Friday, November 02, 2018
Last year, California enacted increases in vehicle fees and gasoline taxes in order to fund repairs to crumbling highway infrastructure. The anti-tax crowd objected, and placed on this November’s ballot a proposal, Proposition 6, which would require voter approval of any increase in vehicle fees or gasoline taxes enacted after January 1, 2017. One might think the positions of those favoring and those opposing Proposition 6 are clear. So what is the language problem?
On the ballot, Proposition 6 is titled, “ELIMINATES CERTAIN ROAD REPAIR AND TRANSPORTATION FUNDING. REQUIRES CERTAIN FUEL TAXES AND VEHICLE FEES BE APPROVED BY THE ELECTORATE. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.” Proposition 6 proponents do not like that wording, because it does not “convey quickly enough its mission,” which is the repeal of the 2017 fee and tax increases. Though there is a process for challenging ballot language, but Proposition 6 proponents did not do so. Instead, proponents published advertisements, disseminated literature, and made robocalls telling voters that there was a mistake in the Proposition 6 language on the ballot. The mailer was designed to appear as though it was an official publication of government officials. This prompted those officials to alert voters that there is no Proposition 6 ballot error. Their advertising and mailers use the words “GAS TAX REPEAL INITIATIVE.” Proponents explained that they prefer to spend money educating voters rather than paying lawyers to contest the ballot language.
Opponents of Proposition 6 have characterized the supporters’ advertising, mailers, and calls as “deceptive.” They point out that the ballot language isn’t what they most preferred, which would be “The attack on roads and bridges.” They note that even though the language of the ballot isn’t what they wanted, they are “not trying to deceive voters.” Their campaign against Proposition 6 consists of showing voters how the increased revenues would fix roads and bridges in their neighborhoods.
Polling by a nonpartisan organization shows that between January and October of this year, support for Proposition 6 fell from 47 percent to 41 percent. Proponents of the proposition attribute the change to the inclusion of the ballot title in the more recent polling. Opponents attribute the change to how their campaign against Proposition 6 is resonating among voters. It probably also helps that opponents have raised $44 million, whereas proponents of Proposition 6 have raised $5 million.
One recipient of the official-looking mailer explained his dislike for it by noting that, “I felt like they were trying to pull one over on people who want to believe voting against every tax is a good thing.” On the other hand, a supporter argued that the mailer “ is just getting the conversation started about what the phrasing actually means on the bills we're voting on. I think the layperson doesn't understand the government rhetoric. They make it as complicated as possible."
Though surely there are better ways to title the ballot measure, claiming that the title is rhetoric and that people don’t understand the language is quite an overstatement, and does not justify trying to make campaign statements appear to come from election officials. There is a process for contesting ballot language, and a decision not to follow that process might turn out not to have been wise.
What title would I have put on the ballot? Something along these lines: “REQUIRE VOTER APPROVAL OF FUEL TAXES AND VEHICLE FEES ENACTED TO REPAIR HIGHWAYS AND BRIDGES, THUS ELIMINATING EXISTING AND FUTURE ROAD REPAIR PROJECTS.” In crafting this language, I try to avoid the proponents’ favored language, which omits the impact of approval, and I try to avoid putting the funding consequence ahead of the purpose of the proposal. I am confident neither side would be happy with my language, which perhaps suggests it sits nicely in the middle.
Wednesday, October 31, 2018
About a week ago, in Halloween is Spooky, Taxes on Halloween Treats Are Even Spookier, a writer at InformationStation, pointing out that Americans spend about $8.4 billion on Halloween costumes, decorations, greeting cards, and candy. The writer explained that in many states, the sales tax applies to the purchase of candy, even though most sales tax statutes exempt food and grocery items. In states that do not exempt candy, the rationale apparently is that candy is not food.
More than a decade ago, in Halloween and Tax: Scared Yet?, I described my surprise at discovering some candy bars contained flour and thus were not treated as candy for sales tax purposes in several states. In When Candy Isn’t Candy, I revisited the issue, pointing out the silliness that telling a child standing at the door with a sack or pillowcase that the candy bar being dropped into the container isn’t candy. Last year, in Another Halloween Treat? I Think Not, I addressed the notice from the Tennessee Department of Revenue explaining that candy is not eligible for the lower sales tax rate applicable to food and food ingredients because candy is not food.
Perhaps someone will argue that chocolate candy ought to fit within the sales tax exemption applicable to drugs. After all, chocolate is medicinal. Aside from all the other benefits of chocolate, the receipt of candy at Halloween makes people happy, and being happy brings good health, which is a good thing. Yes, I am doing my best to justify eating candy. It’s a taxing effort, and I don’t stand a ghost of a chance of persuading my physicians that it’s good for me to ingest sugar.
