Friday, September 01, 2006

The Murphy Opinion and Tax Protesters 

The Murphy case is creating quite a stir. Considering what the court said, it's not a surprise. When I commented on the opinion last Wednesday, I focused on the technical deficiencies in the opinion, something that triggered a response to which I replied the next day. This afternoon I was interviewed by a reporter for Tax Notes, whose article should show up next week.

Like many others, both within and without the tax profession, I am riveted by this case. Why? It's not just the technical flaws. Those aren't infrequent when tax cases reach the courts, particularly when the tax expertise isn't quite what it ought to be. It's also the inspiration that the opinion is giving to the tax protest movement. Specifically, the folks who have argued that wages are not gross income because they are not income have relied on the idea that wages are received in return for "human capital" and thus cannot be "incomes" within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment.

So what does the Murphy opinion do for these folks? Consider these two excerpts from the opinion, and understand that tax protestors love to take pieces of judicial opinions and connect them together:
Broad though the power granted in the Sixteenth Amendment is, the Supreme Court, as Murphy points out, has long recognized “the principle that a restoration of capital [i]s not income; hence it [falls] outside the definition of ‘income’ upon which the law impose[s] a tax.”
* * * * *
According to Murphy, the Supreme Court read the concept of “human capital” into the IRC in Glenshaw Glass. * * * * In Murphy’s view, the Court thereby made clear that the recovery of compensatory damages for a “personal injury” -- of whatever type -- is analogous to a “return of capital” and therefore is not income under the IRC or the Sixteenth Amendment.
Under tax protestor logic, because Murphy won her appeal, the court accepted her arguments as valid. Of course, a court that is aware of the "wages are not gross income" tax protester movement easily could put into its opinion language that restricts its opinion to the specific issue in front of it, but considering that the court was so quick to hold unconstitutional a Code provision that isn't "responsible" for the taxation of which Murphy complained it's no surprise that the court was not considering the impact of its opinion on the administration of the tax law.

Will these sentences be cobbled together by the "wages aren't income" crowd? Undoubtedly. Don't believe me? Or the others making the same prediction? Take a look at the way bits and pieces of legal authorities are mixed and matched in an attempt to prove that the Constitution prohibits the taxation of wages. It takes deep concentration to make it through this explanation. Someone named "bonked" shares this thought: "You see, a tax on wages is not authorized by the constitution, unless it is apportioned..." I could have fun with this one, but I'll restrain myself. And the comments following this LibertyPost article, which proclaims that "Court ruling shakes ground under IRS," are worth reading, but don't be distracted by the references to things such as "Section C of the Tax Code."

What happens if these arguments are made in front of a judge who analyzes the tax law in the same manner as did the three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit in Murphy? Imagine how small the jump from "unconstitutional to tax damages from human capital" to "unconstitutional to tax wages" looks to someone who doesn't quite grasp the nuances and accepts the language of the Murphy opinion on its face. It will take only one such case. Just one. What will Congress do? Start the process for a constitutional amendment? Hope for a Supreme Court reversal? How long will either of those reactions take? Remove wages from the income tax base and tax revenues plummet.

A footnote: As I wandered the Internet last night, I came across an interesting commentary on a post that quoted part of my first commentary on Murphy. The sentence begins "Maule's of course right that". How could I not keep reading?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Don't Get Lost Finding Your Tax Home: Use a Chart 

Andrew Mitchel has another tax chart for us. It's a flowchart covering the section 7701(b) individual income tax residency rules. He also provides a printer-friendly version.

This is yet another in the long parade of additions to the Andrew Mitchel chart collection. This time around, I'll simply refer to the previous litany of his chart creations.

Take a look even if you're not dealing with this issue. Take a look even if you're not a tax expert. Why? First, because it's an amazing "picture" of how Congress somehow makes everything as complicated as it possibly can be. Second, it's a wonderful insight into the meticulous construction work Andrew undertook to create this multi-page monster.

