Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Do After-Tax Income Studies Teach? 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has released Income Gaps Between Very Rich and Everyone Else More Than Tripled In Last Three Decades, New Data Show, a study of changes in after-tax incomes, by quintile, for the period 1979 through 2007. Packed with information and conclusions, the CBPP report includes these highlights (and many others, which is why it is important to read the report and not just the several summaries of it that have been posted online):
1. Between 1979 and 2007, the gap between the richest one percent’s after-tax income and the poorest 20 percent more than tripled.
2. When data from before 1979 is examined, the concentration of income in the hands of the richest one percent is higher than at any time since 1928.
3. Though the impact of the recent recession is not reflected in the study, because the data is not yet available, analysis of previous recessions suggests that the recession probably will reduce the gap temporarily but that it will then increase even more, though in some recessions the inequality growth was reversed but merely slowed, if at all.
4. After adjusting for inflation, the average after-tax annual incomes of the bottom quintile rose by $2,400, the average after-tax annual incomes of the middle quintile rose by $11,200, and the average after-tax annual incomes of the top one percent increased by $973,100.
5. In 1979, the top one percent had a 7.5 percent share of after-tax income, whereas in 2007, it had a 17.1 percent share; for the middle three quintiles, the share fell from 51.1 percent to 43.5 percent, and for the poorest quintile, it fell from 6.8 percent to 4.9 percent.
6. The Bush tax cuts contributed significantly to the increased inequality, with information from the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center showing that the bottom quintile received an average tax cut of $29 from the Bush legislation, the middle fifth received an average tax cut of $760, the top one percent, $41,077, and millionaires, $114,000.
7. Inequality measured not by after-tax income but by pre-tax income also grew, with the top one percent’s share increasing from 9.3 percent to 19.4 percent, whereas the share of taxes paid by this group rose from 25.5 percent to only 28.1 percent, while the effective federal income tax rate for this group fell from 33.0 percent in 2000 to 29.5 percent in 2007.
This study reinforces the conclusions that I reached some time ago, that the parade of Bush tax cuts were unwise, particularly in time of war, as I explained more than six years ago in A Memorial Day Essay on War and Taxation.

So what’s the problem? First, though it appears as though everyone has gotten richer, there are people who are worse off, but whose misery is offset by the good fortune of others in the lower quintiles who did, in fact, creep up the economic ladder. Second, creeping up the ladder doesn’t help when the top of the ladder has been extended. It’s like walking ten miles in one day on what was thought to be a 5-day, 50-mile journey only to discover that at the end of the first day one is 75 miles from one’s destination. Third, the economic well-being of someone whose income has increased by $100 or $300 a week over a 28-year period hasn’t changed very much at all. It doesn’t permit moving up to a meaningfully larger home or a much nicer car. It doesn’t help keep pace with health care bills and college tuition invoices, which have increased faster than the inflation rate used by the CBPP in the study.

Though it’s true that by handing a nickel to a poor person, the donor can say, “You are now richer,” it’s a very shallow conclusion and a very meaningless token, literally and figuratively. Yes, a $100 increase in income over a 28-year period (an increase of less than $4 per week each year) makes a person “richer,” but if the person is barely surviving to begin with, richer in this sense means “less poor.” The logic of words sometimes breaks down in the face of experience and, to use an old tax phrase, “life in all its fullness.”

The wealth gap matters. Some, like Peter Pappas in A Win for the Tax the Rich Crowd?, think that focusing on the wealth gap hides the reality of the “the increase in the actual purchasing power of the poor.” But focusing on that purchasing power increase, miniscule as it is, hides the underlying fairness issue. Fairness would dictate that the contribution of the poorest quintile to the economic well-being of society during the past 28 years is worth $100 per week whereas the contribution of the top one percent is worth $18,700 per week. Perhaps the wealthy are working 187 times harder, or putting in 187 times more hours each week, or welding 187 times as many doors onto automobiles each week, or cleaning 187 times more bedpans each week. But perhaps the wealthy have figured out how to game the system, and with the spiraling effect of ever-increasing wealth shift, have made it easier to game the system as time goes by. When one’s low income increases by $4 per week each year, it’s tough to pay lobbyists to reshape the rules to favor the poor. Had those who are not poor not advocated for things such as the earned income tax credit or the child credit, the increase in the bottom quintile’s after-tax income might not have happened.

My concern is the role of taxation in the economic disparity that is, and absent changes, will continue, killing the nation’s economy. Tossing a few earned income tax credit peanuts into the gallery doesn’t offset the impact of the wartime tax cuts that made and make no economic sense. Though it is likely true, as Peter Pappas argues, that the CBPP report does not demonstrate that the Bush tax cuts are the primary cause of the top one percent’s increased wealth share, they surely were a contributing factor, and I’d go so far as to say, in contradiction to Pappas’ argument, a “major” cause of that increased wealth share. But adjectives aside (primary? major? significant?), if the wealthy were getting wealthier for reasons other than tax cuts, then why were the tax cuts – touted as necessary so that the wealthy would have more money with which to create jobs – necessary? In other words, arguing that the tax cuts are not a major factor in the success of the wealthy proves my case that the wealthy didn’t need the Bush tax cuts, especially in wartime.

A call to reverse the Bush tax cuts by letting them expire, although I would have preferred to see them repealed as soon as they were enacted, is not a call for “confiscatory taxes,” as Pappas, in A Win for the Tax the Rich Crowd?, suggests. If returning the top rate to 39.6 percent from the 36 percent top rate under the Bush tax cuts moves the nation from taxes that are not “confiscatory” to “confiscatory taxes,” then what is the critical number? 36.1 percent? 39.5 percent? What is the definition of “confiscatory” other than “more than I want to transfer”? Or is the true belief of the Bush tax cut supporters that 36 percent is confiscatory, and further reductions are required until all that is left is a tax on wages?

Those of us who want to rectify the imbalance are admonished by Pappas that we subscribe to a faulty premise. Supposedly, we believe that wealth, like energy, is finite. I can’t speak for others, but I don’t believe that energy is finite. According to scientific analysis, the universe is infinite, and so, too is energy, even if we haven’t figure out how to harness it. Wealth also is infinite, but again, emeralds on some distant planet, don’t enter into the computation. What is finite are things such as the amount of energy that this planet can provide, the gallons of clean water, the cubic feet of clean air, the number of acres of arable cropland, the number of people that the planet can support. These are the realities underneath the notion of wealth, the rest of wealth being the ephemeral nonsense that wind up as bizarre derivatives and other “instruments” that end up representing nothing and that have served to transfer wealth inequitably. Fake wealth isn’t wealth.

Peter Pappas and I probably would agree that if all words, no matter by whom and when written or uttered, constitute wealth, then wealth is infinite. He and I alone – even ignoring all others – have been proving that point, because we surely are on our way to an infinity of words, as we shift from our discussion on one topic to this topic. Unfortunately, the next batch of words from me will not be a continuation of this analysis, but a shift to a long-awaited follow-up series on a teaching-related topic. When that ends, the postings will return to taxation, as there appear to be an infinite number of possibilities awaiting.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Post-Tax Revenue Era 

So people don’t like taxes. Governments aren’t collecting enough taxes to pay for all the things people want governments to provide. Increases in tax rates are viewed with the same affection as bedbugs and oil spills.

California, we’re told in this report, thinks it has found a new source of revenue. Thanks to Joe Kristan and Peter Pappas for highlighting this story and tossing out some questions.