Monday, October 29, 2018
Some readers of MauledAgain have concluded that I support unlimited taxation and taxes of every kind. Yet careful readers would have noted that not every tax gets my support. For example, I opposed the Philadelphia soda tax, and despite its survival when challenged in court, I continue to consider its to be flawed in many respects. It is an example of “It’s easy to tax this, so let’s tax it.”
Another tax that I have not only opposed but that has baffled me is the medical devices tax. It was enacted as part of the Affordable Care Act. When I first learned of it, I wondered, “Why tax something that is designed to lower the cost of health care?” My reasoning was that these devices prevent more expensive health problems in the future. To me, taxing medical devices was as unwise as taxing vaccines. Few, if any, states, for example, impose sales taxes on prescription drugs.
So why was an excise tax on medical devices enacted as part of the Affordable Care Act? Simply because it is a tax that raises revenue, and revenue is necessary to underwrite the costs of extending health care to more citizens. Why was this tax chosen rather than some other tax, for example, a tax on excess health care industry profits or on health care industry over-billings? Why not seek revenue from health insurance coverage denial decisions that turn out to be wrong and cost doctors, hospitals, and patients more money than they otherwise would have spent?
The tax has never gone into effect. It has been delayed several times. Proposals to eliminate it have surfaced since the day it was proposed. Some of those proposals have been passed by the House or the Senate, but somehow the two bodies haven’t managed to team up and get the tax removed. Now another effort is underway to remove the tax. Arguments in support of repeal, such as Wayne Winegarden’s piece in Forbes and a study by the Tax Foundation, are beginning to resurface.
Why all the bother if implementation of the tax keeps getting delayed? The primary problem is the uncertainty. The tax hangs like a sword over the medical device manufacturers who would pay the tax, making it difficult for them to engage in long-term planning. Some reports indicate that jobs in the industry have been lost because of the uncertainty. Readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of tax uncertainty.
So why has the tax not been removed? Because when computing long-term revenue for purposes of federal budgets, which must satisfy certain projections, the revenue expected from the tax is used to help meet those requirements. That is nonsense. What’s next, a proposed tax on breathing air that would come into effect in 2024 for purposes of balancing the long-term federal budget? Is it any wonder that I am among the vast majority of Americans who give the Congress very unfavorable ratings?
The health care system needs to be fixed. It’s a mess. It is saddled with inefficiency, price gouging, artificial restrictions, and insufficient preventive care. However it is fixed, if at all, a tax on what people should be doing, such as manufacturing medical devices, getting vaccinations, and exercising, ought not be burdened with a tax to fund the treatment of diseases and injiries caused by smoking, vaping, misuse of dangerous substances, drunk driving, reckless behavior, air pollution, water pollution, food pollution, and other activities and practices that are killing humans. Surely a species that calls itself sapiens sapiens can figure this out.
Friday, October 26, 2018
There are many ways of amassing money. Hard work. Luck. Winning the birth lottery. Theft, robbery, embezzlement, fraud. Investment. When it comes to investment, most people think of bank accounts, stocks, bonds, real estate, precious metals, and commodities. But there are other types of investment, available to those who already have amassed large sums of money. There’s the hedge fund. There’s private equity. They’re not secrets, though most Americans aren’t familiar with how they work.
Hedge funds pursue high risk investments in hopes of hitting it big. Private equity consists of funds not listed on a public exchange. In one sense, the sole proprietor who owns a $300,000 landscape business owns private equity, though those are not the sort of investments that come to mind when people familiar with private equity think of it.
What do hedge funds and private equity do? One path of investment is to acquire public companies and turn them private, or to invest in public companies that are in trouble and hope they turn it around. But increasingly, private equity and hedge funds are grabbing distressed businesses simply to extract the last bits of value and to abandon what’s left. As explained in this article, too often, when given the opportunity to turn a distressed business in the direction of modernization, hedge fund and private equity managers prefer to take out money than to invest enough to turn the business around. This is what has happened with Sears, in which a controlling interest was purchased by hedge fund ESL Investments. It failed. Toys ‘R’ Us was acquired by KRR, Bain Capital, and Vornado Realty Trust. It failed. It happened to Gymboree, another Bain Capital investment. It failed. It happened to Payless ShoeSource, owned by Blum Capital and Golden Gate Capital. It failed. It happened to Radio Shack, in which Standard General had a substantial interest. It failed. Twice. It happened to Fairway, owned by Blackstone. It failed. The same outcome fell upon The Limited, Wet Seal, Claire’s, Aeropostale, Nine West, Brookstone, David’s Bridal, and Sports Authority.
From the perspective of the hedge funds and private equity, these aren’t tragedies. These have been good investments. From the perspective of employees, customers, and the malls in which these businesses rented space, these transactions have been disaster. Granted, retail stores have faced competition from their on-line counterparts, but would not saving one of these retailers included plans to go online? That didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the new owners preferred not to put in even more money but to take out what was left. Worse, according to investment officer Jack Ablin, “many private equity investors lack the expertise to make the shift from traditional retail to online commerce.” Yet, surely they had the money to hire people who had the expertise. They didn’t, because, according to that investment officer, those investors “were also reluctant to commit more capital for the long-term to transform these struggling retailers.”
