Monday, January 30, 2017
The taxpayer sought reconsideration, arguing that the parties had not raised the issue of whether tracking data is equivalent to a postmark made by the postal service. The IRS agreed, abandoned its argument based on section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(B)(2) of the regulations, requested that the Tax Court apply section 301.7502-1(c)(1)(B)(1) of the regulations, and conclude that it had been satisfied. The Tax Court denied the motion, explaining that the 90-day limitation for filing petitions is jurisdictional, and thus cannot be altered by agreement between the parties.
The taxpayer appealed to the Seventh Circuit. At oral argument, the court and counsel for the parties focused on whether sections 6213 and 7502 of the Internal Revenue Code and section 301.7502-1 of the regulations create a rule that is jurisdictional. The Seventh Circuit requested supplemental memoranda on the issue. The Seventh Circuit then concluded that the provisions are jurisdictional. However, it concluded that although litigants cannot stipulate to jurisdiction, they can agree on the facts that determine jurisdiction. The court provided as an example the requirements under federal diversity jurisdiction, which require that the litigants be domiciled in different states. Though the parties cannot simply stipulate that diversity exists, they can stipulate that one party is domiciled in one state and the other party in another, and that agreement is binding unless the parties are colluding. Because the Tax Court did not suspect the taxpayer and the IRS of colluding, because the IRS conceded that the envelope was delivered to the postal service on April 21, and because there is nothing to establish that the postal service treats entry of an item into its tracking system as a postmark, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the petition was timely filed, and reversed the Tax Court.
The Seventh Circuit then shared its thoughts on what had happened:
Although the taxpayer thus prevails on this appeal, we have to express astonishment that a law firm (Stoel Rives, LLP, of Salt Lake City) would wait until the last possible day and then mail an envelope without an official postmark. A petition for review is not a complicated document; it could have been mailed with time to spare. And if the last day turned out to be the only possible day (perhaps the firm was not engaged by the client until the time had almost run), why use a private postmark when an official one would have prevented any controversy? A member of the firm’s staff could have walked the envelope to a post office and asked for hand cancellation. The regulation gives taxpayers another foolproof option by providing that the time stamp of a private delivery service, such as FedEx or UPS, is conclusive. 26 C.F.R. §301.7502–1(c)(3). Stoel Rives was taking an unnecessary risk with Tilden’s money (and its own, in the malpractice claim sure to follow if we had agreed with the Tax Court) by waiting until the last day and then not getting an official postmark or using a delivery service.That paragraph should be included in whatever materials are used in tax procedure courses in every tax law program in the country. It also should find its way into every professional responsibility course in the nation’s law schools. Does it surprise me? Not at all. In How Not to File a Tax Court Petition, I commented on a case involving a taxpayer who, after receiving a notice of deficiency, relied on a third party to mail the petition which was due by March 3, 2014. The third party printed postage from Stamps.com, added extra postage for making the mailing certified, took the petition to the post office, noticed there were long lines, and dropped the envelope in the outgoing mail slot without getting a postal service employee to stamp certified on, and postmark, the envelope. Because the petition arrived at the Tax Court on March 10, 2014, bearing a postmark of March 4, 2014, the Tax Court granted the IRS motion to dismiss for failure to file the petition in a timely manner. The postal service postmark superseded the Stamps.com postmark. Foreshadowing what the Seventh Circuit would write, I reacted with these words:
There are two major lessons to be learned from this case. First, stand in line and get that hand-stamped postmark. Second, avoid the need to learn the first lesson by treating the petition as due EIGHTY days after it is mailed. That provides a cushion of time, an allowance for unforeseen circumstances, and contingency insurance. The inability of most people to deceive themselves in this manner has its roots in childhood, when too many missed deadlines are tolerated, and lessons in timeliness aren’t taught and when taught, aren’t absorbed. More than a few law students have encountered serious academic difficulties because a variety of circumstances, some unpredicted and some to be expected, caused them to miss deadlines. People complain that law schools should be teaching time management, but, seriously, why are people arriving at law school lacking time management skills? The answer is, for the same reason people not going to law school have the same issues. Better to learn the consequences when what’s at stake is something minor and not a taxpayer’s Tax Court petition.To that commentary, I must add another lesson. “Third, at some point missing deadlines or handling a deadline in a fashion that requires one or more courts to sift through evidence and consumes the time and resources of litigants and lawyers will cause much embarrassment and consternation when an amazed, or annoyed, court takes time to use an opinion to reprimand those mishandling deadlines.”
Friday, January 27, 2017
Some American taxpayers can list at least a few of the widely applicable deductions. One or more of items such as state income taxes, local real property taxes, mortgage interest, medical expense, and charitable contributions are mentioned by a some taxpayers when asked to name deductions. When it comes to credits, some taxpayers will mention the earned income credit, the credit for taxes withheld or paid as estimates, and perhaps the investment credit.
A student in the basic federal income tax course should not describe charitable contributions as something that generates a credit. Charitable contributions generate deductions. There probably are a good number of Americans who would not recognize the difference and might mention a “charitable contributions credit.”
