Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Shortly thereafter, Mark Morin directed my attention to a significant pricing dispute between Verizon and some of its customers. It seems that a Verizon representative, when asked about the cost of out-of-country Internet usage, quoted a price per kilobyte of data transfer at .002 of a cent, but then billed at a rate of $.002 (which is .2 of a cent). It's a hundred-fold difference that caused one customer's expected charge of 71 cents to show up as 71 dollars.
The best part of the Verizon mess is the trail that modern technology permits people to make when they are trying to resolve a problem. First, go to Verizon Bad Math and listen to the mp3. It's nowhere as long as the website indicates, so don't expect a 2-hour talk. To quote Mark, "You will be astonished midway through. The sublime stupidity will take your breath away once the supervisor comes on to the line." Then get the legal history of the dispute at Verizon Math and be sure to follow the links to the descriptions of the milestones along one fellow's interesting adventure trying to straighten out sublime stupidity. Finally, there is a synopsis, with comments and a youtube clip at Verizon Doesn't Know Difference Between Dollars And Cents.
Last week, a student who had done some high school teaching before entering law school told me a story about the challenges of getting students to focus on their studies and do their homework, and the extent to which parents fail to nurture children's intellectual development. One student, in particular, who couldn't do much of anything with math, with lack of effort being one of the significant causes, intended to pursue a career in the medical field. It's a bit worrisome, isn't it, if a pharmacist, nurse, or physician cannot tell the difference between 5 mg and 500 mg, or 10 cc compared with 100 cc. Perhaps math blunders give us the most stunning tales, but it's a problem not limited to math.
Another person commented that decimal placement errors could wreak havoc with tax returns and audits. Could? No, it has. I'll spare you all but one of the stories. Early in my law teaching career, I listened to the adventures of a colleague who struggled to return to the IRS amounts erroneously deposited into his bank account because someone had done something that added several zeroes to his income tax refund. He surely did not develop a good impression of how some people at the IRS did things.
What's happening? A combination of factors are at work. Advances in technology and science have outpaced the capabilities of more and more people. Frustration with this gap encourages youngsters to give up. The learning skills required to grasp and work with concepts, whether in math, science, grammar, foreign language study, law, or any other area, aren't developed to the extent they are necessary, and in some schools aren't developed at all. Parents either lack the ability, the desire, or the determination to assist their children's educational development. Special interest groups, bureaucrats, and government policies turn resources and attention from the tedious tasks that must be accomplished to the quick-and-easy fix that fails to deliver on its promises despite gobbling down huge amounts of money. Recreational diversion chops away at time dedicated to academic pursuits. Wouldn't it be fun to learn that all those students chatting away on cell phones were discussing their math homework? Hah.
In both the Verizon matter and the situation presented by my colleague several decades ago, the error was easily identified. Those responsible for making and fixing the mistake put far more effort into denial and excuse generation than into constructive solutions. Why is it so difficult for so many people to work on fixing a problem once the error has been demonstrated? I think it's one outcome of telling youngsters, no matter what they do, that what they've done is magnificent, in that amazing effort to build up self-esteem. Self-esteem ought not be the mask for self-deception. That's way too dangerous. It's important to explain an error in ways that are not deprecating, but why try to cloak the mistake? Teach children they are infallible and they grow up to be insufferable. Listen again to that Verizon mp3.
Yes, something is seriously wrong. Most people know this or sense this. Politicians milk the issue for votes and appropriations grabs. Fingers are pointed. Blame is cast. And the children continue to suffer. We are beginning to see the impact of educational deficiencies of the past several decades as folks lacking core skills are thrust into positions of greater responsibility. We owe it to our children to maximize their abilities.
And they wonder why I look closely at every invoice that arrives in the mail. I don't trust the professed accuracy. I've been that way for a long time. Sublime stupidity no longer takes my breath away. My concern is that it will take lives away.
Monday, January 29, 2007
I mentioned the story about the pregnant woman trying to sell advertising space on her stomach to get Superbowl tickets. I should have known that she would not be the only person trying to get tickets. All sorts of gimmicks, plans, and arrangements are being proposed. What's interesting isn't just the wide range of eyebrow-raising proposals, but the breadth of tax issues involved in them, issues probably not apparent to people who are not tax practitioners.
A Sports Illustrated story lists the top ten "outlandish offers." Yes, the "advertise on my stomach" woman made the list. The others are a woman offering a night with herself, two unrelated men each seeking a "beautiful, hot girl" to occupy the other seat linked to their ticket pairs, a guy "willing to trade his lifetime gold VIP membership at a Wisconsin strip club for two tickets," people offering dental work, driveways, professional fireworks displays, videography services, plumbing, vehicles, and high definition televisions, others offering signed memorabilia, fans wanting to trade 2007 season tickets and Oprah Winfrey show tickets, and people offering time in resort timeshares. Of course, some simply beg, setting themselves up as folks deserving of sympathy best provided through tickets to the Miami extravaganza. The prize went to an amazing proposition, and I agree it's number one: ""My right nut for Superbowl tickets." Followed, of course, by "You don't really want to take it, but I can't miss this game." Perhaps before he makes the trade he might want to read my take on "The Taxation of Kidney Swaps", which also was published, in somewhat more polished form, in the BNA Tax Management Insights & Commentary series, as, yes, "The Taxation of Kidney Swaps."
The shock of discovering that taxes are everywhere will not only annoy or even anger the people trading tickets and trading for tickets, it has compelled the winner of a free trip into space to reject the prize because he lacked the cash with which to pay the taxes. An MSNBC report, "Taxes ... the final frontier for space rides:
IRS brings hype over suborbital ticket giveaways back down to earth," explains how Brian Emmett did not want to go into debt to pay $25,000 of taxes on a "$138,000 galactic joy ride." The report includes discussions of other space-ride contests and the different ways in which sponsors try to soften the tax blow.