Under legislation that has passed the California Senate and that is now pending in the Assembly, the state would issue special license plates. These plates are designed so that when a vehicle is moving, they display the tag number but when the vehicle stops for more than four seconds, digital advertising appears. The report also explains that “the license plate number would always be visible.” Then where’s the advertising fit?

Technical questions aside, the proposal is destined to meet with objections. Even if the anticipated revenue from selling the advertising materializes – and if it doesn’t the entire enterprise could add to the state’s budget deficit – other issues pose serious problems. Here are some, in no particular order.

A driver caught up with watching advertising on the license plate attached to the vehicle in front, particularly if the advertising is humorous or racy, will fail to notice that the light has turned green until the horns from the cars behind begin, wait, maybe those drivers are also busy watching advertising. Can we spell gridlock?

The state would need to sell a good chunk of advertising just to pay for these plates. Surely they will cost more than those simple metal devices that have been around for almost a century. Or will the state jack up the vehicle registration fee to cover the cost?

A huge concern is the compulsion issue. What happens if the driver has a conscionable objection to the product or service being advertised? If the state plays it safe, it won’t generate any advertising revenue, because even if it declined ad revenue from controversial sources – tobacco companies, condom manufacturers, and casinos – surely for every product or service available on the planet, there is at least one person in California who finds it objectionable. There’s a slight problem with the government compelling a person to display or deliver a message, whether in writing or in spoken word. It’s called the First Amendment. Even if a way was found to individualize the advertising on each plate to conform to the driver’s preferences, not only would it further increase the cost of the digital plates and the “message sending” center, it would also be a problem for those drivers who choose not to send any message at all.

On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop the government from putting up its messages, as it currently does, on billboards and digital messaging signs. So why not have traffic signals, instead of being a circle, be messages that are in red print when traffic should stop and green ink when it’s time for traffic to move forward? OK, that might be a bit over the top, but it illustrates the desperateness of the California legislature. Has anyone considered selling advertising on the California Department of Transportation’s web site? How about advertising inserts in the mail conveying the vehicle registration renewal form? Could the fixation on license plate advertising have anything to do with someone in California government having connections with those with a special interest in the company that presumably makes the electronic license plates?

Once again, one wonders if this digital messaging license plate proposal has been thought through by its initiators and supporters. One wonders if they’ve been educated with respect to the First Amendment. One wonders if it would be easier to implement a mileage-based road fee, which I have discussed most in posts such as Tax Meets Technology on the Road, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Again, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Yet Again, and Change, Tax, Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Secrecy. It would be far less intrusive than the license plate advertising idea.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tax Amnesty Scorecard Updated 

About a month ago, in To Amnesty or Not to Amnesty, That is the Question, I noted the tough decisions that tax amnesties presented both to governments and taxpayers. For governments, will an amnesty encourage future noncompliance because taxpayers expect another amnesty? For taxpayers, is it worth stepping forward and taking advantage of the reduced or eliminated interest and penalties?

Now comes news, in reports such as this one, that Pennsylvania’s tax amnesty that just ended did quite well. Preliminary tallies indicate that the state collected $261 million, which is $71 million more than the state had anticipated. Roughly 60,000 taxpayers participated in the program. The Governor promised that the state would move quickly and strenuously against delinquent taxpayers who did not step up and pay. Because the program took in more than was predicted, it appears to have been a resounding success. But how did the state determine that it would collect $190 million? Do they rely on the same experts who predict that Corporation X will have earnings of 77 cents per share in the second quarter of 2011? Of course, if Corporation X ends up with 76 cents per share in the second quarter of 2011, the stock market goes into a slide. If one sets the expectations low enough, success pops up at every turn. If the state had predicted $50 million in tax amnesty receipts, the $261 million actually collected would make the decision to implement the program look like the work of geniuses. What’s better for a student, to anticipate grades in the B range so that every A minus is a cause for celebration, or to predict grades in the A range and be devastated when the B+ shows up? I suppose the $190 million prediction, which was not rounded to a nice $200 million, reflects a combination of information from previous amnesty programs in Pennsylvania and other states and some knowledge of how much income had not been reported. It’s not totally magic, even though it appears to be something emerging from the same black hole from which federal income tax revenue estimates for proposed legislation are issued.

In other news, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the city of Philadelphia had received a $2,000,000 payment from someone under the city’s amnesty program. The Revenue Commissioner declined to identify the taxpayer, and it’s not clear if it is an individual, a corporation, or some other entity, or if it is a resident or non-resident taxpayer. The city had set a goal of $25 million to $30 million, but only $18 million had been received by earlier this week. The program, to which about 17,000 taxpayers have responded, ends today. Will there be a surge in payments near the end? We’ll see. It is interesting to note that the city did not predict a total amount, but simply set a goal. Yet, if it turns out the goal was too high, the program may end up being seen as a failure. Capital campaigns established during fund-raising are like that. What happens if only $60 million is collected by a church, school, hospital, or other organization when it had set the goal of $100 million? Is the outcome akin to a vote of no confidence?

More news about these amnesty programs, and others, will be forthcoming. Surely I will have more to share.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

FICA, Medicare, and Payroll Taxes 

Last week, in Social Security Activist Appeals to Philly Millionaires, Joseph N. DiStefano wrote about David Walker, who has issued warnings about the risks that arise when the federal government spends more than it takes in. Though once an issue that divided the “left” from the “right,” concerns over the long-term damage caused by federal budget deficits no longer seems to stop the bipartisan “spend-but-don’t tax” movement of the past decade.

Walker once headed the Government Accountability Office, serving under both a Democratic and a Republican president. The power of that office must be quite limited, because no one seems to be accountable for the bad fiscal decision making in Washington. Attempts to deal with the problem are met with more spending and more tax cuts.

Walker’s focus is on Medicare and Social Security, though these are not the only segments of the federal budget that contribute to long-term structural deficits. Walker wants to cut back Social Security and Medicare payments, and to enact payroll tax increases, especially for “the rich.” Walker’s impetus is his belief that federal finances are “worse than Spain” and “Ten years away from being like Greece.”

As for Social Security, Walker wants an automatic savings plan, an end to guaranteed payouts, delayed eligibility, and removal of the cap – currently $108,000 – on the amount of wages subject to the FICA tax. Walker’s proposals have come in for some serious criticism. The problem with Social Security is that it has become an entitlement program that is inadequately funded. Most retirees collect more than they put into the system, even taking into account earnings on accumulated contributions. The idea of limiting payouts to what the contributions purchase – which is what happens in a defined contribution plan or IRA, for example – encounters stiff resistance. Ought not Social Security be means-tested? Is it not an insurance program? If not, why was the enacting legislation the Federal Insurance Contributions Act and not the Federal Assurance or Federal Guaranteed Payment Contributions Act? The claim by many that “I paid into this and I’m entitled to get payments,” even when those payments exceed the contributions, is inconsistent with the notion of insurance. Many people have paid tens of thousands of dollars in homeowner insurance during their lifetimes, have collected nothing, and aren’t about to wish for circumstances that would bring them a check from the insurance company. Why does someone with a multi-million dollar pension or a huge golden parachute need social security payments? To this extent, Walker is putting some serious issues on the table, issues that will not escape discussion during the next several years. On the other hand, to the extent that Walker advocates privatizing social security, imagine if the advocates of that idea had succeeded. They would have succeeded in cutting the fund balances nearly in half as the economy tanked. Who would have bailed out the Social Security program if that had happened?

