tunnels?
Protection of quality of agricultural products?
Protection of quality of medicines?
Protection of labor?
Protection of public health?
Prevention of negative environmental impacts on people and their
Preservation of natural resources such as national parks?
Education of children?
I'm sure there are more.
Of course, there are some things government currently does that I
wouldn't have government doing ....
I suspected that you were going to ask some of these questions! Like my father used to say (He's also a professor), a good professor is always one step ahead of his students.I could not resist playing devil's advocate, which is a technique that can reveal the depth of another person's commitment to their argument:
First, I don't believe in "preventative law" -- thus I would again phase out government organizations such as the SEC, FDA, FTC, etc. Obviously, these things simply can't be disbanded immediately because we've gotten so used to them; however, they can be phased out over time. If I were President (or emperor), I would begin that process.
The building of highways, education, etc should largely, over time, be shifted to private ownership and operation. I think the free market would do a wonderful job in something like education. In fact, there was an interesting article in the WSJ the other day explaining how some municipalities (and soon some states) have begun leasing out their highways to private entities (such as foreign private equity firms — one of which happened to be in Australia). This should be encouraged. To be honest, I haven't completely thought through the fire squads
issue, so I could envision a government role there. However, that may be something that private entities could do as well.
The role of the government is to protect man from man. Certain natural disasters will dictate that the government get involved in emergencies (i.e. Katrina, Tsunamis), but these aren't going to be the normal course of business (hence the term emergency). Nonetheless, it shouldn't be government's role to protect man from nature qua nature. We should of course budget for these potential disasters, but I don't think that will be that expensive.
I know I haven't answered all the questions you asked below, but I hope I've at least conveyed my general belief that the government's primary role should be to protect rights (life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness) and not provide services. Services, whatever they may be, should primarily be a private function, with perhaps a few exceptions. Today's mixed economy has government involved in too many things that they shouldn't be involved in. As such, they are spending too much money, and taxing us too much.
I understand your point. I wonder if you have studied the history of public services? At one time government provided no services (it took land, conscripted peasants for military service, and left the populationNakul's response:
to its own fortunes, good or bad, mostly bad). Think of medieval kingdoms. What services were provided came through the church (at least in Western civilization). Eventually, as technology changed and needs evolved, the private enterprises that operated public services had problems. Service was spotty. Canal companies went under. Railroads did a little better until they, too, went under. The societal cost of death and disability from injuries to unprotected workers began to exceed the cost of public regulation of the industries in which these injuries were incurred. So in some respects, the free market and application of economic principles shifted certain services to the public sector because that was more efficient. Then, of course, irrationality set in and policies were formed by those who thought that because some services were more effectively provided by government all services could be more effectively provided by government.
Imagine, for example, private ownership of snow removal from public roads. Wait, they would be private roads, much as Route 30 was once a private turnpike. What happens when the company goes under? Do we litigate for months or years while the road turns to slop? As was the case back then? How do we hold accountable some CEO living in Australia?
How many people must die from bad drugs before the mobs burn down the pharmaceutical company offices and labs? How many people get snookered by bad stock deals before brokers and dealers are gunned down in their offices?
In other words, to the extent government services protect individual rights so that individuals do not seek self-help, then those services which appear to be preventive are actually protective.
I have a casual understanding of the history of public service, but I have to admit, I'm certainly no expert. However, I would respectfully disagree with some of your characterizations of private industry.Nakul had taken the discussion back to the philosophical and political question of how government and the private sector should relate, and I jumped on the opportunity, as I've emphasized in text that was NOT bolded in my response to Nakul but which I highlight here:
As a preliminary matter, when I talk about privatizing certain industries and services, I am not under the false illusion that shifting services from the government to the private sector will be a magical elixir whereby all our problems are automatically solved. My argument is simply this: In the long run, private industry will better be able to provide services such as highways (even snow plowing), education, etc and will do so in more cost effective manner - because they have more of an incentive to do so. Of course, companies may still provide spotty
service, but in a free market they will not stay in business that long. In fact, failure is as much a part of capitalism as success. Except in a market economy, failure breeds success. When the government is involved, failure just breeds more failure.