Friday, January 26, 2007
Item 1: Tax attorney Alvin S. Brown has started a new website called IRS Forum: The Taxpayers Form. He has set up a variety of useful tools. There is a blog, a group of forums, a form for reporting IRS abuse, articles, links, and a tab labeled "misconduct" but there's nothing there yet. The forums include ones devoted to levies, liens, wage garnishment, examination, offer in compromise, appeals, employment tax, penalties, suing the IRS, systemic problems, tax litigation, innocent spouse, installment agreements, non-profit hospitals, other non-profit entities, and one for each state's tax law issues. Some of the forums already have several threads underway, and one has eight. It's a resource worth visiting from time to time. For some, it may become part of their daily routine.
Item 2: A major goof in Arizona promises to bring some interesting litigation. An initiative was offered that would increase cigarette taxes by 80 cents per pack. When the ballot itself was printed, someone who doesn't understand decimals characterized the increases as an ".80 cent" increase. The initiative passed. The state increased the tax by 80 cents per pack. RJ Reynolds complained. The state Attorney General concluded that what counts is the initiative, and not the ballot. Wow. This news came to me from Matt Gardner, Executive Director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, and there are full details and links to the documents on the Talking Taxes blog. Take a look. Can you imagine someone mistaking .80 for 80 or 80 for .80 when building a bridge, measuring medicine for an IV, or selecting the carats for their fiancee's ring? There are people who wonder why I insist that my students demonstrate precision in their legal analyses. Precision matters.
Item 3: This just in. I'm watching the evening news as I write my blog. My attention is diverted when I hear the newscaster describe a pregnant woman in the Chicago area who's so desperate for Super Bowl tickets that she is offering advertising space on her stomach in exchange for those tickets. I google the story, and get hundreds of hits. This one, for example, sets out the details. Jennifer Gordon put her ad on Craigslist as "My Body for Your Tickets." Wow, that will get attention. She got her idea from observing the many "paunchy" male Bears Fans surrounding her at games, who had written "Go Bears" and similar messages on their chests. As of the time the story went to press she had received 45 offers. So where's this going? If she makes a deal, what are the tax consequences? Do you remember Taxes and the Sale of Baby Wardrobe Advertising Space and its followup More Baby as Billboard Taxation? As law students learn, the difference in the facts (advertising on clothing versus advertising on skin) ought not make a difference. Gordon won't be the first woman putting advertising on her body; I mentioned the GoldenPalace.com transaction in the followup post. Anyway, I'm detecting some gross income here for both parties, with a possible deduction for the advertiser. Could it be self-employment income? I have a feeling I will be returning to this topic.
Item 4: And another news story, which I heard Thursday evening on the radio and Thursday night on the news. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, it has mailed almost one million erroneous Forms 1099 reporting state income tax refunds and interest payments. Somehow, the figures for taxable year 2005 were used instead of the amounts for 2006. Oops. There's that precision thing again. Taxpayers are advised to trash the Forms 1099 that they have received, but I suggest shredding them. Taxpayers who have filed returns based on the incorrect Forms will need to file amended returns. Isn't it fun when someone else's mistake makes more work for us? Oh, well, that seems to be the story of our lives.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Three major approaches are considered:
1. Simplifying or reforming the tax code.
2. Providing the IRS with more enforcement tools.
3. Devoting additional resources to enforcement.
Minor approaches include "periodically measuring noncompliance and its causes, setting tax gap reduction goals, evaluating the results of any initiatives to reduce the tax gap, optimizing the allocation of IRS’s resources, and leveraging technology to enhance IRS’s efficiency."
The report points out that billions of dollars of the tax gap could be avoided if the tax law were simplified or fundamentally reformed. It explains, for example, that the IRS "has estimated that errors in claiming tax credits and deductions for tax year 2001 contributed $32 billion to the tax gap."
Unfortunately, the report then concludes that "these provisions serve purposes Congress has judged to be important and eliminating or consolidating them could be complicated." Even fundamental reform, in which tax preferences are limited and "taxable transactions are transparent to tax administrators," is "difficult to achieve." The report provides an almost irrefutable axiom, that "any tax system could be subject to noncompliance." Finally, it provides another difficult-to-rebut observation: "Withholding and information reporting are particularly powerful tools."
Two things pop into my head.
First, consider the provisions that add complexity to the tax law and thus feed the tax gap. Is it the Congress that judges this array of complex provisions in the Code to serve important purposes? Does the Congress even know they exist? Individual members might be aware of some, but no member comprehends all of them. These provisions exist chiefly because special interest groups arrange for their enactment. If the item is highly visible, it gets some attention, but many simply wander by the side door, unnoticed by most, while the ruckus at the front door over the appropriateness of some soundbitten proposal gets the attention. The most significant question is whether American taxpayers judge the causes of complexity to serve important purposes. Most taxpayers have a few favorites, and a few taxpayers have dozens of favorites. But should attempts to reform the tax law be diverted simply because of some presumed Congressional attachment to what exists? I don't think so. If Congress were so enamored of what it has created, why does it change it every time we blink? The answer is that Congress is enamored of the process by which tax law provisions become the handouts for electoral support. Is this any way to run a country?
Second, consider information reporting and withholding. Well-designed use of these tools could reduce the tax gap tremendously. So why would anyone object to comprehensive reporting and withholding? Perhaps we can ask those who successfully lobbied for instant repeal of a provision imposing withholding duties on payors of interest and dividends. We can examine the tactics. The payors generated what was at the time the largest "write your member of Congress" campaign by telling their payees that withholding was a "new tax." Withholding is not a new tax. Yet the gullible gobbled up the gobbledy-gook. Congress, conscious of elections, replaced withholding with a backup withholding mechanism that is helpful but far from universal and riddled with shortcomings.