So one of this blog’s readers was surprised to discover, on the New Orleans Saints ticket web site, a suggestion that ticket holders can “Offer your unused tickets to charity through the Saints so that others who are not able to go to games can enjoy the Saints' experience. And remember, you'll receive tax credit on these donations.
A bit of research determined that some states provide a state income tax credits for charitable contributions. Louisiana is one of those states; two others are Arizona and Missouri, though I did not attempt to survey all the states. The Louisiana credit, however, is based on the amount, if any, by which total charitable contributions and some other deductions exceed the amount permitted for federal income tax purposes. In other words, to the extent that federal limitations eliminate a portion of the taxpayer’s deduction, a credit against Louisiana state income tax liability is permitted.
As written, the advice on the web site is confusing and ambiguous. The words “And remember, you’ll receive tax credit on these donations” should be replaced with “And remember, it is possible that making these donations will generate a Louisiana state income tax credit for you, but it is best to consult with a tax professional.” To state that a tax credit is guaranteed is ambiguous. Federal income tax credit? Louisiana state income tax credit? And even if a proper reference had been made to Louisiana state income tax credit, there is no guarantee that the computation of the excess on which it is based would generate a credit. On top of that, it is best to provide a warning of some sort that tax advice is not being offered and to suggest that a tax professional be consulted.
The reader suggested that “It is obvious that the person who wrote this would have failed your tax course by not understanding the difference between a tax credit and a tax deduction.” Fortunately for a student, failing to understand one core principle is not a guarantee of failure in the course. Failure occurs when too many core principles are misunderstood or overlooked. In addition, failure to be precise in writing something also contributes to a lower grade but one error in and of itself does not generate a failing grade.
Precision matters. Lack of precision causes misunderstandings in communication, which can lead to all sorts of problems. Lack of precision causes engineering defects, which can lead to all sorts of problems. Lack of precision causes medical misdiagnoses, which can lead to all sorts of problems. In other words, to the chagrin of those who detest details and want to live in the world of sound bites and 140-character tweets, lack of precision leads to all sorts of problems. Not all of those problems involve the risk of failing a tax course, but too many of those problems involve the risk of existential catastrophe.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
In this episode, the defendant was a truck driver. He was described as working for the plaintiff. He also was described as having been employed by the plaintiff. While driving the plaintiff’s truck, the defendant had an accident. The insurance company covered the repair costs except for a deductible. The plaintiff sued the defendant to recover the deductible, and also to recover loans allegedly made to the defendant. When asked, the plaintiff said that the defendant was his business partner, but added, “but then we treat him as an independent contractor and provide a 1099.” Judge Judy then asked, “So he’s not a partner.” “No,” said the plaintiff, “He is a partner but gets a 1099.” One of the documents introduced as evidence describes the defendant as the plaintiff’s business partner. Judge Judy explained that either he is a partner and does not get a 1099 or he is not a partner. She added, “He worked for you, you gave him a 1099 instead of a partnership return.” Ultimately the case was dismissed because the plaintiff failed to prove other elements of his claim.
Any tax professional who has dealt with these business relationship issues should immediately spot the problem. It’s not just a question of whether the defendant was a partner or an independent contractor. There’s a third option. The defendant was described as working for the plaintiff and as having been employed by the plaintiff. The plaintiff owned the truck. If there was a partnership, would not the partnership own the truck? Probably, though perhaps the plaintiff was renting the truck to the partnership, but I didn’t get that impression. How can the defendant be an independent contractor if the plaintiff owns the truck and specifies the deliveries to be made and routes to be taken? Ought not both the 1099 and partnership return be set aside in favor of a Form W-2?
Because the plaintiff failed to prove other elements of his case, it ultimately did not matter whether the defendant was a partner, employee, or independent contractor. But had the plaintiff succeeded with the other elements of his case, the question would have been pivotal, both to liability and damages. There is no way that the question could be answered before additional facts were provided. Those facts, however, were not established in the case.
Monday, January 23, 2017
When it comes to tax refunds, the questions also tend to be unsurprising. “Am I getting a refund?” “How much is my refund?” “How long until I get my refund?” “Can my ex-spouse get any of my refund?” “Can the credit card companies grab my refund check?” But rarely is a tax professional asked, “Should I spend my refund or invest it” or “How should I spend my refund?” Financial advisors surely get the first question, and perhaps get the second. But tax professionals who are not in the business of giving investment and spending advice don’t expect, and probably don’t want to provide, advice on what to do with a tax refund.
Taxpayers who, for whatever reason, are unsure of what they should do with their refund ought not despair that their tax return preparer has no advice or doesn’t care to provide any. There is another source. A reader of this blog turned my attention to a web site that provides advice on what to do with tax refunds based on the taxpayer’s astrological sun sign. Yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Astrologists claim to have the answer. Years ago, a friend of mine who was deeply into astrology and studied with one of the world’s most celebrated astrologists explained to me that astrology requires much more than the sun sign, which is based on date of birth, but on a wide range of planetary signs that depend on a person’s precise date, time, and place of birth. Though I understood the gist of it, I’ve never explored these nuances in any detail. Nor would I base financial decisions on astrological predictions, whether based on sun signs or the full array of determinants.
