Wednesday, November 29, 2017
I bought this book not only because of its title, but because previews indicated that it was packed with genealogical charts. Unlike many of the genealogy books I purchase, which focus on one or another of my thousands of ancestral families, this one focused on individuals and families that I did not think were among my ancestors. I was correct. But, because they share ancestors with me, they are cousins of some deep degree.
The book was written by George L. Williams, and is titled Papal Genealogy: The Families and Descendants of the Popes. Yes, there are popes with descendants. There are popes whose nephews became popes. The percentage of cardinals whose father, grandfather, uncle, or great-uncle was a pope is astounding. Years ago, when I was in sixth grade and organizing a pastoral library, I came across a book that contained a biography, and mosaic, portrait, or photo, of each pope. I was permitted to read it. I cannot remember its title, nor have I been able to find it, but my interest in papal history dimmed from time to time but was never extinguished.
The Williams book is an eye-opener. It not only is a study in genealogy and family history, it offers interesting insights into papal politics, particularly medieval and Renaissance era events. It offers lessons useful for today’s problems, as it explores how royalty, nobility, and bankers controlled life and enriched themselves at the expense of everyone else. It describes how these families fought one another, politically and militarily, as they sought to overpower each other.
In some ways, the book is a difficult read, because the marriages between individuals in each of the several dozen families who dominated the Papacy created tangled webs that are challenging to envision. Williams, though, does a magnificent job of portraying these relationships in those charts that had caught my eye. I was not disppointed.
When I was reading the book and thinking about writing a blog post about it, I considered putting together a trivia quiz. Then I decided not to spoil anyone’s fun. What I can guarantee is that, at least every other page, there was a startling revelation. Most were not in that book I was permitted to read many years ago. That’s not surprising.
Monday, November 27, 2017
The opinion in the case, Godsey v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2017-214, consists of an introduction, findings of fact, and the “opinion.” The introduction consists of a one-sentence paragraph containing 23 words. The findings of fact consist of one paragraph containing four sentences, and a total of 106 words. The opinion portion consists of three paragraphs, one containing two sentences and the other two each containing one sentence. The opinion portion contains 150 words, many of which are citations to other authorities and closing “boilerplate” language.
Perhaps there is a shorter Tax Court opinion. I doubt it, but it’s possible. What I don’t doubt is that there is no Tax Court opinion as short as the shortest opinion issued by the United States Supreme Court. In United States v. Barker, 15 U.S. 395 (1817), Chief Justice Marshall issued a 12-word opinion, but because the second six words consisted of “boilerplate” language, most commentators claim that it is a 6-word opinion.
There are instances in which judges do not issue written opinions but rule from the bench. It would not surprise me that, somewhere, sometime, a judge looked at one of the parties and said, “You lose.” It can’t get much shorter than that.
Friday, November 24, 2017
Someone replied, “I’ve learned way more on my own than I ever did in school.”
Two thoughts ran through my brain. One, anyone who has children will be asked to help them as they traverse high school, and surely what was learned will be useful. The other, which is far more important, is that the most important thing one learns in high school is to learn how to learn. Yes, some of the bits of information that are learned end up not being used, or being made obsolete by scientific, technological, and social changes. But when someone claims to have learned on his or her own, that person might be forgetting that they would not have been able to learn unless they had learned to learn.
When I look back on my high school education, I realize the two most important things that I learned was how to learn and how to think. Those two go together. It’s difficult to learn without being able to think. Learning well requires thinking well. We need to learn how to learn and think. Unfortunately, some people never learn.
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
As I stated the past four years, “I have presented litanies, bursts of Latin, descriptions of events and experiences for which I have been thankful, names of people and groups for whom I have appreciation, and situations for which I have offered gratitude. Together, these separate lists become a long catalog, and as I have done in previous years, I will do a lawyerly thing and incorporate them by reference. Why? Because I continue to be thankful for past blessings, and because some of those appreciated things continue even to this day.” When I re-read those lists, I realized that the people, events, and things for which I am appreciative are far from obsolete.