Left to instinct, most people would prefer to pay no taxes, and exist as beneficiaries of others. History teaches that most of those who can grab have done so, and that many who could not exerted themselves to find ways to do so. The tax gap is a reflection of some unintentional errors and lots of intentional evasion. Careful intellectual reasoning, though, teaches us that civilization requires taxation, economic principles tell us that taxation should be efficient, common sense tells us it should be simple, and ethical principles tell us that it should be fair. It takes leadership to persuade the civilized world why it makes no sense, in the long-run, to behave in ways that generate tax gaps. Fraudulent behavior by taxpayers contributes to the tax gap. So, too, does the way in which Congress does business. Ought not the Congress take the first step in leading by example? Until the Congress understands that the way it does business encourages the non-filers, the protesters, the illegal tax shelter promoters, and the rest of the noncompliant population to act in ways that undermine the tax law and fuel the rapid growth in the tax gap, talking about closing the tax gap is not much more than rhetoric. Yes, I talk and write about it, but I've not undertaken the responsibility that members of Congress have sought and accepted. If they don't think they can or want to fix the problem, no one will stop them from returning home.
Monday, January 22, 2007
The bill, which has been sent to the Senate, makes production of oil, natural gas, and their primary products ineligible for the section 199 domestic production deduction and extends the period for amortization of geological and geophysical expenditures for major oil companies from five to seven years. Buried within the bill is another bill, called the "Royalty Relief for American Consumers Act of 2007," though it doesn't make for a pronounceable acronym. This portion of the bill deals with leases for oil exploration and development on the outer continental shelf. The bill also repeals a long list of royalty relief for the oil and gas industry that was funded with tax revenues.
Some time ago, I criticized how the previous Congress used the tax law to handle energy production and conservation incentives, in How Much Energy Does It Take?. Though in Tax and Other Solutions to the Gasoline Price Reality I criticized proposed windfall profits taxes as ineffective and unwise because they would shift the oil industry's profits from exploration and development to some other purpose, in Tax and Other Solutions to the Gasoline Price Reality, I also supported calls for repeal of the special tax breaks enacted for the oil and gas industry, because, to quote myself, "these companies don't need tax breaks." When pushed on the windfall tax question, I explained in If There Must Be a Windfall Profit Tax, Then ...., that an incentive linked to increased production might be palatable.
It didn't make sense to me then, and it continues to make no sense to me now, that oil and gas companies need tax reductions in order for additional exploration and development of energy sources to be economically attractive. Refusal to support windfall profits taxes is not equivalent to support for additional tax reductions.
So what sort of reaction is the House of Representative's latest action on this issue generating? According to the American Petroleum Institute the repeal of the tax breaks "will discourage new domestic oil production and refinery investments, threaten American jobs, and make it less economic to produce domestic energy resources - thereby increasing our dependence on imported crude oil and gasoline." Wow. So oil companies will slow down or stop exploration because there's no money in such activities without a tax break? If oil prices dropped that low, there wouldn't be an energy crisis. It's tough to buy in to the sorts of arguments made by the American Petroleum Institute when oil companies are awash in profits.
If that reaction isn't enough to boggle common sense, listen to this opinion from Congressman John Peterson: "For some of us, achieving the promise of energy independence is a very real, and very personal, goal, and so the idea that we'd bring a bill to the floor making it more difficult and expensive to produce oil and natural gas at home - in the middle of winter, no less - just boggles my mind." I suppose one could accept the idea that any tax makes it more difficult and expensive to do anything. That line of reasoning would lead to repeal of all taxes, a result championed by some but ultimately suicidal. Why would or should an oil company cut back its activities because it's netting, after taxes, only $18 for each barrel of oil discovered and extracted rather than $20? Perhaps there are people who prefer not to work because a $100,000 after-tax salary just isn't worth the effort when compared to a $110,000 after-tax salary. There's money to be made in exploring for and developing oil and other energy resources, so if the existing companies want to shut down and go out of business because they're losing a tax break that made no sense to begin with, surely others will step up and take advantage of the opportunity.
My cynical side wonders if the next step, assuming the bill is enacted into law, will be a deliberate slow-down by oil companies to provoke a shortage and retail price hikes. Then we will be hearing how the repeal of these tax breaks are breaking the backs of consumers, causing poor folks to freeze to death, and wreaking havoc on the economy. As a long-term market manipulation strategy, it has appeal. As an ethically appropriate thing to do, it flunks. "We need to raise prices because our very high profits aren't high enough" seems a wee bit greedy, especially when it's raised on behalf of shareholders in oil and other energy companies who themselves encounter special low tax rates on their dividends and capital gains.
Friday, January 19, 2007
I learned of this tax thanks to a colleague who is a regular on-line reader of the South China Morning Post. Because that site is a subscriber site, I don't have a useful URL, but the story was picked up elsewhere.
China enacted a land appreciation tax in 1993, but apparently had not been focusing on its collection, in part because the computation is complicated. The National Tax Administration has announced that it would begin full-scale implementation on February 1. The tax applies to land that is held for development and that is not sold out within three years after the developer obtains a sales license. Although the rate of tax can be anywhere between 30 and 60 percent, the provision permits reduction of the taxable amount by the costs of acquiring and developing the land.
The intent of the focused enforcement is to encourage sales, and to prevent land hoarding that would drive up prices and pose the risk of a land valuation collapse. China does not want to experience the sort of economic disadvantages that accompanied a real estate collapse in Japan a few years ago. Property value increases in China during the past few years make the recent "real estate bubble" in the U.S. appear to be a small blip. During the past 18 months, the Shanghai property sub-index had quadrupled. The action comes after a series of interest rate increases and limitations on the ability of foreigners to invest in China property.