As noted in this article, “Moody's Investor Service said David's and Sears are both less likely to pay their creditors because they are owned by private-equity investment firms, whose ‘aggressive financial policies,’ heavy borrowing, and focus on taking money out of firms tend to result in a lower likelihood that retailers they own will pay their debts. Some 92 percent of companies owned by 16 large private equity firms are rated at junk-bond levels, compared to 40 percent of operator-owned or corporate-owned stores.” How does it work? According to Ted Gavin, a partner in a turnaround firm, "A lot of retailers that have gone belly-up are private-equity-owned. It's pretty constant. They make incestuous loans to these companies at high rates, and they charge excessive fees. Cumbersome debt burdens, and owners taking fees simply for being an owner, does nothing good, and can precipitate distress."
Thousands of stores have closed. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared, in numbers far greater than the handful of jobs created by expanding online retailers. Shopping malls sit vacant, or have become virtual ghost towns with a smattering of open stores. And there’s more.
Serendipitously, at about the same time I was reading the articles I’ve mentioned, I was made aware of a situation that cuts closer to home. More than thirty years ago, I became a customer of a small, local heating and air conditioning company. A decade later, that company was bought out by a larger company. Then a few years later, that larger company was bought out by an even larger company. A decade after that, the even larger company was bought out by a very large company. Each time, the office staff and technicians with whom I dealt carried on. Continuity prevailed. Very recently, a competitor company, owned by a private equity firm, gobbled up the company currently handling my heating and air conditioning services. It let most of the office staff and technicians go, the opposite of job creation. It has been grabbing every competitor it can, across a half dozen states. It is buying customers, in an effort to sell units rather than focus on maintenance and repair. It installs one brand, its technicians are expert only with that brand, and the advice to customers with other brands, no matter the age, is to purchase new units. It has decided not to renew most existing service contracts. Surely it is no secret that the company’s goal is to control the market, if not establish a monopoly. Reviews are mediocre at best and customers complain about high prices. When I called because I needed something adjusted on one of my heaters, I was told the company doesn’t service that unit. It did not matter that I have a service contract in place. Bigger is not better, and being a number rather than a customer with whom office staff and technicians are familiar also is not better. Well, it’s better for those private equity investors whose need for more money is unlimited and eternal.
Is it only a matter of time before private equity disease puts this company into the list of failed enterprises? I do not intend to sit around to see if that happens. It’s too risky. At the moment, there still exist some of those smaller, local operations much like the one with which I started some decades ago. As for the existing service contract, my plan is to terminate it once I have a new one in place with another company, ask for a refund, and learn how much effort it will take to get that refund.
I wonder how things would have turned out if tax cuts had not been handed out to these folks during the past two decades. I wonder if they would have had the resources to do what they have done, are doing, and intend to continue doing. Retail stores probably still would have failed – they have, for many decades – but the resources that remained would not have been channeled into the hands of those already drowning in wealth. Perhaps not as many stores would have closed. Perhaps not as many people would have lost jobs. Perhaps some businesses would have hired people willing and able to take them online.
There are many lessons to learn from these events. Sometimes learning a lesson is helpful for the future. Sometimes learning a lesson comes too late, and the future is altered forever, often in a bad way. Perhaps we have run out of time.
Wednesday, October 24, 2018
Now comes a report that the mileage-based road fee has become an issue in the race for governor of Illinois. According to Eric Zorn, Democratic candidate J. B. Pritzker has said that the mileage-based road fee is “something we should look at.” He added, “We have to be careful about how it gets implemented, and that’s why it should only be a test at this point.” The Republican candidate, Bruce Rauner responded, according to Zorn, with indignation, saying, “Pritzker came out and said, ‘Let's tax everybody by the miles they drive — let’s put a box in people’s cars — track how many miles when they drive to work, when they drive to school, when they go to the grocery store.’ That is big government, big taxing.” A Rauner campaign add claims, “He wants a car tax. How much is it going to cost us just to drive to a family member’s house?” Pritzker then deftly claimed that he “has never proposed a vehicle mileage tax.”
What a mess. Rauner’s only solution to the crumbling highway system in Illinois is to lower the wages of construction workers. Neither candidate is willing to support an expansion of the sales tax, or subjecting retirement income to the income tax.
Pritzker, in Zorn’s opinion, is cowardly for not fighting back and explaining why Rauner is wrong. I agree. He considers Rauner a coward for not offering any constructive ideas to deal with a serious problem. I agree.