So once again I will look back at the past twelve months, and remember the people, events, and things for whom and for which I give thanks. If some of these seem repetitive, they are, for there are gifts in life that keep on giving:
- I am thankful for my grandson’s willingness to engage in facetime chats, though I think he is about ready to surpass me in the ability to engage all the features of an iPhone.
- I am thankful for my congregation’s new Director of Music Ministries, who in a just a few months has taught me, and others, all sorts of things about music and singing that have been a blessing.
- I am thankful that they let me ring the narthex bell.
- I am thankful for having had the opportunity to continue teaching law courses.
- I am thankful that the year of transitioning into what is misleadingly called retirement is behind me.
- I am thankful for the help people have provided as I continued to add information to the many genealogy databases I maintain.
- I am thankful for people being willing to read the things I write.
- I am thankful that the township installed speed limit and watch children signs on my street.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving. Set aside the hustle and bustle of life. Meet up with people who matter to you. Share your stories. Enjoy a good meal. Tell jokes. Sing. Laugh. Watch a parade or a football game, or both, or many. Pitch in. Carve the turkey. Wash some dishes. Help a little kid cut a piece of pie. Go outside and take a deep breath. Stare at the sky for a minute. Listen for the birds. Count the stars. Then go back inside and have seconds or thirds. Record the day in memory, so that you can retrieve it in several months when you need some strength.I am thankful to have the opportunity to share those words yet again.
Monday, November 20, 2017
But the Senate, frozen into the disproven theory that cutting taxes for the wealthy is the way to go, is taking the position that perhaps tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations, many of which are drowning in cash stored overseas, is an even better way to revive the American economy. Of course, those members of Congress who remain devoted to this theory are far more devoted to the funds pouring in from the campaign donors, who are the beneficiaries of the legislation, then they are to educating themselves with respect to economic reality. They haven’t yet learned that when theory meets reality, reality wins.
But it’s worse. Not only are the wealthy and corporations looking at years of reduced taxes, the rest of America is facing two paths. One, an immediate tax increase that remains in effect for year after year. The other, a tiny tax cut followed a few years later by tax increases that not only wipe out the tax cuts but increase taxes compared to what they are under current law. This isn’t my conclusion. It’s the conclusion of the Joint Committee on Finance, found in its report, Distribution Effects Of The Chairman's Modification To The Chairman's Mark Of The "Tax Cuts And Jobs Act," Scheduled For Markup By The Committee On Finance On November 16, 2017. Yes, it’s a bunch of numbers. But look closely at the minus signs that represent tax cuts, and where and when they disappear and tax increases show up.
To top it off, the report doesn’t even take into account the automatic cuts in Medicare and other programs required to satisfy budget constraints that the Congress doesn’t appear to be ready to dismiss. It surely fits with the plan to eliminate or privatize Medicare, Social Security, national defense, and everything else so that eventually the oligarchy owns everything.
By the time people realize what is happening, it will be too late. What a wonderful legacy the ignorant, enabling the evil, are constructing for the world.
Friday, November 17, 2017
Recently, this perspective was reinforced when, according to this report more than 400 wealthy Americans signed a letter recommending to the Congress that it raise, rather than lower, taxes on millionaires and billionaires. They decried actions that would increase inequality, surely because they understand that, in the long run, inequality growth means everyone will lose, and that includes the wealthy. Put another way, they understand that the key to national financial well-being is demand-side economics. In other words, give the so-called job creators a reason to create jobs, that is, to meet demand.