All of this leaves me wondering, “Are there people who make financial decisions based on astrological guidance?” If so, what’s their track record compared to those whose decisions reflect other approaches? A few minutes of research did not provide me with an answer.
Friday, January 20, 2017
The link to which the reader sent me begins with a posting that is almost seven years old, and ends with one that is almost three years old. Though the discussion apparently has run its course, I doubt that the practices being described have fallen into disuse.
The initial post was a question. The person asked, “Has anyone out there had any success with getting rid of a tax issue? The state where I reside is assessing more penalties and fees than the actual tax liability was over 8 years ago. I would appreciate any assistance with getting this matter resolved.” One response suggested getting “a reading to see what is involved in getting this situation under control,” and provided a link to a list of “psychic readers and conjure doctors.” Another response suggested that if legal proceedings were in the offing, the person should “start a court case honey jar. I would do a separate honey jar for the tax collectors--get their seal and names of the specific people you are dealing if possible and burn brown candle's on the honey jar anointed with LMC's Law Keep Away oil.” The person who asked the question replied that there would not be any legal proceedings, that they were faced with interest and penalties far in excess of the tax due from five to nine years ago, and that they would be negotiating to get the payments down or have the debt cancelled. The person then asked, “Would a bend over, commanding, or law stay away ritual would work best? I did a freezer spell over a year ago when I received the first assessment. I had the name of an auditor, and I put the whole thing in the freezer. I did not hear anything until last week since that freezer spell. I just need this to go away.” Someone else then asked how to remove a lien that had been placed on a parent’s business by the IRS. Someone suggested using “LM court case products” and praying to St. Jude. But this person also recommended getting legal advice, especially from a tax attorney, and using the “Lucky Mojo products” as a backup to the legal advice.
The focus of the thread then shifted. Someone asked, “the state of maryland has been taking my taxes for yrs now, i have never received any tax money from them at all, this year i need help and my money, is there a saint or spell i could use to make sure i get all my money an what they have stolen from me from all the yrs past.” Another person recommended, “Seek the help of an Accountant or a Tax Attorney,” and also recommended using a “pay me” product and trying some tips from a “Hoodoo and Herb and Root Magic” book.
Another person noted, “Well we all have to pay taxes. It isn't wise to avoid that. If you have an issue with your tax return hire a tax attorney, or even an accountant to look over your books and find out what is going wrong here.” This person added a suggestion to use “Law Keep Away to keep them from coming after you, Compelling to compel them to give you a tax return, and Money Stay with Me so they can't take too much money from you.”
Another person asking for help with a “a mistake the IRS has made” was told to “Get a Court Case honey jar. If you know the name of the IRS agent, put his or her name in the jar. You can also use the notice they sent you. Make a copy for your records and use the original in your work. You can also get a Court Case vigil candle, or dress a brown candle with Court Case oil. Lucky Mojo also has a Court Case Spell Kit.” The person then added, “You may need an attorney to help you. Use Court Case and Attraction to find the right one.”
Several people who had requested assistance in dealing with their tax problems reported that they eventually had success. Was it because of the spells, the oils, the powders, the candles? Was it because of the assistance of tax professionals? From the posts, it would seem that they attributed the success to the spells, oils, powders, candles, and other materials. In another post, someone noted, “This Forum is not a substitute for any legal or tax advice. Seek the advice of an accountant or an attorney.” Another contributor advised, “And when you have found your attorney, bless his work with King Solomon Wisdom and Court Case supplies.”
I’ve known and do know people who do tarot readings, who claim to have successfully cast spells, and who pray to saints. The believers are convinced these practices work. Others figure that there’s no harm in trying. What was news to me was the use of these approaches in dealing with taxes, finding lawyers and other tax professionals, and helping lawyers win cases. Those who have described to me the use of tarot cards and spells almost always spoke in terms of fixing or finding relationships or dealing with health problems. So I learned something.
The reader who shared the link with me also wondered, “Maybe a new tax course Introduction to Federal Taxes and Magic Spells?” I doubt it. Aside from trying to picture the law faculty being presented with a course proposal of this sort and reacting favorably, I also doubt that even if such a course were approved, there would be much of an enrollment. Law students are swamped with courses, internships, externships, seminars, and other academic demands. But perhaps another department in a university would include tax issues in an undergraduate course devoted to spells, magic, wizardry, or voodoo. However, I’m unaware of any such courses at Villanova.