Not surprising, the news caused the value of stocks in land development companies to fall. The tax is projected to cut developers' incomes by 1 to 5 percent. It also would disrupt cash flow.
Is there a lesson to be learned? If there is, it appears to be one that can be tucked away. Why? The U.S. no longer is experiencing a rapidly escalating real estate market. There is no need to deter land investment and to encourage rapid development. There is no shortage of developed real estate. But it would be interesting to read and observe reactions to a proposal for a 60 percent tax on appreciation in real estate (or any other investment, for that matter). One wonders, though, whether the use of interest rates as the key tool in steadying the economy will be joined by focused taxes designed to regulate the rate of growth in a particular economic sector.
Food for thought, I suppose.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Aaron Harms provided an explanation:
I think part of the reason you can't find any information about specific tax credits that would be attached to the minimum wage increase is because there aren't any that make sense.Aaron makes a good point. I had not thought through, as he has, what the possibilities could be. I was thinking that it would be giveaways with little rational justification based on minimum wage increases. Now that I think about it, he's right ... existing credits don't provide a platform.
I work with corporate tax credits for a living, and I spent most of this morning's drive to work asking myself, "Even if you wanted to do this, what kind of credit would you come up with? Who would it target?"
You couldn't have a tax credit proportional to how hard the company has shafted their employees, that just wouldn't make sense. The reality is, the majority of tax credits that currently exist encourage companies to pay their employees more than the minimum wage already. A lot of them require that the corporation pay 150% of minimum wage, or 150% of the average wage in that area, or some still require that the company pay a "sustainable" and "liveable" wage to the employee.
A minimum wage increase affects probably about 5% of companies in the country (if that), and those it does are a varied group that it would be extremely difficult to target with a tax credit.
For our clients, who are primarily small to moderately sized businesses, they average paying $9 to their employees, significantly higher than even the new minimum wage, and quite a few are significantly higher than that.
Some of these are manufacturing jobs, sure, but most of them are not. Most of these jobs are grocery store cashiers, warehouse jobs, or similar. Heck, some of my clients pay their warehouse workers more than I get paid for processing their tax credits!
Another reader pointed out that raising the minimum wage would put pressure on businesses that tried to pass the increases along to customers in the form of higher prices because the large businesses were in a better position to undersell the smaller businesses. That comment arrived shortly after I heard a rumor that one of the "small business" tax breaks being advanced as a price for minimum wage increase advocates to pay for passage of their legislation was an increase in the section 179 expensing limitations. Then it hit me. The so-called breaks for small businesses weren't for small businesses. They are for larger businesses. For example, few small businesses need an increase in section 179 expensing limitations because they don't invest the sort of dollars that the higher limits would permit. They don't have sufficient taxable income to be offset by the section 179 deduction. So, consistent with Aaron Harms' comments, it seems that to whatever extent small businesses would bear the costs of a minimum wage increase, the legislation won't contain tax breaks to assist them. The legislation is being held hostage for tax breaks of value to businesses pulling in nearly half a million dollars a year or more in profit. That's a different world from the one in which an entrepreneur tries to get his or her income out of the five-digit range and into six-digit territory.
I wonder how Congress would behave, and how it would be constituted, if every citizen understood tax law as well as those who truly understand it do. I wonder if it would resemble the outcome when the carnival con artist is exposed for what he is. Then I begin to wonder why basic tax isn't a required high school course. Maybe they don't want people to understand fully what the tax law comprises. Maybe they want people to be stuck thinking that the deceptive explanations fed to them are plausible.
No matter, tax breaks for businesses of any size or type ought to reflect careful analyses of the actual profits and losses of those businesses, determined independently of any particular item that happens to change, such as wage costs. It is inappropriate to claim that all small businesses will experience cost increases because of a minimum wage increase, for reasons such as those shared by Aaron Harms, and it is inappropriate to design tax breaks benefitting very profitable businesses while advertising them as tax breaks for small businesses that in actuality cannot use the tax breaks. The new Congress has proclaimed itself dedicated to doing business differently. Here's its chance. It's a test, and an opportunity to earn a grade. Passing? Failing? Early indications aren't good. But to be fair, grades ought not be assigned until the test is complete. Expect more news.
Monday, January 15, 2007
Cases and RulingsAndrew also added a section 351(g) flowchart to the collection a few days after the batch of 30 were uploaded. It's a fine chart, and if I covered that provision in detail in my J.D. business entity taxation overview course I'd ask that you not tell them it exists, because I think they learn more by making their own chart than by looking at someone else's production. If for no other reason, take a look because it's a marvelous illustration of how much complexity Congress can shove into one Code subsection. Multiply it by the number of Code subsections, and it's easy to see that the "chart of the tax cosmos" would be immense beyond comprehension.