Reading the names of those who signed the letter caused me to wonder whether the views of a wealthy person depend on whether that person created their own wealth or inherited it. Considering that more of the signers seemed to belong to the first group, it is possible, and logical, that those who started out poor or merely comfortable spent enough of their lives experiencing struggle, or at least economic limitation, and spent enough time surrounded by others in the same situation, to appreciate the intrinsic value of those who are not wealthy but whose demand for goods and services fuels the economy. They understand, therefore, the need for those folks to have sufficient economic wherewithal to make those purchases. On the other hand, those born into wealth, who spend their entire lives unaware of life without opulence, who circulate among others with wealth, and who isolate themselves from everyone else, are far more likely to lack the understanding of how valuable not-so-wealthy people are to the economic well-being of the wealthy. Of course, there are those among this latter group who, for one reason or another, realize this fact of economic life and become philanthropists, perhaps patterning after a parent or grandparent, or perhaps having had some sort of Damascus moment. But many do not, as they succumb to selfishness and greed, overcome by an addiction to money triggered by a deep insecurity that they will never have enough money to insure that they will not end up, as some did in 1929, on what they see as the wrong side of the tracks.
I applaud these individuals for having the courage to speak out. I doubt, though, that their words will have any positive effect on the wealthy individuals whose mantra is “more, more, more,” nor on the members of Congress who are so subservient to their campaign donors that they cannot realize they are in dysfunctional relationships with those persons. I fear that fixing this mess will require some sort of intervention. That is not a pleasant thought.
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Sarlin focuses on eight aspects of the House plan that have encountered significant opposition. That opposition, in many instances, is more than polite commentary and borders on deep anger and even rage. Here is a summary of the people who are annoyed, upset, angry, or enraged about one or more of the proposals in the legislation: liberals, Senator Susan Collins, anti-tax conservatives, liberal groups, Senator Marco Rubio, deficit hawks, unions, Republicans from blue states, the AARP, home builders, realtors, graduate students, Ivy League universities, and teachers unions. That’s a short list. One could add those who believe in separation of church and state, the pro choice movement, environmentalists, some small business owners, many middle-class families, and others.
It is said that the best compromise is one that makes everyone angry, or at least, one that everyone finds objectionable in one way or another. There is some truth to this perspective. If everyone finds the compromise perfect, then no one is completely pleased with it. The problem with the Republican tax plans, in both the House and Senate, is that there are some people who are jumping with joy at the prospect of the plan being enacted.
The primary challenge to crafting effective tax reform is that tax reform requires the elimination of tax breaks. Giving up a tax break is unpalatable to the taxpayers who benefit from it, unless something is received in return. In theory, giving up a tax break in exchange for lower tax rates should, if the numbers play out appropriately, seal the deal. The problem with the Republican tax plans is that not everyone is being asked to give up their tax breaks, even though they are getting the benefit of lower tax rates and other offsets.
So the more important question is this: Who is NOT angry about the Republican tax plans? The list begins with owners of carried interests, corporations, multinational investors, and individuals worth more than $5 million. There are others. This so-called “tax reform” is nothing more than a shifting of even more wealth and income from the peasants, artisans, small business owners, and middle class to the oligarchy. It’s the oligarchy that can afford to buy Congress and direct it to enact laws that increase the wealth and power of the puppet-masters. As one member of Congress explained, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” I wonder if he salutes or bows when he is given orders from the oligarchy.
Of course almost everyone is annoyed, upset, angry, or enraged when they examine the Republican “tax reform” hoax. What should matter is the collective identities of these individuals. Almost all of them have something in common that should bridge the divides fracturing the nation. They’re not members of, apologists for, or puppets of, the oligarchy. This entire sordid episode tells America quite a bit about its sickness, and what needs to be done to cure it. Failure to administer and take the required medicine will be fatal.
Monday, November 13, 2017
Once upon a time, the names of most federal tax statutes were informative. For example, the Foreign Investors Tax Act of 1966 enacted and amended provisions affecting the tax treatment of non-citizens investing in United States assets. The Federal Tax Lien Act of 1966 revised the provisions dealing with federal tax liens. Of course, sometimes the name wasn’t very informative. For example, the Revenue Act of 1971 dealt with tax provisions, but that name did not reveal much of anything about the provisions it contained, other than they involved revenue and, logically, tax.