Also, I would slightly disagree with your characterization of history. Yes, railroads went under, and sometimes wholesale industries failed. Howe ever, that period also saw tremendous economic expansion, an increase in people's standard of living, an increase in health and many other things. That is largely attributable to the largely free market system that existed.
Government, properly defined, is a gun, whose chief responsibility is to protect man from man. It should not be involved in endeavors of the mind. If the market can't figure something out, then I doubt government can either. I have a lot more confidence in an intelligent entrepreneur than I do in some government bureaucrat.
In the end, markets are much better suited to solve economic problems than the government is. History bears that out, and I think we would be wise to begin the process of privatizing government services and continue to do so for the foreseeable future. If we do that, we'll reduce spending, cut taxes and simplify the tax code.
P.S. As far as holding the CEO of an Australian company accountable —- I don't know. However, we could fairly easily get jurisdiction over the entity and assets that the CEO controls. If an Australian company owns assets in America, then we have "minimum contacts" and therefore personal jurisdiction over the company itself - which is probably more useful than having jurisdiction over the CEO.
I agree with some of what you say, perhaps most of it, but when cast against the wider backdrop of experience and the realities of life, the theory of free market snags. Here are some thoughts.This inspired Nakul, who was having as much fun as I was having, and as I hope readers are having, with this discourse:
Private industry is no less likely to fail than is government. This is true so long as the bureaucratic malaise and internal office politics which accounts for most of government failure at the boots-on-the-ground level continue to infect the private sector. Academia is responsible for much of this, arguing for theoretical rights and curtailment of worker discipline, and fueling the migration of bad ethics and lack of incentive from government to the private sector. Where's the free market incentive to excel when it's easier to ask the government to use its fake gun to protect some conjured-up right? Where's the free market to excel when the worker in the next cubicle is thinking about appropriating your ideas? That's why I'm no higher on private industry than I am on government. I'm not painting government with a brush of success when it comes to the enumerated services (though it has done well in certain instances, such as highway construction and the weather service). I'm simply discounting the myth of the marvelous private sector. My power went out again today for the umpteenth time because a moron contractor cut something rather than following government regulations (issued by public utility commissioners) to call before digging. Imagine what it would be like without such regulation. True, an isolated incident but so characteristic of post 1980s society.
The tremendous economic expansion to which you refer was carried on the backs of developing nations. Where is the success of the west without the cheap (or free) labor of the rest of the world? And now that the rest of the world is catching up (or at least chunks of it are), the pressure is on. It was private industry that ran the slave trade, though with the government gun at its side for a while ... and look what happened when government changed its position. It is private industry that to this day moves unwilling workers through the pipelines from
eastern Europe to who-knows-where. It is private industry that could participate in a tremendous economic expansion because it externalized costs such as environmental protection, instead dumping toxic materials everywhere from the Love Canal to the waters of southeast Asia.
Unlike you, I have no more confidence in an intelligent entrepreneur than I do in a government bureaucrat. Intelligence does not guarantee, and often stands in the way of, far-sighted judgment and ethical considerations. Worship of the bottom line profit is what has cheapened, in the long run, the effectiveness and efficiency of the economy. This is not a rejection of capitalism. It is an argument that unregulated capitalism, which flourished in the 18th and first half of the 19th century, brings slavery (real and economic), poisoned environments, worker injury, and a whole host of problems that lets the capitalist class, to its long-run detriment, damage the peasant/worker class on which it depends. And some functions are just too important to leave to an unregulated or a modestly regulated free enterprise system. I don't want the current Russia as the role model.