1. Avery (Dividend Not Taxable Until Unqualifiedly made Subject to Shareholder's Demands)
2. Cox (Installment Sale Treatment Not Available For 304 Transaction)
3. Helvering v. Horst (Fruit Not Attributed to a Different Tree)
4. Indianapolis Power & Light (Customer Deposits Were Not Advance Payments)
5. Burnet v. Logan (Open Transaction Doctrine (Contingent Payments))
6. MedChem (P.R.), Inc. (Section 936 - Active Conduct of Trade or Business Within a Possession)
7. P.G. Lake, Inc. (No Capital Gain on Sale of Right to Receive Ordinary Income)
8. Taisei Fire (U.S. Agent of Japanese Insurance Companies was an Independent Agent)
9. Rev. Rul. 61-156 (Liquidation - Reincorporation with 45% Common Ownership
10. Rev. Rul. 63-234 (Two Step Exchange Did Not Qualify As B Reorganization (Remote Continuity))
11. Rev. Rul. 64-155 (Outbound Contribution to Capital)
12. Rev. Rul. 67-448 (Reverse Triangular Merger Was, in Substance, a B Reorganization)
13. Rev. Rul 69-630 (Bargain Sale Between Brother-Sister Corporations)
14. Rev. Rul. 2003-96 (Nonapplication of Section 482 to Lease Stripping Transaction)
15. Rev. Rul. 2003-125, Sit. 2 (Check the Box Election As Identifiable Event For Worthless Stock Deduction)
16. Rev. Rul. 2004-3 (Foreign Partner Deemed to Have A Fixed Base in the U.S.)
17. Rev. Rul. 2004-79 (Subsidiary Purchase of Parent Debt)
18. Installment Obligation Received in Forward Triangular Merger [Prop. Reg. 1.453-1(f)(2)(iv), Ex. 1]
19. Check-the-Box Planning to Get 901 Credits and to Avoid 10/50 Basket [Reg. 1.701-2(d), Ex. 3]
20. Dividends Received Deduction for Dividend from Foreign Corporation [Reg. 1.861-3(a)(3)(iii), Ex. 1]
21. Subpart F Income: CFC for Full Year [Reg. 1.951-1(b)(2), Ex. 1]
22. Subpart F Income: CFC for First Part of Year [Reg. 1.951-1(b)(2), Ex. 2]
23. Subpart F Income: CFC for Last Part of Year [Reg. 1.951-1(b)(2), Ex. 3]
24. Hopscotch Rule & PTI Dividend [Reg. 1.951-1(b)(2), Ex. 4]
25. Subpart F Income: CFC for Last Part of Year [Reg. 1.951-1(b)(2), Ex. 5]
26. 12 Month Ownership Test Under US-UK Tax Treaty with Disregarded Entity [PLR 200626009]
27. Section 304 Can Be a One-Way Street
28. Signature Authority Regarding Check-the-Box Elections [Reg. 301.7701-3(c)(2)]
29. Non-Corporate Purchaser: De Facto 338 Election
30. U.S. Corporate Seller of CFC: Buyer Makes Immediate Check-the-Box Election
For those needing cross-references to my previous commentary on Andrew's chart work, look here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Andrew continues to welcome comments on his charts. You can contact him through his web site. For direct access to the charts, you can enter by Topic, by Alpha-numeric order, or by Date uploaded .
Friday, January 12, 2007
The bill now goes to the Senate. Senate Republicans, though, want to attach tax breaks to the legislation. Senate Democrats might accede to the demand simply to get the minimum wage legislation enacted.
Here's are my questions: why can't the Senate simply vote on the minimum wage increase proposal based on its merits? Why do the Republicans in the Senate hold the legislation hostage for more small business tax breaks?
The Senate Republicans claim that the tax breaks are required in order to assist business owners in finding funds with which to pay the minimum tax increases. I'm not convinced. Many minimum-wage employees work for corporate giants, which have been recording record profits while paying exorbitant salaries to their top-level executives. Surely they can come up with the money to provide a living wage to their employees without needing even more tax breaks. Many small businesses that employ low-wage employees either are not subject to the minimum wage, or are in states that have higher minimum wage amounts in place. Some small business owners pay themselves salaries so high that a small pay cut will go far in raising low-wage employee compensation. Blanketing these considerations is the fact that compensation paid to low-wage employees is deductible, which means that the employer's taxes will be reduced even in the absence of additional tax breaks.
It gets worse. Because of the pay-go rules adopted last week, any tax cuts enacted in favor of "small businesses" will require tax increases to offset the cost of the cuts. So who's going to be targeted for those increases? When the smoke clears, if these folks are successful, the tax law will be even more complicated.
While I was hunting, unsuccessfully, for information on the specific tax breaks and tax hikes that the Senate Republicans, with help from certain Democrats, seek to enact, and reached this paragraph in my essay, I discovered that I'm not the only one critical of the "more tax breaks required for small businesses" ploy. Steven Pearlstein's Minimum Wage, Maximum Myth deserves a close read. He makes some points I overlooked, such as the tendency of businesses to pass minimum wage increases on to their customers and the exaggeration that most new jobs are created by small businesses. His comment that small business owners deserve more IRS audits than more tax breaks because of their position as the largest contributors to the revenue gap surpasses any commentary I could have provided.
What is most troubling is the unwillingness of certain politicians to permit separate up or down votes on each proposal based on the merits. What's so wrong with a vote on the minimum wage followed by a vote on the proposed tax breaks? If the proposed tax breaks are so wonderful, would they not be enacted on their own? I suspect the reality is that the tax break advocates understand that their grab for even more tax reductions won't fly, and that the only way to impose it on the nation is to attach it to legislation that has significant support. Coming from legislators who are quick to condemn and outlaw blackmail, extortion, and con games, it seems rather hypocritical. To those who would reply, "That's how politics works in this country," I reply, "Then it's time for this country to reform politics."
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
This year, unfortunately, the IRS forms and instructions process is so far along that the IRS has told taxpayers that they will be using forms and instructions that do not reflect the changes. Taxpayers, and tax practitioners, will need to figure out independently how to modify the instructions in order to incorporate the changes. How seamless will this be? The IRS may issue supplemental instructions, but if the manner in which my tax students, among the nation's best and brightest, have assimilated mid-stream changes over the past two decades is any dedication, confusion will run rampant. One interesting example of what the IRS must do involves the sales tax tables for the revived sales tax deduction. The IRS plans to do another mailing to taxpayers to distribute the tables. Will the Congress step up to the plate and provide the IRS with funds to pay for this mailing, or will the IRS be expected to make cuts in some other program area? Does Congress want less taxpayer service? Of course not, because Congress harps on that issue every week. Does Congress want fewer audits? Wouldn't that make a great headline? Has Congress thought about the impact of the inefficient manner in which it does business?Now comes a useful news release from the National Association of Tax Preparers addressing some of the problems. The title of the news release, Income Tax Form 1040’s Missing Lines for Key Deductions - Here’s How to Claim Them, is enough to demonstrate the aggravation Congress causes for citizens when it cannot do things in a timely manner.