Ha, next time someone asks you "where do you live?" tell them you need to check the chart. As I write this, I continue to shake my head in amazement at how a simple concept can become an adventure into a rabbit warren.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A New Book on Taxation of Residence Sales: Don't Leave Home Without It 

Roughly six months ago I noted the publication of Julian Block's "MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE: Savvy Ways For Persons Marrying, Married Or Divorcing To Trim Their Taxes - And They’re Legal." On the heels of that useful tome comes another, "THE HOME SELLER’S GUIDE TO TAX SAVINGS: Simple Ways For Any Seller To Lower Taxes To The Legal Minimum." Though the latest title seems just as gimmicky as the first, the second book, like the first, is far from a taxpayer's guide to cutting corners and ending up cornered by the IRS. It's a solid, well-organized explanation of the tax rules that apply when someone sells a home. Its numerous examples illustrate almost every possible variation on the home sale theme.

Not only does he address the "typical" home sale, Julian also discusses the specific challenges faced by home sellers in the process of separating and divorcing, the sale of vacant land, rent-controlled apartments, condominiums, and cooperatives, offices in home, and inherited properties. He provides several checklists to assist homeowners in separating non-deductible repairs from expenditures that increase basis and thus reduce gain. He talks about record retention, and the advantages and disadvantages of turning to the IRS for tax advice when turning to a tax professional isn't an option.

The book isn't designed so much for the tax professional as it is for the person who is not schooled in tax law. My own personal experience, taken in conjunction with anecdotes from friends and families, suggests that every real estate agent and broker in the country who handles residential home transactions ought to acquire Julian's latest book. Why? Because too often they are either giving bad tax advice or giving advice on other matters that reverberates in a bad way when it's time to file tax returns. There are times when it isn't expedient of cost-efficient to retain a tax expert, and yet someone needs to inject some sensible tax law information into the conversation. Julian's book does that. As more and more people sell their homes without the assistance of realtors, the risk of bad tax advice or missing tax advice becomes more serious. These folks, too, are less in need of a professional treatise or an IRS publication on the subject than they are of an easy-to-read and accurate explanation.

Though giving a bit of attention to casualty loss deductions and medical expense deductions for certain home improvements, Julian does not delve into the other tax aspects of home ownership. In some respects, that makes sense, because his book, as the title makes clear, is focused on home sales. Of course, what happens during the home purchase informs the sale consequences, because the basis used in determining gain on the sale has its origins in the purchase. Likewise, depreciation of an office in home requires adjustments to the home sale tax consequences, but it appears Julian is leaving detailed discussion of home office depreciation and other deductions to another book.

To order a copy, send $19.95 for a postpaid copy to J. Block, 3 Washington Sq., #1-G, Larchmont, NY 10538 or go his website, julianblocktaxexpert.com. Or, as was the case with the previous book, email Julian at julianblock@yahoo.com and you should find the book in your mailbox even sooner.

What's More Valuable? Weighted Rankings or Underlying Information 

I doubt that Andy Cassel's column in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, College Ratings' Critics Miss Point was in any way inspired by my recent facetious proposal, Ranking Tax Faculty by Tax Management Portfolio Authorship, or its more serious followup, Ranking Tax Faculty: What Really Matters?. As Andy points out, the annual parade of school rankings from U.S. News and World Report, Time, Newsweek, and others has begun. That's to be expected, because within a few weeks the application process will be well underway.

Andy notes that college administrators and faculty are not big fans of the magazine rankings, unless, of course, they're at or near the top of the list. Educators, as Andy acknowledges, have complaints about the "purpose, methodology or integrity" of the rankings. Even legislators and parents have joined in the chorus of concern that "rankings have become a kind of tune that schools have to dance to, whether they want to or not." There's no question that tuition dollars, as Andy mentions, are being channeled into publicity stunts of one kind or another as schools jockey for the spotlight. Too many such dollars, in my opinion.

Then Andy gets to the good part:
I can understand the concern. But speaking as a prospective purchaser of higher-education services (knock wood), I think the criticism misses the point.

College is what economists like to call an "experience good." The term simply means you have to consume it - experience it - to really know what you're getting.

And by then you've already bought and paid for it.


You can't easily compare prices - how do you know what's a bargain, or what might be worth paying up for? So consumers seek help.


That means consumers' need for help - and the demand for magazine rankings, individual admissions counselors, and who knows what else - is probably here to stay.