When the car breaks down, see a mechanic. When the house catches fire, call the fire department. When the dog gets sick, visit the veterinarian. When the IRS or a state revenue department comes calling, find a tax professional. At that point, if you believe, pray, cast spells, go to a reading. But relying solely on the latter and ignoring the professional is dangerous and ill-advised.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Though to some it may appear to be hyper-technical, there is a big difference between exclusions and deductions. An exclusion reduces gross income, and thus adjusted gross income, which is used as the starting point in computing a variety of limitations on deductions and in computing how much of certain types of income can be excluded from gross income. The exclusion also has the effect of reducing taxable income. Some deductions cause adjusted gross income to be reduced, but most deductions do not, though they can reduce taxable income. They don’t necessarily do so, because many of these deductions are in turn limited, and often end up being irrelevant. Generally speaking, given the choice between an exclusion and a deduction, a taxpayer would prefer a tax break to be an exclusion.
When I taught the basic federal income tax course, the difference between an exclusion and a deduction was one of the dozen or so principles that were on the list of concepts students needed to master if they were to earn a grade of C or above in the course. Someone who conflated exclusions with deductions and deductions with credits, who did not understand the difference between a ceiling limitation and a floor limitation, who did not understand the difference between income and gross income and the difference between gross income and taxable income, among other things, pretty much would fail the course or perhaps escape with a D.
Thus my surprise at seeing Turbo Tax describe the parsonage allowance exclusion as something that is deductible. Interestingly, though the response to the FAQ initially refers to deducting the allowance, and uses that verb yet again, in the last sentence, the response refers to “the excludable portion” of the allowance. There definitely is a lack of consistency in the response.
I’ve not yet loaded this year’s Turbo Tax program. Because I do not receive a parsonage allowance, I’m not in a position to determine if the software treats it as an exclusion or as a deduction. My guess is that it is treated as an exclusion and that the problem is with the FAQ documentation, almost surely written by someone other than those coding the software.
So is the FAQ tax ignorance? I don’t think so. I think it is a mistake, probably the result of carelessness, especially in light of the correct use of “excludable” in part of the response. I have made those sorts of mistakes, generally as a consequence of being distracted by some externality.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Those who support shrinking the federal government and putting more power into the hands of the states present, as one argument for that position, the value of states as “laboratories” in which policy theories can be tested on a smaller scale rather than imposed on the entire nation. There is some value in this view, because as the instructions for some cleaning substances often advise, use it on a small out-of-the-way portion of the item to be cleaned to see if there are any unexpected unwanted consequences.
One of the best laboratories demonstrating the total failure of trickle-down supply-side economics and its resulting tax policy is Kansas. I’ve written about the Kansas debacle several times. In A Tax Policy Turn-Around?, I explained how the Kansas income tax cuts for the wealthy backfired, causing the rich to get richer, the economy to stagnate, public services to falter, and the majority of Kansans to end up worse than they had been. In A New Play in the Make-the-Rich-Richer Game Plan, I described how Kansas politicians have been struggling to find a way to undo the damage caused by those ill-advised tax cuts for the wealthy. In When a Tax Theory Fails: Own Up or Make Excuses?, I pointed out that the Kansas experienced removed all doubt that the theory is shameful. In Do Tax Cuts for the Wealthy Create Jobs?, I described recent data showing that the rate of job creation in Kansas was one-fifth the rate in Missouri, a state that did not subscribe to the outlandish tax cuts for the wealthy that Kansas legislators had embraced. In Kansas Trickle-Down Failures Continue to Flood the State and The Kansas Trickle-Down Tax Theory Failure Has Consequences, I described how large decreases in tax revenue, the opposite of what is promised by the supply-side theorists, triggered cuts in public education, and in turn stoked the fires of voter frustration. The voter reaction, however, did not push out of office enough supply-side supporters.
Now comes news that in order to deal with the almost one billion dollar budget shortfall confronting Kansas, its governor, Sam Brownback, architect of the state’s fiscal disaster and prominent supporter of the trickle-down theory, has proposed a series of debilitating spending cuts, impractical sin tax increases, and golden-goose killing. These proposals, if enacted, would simply push the underlying problem down the road, to loom even more catastrophically after Brownback leaves office and cannot be held responsible for the damage. Brownback wants to take money out of the state highway fund. He wants to sell off a future income stream from a tobacco litigation settlement. He wants to increase alcohol and tobacco taxes. He wants to postpone the increases in the state’s payments to an underfunded state employee pension fund. He wants to ignore the planned decrease in the income tax rate on the lowest tax bracket.
The consequences of these proposals, if enacted, adversely affect middle and low income Kansans. For example, failing to lower the income tax rate on the lowest tax bracket harms low and middle income taxpayers much more than it hurts the wealthy taxpayers. The spending cuts would reduce the quality of rural highways and adversely affect hospitals. State employees would suffer from the failure to increase payments to their pension fund. Selling off the tobacco settlement income stream would mean loss of funding after 2018 for programs supported by that income, programs such as Early Head Start.
Nor is there any guarantee that the revenue increases projected in the budget would materialize. As discussed in this story focusing on the proposed alcohol tax increase, Kansans living near the Missouri border would simply make their purchases in that state. A sizeable portion of the Kansas population lives in that area.