Thanks for your reply. Although I disagree with you, I have greatly enjoyed this debate. That being said, I think a great many of the points you made below are based on incorrect premises. I think this argument needs to go back to the basics i.e. fundamental premises and theories. Here is my quick attempt to essentialize this debate:Resisting the temptation to prove that I, too, could go on forever, I kept my reply as succinct as I could, because we had reached the point where we knew each other's position and understood it:
Capitalism, properly defined, is both a political and economic system. Politically, it requires the full recognition of individual rights. Those being life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness (and all derivative rights i.e. freedom of speech, religion, freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures, etc). Fundamentally, capitalism is the only moral political system in the world and is the only system that can accommodate man qua man. Therefore, in a capitalist society, no person can infringe on the rights of another - and if they do so, the government must resolve the dispute (as I stated earlier, government has a monopoly on the use of initiation of physical force. Certain exceptions apply, of course, but those are fairly self-evident. Examples include protecting your self from a burglar, and other necessary methods of self-defense that may have to be done before the "government" can get involved). The protection of individual rights also means the protection (and full recognition) of property rights, including intellectual property (which means no one could exert force and steal or appropriate your ideas, especially if they are patented or trademarked) As such, under capitalism, there can be no such thing as slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor. Slavery is the antithesis of a society that respects individual rights and cannot exist (for long) in a capitalistic system. Slavery existed in America, but we fought a war to end it because it was not consistent with our fundamental principles and values as a country. The fundamental tenet of capitalism is individual rights: Countries such as Russia are not capitalistic -- they are at best autocratic bordering on a dictatorship. Note the recent government take-over of certain oil companies without due process. That wouldn't happen in a society that recognizes
Along those lines, under capitalism, there is only one way to deal with other men: VOLUNTARILY. If one wishes to buy or sell a good, that sale must be done voluntarily. Each man will work for his own profit and understand that every other man is doing the same. Some men will be better at others than making money (i.e. Bill Gates versus me), but all trade will be value-for-value and will be done freely and without compulsion A man is not a slave to another man if he voluntarily chooses to work for him, even if that man must work to feed his family, and must work for a low wage. Freedom and capitalism do no guarantee every man a living - it just provides a system in which almost all men - who are willing to work, will be able to do so, and be able to do so voluntarily.
Economically speaking, one has to again, start with fundamental premises. All wealth is created - and those who create it deserve to keep the fruits of their own labor (hence the recognition of property rights). America was not created on the backs of cheap labor in foreign countries (although I fully advocate using cheap labor - so long as those providing it do so voluntarily and those seeking it do so ethically). America was made by entrepreneurs, like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Henry Ford and Bill Gates (and many, many, many others). Were those individuals perfect? No. Nonetheless, their ingenuity helped America burgeon into the great country that we are. Moreover, the outsourcing of cheap labor has done a tremendous amount of good for developing countries - see Singapore (who at one time was poor), India, the Philippines for examples.
Capitalism, like humans will not be perfect. People will commit frauds and try to cheat other no matter what system you are in - and those people should be brought to justice, in a rational legal system, which punishes them accordingly. There will still be bad businesses (i.e. your power may still go out because of some moron contractor). Nonetheless, the simple idea that under Capitalism bad people might take advantage of others does not mean that we should simply do away with the system. That would be like discontinuing the use of the automobile
because X amount of people die each year in car accidents. Overall, a capitalistic society, based on individual rights, will be free, prosperous and most likely, very wealthy.
I could go on forever, but I think I stated the essentials. Politically, capitalism means the recognition of individual rights and a government whose sole aim is to vigorously protect them.
Economically, it means the profit motive, trading values for other values, and by-in-large being able to keep the fruits of your own labor - no matter how big or small those fruits may be. Taxes will still need to be levied to pay for critical government functions, but they should not be levied to redistribute wealth or fund massive entitlement programs.