I don't think this diminishes or "commodifies" higher education. It simply makes more information available to all sides, creating more transparency and efficiency.
To the extent that Andy is arguing information dissemination is important, I totally agree. To the extent that he argues what's currently available in terms of rankings gets the job done, I totally disagree.

College students and their parents need information. Rankings provide little of what matters, distort some of it, and then mix it into a brew according to arbitrary weights to generate some sort of number that has no genuine meaning. The attempt to rank college football teams through a complex formula is a good example of another, justifiably criticized, and yet far more refined, attempt to sort data.

Let's turn to where the rankings go wrong, and why the product that the magazines and other reviewers are making available is of such dubious quality. I'm not going to rank the rankings, because I think all of them are inadequate. Consider this a consumer review of consumer reviews.

First, the rankings omit important information. What information matters? It depends on what the applicant wants. Someone interested in a chance to showcase his or her talents for a professional sports league probably doesn't care about the dollars of research grants obtained each year by the physics department. Someone headed for a career in astronomy probably has little interest in the number of prizes won by the English literature faculty. I'm not certain either of those statistics, important, of course to youngsters interested in physics or English literature, find their way into the rankings data. One of the rankings that gets right to the point is the "party school ranking," which is described and analyzed in articles such as this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm sure both students and parents can find value in that ranking, but perhaps for different reasons.

Other useful information might include the range of salaries and average salary for graduates who major in each discipline at the school, measured at 1, 5, and 15 years after graduation. I've seen such statistics for particular schools and programs, though I'm not sure how public they are. True, students going to college to get some sort of holistic experience might not be interested in these figures, but parents and students who are contemplating the investment of $150,000 or more into four years of education just might want to see what sort of economic return awaits. How about information revealing the acceptance rates experienced by a college's graduates when they apply to specific graduate schools?

Perhaps information on campus security, which the government requires colleges to publish but which some schools allegedly doctor, would be important. What about ease of transportation to and from home or jobs? Would parents and prospective applicants be interested in statistics on the downtime of the university's information systems?

Second, some of the rankings are based on information acquired in ways that generate misinformation. The use of surveys has drawbacks, because they are so subjective, but even if subjective opinion of reputation is useful, the surveys need to be refined. Having been on the "surveyee" side several times, I quickly concluded that the questions were poorly designed, as I explained several years ago in Ranking Tax Programs. It's as though a car magazine ranking 2006 model automobiles included places on the survey to rank Ramblers, Packards, and Studebakers. Garbage in, garbage out.

Third, rankings acquire bad information. Stories abound about schools providing doctored information. It's an open secret that schools manipulate information. There are some law schools that restrict first-year admissions so that their "numbers" look better, and that admit scores of transfer students for the second year to make up for the tuition loss. What the rankings tell us about such schools isn't a representation of reality. It's spin. Spin is useless. No consumer should pay for it.

Fourth, and this is perhaps the worst aspect of the rankings, someone decides that some statistic is worth 3.484484 percent of the total weighted score used to rank. Some other factor is worth 9.939203 percent. How do we know that? We don't. It's a number grabbed out of the air. The problem is that for some applicants, the crime rate is important, for others, the number of Nobel Prizes per decade won by the faculty matters, and for still others, the number of bars and taverns within walking distance of the campus has value. Relying on some editor's weights is about as good as relying on some neighbor's opinion. As Andy points out, "In the old days (before U.S. News), they got it from friends, or family, or high-school guidance counselors. Or they looked for signals, such as ivy-covered buildings or winning football teams, that seemed to connote quality." However inadequate the old days were, the new days are no better. At least in the old days we knew our friends and family. How many of us know the new days' rankings editors, those anonymous folks who are hidden away and can't be asked the followup questions we'd get in dialogues with friends and family?

What would be a great service for prospective students and their parents are the sorts of things that we get with respect to other goods and services. Surveys of a college's recent graduates, with the sort of scoring and commentary we find when looking to purchase cars or computers, would be far more interesting and valuable. Why can't the ranking folks simply provide alphabeticized lists of education institutions, along with the underlying data, rather than burying the data behind formulas and weights? Perhaps adding a variant in which the schools are listed geographically or by tuition would be helpful. Hah, why not make the information available in a manner that lets parents and students enter their own weights for each factor? Why not, therefore, separate the reporting of information (news) from the weighing of the factors (editorializing), and permit (and encourage) applicants and their parents to do some thinking for themselves?