Even some Kansas Republicans recognize the problems with the governor’s attempt to fix the mess he created by cutting taxes for the wealthy. Democrats call it the worst budget ever.
Yet the governor refuses to repeal the income tax exemption for limited liability companies, S corporations, and other closely held businesses. The cost of this exemption is roughly 25 percent of the budget shortfall. Some Kansas legislators want to repeal the exemption, pointing out that it would reduce the shortfall by as much as could be obtained by selling off the tobacco litigation income stream.
So what has the nation learned from the trickle-down economics experiments in Kansas? It depends. Some people, including some former devotees of supply-side economics, recognize what I’ve argued for quite some time. As I explained in A Tax Policy Turn-Around?, tax cuts for consumers are more valuable than tax cuts for money stashers. Improving the economic posture of the middle class and the poor generates more sales, which drives up sales tax revenue, and increases corporate profits, which increases corporate income tax receipts as well as shareholder return. As I explained in Job Creation and Tax Reductions, people don’t create jobs unless they need workers. They don’t need workers unless they have customers who want to purchase the goods and services that they would provide. If the American middle class and those living in poverty or near-poverty don’t have money, they don’t make purchases. In fact, they cut back on purchases. And that, understandably, causes the owners of capital and the entrepreneurs of the business world to cut, not create, jobs. In Kansas Trickle-Down Failures Continue to Flood the State, I explained that those who think more tax cuts for the wealthy will solve the problems created by tax cuts for the wealthy are suggesting, in effect, that the solution to flash floods is more rain, that the solution to car theft is more car theft, and that the solution to food poisoning is eating more spoiled food. Seriously, that sort of thinking is not what made the nation’s economy great, nor is it a pathway to future prosperity.
Unfortunately, there still are people, and politicians, who subscribe whole-heartedly to supply-side trickle-down economics and tax policy. Despite the disaster in Kansas, and in other states that also took this approach, the Congress is readying itself to move forward on the same catastrophic path. Unable to learn from facts, unable to break away from devotion to the oligarchy, and unable to think critically, the national legislature is about to plunge into a tax and economics adventure that makes the disastrous budget insanity of 2001-2008 pale in comparison. Who will be hurt? Not the oligarchy. Spending cuts have little or no effect on oligarchs. But they can harm, agonize, sicken, and kill the poor and middle class. Yet some of those people continue to vote for politicians and policies that cause, and will continue to cause, all sorts of problems for them. Why? It comes back to ignorance. There’s a reason scammers pretending to be Nigerian princes, IRS auditors, and FBI agents persist. Their con games work. For a reason. Ignorance. Ultimately, the ignorant pay the price.
Friday, January 13, 2017
Several thoughts raced through my brain. First, “does it ever!” Second, my friend’s comment is not unlike many I have made while complaining about the rapid spread of the ignorance infection throughout post-modern culture, in posts such as Tax Ignorance, Is Tax Ignorance Contagious?, Fighting Tax Ignorance, Why the Nation Needs Tax Education, Tax Ignorance: Legislators and Lobbyists, Tax Education is Not Just For Tax Professionals, The Consequences of Tax Education Deficiency, The Value of Tax Education, More Tax Ignorance, With a Gift, Tax Ignorance of the Historical Kind, A Peek at the Production of Tax Ignorance, When Tax Ignorance Meets Political Ignorance, Tax Ignorance and Its Siblings, Looking Again at Tax and Political Ignorance, Tax Ignorance As Persistent as Death and Taxes, Is All Tax Ignorance Avoidable?, and Tax Ignorance in the Comics. Third, there are enough tax provisions in the legislation to consider it as part of the tax family, and thus eligible for inclusion in the tax ignorance list.
A day later, another facebook friend posted a link to an article that touched on the same subject though it did not involve someone in a doctor’s waiting room. It was enough to make me think that yet another piece of misinformation is making the rounds on social media. According to the article, someone happy with the Senate vote to repeal “Obamacare” rejoiced that the nation is “One step closer to fixing this mistake.” A second person then complained about Republicans “celebrating the ACA’s repeal in the senate.” The first person then tried to correct the second person by explaining, “First, we’re talking about Obamacare, not the ACA. Secondly, my health insurance is through the ACA, so I’m definitely not the kind of person to look down on others for needing help.” A third person points out, “If you’re on Obamacare why * * * are you celebrating the outcome of this vote? If the Republicans get what they want you’ll lose your insurance.” The first person replied, “My insurance is through the ACA (Affordable Care Act), which is what they had to come up with after Obamacare crashed and burned as bad as it did. So I’m gonna be fine.”