Very early in my tax career, I was in Washington, D.C., working on assorted tax legislation and Treasury regulations when along came the Tax Reduction and Simplification Act of 1977. Some people laughed, and some called me a cynic, when I tagged it as “legislation that neither reduces nor simplifies taxes.” Over time, increasing numbers of tax bills were given names designed to sell the product rather than provide information. So we were gifted with legislation such as The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 and the The Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014. If those Congressional gifts did what their package label claimed, why would more legislation advertised as necessary to do the same thing be required?
So the latest offering is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Will it cut taxes? It will, for some people. But there will be tens of millions of people whose federal income taxes will increase because of what’s in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Perhaps truth-in-advertising ought to be required. The bill should be renamed the Tax Cuts for Our Friends, Tax Hikes for Those We Dislike, Perhaps Some Jobs for the Compliant, and Lots of Layoffs Act.
It appears that increasing numbers of Americans are looking beyond packaging and inspecting the contents, or trying on shoes and clothing, before purchasing merchandise. The same approach has its benefits when it comes to deciding whether to support or oppose legislation. It’s not the name that counts. It’s what’s inside. Check it out. See if it fits. You might be surprised.
Friday, November 10, 2017
I don’t understand the oft-repeated notion that only conservatives and Republicans want tax cuts. I am neither and I would love to see my taxes go down. So, Congress and President Trump, please do pass the largest tax cuts in U.S. history. But please also continue to fund vital government services and programs, and please don’t add to our national debt. Stefan Keller, Huntingdon, Pa.So how does Congress cut taxes, continue to spend, and not increase national debt? Even if the current situation was one of balance, with revenues equaling expenditures, cutting taxes without increasing debt and without decreasing expenditures is arithmetically impossible.
The key to this mystery of arithmetic is the definition of the word “vital.” It is possible to avoid adding to the national debt by cutting expenditures in the same amount by which taxes are cut. The proposals on the table would require cutting much more than whatever constitutes “non-vital” expenditures. Though some might disagree, most Americans would consider as vital the portions of expenditures paying for defense, Medicare, social security, interest on the debt, interstate highway safety, protection against disease, and other expenses necessary for the health and safety of Americans. The only way to enact a huge tax cut without increasing national debt is to take an axe to Medicare, social security, defense spending, safety, and similar vital functions. There are people, though, who think that Social Security and Medicare should be cut, with the revenues from the taxes enacted to fund those programs being diverted to make up for the revenue shortfall caused by cutting taxes for the impoverished upper class.
There is no way of knowing if the letter writer is among the unfortunate millions whose taxes will be increased in order to offset some of the cost of dishing out tax breaks to the starving millionaires and billionaires of this nation. If he does suffer a tax increase, I have no doubt he will be unhappy, if not distressed and disappointed. He’ll end up with no tax cut, a larger national debt, and cuts in services that are vital to him.
Of course everyone likes tax cuts. Everyone prefers to live in a world with no taxes, where everything is free. Toss in perfect health, and no losses by one’s favorite teams, and paradise on earth would be close at hand. It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Yes, we could have a tax-free world, but it would be a high-price world, with money flowing freely into the pockets of the oligarchs who hold a monopoly on everything. Taxes are the price paid for freedom. The anti-tax crowd thinks that the absence of taxation is the equivalent of freedom, but it’s quite the opposite. Being constrained by taxes and government regulation is a far less horrible fate than being held hostage by private sector high prices and no mechanism with which to oust the tyrants.
So, Mr. Keller, though it would be nice to live in a world with reduced taxes, unreduced spending, and national debt eliminated or held in check, it’s no more possible than finding trees on which money grows. If you find one, let me know.
Wednesday, November 08, 2017
Though Ways and Means bills can be amended, and often are adjusted when taken into conference committee with the Senate, it is important to pay attention for several reasons. If something in the bill is disadvantageous to one’s clients, it makes sense to alert clients so they can decide if they want to lobby or otherwise take action. It also makes sense to give clients a chance to change plans if something in the bill looks as though it might be enacted and the proposed effective date gives some leeway to do so. It also makes sense to let one’s brain begin thinking about how planning and compliance decisions will be made in the shadow of newly enacted legislation that is on the horizon.