I suppose that what we have is better than nothing. That argument is the canard that every rankings outfit hauls out as the ultimate defense of what is offered. But having something that is better than nothing is no reason to abandon the effort to offer something better. In this instance, the something better can be generated, not by adding features, but by stripping away the data manipulation and presenting unadulterated information. Then we truly would have something that does what the current and flawed rankings system fails to provide.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Tax Refund Anticipation Loans: Part II 

After posting my criticism of tax refund anticipation loan practices (Should Tax Refund Anticipation Loans Be Blocked?), I received emails from two readers who provided more insight into how these loans originate.

John Flanagan wrote, speaking from his past experience as a tax return preparer for companies other than H&R Block, to explain that H&R Block does not handle the lending aspects of it refund anticipation loans. Though H&R Block has a mortgage lending business, it uses a partner financial institution. John explains, "For Block or any other tax
preparation firm to originate RALs would not merely be unethical, but is in fact prohibited by Treasury regulations." Another reader, an H&R Block preparer, explained that H&R Block uses HSBC bank for the loans and is not funding the loans. Its staff carefully explains to the taxpayer that when they apply for the loan they are entering into a relationship with HSBC. The loan papers are turned over to the client whether or not the loan is approved. I asked this reader if H&R Block was paid some sort of finders fee or origination fee by the bank, because I wanted to know why all the taxpayers were directed to only one bank. The response was "I don't know."

John Flanagan also explained that borrowers pay a flat fee, typically $25 to the bank and $25 to the preparer. Because lending disclosure rules require inclusion of the fees in interest, and because the loans often are small, the interest rate ends up being rather high. In fact, interest is charged only if the IRS does not issue a refund, and the interest rate is comparable to credit card rates. I asked John if that meant the refund anticipation loan lender made its money from the fees on most transactions, and he clarified: "As for the RAL charges, I should clarify by adding that in addition to the flat rate, lenders typically charge a percentage of the amount borrowed, usually 2-3 percent of the loan. For a RAL of $5,000, total fees will run about $200, but the customer might pay $60 on a RAL of $500." The reader who prepares returns for H&R Block explained that there are loan fees of about $15, and interest fees that can run between 100% to 200% APR. The taxpayer is told that there is a high APR because the loan is short-term.

John described a variant of the transaction that is puzzling. "In addition, similar processing fees apply even when the transaction is not a loan. In those cases, the taxpayer receives a check after the refund is issued, net of the preparation and processing fees. Even though the customer must pay $50-75 for this service, there is almost nothing said about this type of transaction. For preparers, it means that they can be fairly certain of being paid, so long as the customer is entitled to a refund." Why would the taxpayer do anything other than wait for the refund check and cash it? Why pay $50 to $75 for the privilege of waiting until the preparer receives the refund check and then issues a check for $50 to $75 less to the taxpayer? That's a pretty steep check cashing fee.

The H&R Block preparer explained the problems with same-day loans. Even if initially approved, they could be denied the following day after the bank does its analysis. The taxpayer is contacted and asked to return the money, but usually it has been spent and the client is unable to pay. This reader explained that clients were "highly discouraged" from choosing the instant check method and encouraged to wait several days for the loan to be processed by the bank. Though I wonder why same-day loans would be offered, this reader explained that sometimes the taxpayer is in dire need of cash, and gave as an example the need to pay for transportation to a funeral in another location. I commented that if I were a shareholder in the bank, I'd not be happy with the idea of money being loaned before the full credit check was complete. The danger is very real. The H&R Block preparer explained that some taxpayers know that the loan will be rejected on review and that they will be asked to return the money, but take the instant check because they have no intentions of repaying it because they know if there is a refund it will go to the bank. But, what if there is no refund? Although I understand people sometimes have a need for instant cash, I don't get the idea of lending money first and asking questions second.