As for Medicare, Walker thinks it, too, should be means-tested, should include “tough controls” on reimbursement rates, and should limit medical lawsuits. If Medicare is insurance to protect those in need, means-testing makes sense. The question is whether America wants Medicare to be insurance. Further limiting reimbursement rates might not be wise if it is, as some contend, a contributing factor to the shortage of primary care physicians. On the other hand, ridding the system of fraud is a worthy objective, one to which no one but criminals would object, but that song has been sung for decades. The system needs to be retooled so that fraud is not so easily accomplished. It’s unclear what is meant by limiting medical lawsuits, but at some point the runaway damages being awarded for pain and suffering isn’t doing much of anything to cut back medical malpractice, automobile and other accidents, homicides, or the other situations in which people suffer on account of the ignorance or negligence of others. On the other hand, prohibiting lawsuits when there has been a medical injury shuts the door to justice that needs to remain open.

Walker admits that he has “provoked extremists at both ends.” He explains, “The far left is in denial” that Social Security and Medicare are in deep financial difficulty. He also explains, “The far right is in denial that we have to raise taxes.” He adds, “These are fact-based things. They are not opinions. We have to build the sensible center.” That won’t happen so long as the “tax-and-spend” crowd keeps making deals with the “cut taxes” crowd to give us the “spend-but-don’t-tax” governance philosophy that is destroying the nation.

Advocates of continued and increased spending need to identify the tax increases that will permit that to happen in the absence of a deficit, and it will take more than the return to the pre-2001 rates and the elimination of capital gains preferences that I support. Advocates of tax cutting need to identify the cuts they would make to balance the budget, and if they don’t touch defense, Medicare, Social Security – and they’re stuck with the interest payment on the debt – there’s not enough to cut. Perhaps revenue could be raised by selling tickets to the upcoming debates over Social Security and Medicare, because it’s not going to be some quiet chat in an obscure back room.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Internal Revenue Code: Small Change, New Feature, New Look 

As I worked my way through a new provision of the Internal Revenue Code, trying to interpret it so that I could add a small discussion of its provisions to the Tax Management portfolio that I am currently in the process of revising, I noticed something that I had never previously seen in the Code. Just as interestingly, I don’t know what to call it.

To explain this, I need to step back a little bit. Then I can create a background against which to describe what I noticed.

The Internal Revenue Code is divided at two levels. One level of division is the separation of the entire title – as the Internal Revenue Code is title 26 of the United States Code – into subtitles, subtitles into chapters, and so on. The other level of division divides Code sections. Why does this matter? As I tell my basic tax students when I take them through this explanation very early in the course, it is impossible to interpret phrases such as “for purposes of this subchapter” or “for purposes of this paragraph,” or to determine what specific provisions are reached by a cross-reference to “part IV” without understanding what subchapters, parts, and paragraphs are.

For my students I prepare a chart that shows the “breakdown” of an Internal Revenue Code section. As some readers know, and as others might not, a code section almost always – there are a few exceptions – is broken down into subsections. These are portions of the text that begin with a small letter in parentheses. Thus, one can refer to subsection (a) of section 71, though one also can refer to it as section 71(a). Technically, “section 71(a)” is an oxymoron, because the section is 71. But it works, at least until one tries to cite subsection (a) of section 280A and ends up, if speaking aloud, referring to “section two eighty ay ay.” So I try “section two eighty cap ay ay.” Fun.

Hang on, the thing I noticed is about to enter. Subsections, when divided, are broken down into paragraphs, represented by numbers in parentheses. In turn paragraphs, when divided, are broken down into subparagraphs, represented by capital letters in parentheses. If divided, subparagraphs break down into clauses and clauses into subclauses. Clauses are represented by lower-case Roman numerals and subclauses by upper-case Roman numerals. Let’s ignore the fact that in ancient Rome there were no lower-case letters, and thus no representation of numbers using what properly are called lower-case Western alphabet characters.

So, in working my way through the new section 4980I, yes, that’s forty-nine eighty eye, I came upon a subclause that was broken down into, into what? Let me show you:
§ 4980I. Excise tax on high cost employer-sponsored health coverage
* * * * *
(b) Excess benefit. For purposes of this section--
* * * * *
(3) Annual limitation. For purposes of this subsection--
* * * * *
(C) Applicable dollar limit.
* * * * *
(iii) Age and gender adjustment.
(I) In general. The amount determined under subclause (I) or (II) of clause (i), whichever is applicable, for any taxable period shall be increased by the amount determined under subclause (II).
(II) Amount determined. The amount determined under this subclause is an amount equal to the excess (if any) of--
(aa) the premium cost of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield standard benefit option under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan for the type of coverage provided such individual in such taxable period if priced for the age and gender characteristics of all employees of the individual's employer, over
(bb) that premium cost for the provision of such coverage under such option in such taxable period if priced for the age and gender characteristics of the national workforce.
What is this (aa) thing? Why had I never noticed it before now?

So I did some research. I searched the Code for instances of (aa). I found one other one. It’s in section 36B, which was enacted at the same time as was section 4980I, that is, very recently, as part of the health care legislation. The need to break the Code down into yet another level suggests that the degree of complexity in tax legislation has taken an unfortunate logarithmic jump for the worse. Good drafting would find a way to avoid the use of a level below the subclause.

In looking for instances of (aa) in the Code, I learned – though I must have known this without having let it register in my memory – that some Public Laws amending the Code made use of this tag, but in a different manner. What does a drafter do when a drafter reaches the twenty-seventh subsection? The lower-case letters a through z have been used. So, it turns out, the “letter” after z is aa, followed by bb, and so on. We have yet to see what will follow zz. Will it be aaa? Or za? Or something else? Similarly, when a litany of subparagraphs in a Public Law reach (Z), it is followed by (AA), (BB), and so on. It is important to understand that in these instances, (aa) and (AA) do not represent new, deeper levels, but simply extensions of “lettered” segments for which there are, unlike the numbered segments, a finite number of single designators.

Other federal statutes and provisions in other titles of the United States Code are numbered and lettered differently, and often in ways that make the Internal Revenue Code look tidy. State statutes often are modern-day tributes to Byzantine governance, with sections that resemble arrangements such as 40-K-1.3(z)-4.0(7-a,b(2))-5(g)(1.5z).

To keep up with this unnecessary inconsistency, years ago the Treasury Department came up with a different way of designating regulations segments. I bring this up, not only to demonstrate the arbitrariness of it all, but also to see if there are any ideas for naming the new (aa) thing in the regulations arrangement. Regulations sections are divided into paragraphs – there are no subsections – and paragraphs into subparagraphs. Paragraphs are designated not by numbers but by lower-case letters, so that a Regulations paragraph is equivalent in appearance to a Code subsection. Subparagraphs use numbers, thus taking on the characteristics of Code paragraphs. Subparagraphs are divided into subdivisions, designated by upper-case Roman numerals. There are no clauses or subclauses. Internal cross-referencing is a nightmare. We end up with citations such as 1.704-1(b)(2)(ii)(i). Say that out loud. Try explaining to a law review student editor why that is not a typographical error. I’ve yet to find anyone who claims to have an explanation for why Treasury chose to use a different – and arguably less refined – breakdown method.