One of the things some people are doing with the current proposal is comparing the impact on their own tax situations. It’s not enough to think in terms of generalities, though I do see many articles being written along those lines. At some point there will be web sites that permit people to enter data and compare the outcome under current law and under the current proposal. As the proposal changes, and as the Senate cranks out its own legislation, these comparison tools will change. It takes time to program these tools, so be patient.
Anecdotally, more than a few people have told me that their federal income taxes will go UP under the House proposal. And none of these people are wealthy. They’re not even close to being wealthy. It could be that people who have estimated that their federal income taxes will go DOWN are unlikely to share that news because they are wary of encountering someone who’s not getting a tax reduction.
The lesson is clear. Before buying into the “everyone gets a tax cut” promise, do the math. Work the numbers. Decide which list you are on.
Monday, November 06, 2017
A man working for Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia was able to access the names, dates of birth, and social security numbers of foster children under the care and supervision of his employer. He then sold that information to a group of tax return preparers who used it to generate dependency exemption deductions on tax returns. For each bundle of information, he was paid roughly $200 to $300. He sold the information for 321 children. The fraudulent deductions created with the stolen information were used on 283 tax returns, and generated significant refunds, with a total of $1.2 million in undeserved refunds being paid by the IRS.
The story broke three years ago when he entered a guilty plea to a long list of charges, but I didn’t notice it at the time. It did not get wide coverage, and certainly did not make headlines. Seven other individuals also were arrested and charged, and five of them were tax preparers working for the owner of a tax preparation company. He, too, was charged. The eighth person pleaded guilty four years ago, but details of her sentencing were sealed.
The social worker who stole the identities was sentenced last week to a prison term of two and a half years. The charges included aggravated identity theft, conspiracy, wire fraud, and aiding and abetting the preparation of false federal income tax returns.
It is this sort of behavior that undermines tax systems. By “this sort of behavior,” I include not only these rather obvious misdeeds but also the more sophisticated schemes that are much more difficult to detect. Every year hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes are evaded. That puts a higher burden on those who comply. In some instances, they are subjected to higher taxes. In some instances, they suffer the consequences of reduced services. Yet for some reason, there are people who, instead of being annoyed, upset, or even enraged that their financial position is being harmed by this sort of behavior, say nothing. Others even praise and admire those who appear, at least initially, to have struck a blow against taxation. In the meantime, many of them are looking for financial relief by the enactment of legislation. That’s a big tax thing. Yet so long as people ignore the law that the legislation enacts, the effectiveness of the legislation is undermined. One taxpayer stealing some identities and filing some false tax returns is a little tax thing when viewed against the backdrop of the entire tax system. Yet how many of the taxpayers whose federal income tax liabilities increase if and when the proposed legislation is enacted will resort to the same sort of behavior? What effect will that have on the tax system? It’s the little tax things, taken together, that often are bigger than the big tax thing.
Friday, November 03, 2017
According to this Bloomberg report, Republican legislator Rob Portman shared his opinion that cutting taxes will decrease the deficit because “it’s going to get the economy moving.” Why does Portman think this is the case? He didn’t say, but it’s easy to figure out. When George W. Bush was president, and this same “tax cuts increase revenue” theory was being used to enact tax legislation that put the nation on a path to the economic meltdown of a decade ago, Portman was directing the White House Office of Management and Budget. So it’s obvious that Portman has been schooled in, and is an acolyte of, the disproven trickle-down supply-side economics approach that doesn’t work. So why, despite its failure, does Portman and his comrades continue to advance this theory? There are several reasons.
It is difficult to let go of long-held beliefs. It is easier to deny facts than to make changes in order to adapt to reality. It is difficult to say no when those who want to hear the word “yes” hold economic and political power and exercise it in self-serving ways. It is pretty much impossible to get elected nowadays without support from very wealthy benefactors, and there is an expectation that they will be repaid.