John Flanagan pointed out something I've known for years, and on which I comment when I teach the basic tax class. Taxpayers receiving refunds often ignore the opportunity to adjust their withholding so that they're not making interest-free loans to the government. John says, "Many people look at excess withholding not as an interest-free loan to the government, but as a disincentive to spending or, given the time of the year, a way to pay for Christmas bills or spring vacations. While I agree that there is much to dislike about RALs and similar financial arrangements, it may not be possible to pin the entire blame on the preparation firms. In the end, it is possible to outlaw certain transaction types, but some people will always choose sub-rational economic behavior." In a subsequent email, John elaborated:
As far as the psychology of the matter is concerned, I think it has something to do with the gratification of seeing a large sum of money. The overwithholders treat the refund as found money, and the larger the amount, the greater the rush. For these people, getting an extra $80 in every paycheck is not as satisfying as getting a single check for $2,000. I would attribute it to a lottery mentality (speaking of financial practices that prey on the poor. . . .)
I asked John why taxpayers wouldn't simply take their completed return to a bank and obtain a loan. His response:
I don't know of any bank that might do that sort of thing. To begin with, most RALs are between $300 and $5,000; in fact, many RAL providers set $5,000 as a maximum. Since it is difficult to get a secured loan such as a car loan for amounts in much of this range, I would figure it well nigh impossible to get a loan based on a tax refund for such an amount. The second factor in making loans like this is that approval of the loan is based on an assessment that the return is likely to be correct. The banks that make the RALs are dealing with thousands of returns, so the "preparer risk" is probably lower than it would be for a branch bank. The alternative for the bank would be to have a staffer review all of the tax documentation, which would probably require them to hire a person with tax preparation experience. The final issue is that many RAL customers don't have bank accounts, which means they must pay a fee of 3-5 percent to get the check cashed. That's another racket entirely.
In the wider context of wehther refund anticipation loans, at least as they are now offered and processed, are disadvantageous to the poor, John noted:
It has always seemed to me that when people speak of "the poor," they're really talking about two groups. There are those who just need a leg up with training, education, or small business assistance, and there are those who make bad choices. The latter group includes people who had money at one time. This is the group that is much harder to help, because one of the bad choices people make is listening to the wrong advice (look at a list of some things people think they know about taxes, for instance). This is why I'm pessimistic about whether attempts to restrict RALs will do any good. All some people will need is accurate information and they can make the right decision on their own. On the other hand, some people will always find a way to keep themselves down, and government can only delay the process.
I wonder if at some point Congress will make it a violation of federal law to use tax refunds as collateral, security, or justification for a loan, and prohibit the IRS from sending refund checks to banks and other lenders making the refund anticipation loan.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

It Didn't Take Long: Negative Reaction to My Criticism of the Murphy Decision 

My post yesterday on the unnecessary declaration of unconstitutionality of section 104(a)(2) by the D.C. Circuit in the Murphy decision brought this strong response from an unidentified reader:
Dear Mr. Maule,

I just read your post. With all due respect I recommend you take down your post, for the four reasons below.

Many people would have preferred that the court exercise judicial restraint and not reach the constitutional issue. That would have been less jarring. However,

1. It is crystal clear, from the legislative history, that congress intended its modifications to 104 to tax emotional distress damages.

2. I can not think of one case where a federal appellate court read a congressional statute in a way which directly contradicted crystal clear legislative intent -- without pointing to the constitution (even if just in dicta.) I challenge you to find such a case.

3. The court didn't necessarily even reach the constitutional issue. They said that *if* 104 taxes emotional distress damages then it is unconstitutional. They didn't definitively say that 104 taxes emotional distress damages. Ironically by confusing "the IRC is unconstitutional" with "if the IRC taxes emotional distress damages it is unconstitutional" you are doing the *exact* same thing you criticize the judges of doing! (confusing "ED damages are taxable income" with "if ED damages are taxable income then they will not be excluded under 104.")

4. A law professor should exercise greater diligence and restraint before criticizing three appellate judges, especially before claiming they are not competent enough to pass your introductory tax course.