It is clear from Rauner’s statements that he either does not understand the mileage-based road fee or despite understanding it, has chosen to engage in misrepresentation as part of his campaign. Collecting a tax to maintain roads on which people drive is not big government nor is it big taxing. It is simply the charging of a fee adequate to cover the costs of what is being provided to the people who pay the fee. He also fails to recognize, let alone mention, that enacting a mileage-based road fee would be accompanied by an elimination of the Illinois gasoline tax. He, and other opponents of the fee, fail to explain that road users have been paying less and less gasoline tax because their vehicles are more fuel efficient, yet their vehicles do as much, if not more, damage to the roads because most of the vehicles are just as heavy, if not heavier,.
Zorn advocates a shift to the mileage-base road fee, as do many other commentators, public policy analysts, economists, politicians, scientists, and people with a good bit of common sense. He notes, as I have, that the fee could be tailored at different rates based on the weight of vehicles, the residency of vehicle owners, the time of day, the density of the traffic, that the fee could be waived for charities, and that technology permits abating the fee for miles driven on toll roads. He notes that the biggest concern about the fee is privacy, an issue I put to rest in Mileage-Based Road Fees: Privatization and Privacy and Is the Mileage-Based Road Fee a Threat to Privacy?.
Zorn points out something I’ve tried to emphasize in my advocacy for the mileage-based road fee. He states, “But under such a user-pays system, what we pay would more fairly reflect the benefit each of us receives from having access to a smooth network of roads.” Perhaps what inspires the opposition is the sense of entitlement that has infected so many people, rich and poor alike, that they ought not be required to pay for what they take, what they use, and what they damage or destroy. What makes it worse is the inability of so many people to understand that it makes more sense to pay this fee, even if it amounts to more than the gas tax being paid, than it does to run the risk of paying multiple times more for car repairs, injuries, and even deaths caused by deficient highways, because those events are almost certain to happen to most people over a long enough period of time. Ignorance, whether Rauner’s inability to understand the mileage-based road fee or taxpayers’ inability to think through the arithmetic, once again demonstrates why it is the underlying reason for so many problems and the chief threat to the evolution and survival of the human species.
Monday, October 22, 2018
What prompts me to write today is a new manifestation of ignorance circulating on social media. Typeset in various solid color backgrounds are these words: “Were any of you aware that ALL the Democrats voted AGAINST the 2.8% Social Security cost of living increase?” My distaste has nothing to do with the political party that is mentioned, for surely the same nonsense with a different political party being mentioned will surface someday, but reflects my disgust at the inability of Americans who vote to understand that there has been no vote against Social Security cost of living increases. As an aside, note that the clown who wrote this message doesn’t bother to specify whether those allegedly voting against the increase were members of the House, the Senate, a state legislature, or participants in a referendum. That, of course, is a red flag that can be noticed by those who understand what they ought to understand.
Social Security cost of living increases are automatic. As described in the Social Security Administration’s explanation, legislation enacted in 1973 provides a formula that measures the increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, known as CPI-W, which is calculated each month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cost of living adjustment equals the percentage increase, if any, in CPI-W from the average for the third quarter of the current year to the average for the third quarter of the last year in which there was a cost of living adjustment.
This is not the first time nonsense about social security cost of living increases has circulated. A few years ago, when inflation was so low there was no increase, someone or some organization tried to pin the outcome on Congress, as described in this rebuttal of that ignorant claim. And a decade ago, another, or perhaps the same, person or organization tried to pin the lack of an increase on certain members of Congress, even though the reason for no increase was the fact that the cost of living had gone down due to plunging oil prices, as noted in this FactCheck article.
Why does this ignorant nonsense keep popping up? Notice that it pops up when there is no increase and now, even when there is an increase. Someone or some organization or group of organizations with an agenda is behind this, just as someone or some organization or group of organizations is behind all of the nonsensical and ignorant misinformation being spewed into modern culture. My guess is that the goal is distraction, to avert people’s eyes and ears from the now openly expressed plans to cut or eliminate Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Perhaps it is some sort of damage control.
The antidote, as I’ve expressed for decades, is education. It’s a question of whether enough humans, who insanely call themselves sapiens sapiens, can figure out how to use their brains to think for themselves and to ponder the likelihood of a claim being true, false, or half-baked before spreading it among others. Being theological for a moment, I consider the Last Judgment not so much the “here are a list of your sins” authoritative approach preached by some denominations, but a matter of educational discourse beginning with a statement and question, “I gave you many gifts, including a brain. What did you do with them?” We will have all eternity to ponder the responses. Heaven may be the satisfaction of realizing we did our best despite occasional failures, and Hell may simply be the realization that we didn’t take full advantage of the ability to think for ourselves, recognize truth, and despise ignorance and lies.
Friday, October 19, 2018
The exemption provides that if the city of Anaheim ever enacts an entertainment gate tax, it will not apply to Disneyland. Anaheim has not enacted such a tax, but faced with increasing financial pressures, it’s not guaranteed that it would not enact such a tax in the future.I criticized this reasoning as follows:
So what is the basis for Disney escaping the tax? Apparently it plans an expansion of Disneyland, which it promises will several thousand construction jobs and about 2,000 permanent jobs.