So, perhaps the Treasury Department unwittingly provided a name for the new (aa) thing in the Code. Is it a subdivision? Until there are cross-references to an (aa) level text segment, we won’t know for certain. Even if people offer ideas or claim it is one thing or another, until its name is inferentially codified, almost anything is possible.

What I do know is I now need to go back to the materials I have been preparing for the upcoming fall semester offering in Introduction to Federal Taxation and change one of the items I share with the students in digital format using the Blackboard classroom. I need to add the (aa) level to the chart depicting Code breakdown, and I also need to change the slide for that part of the course. But what label will I use for it? “No Name” as I use for the deep levels in Regulations? “Don’t know”? “To be determined?” I wonder if I will hear someone ask, “Will this be on the exam?” The answer is no.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pulling the Tax Rug Out From Under Taxpayers 

Because tax law affects people’s decision making, it makes sense for people to know what the tax law is and how it affects their decisions before they make those decisions. It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes a tax law change takes effect as of the day it was adopted by the House Ways and Means Committee. Only an avid follower of the many bills introduced with proposed tax law changes, few of which go anywhere in the legislative process, would be aware of some changes before the effective date, but how would someone plan based on a pending bill that might or might not be enacted?

Retroactive changes are even more troublesome. Telling taxpayers in October that the tax rate for the entire year has been increased causes havoc not only with estimated tax payment planning but with planning generally. Not that long ago, the estate tax was increased retroactively, affecting taxpayers who had died and no longer had the chance to change their wills or engage in any other sort of planning. Though there are ways around this dilemma, such as conditional will clauses that are triggered by different states of the tax law (e.g., “If the maximum estate tax rate applicable to my estate is x%, then . . . , else . . .), it can get cumbersome, and not every possibility can be anticipated.

Sometimes legislatures pass tax breaks to encourage people to engage in activity in which they might not otherwise engage. Most are in the form of “If you do x, then you will get a credit of $y or a deduction of $z.” If a taxpayer accepts the government offer and does x, is the government contractually bound to provide the enacted tax break? The Pennsylvania legislature thinks not.

According to this story from a few days ago, the funding for a state income tax solar energy credit was removed from the state budget in the fall of 2009. The effect of this decision is that taxpayers who invested in alternative energy sources because the credit made the decision economically feasible are now left with the tax credit rug pulled out from under them. Although, according to the article, only 110 taxpayers are affected at the moment, it’s no excuse for justice to claim that only a few are suffering from what must be considered a breach of contract.

If there were a true fiscal emergency, one might accept the idea that the state would postpone the credit. Under those circumstances, interest on the credit should accrue just as it does when a taxpayer’s fiscal problems cause the taxpayer to postpone paying an income tax to the state. The chances of that happening are slim to none.

But is there a true fiscal emergency that justifies reneging on the tax credits after taxpayers made the investments that the tax credits were designed to encourage? Legislators explain that the credit was axed in order to provide funds “for public education, prison systems, and Medicaid,” but the same legislators are determined not to impose taxes or user fees on the extraction of Marcellus shale gas even though taxes are imposed on lottery winnings. The difference between the two for most people getting wealthy from shale gas they’re not responsible for creating is difficult to identify.

Readers of MauledAgain know that I’m no fan of tax credits to encourage behavior that ought to be encouraged, if at all, through grants made by the appropriate agency. Shifting to that sort of system would not change the problem, though, because the same “caught holding the bag” effect would be triggered by the legislature’s elimination of funding for the grant program.

Here’s the long-term consequence that legislators probably didn’t consider in their short-term perspective on life. The next time the legislature tries to encourage taxpayers to do something with the promise of a tax credit, or even a grant, taxpayers are likely to disregard the offer. Most taxpayers are not Charlie Brown, and aren’t going to get fooled twice when the legislature comes along with another football and a fake smile on its face.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Yet Another Sin Tax 

A few days ago, the IRS released proposed and temporary regulations addressing mostly procedural issues with respect to the new excise tax on indoor tanning. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act added section 5000B to the Internal Revenue Code. Surprisingly, the statutory provision is relatively easy to read and understand. It states:
There is hereby imposed on any indoor tanning service a tax equal to 10 percent of the amount paid for such service (determined without regard to this section), whether paid by insurance or otherwise.
The fun begins when someone asks for a definition of indoor tanning service. According to the statute:
The term “indoor tanning service” means a service employing any electronic product designed to incorporate 1 or more ultraviolet lamps and intended for the irradiation of an individual by ultraviolet radiation, with wavelengths in air between 200 and 400 nanometers, to induce skin tanning.
The statute also provides an exception for “any phototherapy service performed by a licensed medical professional.”

The theory behind this new tax is that indoor tanning increases the risk of skin cancer, and that a tax will deter people from using indoor tanning services. Accordingly, indoor tanning has now been added to a list that includes the smoking and chewing of tobacco and the use of alcohol. At least three flaws in this hastily-enacted provision deserve attention.

First, whether a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning will cause a meaningful decrease in its use is debatable. Some, such as Solmaz Poosattar argue that “[a] tax on tanning can effectively change unhealthy and costly behavior. The argument rests on the hypothesis that “the tobacco excise tax has been the most effective intervention at reducing rates of smoking” and that “[it] can be assumed that a tanning tax would be even more successful at deterring excessive UV light exposure.” Yet studies, such as those summarized in this report, attribute a significant portion of smoking reduction on the growing number of smoke-free zones put into place during recent years. Similarly, alcohol taxes don’t seem to have made much of a dent in alcohol use, although other measures, such as increased penalties for drunk driving, do appear to have been productive. Seriously, is a youngster in search of a tan in order to “look good” at an event going to be deterred by an increase in the price from $50 to $55? Hardly.

Second, nothing in the enacting legislation appears to funnel the expected revenue into skin cancer prevention programs or skin cancer treatment provision. When the effects of indoor tanning undertaken in 2010 shows up in 2030, will there be funding available to pay for the costs of curing or mitigating the cancer?

Third, why stop at indoor tanning, tobacco, and alcohol? Why not impose a tax on other goods and services that pose high risks to human health? Riding a motorcycle poses a significant increase in risk of injury than does riding in a car – I’ve yet to see a motorcycle with airbags – so would it make sense to impose a 10 percent tax and use the proceeds to fund emergency rooms that treat uninsured motorcycle riders injured in accidents? Should there be a tax on beach access by persons insufficiently protected against the sun’s UV rays?

Because most users of indoor tanning services are young people – and often surprisingly young people, including pre-teens and teenagers – why not prohibit people under 18 from using or purchasing indoor tanning services in the same manner they are prohibited from using or purchasing alcohol and tobacco? Whatever arguments exist for banning the use and purchase of tobacco by minors can be applied with equal force to the use of tanning beds. But ought this be a task for the Internal Revenue Service or another burden on the tax law?

For what it’s worth, I have never used an indoor tanning facility, and because I burn too easily I avoid unprotected sun exposure, even though now we’re being told that insufficient vitamin D increases the risk of skin, colon, and other cancers. No matter, I have no personal financial stake in the existence or non-existence of a tax on indoor tanning. But I suppose I do have a stake in the eventual public cost of dealing with the rapidly rising number of skin cancer cases. I just don’t think a 10 percent tax is going to make much of a difference.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Tax Credits on Parade 

For many decades, CCH has published a weekly update on taxation called Taxes on Parade. It’s a clever title. Sometimes it causes me to think of a parade in which each code section is represented by a float. I chose not to ponder the computation of how long it would take this parade to make its way past the Capitol or the IRS building on Constitution Avenue. The thought of a tax parade can be alarming, if not unsettling.