Plowing money into the hands of those who already have more than enough of it will not get the economy moving. Why? If the wealthy cannot move the economy with what they now have, they’re not going to move it with even more money. They will stash some of the cash abroad as they did at the turn of the century, and the rest will go into the next version of the bad investment scheme.
What moves the economy is consumer spending and consumer investment. Ninety-nine percent of consumers are not in the top one percent. The Republican tax plan does little, if nothing, for the ninety-nine percent. Worse, it actually increases federal tax liability for more than a few members of the ever-shrinking middle class. If all of the tax cuts were directed to low and middle income individuals, in fairly modest amounts, not only would it cost far less than a trillion or more dollars, it will get the economy moving. But that won’t happen? Why? Because no one in the low and middle income brackets has the financial power to put someone into office.
This plan did not work last time around. It will not work this time around. Like last time around, it will appear to work, for a short while. Then its effects will kick in. And who will be in the best economic position to weather the storm? Sadly, many of those who will be hurt most seriously are strong supporters of what is being touted as something other than what it is, namely, a repeat failure.
Wednesday, November 01, 2017
The value-added tax does not apply to fees paid to enter sports competitions. The English Bridge Union paid the tax on tournament entry fees, and sought a refund. British tax authorities refused, arguing that bridge is not a sport. So the dispute has reached the European Court of Justice, whose top advisor concluded that bridge indeed is a sport. Though not binding, the opinions of the advisor usually are followed by the court.When the court handed down its decision a few days ago, it demonstrated why the adverb “usually” was necessary in the last quoted sentence. According to this report, the court concluded that “bridge, which is characterized by a physical element that appears to be negligible, is not covered by the concept of ‘sport.’” The English Bridge Union expressed disappointment with the result, arguing that bridge incorporates many attributes found in typically recognized sports, such as organized competition, training, and exertion.” Using those characteristics, one could conclude that law students participating in moot court competitions are engaged in sports. I’ve never asked the students if they perceive themselves as athletes when they are arguing in front of moot court judges.
Oddly, some European Union countries treat bridge as a sport because, in accordance with European Union law, a competition is treated as a sport if it provides benefits to physical or mental well being. Yet other European Union countries reached the opposite conclusion. The decision by the European Court of Justice will probably cause that first group of nations to change their position.
Using “provides benefits to physical or mental well being” as a test for whether an activity is a sport is unwise. Remembering that activities qualifying as a sport are exempt from the value added tax, that test would sweep almost all activity into the definition of a sport. Does bridge provide mental well being? Apparently. So, too, do listening to music, watching movies, and doing crossword puzzles. So if those and similar activities were conducted in a competitive environment, they would qualify for the tax exemption.
What puzzles me is why the drafters of the value added tax legislation did not take time to craft a practical definition of sport that would eliminate the need to debate the matter, and that would preclude the current situation of different member nations reaching different conclusions. But sometimes legislators think that “everyone knows” what a word means, when, in reality, almost every word can generate a debate about its meaning. Would a formal debate about the meaning of the word “sport” in the value added tax statutes qualify as a sport?
I concluded Another One of Those Non-Arithmetic Tax Questions: What Is a Sport? with these words:
About a year ago, Newsweek published an article focusing on the definition of sport, in the context of the Olympics, and coverage of activities by ESPN, an acronym that includes “S” for “Sports.” As one might expect, people disagreed on whether particular activities qualified as a sport. Among those described as generating controversy were auto racing, cheerleading, cheese-rolling, chess, cup-stacking, ferret-legging, golf, hot dog eating, poker, spelling bees, video games (“esports”), and wife-carrying.. And perhaps if I entered MauledAgain into a blog competition, I’d be engaging in a sport. Not that it matters, because the European Union value added tax isn’t applicable, but then I could call myself an athlete. Or something like that.
Perhaps arguing about taxes is a sport.