I think perhaps where you and I differ is that you have much more faith in people than do I. If it were a matter of an occasional fraud, a rare theft, sporadic laziness, and once a decade deviousness, I'd be much more likely to agree with your analysis. However, like Diogenes with his lamp, I continue to seek people who can resist the seemingly easy path to quick profits with a well developed moral code.And I let Nakul have the last word and wrap up our fascinating, informative, and pleasant discussion:
Capitalism is the best of what's available, but regulated capitalism is better. Until people recognize individual rights, is there any solace in a government that tries to protect them? Ideally, government's least used function should be protection of rights, for ideally, people would respect each other and not steal, plunder, rape, pillage, and maim. But they do. And after millennia of attempts to create civilization, there is more peace and prosperity when government sets boundaries through democratic processes than when it's a free-for-all free market.
The risk today is that government itself is being corrupted by those who evaded the rules, escaped prosecution, and are taking over the democratic process. They are taking capitalistic control of government. So, no, I would not ditch capitalism but I find it ineffective and inefficient in unregulated form.
If the world had a common religion or ethic, or at least a common set of values shared by all religions, then a spiritual or theological value set could replace the government's role that I am describing. Unfortunately or fortunately, religion does not serve that role well because genuine religious values are irrelevant to large segments of the population. I am not a Catholic Social Thought advocate, but having been exposed to it I recognize that it is sending, in part, a similar message. There is more to social and economic interaction than profit.
You know I wish you were right, and things worked as you describe. But they don't. The answer lies, I think, more in psychology and theology than in economics. But until those disciplines come up with cures, the economic and tax world needs to manufacture better band-aids.
I agree with you 100% on the idea that economics is not a primary - philosophy/morals is. A society cannot have the right economic system if it does not have the right moral code.So, ending with his revised tax reform proposal, Nakul never did specifically mention that he and I agreed governments ought not be funding student travel to college Bowl games, as I pointed out in last Friday's post. Of course, dealing with this sort of government expenditure, so clearly inappropriate, would not have given Nakul and I to engage in our typically extended analysis. There's no fun, in this context, with mutual "You're right, that's a totally unwise government spending decision" emails.
I'm not suggesting that human interaction is solely for profit (I don't think my wife would like that very much). But at the same time, the profit motive is profoundly moral and should be encouraged - however, it is not the end all, be all of life. You're right that no political party these days really recognizes individual rights. Democrats certainly don't recognize property rights - at least not consistently. The so-called conservatives are much better on property rights, but don't really recognize a right to privacy (which is a common sense derivative of the right to life) and other "unenumerated" rights.
Anyway, capitalism, as I want it, doesn't exist today, and probably won't exist in my lifetime. Despite our different philosophies, I still think we could probably take a look at the budget and come up with some programs that we could cut. I think even the most ardent of government regulation enthusiasts would have to admit that we are spending way too much money. Cutting even a few programs - or at least trimming them down, would be a good start.
As a side note, you've convinced me on the capital gains tax issue. Although I think that cutting the capital gains tax should be done - I can see why doing that would disadvantage middle class and low-income wage earners. I would propose one flat tax - maybe 15% on all income, no matter how it was earned. Those who don't pay taxes now, will still not have to pay taxes under my plan (low-income earners). I would eliminate most deductions - except maybe the exemptions for dependents we have now.
Monday, December 12, 2005
One of my former students, Nakul Krishnakumar, referred me to a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece from last Thursday. The commentary is a regurgitation of some of the dozens of arguments that have been made over the years to justify continuance and expansion of tax breaks on capital gains and other investor activities. This piece goes further, arguing that the benefits of lowering taxes on investment are so wonderful that it justifies raising taxes on wages. It's nice to see that the advocates of putting the income tax burden on wage earners are beginning to demonstrate some candor about their position.
The op-ed piece begins with the usual "boilerplate" conclusions about the "distortions" of taxing interest, dividends, and capital gains, and how those distortions are bad for the economy. There's no proof as such, but the commentary then attempts to prove the point with an example.