What’s not only alarming and unsettling, but frightening and dangerous, is the parade of lobbyists going into the offices of legislators – or, as is more often the case – offices of legislative staff, dragging their latest proposals for a special tax break to benefit the people who can afford to hire them. Although exclusions and deductions are well-known tax benefits, the emphasis is on credits because credits reduce tax liability dollar-for-dollar.

At present there are almost one hundred income tax credits in the Internal Revenue Code. Go ahead, try to name all of them without looking. I know I cannot, and I’ve authored the BNA Tax Management portfolio that overviews tax credits. It says something about each one, sometimes in detail, and sometimes in summary fashion with a reference to the portfolio giving it full-fledged analysis. Every time I sit down to generate the latest edition of the portfolio, the list grows as I write. Indeed, a parade.

On Friday, in Lining Up for Tax Breaks, I described and critiqued a proposal to “[p]rovide a tax credit to news organizations for every journalist they employ.” A little more than four years ago, I explained the why a proposal "[t]o amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow individuals a credit against income tax of at least $500 to offset the cost of high 2006 gasoline and diesel fuel prices" would do nothing to cut demand or increase supply of oil and gasoline.

Several days ago, tax reports brought me news of yet two more credits being suggested by members of Congress. Senator Lugar of Indiana has introduced a bill, S. 3464, that would include a multi-level income tax credit “with respect to any new qualified fuel-efficient motor vehicle placed in service by the taxpayer during the taxable year.” The computations requires 35 new lines of text in the Code, and the definition of “new qualified fuel-efficient motor vehicle” requires 20 lines. Simplification it is not. Over in the House, Representatives Blumenauer and Brady have introduced a bill, H.R. 5478, that would provide a tax credit for building new railcars that improve fuel efficiency by at least 8 percent.

Here’s one issue I have with Lugar’s proposal. The Internal Revenue Code already has a qualified electric vehicle credit, an alternative motor vehicle credit, a clean-fuel vehicle refueling property credit, and a new qualified plug-in electric drive motor vehicle credit. Are we on our way to a separate credit for each model vehicle sold in this country? Jack up the gasoline tax to a level equivalent in real dollars to what it was when it was last increased, and people and businesses will have all the incentive they need to move to vehicles that are less reliant on foreign oil. As for the Blumenauer – Brady idea, is the railcar industry unable to manufacture more efficient railcars that offer potential purchasers fuel savings that make the purchase worthwhile? If not, is the problem the existence of subsidies for inefficiency, such as fuel taxes that are too low and user fees for fuel inefficiency that don’t, but should, exist?

The parade of tax credits is getting longer. It’s only a matter of time before some or all of the sarcastically suggested credits that I put forth as examples of the absurdity end up becoming reality. For example, in Where Are the Discounts for the Poor?, after explaining why senior citizens do not have some sort of inalienable right to discounts as suggested by a person who wrote a letter to an advice columnist complaining about a business that did not offer such a discount, I noted, “And so, the frightening thought occurs to me, that someone like the letter writer will start a campaign for yet another income tax credit, this one for businesses that offer senior citizen discounts.” In Should the Tax Law Provide a Fix for this Looming Catastrophe?, I sarcastically observed that “It isn't too difficult to imagine the CMA or chocolate manufacturers not members of the CMA asking the Congress for a tax credit to subsidize the increased costs of cocoa. There are tax credits for all sorts of activities and expenditures, ranging from energy-related products to the rehabilitation of buildings and the adoption of children. Is the tax law going to be the answer to yet another problem? I hope not.”

One of my objections to the use of credits is the fact that almost all of them have nothing to do with revenue and much to do with shifting to the IRS programs that should be, but for some reason are not, administered by other federal agencies. Another objection is the creation of more opportunities for mischief. As I noted in Congress and Tax Audits: Criticizing Others for Its Own Mess, “Each time the geniuses in the Congress adds another credit or deduction to appease some special interest group or to reward some constituency, it adds another opportunity for tax cheats, con artists, and tax shelter designers, who are not the intended beneficiaries of this legislative largesse, to siphon tax revenue from the system.”

Eighteen months ago, in Cutting Up the Economic Distress Remediation Pie, I offhandedly predicted what would happen when the “onslaught of special case pleading” flooded into the tax law drafting process. I concluded with these words:
The economic collapse is due in part to the refusal of Congress to provide a tax credit for building sports stadia in cities and towns across America so that they can invite the Arena Football League to put new franchises in those locations, so to restore the economy and create jobs Congress should enact a tax credit for the construction of Arena Football League facilities."

But here's my favorite:

"The economic debacle is due in part to the refusal of Congress to provide a refundable tax credit of $50 billion per year to all law professors who write tax blogs the names of which begin with the letter M, have an upper-case A in the middle of the name, and end with the letter n, and that first appeared in 2004 because the law professors who so qualify know how to use refundable credits in a manner that is beneficial to the economy, and so to revive the national economy Congress should enact such a credit, making it retroactive to 2004."

Yeah, ok. Hurry and get in line before it gets too long.
It turns out that my sarcastic advice and prediction became an increasingly frightening reality. Perhaps I should have claimed, untruthfully, that I support an endless parade of tax credits. Perhaps my endorsement would spell their demise. I wonder if that sort of reverse psychology works in the tax world.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Lining Up for Tax Breaks 

The Federal Trade Commission has been studying “the challenges faced by journalism in the Internet age,” to quote from a discussion paper released earlier this month. Although the paper clearly is flagged as “solely for purposes of discussion” and as a document that “does not represent final conclusions or recommendations by the Commission or FTC staff,” it provides an interesting insight into how pervasively the tax law is viewed throughout government, and not just the private sector, as the magic key to solving all sorts of problems.

The issue addressed by the FTC paper arise from the realization that “[j]ournalism is moving through a significant transition in which business models are crumbling, innovative new forms of journalism are emerging, and consumer news habits are changing rapidly.” The paper released by the FTC is designed “to prompt discussion of whether to recommend policy changes to support the ongoing ‘reinvention’ of journalism, and, if so, which specific proposals appear most useful, feasible, platform-neutral, resistant to bias, and unlikely to cause unintended consequences in addressing emerging gaps in news coverage.”

One of the proposals for assisting journalism in some sort of transition to a new form is set forth in the FTC paper as follows:
Provide a tax credit to news organizations for every journalist they employ. This could help pay the salary of every journalist. Although the proponent of this idea died before it had been fully developed, one speaker noted it is one way to subsidize journalists without the government picking one paper over another.
Nothing in the paper appears to explain why employers who hire journalists should get a tax break, whereas those hiring primary care physicians, who are in short supply, or oil spill clean-up specialists, or derivatives fraud forensic experts, or any other sort of employee would not be similarly treated. Nor is there any persuasive explanation of why the government needs to intervene to assist one particular segment of the private sector that appears, on the whole, to be thriving, even if certain antiquated forms, business models, and approaches to news gathering and dissemination are on the wrong end of the “evolve or die” reality of change.

This idea is yet another manifestation of the delusion that throwing a tax break at something will solve a problem, sometimes even problems that don’t exist and problems that ought not to be solved. The price for handing out tax breaks to special interest groups is growing exponentially, as every interest group in the country is lining up to get one. It’s not that I have anything against journalists – to the contrary, I read their product, whether in newspapers, magazines, or on blogs, web sites, or listservs – it’s just that I don’t see a long-term benefit to complicating the tax law even more when the solution, assuming there is a problem, is already underway.