The problem with this justification is that every business and every individual contributes to the creation of jobs, and those jobs benefit the economy because the individuals holding the jobs earn money that they spend, in turn infusing economic energy into businesses. Even self-employed individuals ratchet up the economy. If creating a job justifies tax breaks, then everyone is entitled to being exempt from taxation. Of course, that’s part of the plan. Without taxes, there is no government. Necessary services would be privatized, far beyond what already has been put into the hands of the back-room oligarchs, and instead of paying taxes, citizens would be paying fees to enormous enterprises who could charge what they want, as there would be no government to regulate them or district attorneys or attorneys general to prosecute them for mistreating the citizenry, oh excuse me, the serfs.Reader Morris has alerted me to news from a few weeks ago that the exemption preventing Anaheim from subjecting Disney to a gate tax, along with other tax breaks, will not be renewed. What’s interesting about this development is that the city council voted unanimously to terminate the exemptions and tax breaks after Disney officials asked them to do so. The president of Disneyland Resort called the tax breaks “divisive.” It appears, though, that by relinquishing those tax breaks, Disney qualifies for an exemption from a question on next month’s ballot that would raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour by 2022 for employees of companies receiving tax breaks from Anaheim. Disney has financed opposition to the ballot question.
So if Disney doesn’t receive its desired tax break, what would it do? Pack up and leave? The cost of doing so far exceeds the value of the tax break. Refuse to expand its facility? Perhaps, but again, it would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. No, what it would do is add the tax to the cost of a ticket. And that makes sense. It shifts to those making use of the services provided by Anaheim to Disney a cost that otherwise would be imposed on all taxpayers, including those who do not benefit from, or make use of, Disneyland.
Though some expressed hope that the request to terminate the tax breaks “signals a new era of goodwill and trust between Orange County’s largest city and its largest employer,” continuing debates among city officials about the role Disney plays in Anaheim politics suggests that goodwill is not in the spotlight.
When I read the headline of the article reader Morris sent me, “Anaheim council accedes to Disney’s request, nixes tax breaks,” I thought, “Great. A large corporation has seen the light.” Then I read the article. Oh, well, they say hope springs eternal. Perhaps it is foolish of me to think that those focused on the acquisition of dollars and infinite growth of the “bottom line” would discover the wisdom of moderation and balance.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Several days ago, Noah Smith looked at the results of the latest federal supply-side trickle-down exercise. In his Philadelphia Inquirer article, Smith examined the impact of the 2017 tax cuts. He explains that those cuts, particularly the corporate tax cuts, were supposed to generate wage increases. Like its predecessor supply-side tax cuts, this tax cut also failed to do what tax cut advocates expected and advertised. Despite those previous failures, the supply-side acolytes claimed that corporate tax cuts would be more effective because corporate tax rates were relative higher, corporate taxes affect not only the wealthy but also employees and customers, and corporate taxes are more harmful to investment than individual taxes. How did that work out?
At first glance, tax cut proponents shine the spotlight on an apparently booming economy, a small uptick in corporate investment, and unemployment is low. Smith points out that perhaps some, or even much, of the economic growth is doe to “demand-side fiscal stimulus effects.” Yet wages remain stagnant. Higher employment among low-wage job holders doesn’t do much for those who are trying to make ends meet. Smith describes studies showing that “Two common measures of real wages are still below the peaks they hit in the third quarter of 2017.” Another study concluded that a comparison of “the size of the effective tax cuts received by various industries with the change in their wages between the first half of 2017 and the first half of 2018” did not reveal any correlation between the two. The same study concluded that there was “no correlation between tax cuts and employment changes at the industry level.” According to Smith, “That's bad news, since more hiring and tighter labor markets should be the mechanism by which corporate tax cuts raise wages.” Yes, it’s bad news for wage earners, and it ought to be bad news for supply-side theory devotees.
Smith then dismisses those bonus payments praised by the tax-cut folks. Smith concludes that the bonus trend was “exaggerated,” and that an economic study demonstrated that the bonuses did not generate a significant increase in 2018 compensation. Smith notes that the study implies that the bonus claims “were mostly a publicity move.” No kidding. Again, readers of MauledAgain know that I have consistently characterized the bonus payments as what they really are, namely, crumbs, as explained in posts such as Those Tax-Cut Inspired Bonus Payments? Just Another Ruse, That Bonus Payment Ruse Gets Bigger, Oh, Those Bonus Payments! Much Ado About Almost Nothing, Much More Ado About Almost Nothing, You’re Doing What With Those Tax Cuts?, Arguing About Tax Crumbs, and Don’t Want a Crumb? Here’s Dessert But Give Back Your Appetizer and Beverage.