The forms mailed by the IRS do not have any lines for the sales tax deduction, the higher education deduction, and the deduction for teachers' expenses. Fortunately, there is time for people to learn about this glitch and make adjustments, because the IRS cannot begin processing tax returns until February at the earliest. Why? It must reprogram its computer system. Will it have time to test the changes? I doubt it. So it would not be surprising to discover in March or April that hundreds of thousands of tax returns have been processed incorrectly. If Microsoft can't get it right the first, second, or umpteenth time around, can the IRS?
The NATP has a nice, plain English explanation of the instructions provided by the IRS on how taxpayers who file their returns on paper can "jiggle" the forms to make "room" for the missing deductions. Taxpayers using software must get updates from the vendors before preparing their returns. Vendors are working on revisions, and they, too, face the disadvantages of making changes and trying to test them under severe time pressure.
So, hey, thanks, Congress! Do you think perhaps people don't feel so bad they invited a lot of you to go home? And for those remaining and those newly arrived, there's a lesson to be learned. In the long run, it is better to do the job correctly than it is to amass power for power's sake or for the sake of a select few to whom one ends up becoming indebted because of the grab for power.
Monday, January 08, 2007
According to the What American Accent Do You Have Quiz, I speak like a, surprise, Philadelphian:
Yet, for me, a Philadelphian is someone who says Iggles rather than Eagles, or whadduya? rather than what do you? Decades ago, Philadelphia magazine ran a story, and then a followup, "How to Speak Like a Philadelphian." The authors pointed out that there are many Philadelphia dialects, and provided quizzes from which one could identify not only the neighborhood in which a person grew up but the decade during which they were a child. It would be nice to see those quizzes go online.
What American accent do you have?Your Result: Philadelphia The Northeast The Midland The Inland North The South Boston The West North Central What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz
So how good is this What American Accent Do You Have Quiz? Let me know.
In yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, Jeff Brown shared his Readers' wish list to Congress. The ones focusing on the income tax -- several dealt with the social security system and the estate tax -- provide an interesting insight into how people "think" about the tax law.
Suggestion #1: Eliminate the tax on social security benefits because that constitutes "sticking it to the middle class!" How's that? Every social security recipient escapes taxation on 15% of the receipts, and most escape taxation on much more than that, in some instances escaping taxation on all of their social security receipts. The suggestion is an emotional one. Carefully analyzed, the taxation of social security benefits should reflect two concepts. First, receipts in excess of contributions, constituting economic gain, should be included in gross income. Second, a genuinely well-designed income tax rate structure would ensure that the very rich who receive social security are taxed at higher rates, whereas those whose gross income is on the low side even with social security profits included in it would be taxed a low rates or not even taxed. It is understandable that folks receiving social security on which they are taxed are upset when there are much wealthier people finding ways to receive income free of tax. The solution isn't to expand the nonsense but to curtail it.
Suggestion #2: Capital gains distributions from mutual funds that are reinvested in more shares of the fund should not be taxed until the money is withdrawn from the fund. In other words, a deferral of tax similar to that permitted for like-kind exchanges should apply to mutual funds. The sense of this proposal is simple, namely, whatever justifies deferral of tax when there is a like-kind exchange applies no less to mutual fund reinvestments. But why stop there? Why not permit deferral of all gain (rather than excluding $250,000 or $500,000) when a home is sold and replaced, or when stock is sold and replaced, or when appreciated personal artwork is sold and replaced? There are two answers. First, it would pretty much leave the income tax as a tax on wages (which some people want to see happen), and to prevent revenue loss the tax rate on wages would soar. Second, deferral is an idea has been increasingly restricted, from the repeal of the home sale and replacement deferral in favor of an exclusion to the growing list of transactions not eligible for like-kind exchange treatment. Been there, done that, don't work.
Suggestion #3: Index the AMT for inflation. If all else fails, this is a quick and acceptable, though far from ideal, fix.
Suggestion #4: Repeal the AMT. I'd vote for that if the regular income tax were cleaned up so that the reasons for an AMT were eliminated. Simply put, the regular tax would look much like the current AMT, in terms of fewer exclusions, far fewer deductions, and even fewer credits.
Suggestion #5: Raise the age at which money in retirement plans must be withdrawn. Under current law, distributions must start by the time someone is 70 and a half. The suggestions rests on the idea that leaving money in these accounts permits it to grow tax-free for a longer period of time. So long as the whatever taxable amounts remaining in the account are taxed when the account owner dies, the proposal could be seen as another request for deferral. It makes sense if someone has not retired by age 70 and a half, and perhaps folks who are still working should be permitted to delay withdrawals. Otherwise, the proposal makes little sense.
Suggestion #6: Index capital gains for inflation before applying the special low tax rate. Whoa! A significant justification for the special low tax rate on capital gains is that some of the gain reflects inflation and not real dollars. For years, I've advocated indexing basis for inflation. Once that is done, there is no reason for special low tax rates. The idea of indexing basis while retaining a special low tax rate is another proposal fueled by emotion, the one called greed.
Jeff Brown concludes his article with a wish: "To this reader and all the others who wrote, thanks. Let's hope the new Congress is as wise and fair-minded as you are." Let's hope not. Surely the first and last suggestion are unwise, and two of the others are dubious at best. The third and fourth suggestions, which are two of several alternative solutions to the AMT mess, are the only ones deserving of further consideration. Ironically, what's missing from the readers' suggestions that were shared are some changes that are sorely needed: eliminating the joint return, raising the standard deduction and personal exemption so that they match the poverty level threshold, ditching most credits and deductions, cleaning up the at-risk and passive loss rules, and ending off-shore income evasion mechanisms. Browse MauledAgain and I'm sure there are other suggestions that were overlooked.