And how would this tax break be funded? By increasing the deficit? By cutting back on a tax break for some other group? By raising taxes on the wealthy? By raising taxes on the middle class? The FTC paper, in a separate section, provides some tax revenue ideas, not merely to pay for the proposed tax break, but to fund other ideas – such as increased postal rate subsidies for newspapers and magazines, vouchers, a federal media fund -- designed to help journalism deal with the impact of Internet technology. Among the proposed taxes are a tax on revenues generated by broadcasters who hold monopoly rights to portions of the broadcast spectrum, a tax on consumer electronics, a tax on the amount paid on successful spectrum auction bids, a tax on advertising, requiring spreading the tax deduction for advertising expenses over a 5-year period, and a tax on “monthly ISP-cell phone bills.”

Though journalism has been significantly altered by the advent of internet technology, so, too, has every other profession, industry, business, and activity. The internet has changed, for better or worse, the way in which real estate agents, libraries, musicians, appliance manufacturers, and retail outlets do business. They faced choices. They could ignore the changes. They could learn about the changes, adapt them to their enterprises, and thrive. They could dabble with the changes, try to maintain “life as usual,” and face financial disaster. Though there may be some private sector industries that the nation cannot afford to let fail, and that’s a big “though,” it makes for bad tax policy to worsen the tax code for the sake of an industry parts of which are thriving and parts of which haven’t learned to adapt. The nation has more pressing needs and better things to do with its tax law.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Back to the Gasoline Tax Future 

Last Friday, as more fully reported in this Philadelphia Inquirer article, the idea of raising state gasoline taxes resurfaced in Harrisburg. Though legislators hesitate to raise taxes the way indulgent parents hesitate to discipline ill-behaved children, the unpleasant facts include a $472 million deficit in transportation funding, a long-term $3.5 billion, yes, that’s Billion, annual short-fall in highway and bridge maintenance budgets, at least $1.5 billion in Philadelphia-area highway improvement projects on hold, $2.3 billion in transit projects on the shelf, and the likelihood of bridge collapses throughout the state. During hearings held by the House Transportation Committee, an unusual conglomeration of diverse interest groups all spoke in favor of increasing the tax. Among those acknowledging the problems and hailing a gasoline tax increase as the solution were officials of Philadelphia and other cities, employers and associations representing employers, urban and regional planners, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, The Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and the CEO Council for Growth. Though one might expect the Motor Truck Association to resist tax increases, it appears that this organization and its members have managed to put long-term forward-projected thinking ahead of short-term profit maximization. Good for them.

So what’s the snag? A little more than half a year ago, in Poll on Tax and Spending Illustrates Voter Inconsistency, I commented on the results of a poll in New Jersey that revealed the following tidbit: “When asked if the gasoline tax should be increased to pay for highway and mass transit improvements, 62% said no.” I noted that “[t]he poll reinforces my contention that the underlying problem is the continued demand for government spending on programs that benefit state residents coupled with a continued resistance to the idea of paying taxes in order to fund those programs.” At the hearing, State Representative Kathy Manderino picked up on that problem when she explained, “Every citizen wants everything fixed, but nobody wants to pay for it." Bingo. She added, "We are not going to have a vote [in the legislature] this year unless you get people off the 'I'm afraid to make a tax vote' dime they're on." Indeed. And why are legislators so afraid to vote for revenue to provide the benefits, such as safe road and non-failing bridges, that people want? Because the anti-tax crowd has seized center stage and preaches a gospel of “no taxes no matter the long-term cost.” Perhaps they would rather die than pay taxes, but the rest of us prefer not to be crossing a bridge in our vehicles when it goes down. They have bullied politicians by broadcasting misinformation and appealing to emotional reactions to taxes. But there is good news, at least in Pennsylvania. According to the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions, a recent poll indicated that 64% of those questioned “would be willing to pay $50 more a year to improve transportation.”

The executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission shared some data. A 5-cent increase in the state gasoline tax – currently at 32.3 cents a gallon – would raise $300 million even though it would increase the average driver’s gasoline costs by two dollars a month. He summed up the problem nicely: "While it may never seem a popular idea to raise taxes or impose additional fees, particularly in the current economic climate, transportation services must be viewed as a utility that everyone uses, everyone benefits from, and everyone must pay for." Imagine what life would be like if the roads and bridges collapsed or reached the point where traffic ground to a halt. What happens to incoming shipments of food, fuel, medicine, and other supplies? What happens to businesses trying to ship goods to other places? Manderino suggested that the state close bridges in danger of collapse so that motorists would experience what life will be like when the money runs out. The cost of maintaining roads and bridges has increased during the period since the last increase in the tax, and yet somehow the state is expected to get by on revenue that is shrinking in real terms. The “no tax increase” campaign is ludicrous.

Yet the anti-tax movement resists all taxes, no matter the purpose or the circumstances. What I wrote a year ago with respect to discussion of an increase in the federal fuels tax, in Is a Gasoline Tax Increase in the Pipeline?, is no less relevant today as applied to a state gasoline tax increase:
I do not understand the anti-tax sentiment when a tax is paid for direct benefits. Among my questions for the anti-tax crowd are these: "What do you propose be done? Should the nation's highways and bridges be permitted to deteriorate so that there are more incidents like the bridge collapse in Minnesota? Would you prefer a tax on everyone but yourself or yourself and your friends? Is this really about your insistence that you can go straight from the left-turn lane because you are special? Does your position reflect some sort of philosophy that you should get what you want for nothing? Are you unable to recognize that highways and bridges aren't free and that someone must pay for their construction, maintenance, and repair?"

Some of the group that opposes increases in the gasoline and other fuels taxes claim that an increase would, to quote the editorial, "damage the economy badly." I disagree. If the gasoline tax is not raised, roads will fall apart. The goods that are shipped by truck will be delayed in reaching their destinations and might not be delivered at all. Would that be good for the economy? On the other hand, faced with higher overall gasoline costs, Americans may think seriously about getting rid of the fuel-gobbling vehicles and replacing them with alternative transportation. Yes, it would be economically painful in the short-run, but it would generate long-term benefits. Post-modern American culture, characterized by "I want it all and I want it now" and afflicted with the urge to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, has been poisoned by an inability on the part of most people to think in long-term increments. Highway deterioration is but one of the many catastrophes that loom for this nation if people don't restructure the way their short-term outlook masks long-term realities.