Smith asks, “So, what's going on? Why isn't the tax cut raising wages?” He gives two answers. First, he suggests, “Perhaps the impact of tax cuts will be felt only over a period of years rather than months. After all, it's important not to read too much into short-term economic data.” Second, he explains, “ But, it also might be the case that the supply-siders are simply wrong. Perhaps those who believed that a substantial amount of the corporate tax cut would go to workers were doing their empirical studies incorrectly, or plugging the wrong numbers into their models. Or maybe U.S. corporations were simply so successful at avoiding taxes before the tax cut that the new lower rate hasn't really done anything other than to allow them to save money on accountants and lawyers.” Or perhaps the belief that people grabbing tax cuts will share what they took from the buffet with the people at the back of the line ignores the practical reality of greed and money addiction among the oligarchs.
Smith closes with a prediction. He writes, “ Either way, if Trump's corporate tax cuts end up having no observable effect on workers' pay, it will be the final blow to the supply-side worldview.” Putting aside the fact that these aren’t Trump’s corporate tax cuts but a tax giveaway to corporations advocated by many Republicans long before Trump arrived on the political scene, the question is, will the next inevitable economic and financial crash dissuade the supply-siders and convert them to the realistic demand-side approach? Two years ago, in Tax Perspectives of the Wealthy: Observing the Writing on the Wall, I wrote, “The death of supply-side, trickle-down economic theory is a slow one, but its final breath draws nearer.” Yet a year later, the title of one of my posts revealed my dismay at the inability of supply-siders to recognize the failure of their dream: The Tax Fake That Will Not Die. I now worry which dies first, stubborn supply-side ignorance or the American economy and the nation and dreams that depend on it.
Monday, October 15, 2018
The most disliked tax in Pennsylvania is the real property tax. I’ve written about this antipathy toward real property taxes in several posts, including Killing the Geese, Taxes and School Funding, A Perplexing Tax Vote Decision, Which Do You Prefer: Income Tax, Earned Income Tax, Sales Tax, Property Tax?, and Pennsylvania’s “Eliminate the Property Tax” Effort Surfaces Again. The underlying theme is the series of proposals to eliminate that tax, and as I have pointed out repeatedly, the challenge is finding replacement revenue.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer article, the two candidates, who have slightly different approaches to the issue, apparently have not put the question in the spotlight. The Republican candidate supports eliminating the real property tax to the extent imposed by school districts, but not those imposed by municipalities and counties, but does not reveal the extent to which he would raise other taxes to make up the lost revenue. Four years ago, the incumbent Democratic candidate, while campaigning, advocated reform or repeal of the real property tax, but since his proposal in his first budget to replace the tax with an increase in sales and income taxes was rejected by the legislature, he has been silent.
Commentators explain that solving the real property tax problem is difficult. One problem is that the governor cannot dictate what local governments and school districts do with the tax, in terms of rates. State funding for education can affect what school districts do, but those spending decisions are primarily the bailiwick of the legislature. Even though Pennsylvania voters approved an amendment to the state constitution permitting the legislature to exempt primary residences from the real property tax, the legislature has done nothing in response.
Not surprisingly, though the Democratic incumbent’s budget proposal four years ago, the one that was rejected, increased sales and income taxes, the Republican challenger co-sponsored legislation along the same lines, though he also has claimed that he would reduce government spending to reduce the need to increase other taxes. Oddly, the incumbent governor does not support the legislation co-sponsored by his opponent because he does not want to raise the sales tax rate on certain items nor subject certain tax-exempt items to the sales tax.
What the state needs is a serious conversation about how its citizens want to pay for the services that they demand. The discussion requires evaluating the impact of different types of taxes, identifying which segments of the citizenry are most affected by different permutations of the various taxes, considering the fairness of how tax burdens are distributed, and estimating the revenues generated by different taxes. It is a complex topic, it does not lend itself to sound bites and tweets, and needs to be free of hyperbole, misstatements, propaganda, and the influence of special interest groups and lobbyist money.
Friday, October 12, 2018
Recent news about Amazon’s pay hikes for its workers sheds even more light on the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the buffet table greed of the oligarchy. As reported in this story, many Amazon workers, overjoyed at the initial disclosure of a new $15 per hour Amazon minimum wage, discovered that Amazon will stop giving its workers stock options and has terminated its monthly bonus payments. Workers who did what I suggest everyone do when dealing with financial decision, that is, “run the numbers,” discovered that after getting a wage increase but losing stock options and bonus payments, their total compensation will go DOWN, not up. I wonder which Amazon employee figured out the public relations stunt that essentially permits the company to cut pay for some employees, leave pay the same for others, but yet proclaim it is raising worker pay. Some workers are not getting raises because their pay already exceeds $15 per hour but they will be losing their bonuses and stock options. Others are getting increases of $1 or $2 per hour, which is insufficient to offset the loss of bonuses and stock options. The pay raises will consume less than one percent of Amazon’s revenue, and will be more than offset by the curtailment of bonus payments and stock options. Some part-time workers will benefit from the changes.