In the example, a person presumed to be in the 35% bracket earns an additional $1,000, and thus pays $350 of income taxes. Of the remaining $650, $500 is spent and $100 is invested in bonds paying interest at 6%, but which the op-ed piece claims is yields 3.9% after tax. That's an application of the 35% tax rate to the interest. Assuming inflation of 2%, the real after-tax return is only 1.9%. Assuming the taxpayer is 40 years of age, and plans to retire 35 years later, the $100 will grow to $193 in current prices.
The example then compares what happens if the interest on the bonds is taxed at 15%. The 6% rate would generated a 5.1% after-tax return, and after inflation is taken into account, a 3.1% real after-tax return. Thus, the $100 would grow to $291 by the time the taxpayer retires.
The commentary claims that this example illustrates two tax distortions. First, it asserts that the tax on interest is also a tax on the reward for doing work that generated the additional $1,000 of wages income. Accordingly, according to the op-ed piece, this taxpayer has an incentive to refrain from doing the extra work. The second alleged distortion appears to be an argument that if the person increases savings to account for the impact of taxes on the savings' earnings, the person's retirement-time consumption would still be reduced.
The name of the game when making arguments is premises. And the premises in the Wall Street Journal's op-ed commentary are questionable. For example, it is assumed that the person in question would forego the additional $1,000 of income because the tax on the earnings accruing from the $100 portion that is saved aren't low enough. But most people who take on additional work do so because they have children to feed, mortgages to service, bills to pay, and other financial needs. Some people work "for the fun of it" and after-tax return is about as important to them as it is to the people who volunteer their time for charitable organizations and get zero economic after-tax return. Perhaps members of some elite leisure class, rolling in money, base their choices about earning additional compensation or playing more tennis on the sort of analysis shared by the Wall Street Journal commentary, but I've yet to meet a person who admits to having done so. Every person I know, personally or through anecdote, who has taken on additional work has done so either to earn money to make ends meet or to satisfy a psychological need to "do something for the fun of it," even if that sometimes borders on being a "workaholic."
But let's look more closely at the example. One problem with the example is that it assumes an equal tax rate on wages and investment income and then tries to justify lowering the rate on investment income. It makes more sense to deal with the situation as it now exists and to analyze the impact of the proposals to reduce even more the tax rates on investment income and to bring interest income within that preference, which is what the op-ed piece is defending.
Let's take the same person, named MC, and again have MC earn an additional $1,000. But put MC in the 15% bracket. MC has $850 after taxes from this additional work. MC pays $750 of bills and invests $100, planning to use it 35 years later. Again, assume that the investment earns 6% after taxes, generating income that qualifies for a lower 15% rate. After 35 years, the $100 grows to $570. In another part of town lives RP, who is in the 35% bracket. RP earns an additional $1,000 for the fun of it. RP has $650 of after-tax income, which RP invests because RP has already paid all of her bills. RP also earns 6% from her investment, and that income also qualifies for a lower 15% rate. After 35 years, the $650 invested by RP grows to $3,705.
Now let's assume that the "low or no income tax on investments" crowd prevails. Let's assume that the special tax rate on investment income is reduced from 15% to zero. But let's also assume that the tax rate on wages must be raised so that the change is revenue-neutral. In other words, reject the notion of deficit funding the additional tax break for investors. Even though Congress, under the influence of the investment crowd, would probably put MC into a 25% bracket and RP into a 40% bracket, let's assume that each bracket is increased by 10 percentage points, MC to 25% and RP to 45%. Keep in mind that the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece advocated an increase in the tax on wages if that was necessary because the decrease in the tax rate on investments is supposedly so important. What happens?