Thank you,
In my response, I maintained accuracy, precision, and restraint:
Dear [initials removed],

1. Congress intended the amendments to section 104(a)(2) to free section 61 of the exclusion that overrode the inclusion in gross income of these sorts of damages in gross income by section 61. Section 104(a)(2) does NOT state that damages for reputation injury and emotional distress are included in gross income.

2. It is not a matter of the court misinterpreting Congressional intent. Congress did have an intent. That intent was to let section 61 include damages for reputation injury and emotional distress in gross income. It was not an intent to have section 104(a)(2) include these damages in gross income because section 104(a)(2) is not an inclusion provision.

3. At no point have I stated that the court held the IRC to be unconstitutional. That was a headline in a blog post by a non-tax law professor, and I presented it as evidence of the confusion sparked by the DC Circuit's opinion. The court stated: "Therefore, we hold §104(a)(2) unconstitutional insofar as it permits the taxation of an award of damages for mental distress and loss of reputation." It also stated "Therefore, insofar as § 104(a)(2) permits the taxation of compensation for a personal injury, which compensation is unrelated to lost wages or earnings, that provision is unconstitutional." It did not use the term "*if*" as you assert. The term insofar does not mean "if." It is used by the Court to make certain no one thinks that it is holding the exclusion from gross income of damages for physical injury to be unconstitutional. If section 104(a)(2) is unconstitutional because it "permits" section 61 to tax damages for reputation injury and emotional distress, then so, too, every other provision in the Code is just as unconstiutional because they, too, fail to provide an exclusion. But no exclusion is required if, as the court asserts, these damages aren't income in the first place.

4a. I am amazed that you think I did not exercise diligence. I know this area of the law. I have taught it for more than two decades. I have written about it. The position that I took has found agreement among other tax law professors, with whom I engaged in an extensive discussion yesterday on a listserv. A collection of their thoughts can be found on Paul Caron's TaxProf blog at http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2006/08/tax_prof_commen.html#more. Several almost mimic the point I made when I began the discussion yesterday morning (and that appears in the posting you dislike) about the lack of need to deal with the constitutionality of section 104(a)(2).

4b. Your assertion that I did not exercise sufficient restraint is not justified. I fairly criticized the logic, or lack thereof, in the opinion. I have read comments about this case that go beyond an analytical examination of the opinion and delve into the backgrounds and philosophies of the judges. They are not my comments, and those that are not public are not for me to share. Those that are public I leave for you to find, but I will point out, for example, several comments from the aforementioned posting on the TaxProf Blog, such as "I’m astounded that Judge Rogers joined it." and "By the way, wasn't the opinion' author they guy who lost a seat on the Supreme's for smoking dope?" I hardly think that my precision analysis lacks restraint.

Your email address suggests you are a law student. I do not know if you have taken the basic tax course, and I do not know what you learned or did not learn in that course. Any student who writes on an examination or other graded exercise that section 104(a)(2) is what taxes or permits taxation of damages for reputation injury or emotional distress would earn zero points. If a student performed at this level on every question, he or she would not pass the course. I did not say the three judges would not pass the course, I stated that "the grade that the court would earn in my basic tax course on this particular issue would not be a passing one."

The Murphy opinion is flat out a bad opinion, not only for the reason I have stressed but for other reasons, including those I also mentioned and those discussed on today's TaxProf Blog post cited above. It has also been roundly criticized by at least one tax practitioners. See Joe Kristan's commentary at http://www.rothcpa.com/archives/002087.php. It has been criticized by some of the nation's most renowned constitutional law faculty. E.g., Stephen Bainbridge at http://www.professorbainbridge.com/2006/08/this_ones_for_t.html, Orin Kerr at http://volokh.com/posts/1156261829.shtml, Marty Lederman at http://balkin.blogspot.com/2006/08/is-federal-tax-on-damages-for.html, and Eugene Volokh at http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2006_08_20-2006_08_26.shtml#1156283499.

If you do not mind, I would like to post your comments. It would be anonymous, of course, because you chose to be anonymous when you emailed me.

James Edward Maule
Professor of Law
Villanova University School of Law
I suppose I am demanding when I insist that my students take great care with words and even greater care with their analysis. The Murphy opinion is a good example of what happens when murkiness trumps precision.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Why Hold Section 104(a)(2) Unconstitutional When There's No Need to Do So? 