Friday, January 05, 2007
Last week a question was posed to the ABA-TAX list. A subscriber described situation involving an S corporation whose shareholders entered into an agreement stating "that the Board of Directors can arbitrarily decide who the profits of the corporation are distributed to." The agreement contained a "set formula" and "some 'bonus based on performance' provisions." Under the formula, the profits would be used to pay the "owner's taxes and to pay enough to
the younger owner to finance his buyout of the older owner."
The attorney who drafted the agreement explained "that the plan allows the ownership percentage to be adjusted to however we want it, thus moving income from the high tax bracket owner to the low tax bracket owner even though the profits were not distributed that way."
The question: "Can they do this?" Stated differently, " Is a corporation allowed to arbitrarily decide annually who is getting and reporting the profits?"
The answer is, "Yes, they can do this but they're going to have a pile of tax problems."
If the profits are distributed disproportionately to stock ownership, the S corporation will have a second class of stock and the S election will terminate. Without going into details, suffice it to say that termination of the S election is bad news.
In addition, if they start changing ownership percentages there's going to be an interesting array of gift tax, stock transfer tax, and income tax (disposition) issues. Unless the stock is worthless (which would make the profit allocation question moot), the outcomes will not be welcomed by the shareholders.
What they're trying to do can be explained in simple terms: A takes the income, B gets taxed. Any student who understands basic tax principles knows that this game was played decades ago and the taxpayers lost. Of course, taxpayers keep trying to find new ways of making B pay the tax on A's economic gain. One has to wonder if the attorney who drafted the shareholder agreement understands the basics of federal taxation, let alone S corporation tax rules.
The subscriber who posted the original question replied that the attorney claims that "the actual stock doesn't transfer ... but the 'phantom stock' plan allows the stockholders to manipulate who
reports what, even if the stock does not change hands." Wow.
The attorney reportedly also explained that, "[a]s for pushing tax to the lower bracketed owner, the agreement says all taxes of the shareholders will be paid by the corporation, so he says
that doesn't matter." Sorry, but it does matter. Because the shareholders are in different tax brackets, the tax paid on behalf of one shareholder's share of the profits will be disproportionate to the tax paid on behalf of the other shareholder's share. This creates a second class of stock. It is an issue specifically addressed in the regulations because some states permit, or require, S corporations to pay state income taxes on behalf of shareholders, in some instances, the non-resident shareholders. Corporations must be careful to make payments in a way that maintains the proportionality characteristic of one class of stock.
It was also reported that the attorney in question is "a pretty renowned tax INSTRUCTOR part time at a university." Oh, my.
The discussion was taking such a strange turn, I had to clarify things. So I asked:
So let me see if I have this.Yes, there's more than a wee bit of sarcasm in my inquiry, but why do people insist that somehow they can find a way around a very simple, basic rule? If A owns x% of the S corporation stock, A must pay tax on x% of the S corporation's profits. Any attempt to distribute something to A other than x% of the profits, or to have some other shareholder taxed on some or all of A's share of the profits simply isn't permissible. What's so difficult to understand about that principle? Why are some folks so intent on disregarding it? Do they really believe that they are so special that a different set of rules should apply to their situation?
A owns, say, 30%. B owns, say, 45%. C owns 25%.
The S corporation has profits of $100,000. They want A to get, say, $72,000, but to pay the tax on $30,000?
So if A takes a distribution of $72,000, it's disproportionate and the S election does down the tube.
Oh, wait, so they'll claim that $42,000 of what goes to A is really B's and C's. And what is that? Seems to me there's a gift from B and C to A. Or some sort of taxable event. Either way, big problems.
Oh, no, it is claimed. A owns 72 of the 100 pretend shares. So A can take $72,000 and it won't be disproportionate.
Yes, but what about the attempt to have $42,000 of the $72,000 taxed to someone else? Isn't that assignment of income?
No, comes the reply. We're special. We don't worry about that. That's because we'll pretend that A is paying pretend taxes on the $72,000.
Better yet, we'll have the corporation pay the taxes. There's no deemed distribution there, is there? Oh, no, not more disproportionate distributions? Goodness, we're in an algebraic computational time loop.
As [another subscriber] pointed out, the only way to split the corporation's earnings in a way that comports with tax law is to pay compensation. It's not a problem measuring it with phantom this or that. There are people who earn compensation based on phantom work. But that compensation must be taxed to the person to whom it is paid, and if the corporation pays the income tax, there's even more compensation. Old Colony Trust ... a case reached very early in the basic tax course, even before the assignment of income cases.
But I doubt such an approach will be satisfactory to shareholders who are trying to do the "I get the money, you pay the tax" routine. It's a routine almost as old as the tax law itself.
So I wonder how long it takes before umpteen dozen students are offering this "phantom plan" to *their* clients, tagging it as renowned. Gee, if enough S corporations do this, maybe it becomes tax law de facto?
It gets worse. When another subscriber pointed out that this issue, and similar if not identical plan, had been discussed a few months ago, the subscriber who posed the recent question explained that the previous topic had also been generated by his question, dealing with a different client, same attorney. Apparently the earlier client chose to ignore the attorney's plan. Good move.
So in addition to asking why some people are so intent on trying to create a special set of tax rules that work to their advantage, I also ask why there are tax practitioners who so willingly offer to those people "plans" that supposedly do what those folks want to do? Is the desire for money so strong that people will set aside logic, reasoning, common sense, statutory language, others' bad experiences, and honesty in order to drum up business?