Technically, an increase in the gasoline tax is NOT an increase in what a person pays for gasoline. It's an increase in what drivers are charged for upkeep of the roads that they use. It would be much easier to make this point if the gasoline tax were separately invoiced, because those little stickers at the gasoline pump disclosing the portion of the per-gallon price that is remitted by the station operator as taxes doesn't seem to get through to people. This is yet another reason I prefer the mileage-based road fee in lieu of the gasoline tax, As I explained in Change, Tax, Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Secrecy, I am a fan of the mileage-based road fee, and although the NSTPRSC recommended one, it was disappointing that some unidentified someone in the Administration nixed the idea before the public could be educated about it.
In the long run, the answer must be mileage-based road fees. I have written extensively about this user fee, most recently in Change, Tax, Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Secrecy and in Mileage-Based Road Fees, Yet Again. Though it will take time to implement this system, it’s time to begin. Legislation increasing the state gasoline tax needs to include provisions authorizing the Department of Transportation to determine and publicize what needs to be done to shift to a system that correlates charges for using roads and bridges to the imposition on the motorists obtaining the benefit.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Tax-Cut Advocates – Like the Poor – Will Always Be With Us: Part Three 

Pappas laments, in his latest post:
I shutter when I consider that Professor Maule is likely teaching his students that there are no valid alternative arguments to increasing taxes on the rich and expanding the role of the federal government.
It’s too bad Pappas is so far away, because if he were nearby, I’d invite him to sit in the basic federal income tax course for a semester – spared of any exam or grading – just to observe what transpires. I’m too busy trying to help students how to read the piles of verbiage that have been loaded into the Internal Revenue Code to advance some special interest to wander into tax policy. There’s a tax policy course but I don’t teach it because there are other courses that I’m needed to teach. Tax policy enters into the conversation in the basic tax course when students ask why, for example, section 86 is such a minefield of complexity. The answer has nothing to do with tax cuts or tax rates.

In fact, when I teach tax computation, I show the students enough so that they understand the meaning of progressive taxation, rate brackets, and marginal rates. I don’t require them to do the computations, because there are software programs, IRS tax tables, and commercial charts available to spare students the arithmetic agony. There’s no time to study the tax rates that existed in years past. In other words, the topic – as is the case with almost every topic I have addressed in this blog – doesn’t come up in this class. It’s a three-credit course. There simply isn’t time.

When it comes to grading students, I don’t ask them policy questions. Whatever opinions they have, they don’t affect their ability to do statutory analysis, to read a case, to answer a question that focuses on what current law requires a taxpayer to do. They need to understand that section 1, in its current form, is progressive and not a flat tax. Whether they think it ought to be one or the other doesn’t tell me whether they understand what it presently, in fact, is. Fear not, Peter, I’m not addressing, nor grading students with respect to, the issues we’ve debated.

If I were to teach a Tax Policy course, and chose to address the tax rate question, I’d give the students reading assignments from across the spectrum of ideas. I’d let them make their own decisions. I doubt that the minds of those who entered the class with pre-formed opinions would be changed; at best, one or two might re-consider their position. For those few who entered the class devoid of any position on the issue, and perhaps such people exist, it would be an interesting study to determine what impact the experience would have. Some probably would leave the course as agnostic as when they entered. The difficulty in measuring the impact of the course would be in separating what a student learned in the course from what the student acquired elsewhere. Few students, for example, are exposed to the fun of section 86 outside of the basic federal income tax course, but most students in a tax policy course have been exposed to all sorts of “tax-cut, tax-hike, no-tax, more-tax” discussion throughout mainstream media, twitter, facebook, and even blogs, to name just a few of the many places they get information.

On the other hand, not a single student who was paying attention would leave a tax policy course thinking that a “flat tax” would simplify the tax law. They would leave the course, as they leave the basic tax course, understanding that the tax law would be much less complicated if the special rates for capital gains were repealed. They’d be graded on their ability to construct arguments, their ability to provide citations demonstrating that they’ve read and analyzed materials they’ve discovered by doing research into an issue, their ability to organize their writing, but not on their conclusions unless those flew in the face of accepted fact.

The Maule-Pappas debate arose from my assertion that there is a need for more tax education in this country. For example, suppose that every American learned how to compute their taxes under existing law, how to compute their taxes under what the tax law will be in 2011 barring legislative intervention, and how to compute their taxes under what the tax law would be if top rates were slashed even more and capital gains rates brought down to zero. Then they could see for themselves, for example, that under the more-tax-cuts plans, very few of them would benefit from lower capital gains rates. Then most of them could see for themselves that under the more-tax-cuts plan their tax bill might go down a few dollars – or perhaps even go up because of the AMT (which I’m sure many of them don’t quite understand because it’s not taught in our school systems) – the tax bills of the wealthy and ultrawealthy would go down by huge amounts. Then most of them would see that under the 2011 tax law that awaits us barring legislative intervention, their tax bills might go up by a few dollars, if at all, while the tax liabilities of the wealthy and ultrawealthy would go up by much larger amounts. And then they would be able to see what the tax bills of various taxpayers would have been during the 2000s had the “fight a war on credit extended by other nations” approach had not been taken. Then they would see who benefitted from the tax policies of the 2000s. Who still has a job? Who has money stashed overseas? Who is better off than they were ten years ago? Who’s not?

In the history of the species, there have been ideas that have been advanced, tried, and discredited. Some of these ideas have been so thoroughly discredited that they’ve lost all of their advocates. I wonder if in the dying days of these ideas, the last handful of advocates translated attacks on the idea into an attack on themselves in order to divert attention from the worthlessness of the idea, to garner sympathy, or to make the attacker look bad so that the idea could be rehabilitated. After several decades of supply-side, trickle-down, spend-but-don’t-tax, and other voodoo tax and economic policies, it’s time to put those bad ideas into the dustbin of history. And if anyone defending those ideas wants to use the term “character assassination” – as Pappas put it in If You Oppose Tax Increases You’re Stupid, Exploited or Dishonest – to describe my attacks on those ideas and my call for wider tax education so people can analyze them without relying on the oversimplified soundbites tossed about in the media, then so be it. If it makes Peter Pappas feel better that people think I’ve trashed his reputation, let him so complain. Those carefully reading my posts will understand the reality. My reality is that Pappas and I will accomplish nothing more by continuing this debate other than experience in coming up with fun post titles. Whether we accomplished anything with what we did do is something everyone else can decide for themselves.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Tax-Cut Advocates – Like the Poor – Will Always Be With Us: Part Two 

So why does Pappas so desperately want to show the world that I have tagged him, and other tax-cut defenders, with terrible labels, when in fact all I’ve done is assail the wisdom of their tax-cut advocacy and question their inability to see what most Americans – though unfortunately not the outspoken ones getting media attention for their histrionics – have come to understand?

Pappas tries to answer this question by arguing as follows:
Only a fractious fool would suggest it is a good thing that a few people are rich while the majority are poor, yet that view is precisely the view Maule wants you to believe that I and those on my side of the debate hold. Why? Because it makes us look, at best, ridiculous and at worst, malicious. I have never said or implied that it is good for America that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. What I have said, however, is that confiscation through taxation is not the way to deal with the problem.
I’ll let America decide what a decade of the tax cuts Pappas defends has accomplished and what those who advocated and continue to defend those cuts are thinking. On the other hand, what most Americans are thinking probably is very depressing for the few remaining tax-cut defenders. Incidentally, I haven’t advocated confiscatory actions, nor have I advocated a return to the days of 90-percent marginal rates. For some reason, Pappas thinks that my support for returning the top rate from 36% to 39.6% – and my criticism of it not having been so fixed when the decision was made to spend trillions on war – is support for confiscatory taxation. My reading of supply-side literature suggests that the anti-tax crowd thinks any tax rate exceeding 1% on unearned income is confiscatory.

Pappas also claims:
I don’t want the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor. On the contrary, I’d like to see everyone get rich. The more the merrier. Having said that, I simply don’t believe that the solution is to confiscate the wealth of the members of one class of Americans and redistribute it among the members of another class of Americans.
So let the poor catch up, Peter, and that means that the wealthy need to stop getting richer, especially when everyone else is getting poorer. During the tax-cut years, the wealthy have opened their lead on the poor. History tells us that when the top rates are higher, the poor can close the gap. Linda Beale has delved into this issue in Maule and Pappas on Progressive Taxation and the Decreasing Burden on the Rich.