The email from Paul Caron, carrying a link to his TaxProf Blog post on the news, put my tax brain on full alert. "D.C. Circuit Holds § 104(a)(2) Unconstitutional Under 16th Amendment; Not All Receipts Constitute 'Income'" isn't the sort of news that circulates in the tax world on a regular basis. Without doing extensive research, I quickly thought to myself that it had been decades since a federal court had invalidated a substantive federal income tax law provision on constitutional grounds. That was in 1972, when the Tenth Circuit, in Moritz v. Commissioner, 469 F.2d 466, reversed the Tax Court, held that the then dependent care deduction violated the due process clause because it was unavailable to unmarried men, and accordingly permitted the taxpayer, an unmarried man, to claim the deduction for which he otherwise had qualified. It's not surprising that invalidation of federal income tax law substantive provisions is a rare occurrence, in part because courts avoid deciding cases on constitutional grounds unless there is no other avenue of resolution, and in part because the federal income tax law has been crafted in ways that obviate most constitutional challenges. Only once has the Supreme Court invalidated a substantive federal income tax law provision, and that was in 1920.

So it was with great interest that I, and others, including not only tax lawyers but also those specializing in constitutional law and other areas of the law, turned to Murphy v. United States, No. 03cv02414 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 22, 2006). As I read the opinion, I cringed. Here's why.

The case was brought by a taxpayer who had brought an administrative action against her former employer and recovered compensatory damages for emotional distress and loss of reputation. She included the damages in gross income and then sued for a refund. She made two principal arguments. First, she argued that she was entitled to exclude the damages from gross income because they were "on account of personal physical injuries or physical sickness" and thus within the exclusion provided by section 104(a)(2) for such damages. Second, she argued, in the alternative, that "[section]104(a)(2) is unconstitutional insofar as it fails to exclude from gross income revenue that is not 'income' within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment." The district court rejected her arguments and she appealed.

On the first argument, the D.C. Circuit agreed with the district court and the IRS. Murphy had received damages "for mental pain and anguish" and "for injury to professional reputation." Because the statute limits the exclusion to damages received on account of physical injuries and not damages manifested by physical injuries, Murphy's reliance on section 104(a)(2) as justification for not being taxed on the damages was rejected. Properly so, I must add.

On the second argument, the D.C. Circuit disagreed with the district court and the IRS. The court reasoned that the Sixteenth Amendment restricts the income tax to the taxation of "gains" and "accessions to wealth" and prohibits taxation of "returns of capital." The court then explained that the question was not one of return of capital, "except insofar as Murphy analogizes human capital to physical or financial capital" but whether "the compensation she received for her injuries is income." To deal with this question, the court asked "In lieu of what were the damages awarded?" The court answered its question as follows: "[T]he damages were awarded to make Murphy emotionally and reputationally 'whole' and not to compensate her for lost wages or taxable earnings of any kind. The emotional well-being and good reputation she enjoyed before they were diminished by her former employer were not taxable as income." Accordingly, said the court, "it would appear the Sixteenth Amendment does not empower the Congress to tax her award."

The court then noted, however, that this conclusion was tentative because it needed to explore the "commonly understood meaning of the term" "incomes" in the Amendment that was "in the minds of the people" when they adopted it. Examining the House Report on the Revenue Act of 1918 and a Treasury Department ruling issued in the same year, the court decided they strongly suggested that "incomes" does not include amounts received solely in compensation for a personal injury and unrelated to lost wages or earnings. The court noted that in 1922 the IRS opined that "there is no gain, and therefore no income, derived from the receipt of damages for ... defamation of personal character. ... If an individual is possessed of a personal right that is not assignable and not susceptible of any appraisal in relation to market values, and thereafter receives either damages or payment in compromise for an invasion of that right, it can not be held that he thereby derives any gain or profit." The court then stated, "Note that the Service regarded such compensation not merely as excludable under the IRC, but more fundamentally asa not being income at all."