It appears from the reactions of Amazon employees that increasing numbers of people are finding a way to look past the smoke and mirrors and to see the reality hidden by the tweets and sound bites, to discern the truth from inside the maze of misrepresentations, exaggerations, and out-of-context claims. The worship of the bottom line, considered almost divine the closer it gets to infinity, is a manifestation of the calamitous consequences of money addiction. Something is very wrong and hopefully not only is here a quick diagnosis of the disease by enough people but also a fast discovery of a cure.
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Almost three-quarters of economic activity is fueled by household spending. Household spending has increased because consumer borrowing is increasing at a rapid rate. In other words, when people rejoice at economic growth reports, they are rejoicing at increases in the amount that poor and middle-class Americans owe to the billionaires. Anyone who studies economic history knows how this story plays out. Good luck.
Monday, October 08, 2018
What did surprise me was the reaction of John Crudele in his New York Post commentary. The headline for the commentary, “Why I doubt Trump evaded paying taxes” reflects his conclusion that “I don’t know whether Donald Trump was screwing around on his income taxes like The New York Times alleges or not.” That’s the only logical position one can take. Yes, one can guess, suspect, believe, wonder, and perhaps even worry. But to “know” is not yet possible. More information is needed. What surprised me is not the doubt, but the justification for the doubt.
What convinces Crudele to doubt the conclusion reached in the New York Times story? Crudele describes information from “a very good source” that when New York investigated a large group of taxpayers in the 1980s for possible sales tax evasion, Trump came out clean, having paid all of the sales taxes that he owed. Apparently at the time, “a lot of rich folks were having their purchases shipped to states with lower sales taxes.” If I were to guess or speculate, I would hesitate to think that people who were not “rich folks” might also have been engaging in this approach. Perhaps people, rich or not, are still doing this.
But should the fact that a person paid sales taxes weaken the claim that the person did not pay all of the income, estate, gift, or other taxes that the person should have paid? Should the fact that a person pays her electric bill be interpreted as meaning that she pays her lawn care bill? Should the fact that a person does not rob banks carry weight in arguing that the person does not embezzle? Should the fact that a person has never been issued a speeding ticket be a factor in concluding that the person did not fail to stop at a stop sign?
Almost every criminal has obeyed some laws. Almost every law-abiding person has violated some law, ordinance, or regulation, perhaps unknowingly. The fact that someone paid sales tax is irrelevant in determining whether that person did or did not pay an income tax, a gift tax, an estate tax, or even a highway toll.
Friday, October 05, 2018
Is it tacky or deceitful to legally get married as much as nine months in advance of a wedding ceremony? I'm recently engaged (yay!) to a great guy. We chose a date nearly a year from now because my fiance travels for work all through the spring, and we want to accommodate parents, stepparents, and family traveling from many other states.What mattered more to me than Carolyn’s response was the fact that the tax law was putting two people in what they perceived to be a quandary, causing them, or at least one of them, anguish, and motivating at least one of them to write a letter to an advice columnist. It would not be surprising if the two people invested time in discussing what they ought to do.
However, we're both small-business owners and it looks like it would benefit us financially to marry before 2018 is over. I recently told a friend this idea and she was appalled, that it amounted to us putting on a "show" wedding. For me and my fiance, getting legally married as a business/tax decision doesn't have any of the emotional meaning that standing up in front of our friends and family would.
We're having a "no gifts" wedding, so it doesn't feel like we're even asking friends for anything other than joining us for a celebration of vows. Is my friend right, could it be perceived as dishonest? Should we keep this idea to ourselves?
Carolyn’s answer made sense. So what if the celebration ceremony takes place at a time after the marriage ceremony. She pointed out that getting married one day and having the celebration at a later date “doesn’t hurt anyone.” She noted that it is not uncommon for memorial services to be held months after a burial. She also explained that no matter what the couple decided, there will be people who are critical of the decision, so why bother “chasing approval.”
Yet it is unfortunate that the tax law put this couple in a bind. Accelerating the marriage in order to reduce taxes probably has happened more than a few times. Usually, if the decision to move up the date is made in time, it doesn’t create the logistical problems facing the couple in question. Or, if all or almost all of the guests live nearby, the logistical challenge might not be so overwhelming. I suspect that this couple was put into this time-crunched decision situation because the changes in the tax law were rushed through the Congress, and put into effect before people and businesses have had a chance to adjust. Note that this couple is not alone in trying to make decisions because of the tax law changes, though for most businesses dealing with this conundrum the problem is lack of guidance to interpret a badly written tax law. Hopefully the couple has had good advice and doesn’t discover a few months or a year later when filing their tax return that they would have been better off not accelerating the wedding.