This is beyond frightening. Is there not a civic duty on every citizen of voting age to be informed and to do what is necessary to become, and stay, informed? According to the article, the first person, apparently realizing that he was rejoicing at his own health care demise, “fell silent,” but additional individuals jumped in to point out the first person’s “stupidity.” It’s not stupidity. It’s ignorance. Once the first person had been exposed to the facts, that person did not lack the ability to understand. There was enough intellectual ability to process the facts. What was lacking was the set of facts necessary to reach a logical and intellectually sound conclusion. It turns out that voting for those promising to repeal “Obamacare” was the same as voting for those promising to repeal the ACA. Someone dependent on the ACA and not wanting it to be repealed ought not vote for those promising to repeal it. The person did demonstrate a bit of intellectual deficiency, because their belief that the ACA replaced Obamacare ought to have caused the person to question why there was a need for certain politicians to campaign on promises to repeal Obamacare, considering that in this person’s mind, Obamacare had already been repealed and replaced with the ACA.
The article points out that whoever shared the exchange redacted the names, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify that the online conversation occurred. Similarly, it’s unclear if the comment overheard in the doctor’s office was real. My guess is that both the conversation and the comment did take place. It’s simply very consistent with the sort of illogic that has overtaken the nation as the ignorance infection does its work. These are not isolated instances. The writer of the article suggests, “Millions of individuals in the United States believe exactly as the individual in the conversation does.” I agree. Consider how widespread the foolishness and ignorance about the size and name of the Internal Revenue Code has become, as I have pointed out in posts such as Bush Pages Through the Tax Code?, and continuing with Anyone Want to Count the Words in the Internal Revenue Code?, Tax Commercial’s False Facts Perpetuates Falsehood, How Tax Falsehoods Get Fertilized, How Difficult Is It to Count Tax Words, A Slight Improvement in the Code Length Articulation Problem, and Tax Ignorance Gone Viral, Weighing the Size of the Internal Revenue Code, Reader Weighs In on Weighing the Code, Code-Size Ignorance Knows No Boundaries, Tax Myths: Part XII: The Internal Revenue Code Fills 70,000 Pages, and Not a Surprise: Tax Ignorance Afflicts Presidential Candidates and CNN.
The degree to which ignorance is dangerous varies. Despite my annoyance at the false claims about the name and size of the Internal Revenue Code, the ignorance of those who get it wrong is more disturbing as a symptom than it is in terms of the particular risks it poses. The Code exists, its name is set forth at the beginning, and its size is there for anyone with a smattering of intellect and diligence to compute. If the exaggeration is designed to promote calls for reduction in size, it does not detract from the reality of the Code’s actual size, which is big even using the true page count, and complexity, which is very real. On the other hand, thinking that the ACA will remain in place, providing health care coverage for tens of millions of Americans, if “Obamacare” is repealed, is dangerous because it generates support for the repeal of the ACA. That, in turn, will harm tens of millions of Americans many of whom thought that they would not be hurting themselves by supporting those who want to repeal the ACA, a/k/a Obamacare. Then again, way too many Americans do things that harm themselves because they are unaware that what they are doing is harmful. That is the price paid for ignorance. It’s only a matter of time, given the current cultural climate, for collective ignorance about something existential to exact an ultimate price.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Bob Martin, the author, opened his commentary by pointing out something that had already been publicized but that deserved another moment in the spotlight, especially for the benefit of those who had not caught on. If a person at the Philadelphia International Airport s in Terminals B through F and purchases a soda or other beverage subject to the “soda tax,” the price is increased by the 1.5-cent-per-ounce exaction. But if a person is in Terminal A-West or A-East, the tax does not apply. Does that seem strange? Perhaps. The reason is simple. The latter two terminals are not within the city limits. The Philadelphia International Airport occupies land on both sides of the border between Philadelphia and Tinicum Township in Delaware County. I wonder if officials in that township are eyeing the revenue potential and pondering the possibilities of cashing in on what might appear to them to be a sweet deal.
One of the other tidbits Bob Martin addresses is the traffic jam at the Breezewood Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That’s where interstate 70 intersects with the Turnpike, and from that point heading west, Interstates 70 and 76 are aligned on the same highway, namely, the Turnpike. To get from interstate 70 to the Turnpike, or vice versa, motorists must travel through a congested quarter-mile-long strip of hotels, restaurants, fueling station, and other stores. Why not a direct connection? Years ago, a federal law, since repealed, prohibited a non-toll road, such as interstate 70, from terminating at a toll road, such as the Turnpike. A similar situation exists for motorists trying to get from Interstate-95 to the Turnpike in Bucks County, or vice versa, but that mess will be alleviated soon when the new interchange that is being built is opened. Will that happen in Breezewood? Bob says there is no plan for doing so. He doesn’t expect one. Neither do I. So I laugh. I laugh at the foolishness and the short-sightedness.
The closing entry in Bob Martin’s list of insanities for which humor appears to be the only effective immediate remedy is the best of the bunch. It doesn’t involve taxes, at least not directly, nor highways, nor chocolate chip cookies, nor model trains, nor family histories, so I’ll simply recommend highly clicking on the link and investing a quick minute. The entire commentary provides a good dose of laughs and smiles useful at the start of tax season.
Monday, January 09, 2017
Problem fixed? Not really.
Does this happen? Yes. It happened to the taxpayer in Sullivan v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2017-2. Despite fixing the error and despite paying the tax, the taxpayer was hit with a late filing penalty.