The response to these ploys will be yet more pages of tax law. Tax laws that say "we really mean it." Tax laws that use 30-word phrases instead of a word so that the masters of deception find it even more difficult to peddle the tax snake oil to unsuspecting, though perhaps greedily gullible, taxpayers.
The rule is simple: If A owns x% of the S corporation stock, A must pay tax on x% of the S corporation's profits. It's too bad some people just cannot take it for what it is.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
The arguments advanced by the editorial aren't new, and they're plausible. But, for all intents and purposes, they are theoretical. They are based on data that is isolated from context, and disconnected from the many variables that enter into wage determination. Farm jobs exist where crops can be grown. Mining jobs exist where the ores are in the ground. Jobs disappear in war-torn areas. It's not so simple as accepting the plea of starving shareholders, "Give us more money by cutting corporate taxes and we promise we'll hire more people. Honest." More people being hired? At minimum wage? "No, wait," say the shareholders, "we'll increase wages of current employees." The WSJ editorial notes that "the real average wage for non-supervisory employees has risen 2.8%" during 2006. Big whoop. That's $1,200. Does the editorial mention what has happened to the wages of CEOs, CFOs, and other high-level supervisory employees? The editorial claims that employee non-wage benefits have increased, but it's unclear if the editorial is referring to the many stock option and similar deals available to top hat employees.
The editorial also advocates making the "Bush tax cuts" permanent, suggesting that those tax cuts created capital that was translated into those marvelous 2.8% wage hikes. The editorial overlooks the fact that the same fiscal policy caused state and local governments to find tax hikes inescapable, so that some of the wage hikes were diverted to increases in state sales taxes, local property taxes, state income taxes, and similar exactions. Would it not be better to eliminate the special low tax rates for the capital gain and dividend income of the wealthy, increase the progressivity of the tax rates for taxable incomes above $500,000, fix the regular tax so that the AMT could be jettisoned, and then reduce taxes overall so that folks at the low end get a meaningful tax break? Perhaps that would drive down the upward pressure on wages, and bring more workers into the job force so that the cost of labor to corporate and other employees would be mitigated. If all taxes imposed on a person earning $60,000 a year were cut in half, the pressure for a 3% wage increase in 2007 might soften into a demand for a 2% increase, even though purchasing power would continue to increase. Unfortunately, what's really at work here is an arrangement by which the very wealthy control the nation's tax revenue and most of its other income, and dictate who gets what. A very few determine which jobs exist, where they will be, who will fill them, and how much salary they will generate. Their ability to set terms would be constrained if they weren't living with effective 10% tax rates. To suggest that the corporate executives of the Fortune 500 should have even more after-tax money with which to control the economy is the very antithesis of a "free" market. I wonder if the Wall Street Journal realizes that its editorial is in some ways very inconsistent with its alleged core philosophy.
A tax colleague at another school suggested that the solution should be an income tax credit "based on the increase in wage rates for the lowest paid 10% of the workforce in excess of inflation, or the rate of increase in rate of compensation of the five highest paid employees." Though I detest the addition of another credit to the tax code, I much prefer this idea to the one floated by the WSJ editorial. It forecloses the risk that the savings from corporate tax cuts would be plowed into high-end salaries. Perhaps the answer to my "no new credits, please" request is to jettison the other wage credits in the Code and wrap their concepts into this one.
Ideally, corporate profits should be taxed to the true earners of corporate income, namely, shareholders. I have no conceptual disagreement with abolishing the corporate income tax, though I fully appreciate the logistical challenges. In turn, those profits must be taxed at realistic tax rates that treat dollars as dollars regardless of source and that reflect a genuine progressivity that does not treat a person with $400,000 of taxable income as deserving of the same tax rate as someone with taxable income of $4,000,000 or $40,000,000.
One last point deserves attention. So many corporations have structured their dealings in such a way that they do not pay corporate income tax. For those corporations, a cut in the corporate tax rates would be useless. So, too, would be the credit proposed by my colleague, unless it were a refundable credit, and I do not think he had a refundable credit in mind. Thus, the corporate tax rate cut proposed by the editorial would simply eliminate, or come close to eliminating, the corporate income tax without shareholders paying the price for that arrangement. It's not unlike the goals of those who want to eliminate the estate tax without paying the price of taxing unrealized appreciation at death.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people think they have the right to go straight out of the left-turn lane because they're special. It never ceases to amaze me how often some folks come back to the public feeding trough. Corporate shareholders in this nation surely are starving if their trips to the tax food bin are any indication. Hopefully, the new Congress understands that voters aren't willing to take 2.8% wage hikes that are consumed by state and local tax increases in exchange for letting the privileged few enjoy special low tax rates on capital gains and dividends, and regular tax rates short on progressivity. Lest the wealthy think I'm picking on them, perhaps they'd like to think where their incomes will be when the foreign creditors to whom America owes trillions of dollars borrowed to finance the Bush tax cuts arrive to collect their due and take over American businesses. Then who will be taking the high-end salaries? Hopefully these folks' economic roads to Damascus won't come too late.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
What is it?
It's the "Death and Taxes poster," available from The Budget Graph, and visible in this very large jpg file of the poster. Mine came framed, ready to hang, and so now I must find search my house for an appropriate place in which to hang it. There's no room next to the framed replica of the very first federal individual income tax form. Plus there's a limit to how much tax wall art should be in one room. It could be too overwhelming for guests and visitors. On the other hand, perhaps putting all of these things in one place could provide a litmus test: if you can survive the tax room, you can survive Maule.
As best as I can tell, this particular item wasn't on Paul Caron's list of Christmas Gifts for that Special Tax Person. No link because there are so many of them on TaxProf Blog, so just visit TaxProf Blog and search for "Christmas Gifts for that Special Tax Person."
But where, oh where, are my IRS chocolates?