We need a tax law that does not make the marital status of a taxpayer relevant. That can be done by treating people as individuals and not using the tax law to encourage or discourage marriage. The issues of marriage penalty and marriage bonus have been discussed by tax commentators for decades. Congress, however, continues to be mired in the distant past when it comes to the interaction of tax with present-day relationships. I doubt we will see any repairs in the near future.
Wednesday, October 03, 2018
These principles came into play in the recent case of Park v. Comr., T.C. Summ. Op. 2018-46. The taxpayer, a member of the military, purchased a house in 2208 and took out a first and second mortgage with a bank. In 2011, the taxpayer fell behind in making payments on the mortgages but he resumed making payments in May 2012. During 2014, the taxpayer received a $13,508.58 check from the bank, and cashed it. The check was accompanied by a letter that stated, “[b]ased on a recent review of your account, we may not have provided you with the level of service you deserve, and are providing you with this check.” The letter suggested that the taxpayer might wish to consult with someone about any possible tax consequences of receiving the funds, and included a telephone number for him to call if he had any questions. The letter thanked the taxpayer for his military service. The taxpayer called the telephone number several times, but was unable to obtain any additional information. The taxpayer concluded that he had overpaid his mortgages during the time he was deployed overseas, and so he did not report any portion of the $13,508.38 on his 2014 federal income tax return. The bank sent the IRS a Form 1099-MISC, reporting other income of $12,789, and a Form 1099-INT, reporting interest income of $719 from the bank to the taxpayer for 2014. Because the taxpayer did not report those amounts on his return, the IRS issued a notice of deficiency on June 6, 2016, determining that the taxpayer had failed to report income from the bank. Several weeks later, the taxpayer filed a petition with the Tax Court.
The taxpayer explained that it was his understanding that the funds were not taxable income because they represented a return of overpayments on the mortgages. He issued a subpoena to the bank for records related to the check, but the bank replied that it was “unable to locate any accounts or records requested with the information provided.” The IRS argued that the taxpayer failed to provide credible evidence that its determination was incorrect.
The taxpayer argued that the bank’s issuance of the Forms 1099 was a mistake. The Tax Court noted that the letter from the bank indicated that it had made a mistake and was “correcting a wrong it had committed” with respect to the taxpayer’s accounts. The Court concluded that the taxpayer presented credible evidence that $12,789 of the payment was a return of an overpayment, and that the other $719 was interest on the overpayments that was required to be included in gross income. In other words, the taxpayer, by overpaying on the mortgage, moved money from one account to another, and when the bank returned the overpayments, the taxpayer, in effect, moved the money from the second account back to the first.
The taxpayer had to endure this judicial proceeding, investing time and energy, and probably some funds, because the bank made a number of mistakes. The bank failed to explain in its letter how it computed the amount of the check and why it concluded there had been an error. Perhaps the bank was taking money out of the taxpayer’s checking account to apply to the mortgage at the same time that it was receiving checks from the taxpayer. The bank failed to maintain records and thus was unable to reply to the subpoena with any information useful to the taxpayer. Or perhaps the bank had the records but was unable to find them. Or perhaps the bank had the records but did not want to become involved in the case. The bank failed to explain the basis on which it concluded that a Form 1099-MISC had to be issued. In other words, the bank inconvenienced its customer. The issuance of a Form 1099 is a serious matter and ought not be left to computers and software, which is surely what happened in this instance. Just wait until the robots start decided to issue Forms 1099. Can a robot be sued? That is an issue I’ll leave for others to discuss on blogs dealing with torts, contracts, and crimes. Incidentally, imagine what could have happened to this taxpayer had the IRS prepared his return based on the information it had.
Monday, October 01, 2018
Though evasion of income taxes and tobacco and cigarette duties has inspired all sorts of creativity, toll evasion seems to have taken the art of creativity to a new level. Reader Morris pointed me to a YouTube video in which Florida state troopers stop toll evaders using a variety of tricks in attempts to escape the photographing of their license plates by toll plaza cameras. Take a look, it’s eye opening, and as warned at the end, don’t try any of these “techniques.”
I can attest that the license plate photography system works. Recently I drove to Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and when I drove through the New Jersey Turnpike exit to get on the Garden State Parkway the E-Z Pass sign said “GO TOLL UNPAID.” Huh? I knew I had enough funds in the E-Z Pass account. I encountered the same message at the Garden State Parkway toll booths, but of course there’s no messaging in high-speed E-Z Pass lanes. So on my return I checked with the E-Z Pass folks. It turned out that my transponder was more than 16 years old, and the customer service representative said to me, “You have a transponder from the Stone Age. We’ll swap it out for a new one.” In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the agency that operates the Garden State Parkway, and the New York Thruway Authority (which collects the Tappan Zee Bridge toll) used the photo of my license plate to charge my E-Z Pass account. There were no penalties, and it was obvious I was not evading tolls. The new transponder is smaller and different from the old one. I had not known that transponders can “go bad,” so a tip: if your E-Z Pass transponder is more than five years old, ask for a replacement. It’s free of charge.