The Tax Court upheld the penalty, reasoning as follows. The penalty applies if a taxpayer fails to file a return on time. An unsigned return is not a return, so what the taxpayer initially sent to the IRS was not a return. The taxpayer argued that because it was an honest mistake, there was reasonable cause and no willful neglect, thus negating the penalty. The Tax Court concluded that, although the circumstances did not indicate willful neglect and appeared to be a reasonable attempt to correct the lack of signature, it was bound by an earlier decision that “overlooking” a signature is not reasonable cause.
It appears to be, and is, a harsh result. Most instances of failing to file income tax returns are deliberate and accompanied by other violations, such as failure to pay the tax that is due. Simply forgetting to sign is something that can happen to anyone, especially when stressed from working on an income tax return. Yet, sometimes in life, being forgetful can be dangerous or lethal. The key is to find a way to remember the things that cannot be forgotten without bad consequences. Taxpayers using tax return preparation software are reminded and assisted with the signing process. Perhaps taxpayers still using paper forms can make the very first thing that they do the placing of a yellow post-it note next to the signature line, and the placing of another on the envelope with a “don’t forget to sign” message.
Friday, January 06, 2017
Sometimes, in trying to help people understand the facts beneath tax policy issues, I wonder why many have difficulty grasping the essentials, and thus being misled or even duped by the sound bit and buzz phrases tossed about by politicians and lobbyists. The inability of so many people to understand why flattening tax rates does just about nothing to simplify tax law, or to comprehend how phase-outs cause tax rates on middle incomes to be higher than those on high taxable incomes, probably correlates with deficiencies in arithmetic understanding.In other words, it is essential that Americans understand arithmetic, which is, of course, a subset of mathematics.
In a recent commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Melissa E. Libertus and and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff examined the arithmetic skills deficiency problem. They begin by pointing out, “Educators and parents alike are alarmed over the persistent gaps between 15-year-olds in the United States and their international peers on science and math outcomes.” They then share some of the overwhelming evidence of the problem. No matter what the “science is irrelevant” folks might claim, there is no doubt that Americans, including American children, do not fare well when it comes to math. The problem is not a secret, and it’s something I noted almost a decade ago, in Who Should Test the Students?:
I wonder how many people are going to take offense at my thoughts on what is turning out to be a major legislative battle in Pennsylvania. A while ago, the governor of Pennsylvania proposed that high school diplomas be awarded only to those students who passed state high school graduation tests in ten subjects. * * *So the issue isn’t whether there is a problem, but what should be done.
The governor's motivation rests on several concerns. First, even though tens of thousands of eleventh graders fail one or more state school assessment tests, almost all receive diplomas at the end of their senior years. Considering that as many as 45 percent of juniors have fallen short on one or more of these tests, either an amazing amount of catch-up is being accomplished or students are graduating high school deficient in particular skills. Second, increasing numbers of college students are being funneled into remedial courses to learn what they ought to have learned by the time they graduated high school. Third, employers complain that many high school graduates whom they hire have little or no reading skills, are incapable of doing arithmetic, or both. Are these believable accounts? I think so. Why? Because among law students whom I teach, far too many cannot spell, cannot write well, do not understand grammar, and struggle with simple arithmetic. Considering that law students are drawn from college graduates with grade point averages on the high end of the scale, it is rather disappointing and worrisome that among the very best there is so much deficiency.
Libertus and Golinkoff offer an important insight. They write:
Evidence suggests that the road to strong STEM education starts not in elementary or middle school, but at home and in preschool with very young children. Some parents and teachers talk about numbers and math frequently so that their children are hearing words such as two, twelve, more, less, count, and add repeatedly in various contexts. Other parents and teachers, however, rarely use number and math words or engage children in meaningful math-learning activities.I am in total agreement with Libertus’ and Golinkoff’s suggestions. There is no doubt that children absorb the environment in which they are raised. Children who are surrounded – or as I put it in Doing Arithmetic: An Insight into Tax Policy Conundrums, immersed – in numbers grow up to be better at arithmetic, just as children who are exposed to, and immersed in, books grow up to be better readers, children who watch and help their parents cook are better chefs, and children who are engaged in cerebral activities at home develop better critical thinking skills. The challenge, as I see it, is that too many of America’s children are growing up in environments lacking in literacy, numeracy, and cerebral activities. They absorb the prejudices of their parents, and too many fail to get past those barriers. When parents send the message that “book learning” is for fools, that reading is unimportant, and that numbers don’t matter, they are depriving their children of the opportunity to do well in life. Though Libertus and Golinkoff also suggest that the pre-school numeracy environment also needs to be improved, there is only so much that can be accomplished by educational institutions when the tide at home is pushing back in the wrong direction. What the nation needs is an improvement in the parental environment, and that requires parental education. Though some adults who failed to complete high school eventually see the light and return to school, too many do not do so. It’s time to tackle this growing illiteracy and innumeracy problem. Nothing less will do in the fight against ignorance.