Of the $1,000 additional compensation earned by MC, only $750 remains. MC uses it to pay bills, and has nothing left to invest. So, 35 years later, MC's investment is worth nothing because there is no investment. RP, now with $550 remaining from the $1,000 of additional compensation, invests it at 6%, but with no tax, the after-tax return is 6%. After 35 years, RP's $550 grows to $4,227. It's not too difficult to see who benefits from the proposal, nor is it difficult to see how this plan does absolutely nothing for MC, other than to increase the chances that MC will become or continue to be a serf of MP.*
Suppose instead that MC somehow figures out how to save $100 from the $750 after-tax compensation from doing the additional work, cutting back on food, clothing, and other necessities. The alternative, incurring debt, exacerbates the disadvantages to MC because the interest on the debt would put MC into a negative investment return situation, making it even more likely that MC would reside in the modern-day equivalent of debtor's prison. If MC can somehow stash $100 into an investment, at the end of 35 years it would be worth $768 if it grew at 6% after-tax. So what does the "cut taxes on investment income even more" plan do for MC? At the cost of $100 in present day expenditures for food, clothing, or other necessities for the family, MC now has an additional $198 35 years in the future. Remember that RP has managed to use the zero rate on investment income to increase RP's "nest egg" by $522. Again, it's easy to see why the "no tax on investments" crowd likes the plan.*
Another problem with the Wall Street Journal op-ed approach and its example is that it addresses the concerns of a person saving for retirement, without dealing with the reality that earnings on retirement savings, properly invested, qualify for a ZERO tax rate until those earnings are withdrawn from the retirement account. So the typical wage earner already has the benefit of an ideal retirement plan earnings tax rate. So who would need more? Folks with huge amounts of dollars to invest beyond the limits applicable to retirement plans. In other words, the call for low or zero tax on interest and dividends is nothing more than an attempt by the wealthy to do an end-run around the current limits on how much can be stashed into a tax-free retirement savings plan.
In other words, it is very likely that under current law MC's $100 investment could be put into a qualified retirement savings plan and grow to $768. Reducing the tax rate on investments has little value for MC because MC has the benefit of the zero tax rate on retirement savings. True, when MC withdraws the $768, $668 will be subject to tax, but that will be 35 years in the future, and MC would presumably be in a lower tax bracket after retirement.
On the other hand, under current law RP's $650 investment will grow to $3,705, whereas the "no tax on investment income" plan would increase RP's investment to $4,995 if RP invested the same $650. Additionally, there would be no tax on the $4,995 when it is withdrawn and consumed just as there is no tax on the $3,705 when it is withdrawn and consumed.
Because most Americans do not understand present value, tax deferral, or the other concepts used in making these analyses, it is too easy for the economic elite and their advisors to mask this grab as some sort of wonderful sacrifice on their part for the American economy. It's not unlike the merchandise sales representative who tries to convince the customer that the grudgingly proposed price reduction is putting the seller into near-bankruptcy. Excuse me, does anyone have any tissues to offer the sales reps so that they can wipe away the crocodile tears? I'm hoping that I'm doing some sort of public service by taking apart the mirrors and blowing away the smoke from the piteous pleadings of the apparently nearly bankrupt economic elite.
Of course, as I cannot resist turning attention for a moment to another of my favorite topics, it remains a mystery why we don't mandate the teaching of these basic principles to all citizens, while they are still in mandated education, namely, early high school. Imagine a nation of citizens familiar with present value, tax deferral, and other basic financial concepts. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to pull the wool over their eyes. Imagine... WAIT!!! Perhaps I just answered my own question as to why "they" don't want this taught in the K-12 system. Hmmmm.
No matter how it's sliced, reducing the tax rates on investments outside of qualified retirement plans does NOT benefit the average taxpayer. It's a bad idea. Even the existing system is a bad idea. If Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had put this sort of tax plan into effect, France would still be a monarchy. The peasants wouldn't have understood that they were being fleeced. By the time anyone explained it, the guillotine would have been falling on the necks of the critics. Turning to yet another of my favorite topics, yes, there's a reason I value the First Amendment. It protects my right to explain the chicanery and protects your right to read it and to share it with others (which I encourage you to do.)
*Note that inflation was ignored, because it presumably affects each taxpayer in the same manner. It very well could be that inflation for food, clothing, and other necessities is higher than inflation on luxury goods, which would cause inflation to disproportionately disadvantage MC. However, that is such a speculative consideration it does nothing to assist in the analysis of the issue.