With the position into which he and his tax-cut defenders have backed themselves, Pappas has no choice than to rebut my attribution of the current economic mess on the spend-but-don’t-tax policies of the past decade by claiming that he believes “that the recession as caused by a variety of complex factors none of which acting alone would have been sufficient.” Every respectable economist and analyst traces most of those factors back to the federal deficit. And the rest of the factors reflect what happens when greed flashes its short-term success; it spirals across the economy, bringing us bubbles arising from gambling with debt and making bad loans, deregulation contributing to environmental disasters and electricity price manipulation, and fraud that rips apart the foundations of a healthy economy. Those interested in more education can study this detailed report. But the advocates of small government and lower taxes don’t seem to notice that the smaller the government, the bigger the reach of the greedy and the larger the misdeeds of the money-addicted. Pappas complains that government has grown, but has he noticed that the nation’s population has grown? Has he noticed that the nation’s problems have grown? Has he noticed that the number of greedy people breaking the law has grown? Has he noticed that the need of the average person for protection against the cartels has grown? And he wants government to shrink under these circumstances? All that would happen is that the oversized public sector monoliths would become a de facto government or governments, making even the tax cut defenders long for the “good old days when at least we had the chance to vote the rascals out.” Pappas calls for tax cuts, but unless he advocates an even larger federal deficit, he surely must advocate spending cuts. I’d like to see his list, a list sufficient to eliminate the deficit while permitting more tax cuts.

Pappas concludes this aspect of his tax cut defense by taking umbrage at my position with these words:
Think about it, Maule is so sure that those of us who favor lower taxes and smaller government are blinking idiots that he compares our beliefs to the belief of some that the world is flat.
Well, guess who introduced the flat-earth concept into the debate? Here’s what Pappas said in Anti-Taxers are Either Rich, Plan to be Rich or Think the World is Flat:
Come on, Professor. You might as well have said, “Pappas favors tax cuts on the wealthy because he either is wealthy, plans to be wealthy or thinks the world is flat. The third option is no option at all.
Pappas sticks the flat-earth concept onto his position, and then tries to hold me accountable for introducing the concept into the debate. Think about it, Pappas is so sure he can pull the wool over people’s eyes that he’s gone so far as to attribute to me something he said. And yet he worries about how I teach my students. I’ll address that in my next post.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Tax-Cut Advocates – Like the Poor – Will Always Be With Us: Part One 

The tenacity with which Peter Pappas holds his views on tax policy and the amount of offense he takes at having those views scrutinized, criticized, and invalidated is admirable. Unfortunately, it’s doing nothing to change my mind and doing everything to keep me from changing his mind. At this point, the next best opportunity to determine the soundness of the contrary positions that he and I take with respect to tax policy issues will be at least several years from now, when we will be able to look back on the 2010s. I think it is safe to predict that we’ll be in just as much disagreement then as we are now. As for his taking offense and translating criticism of his tax policy fact gathering, analytical, and forensic processes into perceived insults to his intelligence, only time will tell if his perception will evolve, and if it does, it won’t be on account of anything I write.

This debate began when, in Is Public Truly Getting IRS-Congress Distinction?, I wrote:
Less than a week ago, in Tax Education is Not Just for Tax Professionals, I wondered, “isn’t it time to counteract the deliberate misinformation campaigns and the foolish repetition of nonsense by the ignorant by stepping up public education, not only in schools but in workplaces, civic associations, and community centers?” It’s no coincidence that tea party movement members are being duped into fighting taxes used to pay for public education. An educated public is the worst enemy that the wealthy elite can imagine.
This call for education as an antidote to anti-tax misinformation touched a nerve with Pappas, who posts at Tax Lawyer Blog. He expressed his outrage in If You Oppose Tax Increases You’re Stupid, Exploited or Dishonest. My response, in If You Like What Tax Cuts for the Wealthy Brought Us, Are You Uneducated? Exploited? What?, not only failed to convince him of the need to toss aside the failed policies of the trickle-down theorists, but also fueled a response from him, in Taxes, Saints & Sinners, that consisted of an attempt to recharacterized my multi-faceted analyses into three points that he tried to undercut. My responsive three-part series, Canonizing the Rich with Tax Cuts: Part One, Canonizing the Rich with Tax Cuts: Part Two, and Canonizing the Rich with Tax Cuts: Part Three, did nothing more than to encourage more of the same from Pappas, whose post, Anti-Taxers are Either Rich, Plan to be Rich or Think the World is Flat continued the same dual-pronged complaint that I not only unjustifiably dismiss as foolish the tax policy dreams of “small government” advocates but also cruelly denigrate the intelligence of Pappas and others of his ideological temperament. In turn, when I explained as clearly as I could, in More Proof the U.S.A. Needs More and Better Tax Education, why Pappas was wrong on the first count and misinterpreting my criticism of his position as an assault against his character, I accomplished nothing but to encourage Pappas to replay his hand, in The Professor Still Thinks Anti-Taxers are Ignorant or Malicious. I will try one last time to set the record straight, though I doubt it will have any effect.

Pappas claims that his argument is that I and my “pro-tax cohorts assume that those who believe they are wrong are either ignorant or selfish.” If Pappas would read carefully what I write, and refrain from injecting his own words into my compositions – as he has done repeatedly, for example, with the word “evil” – he will observe that I have ascribed multiple possibilities for explaining how people can cling to a tax policy rowboat that sank several years ago. Though selfishness and ignorance are two causes of this admirable but misplaced worshipping at the feet of the since-discredited supply-siders, they are not the only causes. Perhaps it’s a matter of flawed reasoning. Perhaps it’s deliberate misinterpretation of existing facts. Perhaps it’s a form of denial designed to preserve psychological well-being in the face of the crashing down of one’s entire tax policy, small government dreams. Perhaps it’s simply stubbornness. Frankly, I don’t care that Pappas or anyone else wants to think that lower taxes on the wealthy would make for a better life for everyone else. What I care about is the misinformation campaign that has distracted the downtrodden from focusing on the causes of their misery, because that sort of approach is no less objectionable than is the practice of claiming that someone has written something that he hasn’t written.

Pappas thinks that by writing “Pappas does nothing to flatter himself by parading out the discredited claim that letting the rich get richer while the rest of the country stagnates is good for everyone” somehow proves that I am calling him “dumb or selfish.” Once again, Pappas makes a leap from an attack on his tax policy views, and the observation that he doesn’t earn points by holding that view, to an assertion that his entire intellectual capacity has been questioned. For all we know, Pappas excels at organic chemistry. What I notice in these complaints is just one more version of the oft-heard “You criticized something I did or said, therefore you have rejected me in my entirety.”

Pappas takes this further by claiming, yet again, that I accuse he and his fellow “small government conservatives” of being indecent and ignoble. Unable to point to any such language in my posts, he claims that it is an “obvious implication.” He rests this on his claim that I am charging the “tax-cut defenders” as people who “know our position is wrong.” Hello? Didn’t Pappas just claim I tagged them as ignorant, namely, not knowing? That’s the whole point. Most of the people showing up at rallies to defend tax-cuts that benefit others and worsen their own situation are operating out of ignorance, namely, not knowing, and thus cannot be accused of being ignoble or indecent. Pappas so desperately wants to show the world how horribly he has been “tagged” by me. Why? I’ll dig into that in my next post.

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