* * * We must bring math into our homes and preschools.
To be specific, research indicates that some parents of toddlers use an average of more than 30 number words every hour * * * Other parents, however, use only one number word every two hours, on average. This creates close to a 6,000 percent difference in math input at home. * * *
* * *
Numbers can be a natural part of parents' talk with their children. At the grocery store, for example, parents can talk about the number of bananas in a bunch and how many would remain if you picked off two, the cost of a child's favorite cereal, and what it means to be "on sale." At home, they can count the number of plates needed to set the table, and they can weigh and measure flour and salt when they bake together. When children ask how long it takes for the cookies to bake in the oven, parents have another opportunity to use number talk.
When traveling by car or bus and children ask the perennial "Are we there yet?," parents can talk about the number of miles and minutes to reach their destination. Board games like Chutes and Ladders that require counting give numbers real meaning as they correspond to how many spaces children can advance with each throw of the dice. Building with blocks or doing puzzles together can fuel the spatial skills that undergird math knowledge.
Wednesday, January 04, 2017
Now, thanks to a reader, another story can be added to the list. The reader directed my attention to this story about the mayor of Hialeah who, back in November of 2015, tried to pay a $4,000 fine entirely in coins. The fine had been imposed by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust for intentional breach of commission rules, when he lied about collecting interest from someone who had set up a Ponzi-type arrangement. The mayor brought in 28 buckets filled with 360,000 nickels and pennies. The commission rejected the payment because it was “commercially unreasonable” and ran afoul of yet another commission requirement that fines be paid by check. So the mayor, claiming that he was unaware of such a requirement, suggested that the commission sue him, arguing that he was making payment in valid United States currency. The commission proceeded to sue the mayor. And that is where the story ended.
Curious, I decided to discover the outcome of the litigation. According to this report, the case settled when the mayor agreed to count and box the coins himself. He did so, and delivered 140 boxes of pennies and five boxes of nickels. He made the delivery to a bank where the commission has an account.
My immediate reaction was yet more questions. Did anyone double-check the mayor’s counting? Did the bank take the coins out of the boxes and run them through a coin counter? If so, why not skip the boxing process? Did the bank weigh the boxes? Perhaps someone has the answers. I don’t.
Monday, January 02, 2017
Shortly thereafter, in An Ever-Expanding Tax To-Do List, I discussed reports that the legislature would face competing suggestions and conflicting interests when it tries to fix the problem. I pointed out that the localities depending on the tax revenue from the casinos must prepare budgets for 2017 long before the 120-day suspension period set by the Supreme Court expires. Once again, bad drafting years ago planted the seeds of public finance crises in the present day.
So while the legislature fiddles with the issue as the clock winds down, two different approaches appear to be taking hold among localities. According to one report, Valley Forge Casino will continue paying an amount to Upper Merion Township, calculated as though the overturned tax were still in effect. The agreement between the casino and the township has permitted the township to move forward with its 2017 budgeting process, and has eased concerns that it would need to raise other taxes or severely cut services to balance that budget. The report also points out that several other casinos have agreed with the localities in which they are located to continue making payments along the same lines.
But according to another report, the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, rather than agreeing to continue making payments, will wait to see what the state legislature does. That leaves Northampton County in a quandary as it tries to establish its financial and services plans for 2017. In response, the county district attorney has informed the casino that he “can’t justify the use of his office’s resources to help a profitable corporation that isn’t a good corporate citizen,” and thus “may not prosecute cases involving bad checks or chip thefts” at the casino. It is unclear whether a public official can refuse to perform services that the official is required by law to provide simply because a taxpayer has not paid taxes. There are two variants at work in this instance. Consider a homeowner who is delinquent in paying real property taxes. Does that justify the police in not responding to an armed break-in at the residence, or the fire department from showing up to put out a blaze? I think not, on both legal and common sense grounds. The comparison breaks down, though, for two reasons. First, the prosecutor has discretion when it comes to pressing charges and investigating crimes. Second, and perhaps this is more important, the casino is not under a legal obligation to pay the overturned tax or any amount in lieu thereof. Unfortunately, Northampton County cannot sue the legislature or the individual legislators who haven’t solved the problem, nor can they sue the legislators who in 2004 enacted a badly drafted statute.
There is an important lesson to be learned, and it isn’t a question of how a county or its officials should deal with a potential revenue shortfall. The lesson is that those who enact legislation, or promulgate regulations, need to do as good a job as neurosurgeons, welders, engineers, and others must do. In other words, get the required education and experience, think, think again, think it through, visualize what will happen, focus on the job at hand, obtain third-party oversight, inspect the work, and monitor the outcome. The nation’s federal and state legislatures and executive departments are increasingly filled with people who think they know what they are doing but who have not much of a clue, and who generate more and more laws and regulations that don’t work, that cause hardship, and that fail to address the underlying problem. The reason is simple. People are turning more to their limbic systems as they push aside their critical thinking systems. The mess in Pennsylvania is a harbinger of what the nation risks in the near future.