Based on this analysis, the Court then stated, "Therefore, we hold [section]104(a)(2) unconstitutional insofar as it permits the taxation of an award of damages for mental distress and loss of reputation." It then remanded the case with instructions to the district court to enter an order and judgment in favor of Murphy's refund claim.

Was the court correct in concluding that damages received for injury to reputation and for emotional distress are not "incomes" within the meaning of the Sixteenth Amendment? Perhaps.

Some think not. It has been suggested that the damages are not an "accession to wealth" and that the court did not explain how they are not so. In a footnote, the court seems to endorse the taxpayer's argument that compensation for harm to one's personal attributes, is "but a restoration of the status quo ante" analogous to a restoration of capital, and that "in neither context does the payment result in a 'gain' or 'accession to wealth.'" It also has been suggested that if damages are not an accession to wealth because they simply replace "human capital," which is what the court seems to suggest, then the same conclusion must be reached with respect to wages, which also represent the conversion of human capital into dollars. I hasten to add that the difference, that one is involuntary and the other voluntary, is meaningless, the law being well established that a person who receives more money for property than he or she paid for it has gain, whether the receipt comes from a voluntary sale or an involuntary conversion such as condemnation.

Several commentators have noted that the D.C. Circuit failed to determine if the income tax applied to these damages was a direct tax, for if it is not, then it need not pass muster under the Sixteenth Amendment. It also has been suggested that the authorities cited by the court don't stand for the propositions attributed to them. That is a debatable point. For the moment I will leave these concerns aside. Why? Because the court's "incomes" analysis is isn't, by far, the worst part of the court's opinion.

Where the court goes haywire is its conclusion that section 104(a)(2) is unconstitutional. This conclusion reflects a total misunderstanding of how the Internal Revenue is structured. There is no need to comment on, or decide, the constitutional validity of section 104(a)(2), and doing so opens up a hornet's nest of problems. Here's why.

Section 104(a)(2) is an exclusion provision. It says in effect, as do all other exclusion provisions, "Even though something would otherwise be included in gross income, this particular thing is not." Thus, if something is not otherwise included in gross income, there is no need to examine exclusion provisions. They are irrelevant. What makes something included in gross income? Section 61 states that unless an exclusion provision applies, anything that is income is included in gross income. So the question becomes one of determining if something is income. What is income? That question is asked of law students early in the basic federal income tax course. After working their way through hypothetical after hypothetical, they conclude that there needs to be some sort of increase in economic wealth that is clearly realized. Overshadowing this analysis is the Sixteenth Amendment's prohibition on taxing something that is not within the term "incomes," namely, something that is not a gain or accession to wealth. It would be unconstitutional for Congress to require taxpayers to include in gross income, and pay tax on, the repayment of a loan for which the taxpayer had never taken a bad debt deduction. Why? Because there is no gain or accession to wealth when a person receives back the money they lent to another person.

So if, as the court concludes, correctly or incorrectly, damages for injury to personal reputation and emotional distress are not accessions to wealth and thus not "incomes," that ends the matter. If these damages are not "incomes" they cannot be income. If they cannot be income, they cannot be gross income. If they are not gross income, exclusions are irrelevant.

When the IRS took the position that Murphy's damages were taxable, it essentially made a two-step analysis. First, the damages are otherwise included in gross income. Second, section 104(a)(2) does not change that result. When the court rejected the first step in the IRS position, it mooted the second step. Section 104(a)(2) does not include the damages in gross income. It is not an inclusion provision. Therefore, because it does not make the damages taxable, it cannot be branded as unconstitutional for making the damages taxable.

Understanding the difference between an inclusion provision such as section 61 and an exclusion provision such as section 104 is one of the "core" achievements that a student must demonstrate in order to earn a passing grade in the basic federal income tax course. Another, for example, is understanding the difference between an exclusion and a deduction. There are others. The point is that a student who does not understand the precise nature of these provisions is going to get into trouble as he or she seeks to build a broader understanding of the tax law on what would end up being his or her flawed foundation. The same holds true for a court. By failing to understand the difference between section 104(a)(2)'s rule as an exclusion provision that is relevant only if there otherwise would be gross income and section 61's role as an inclusion provision, the court decided a constitutional issue that did not exist, did not need to be decided, and that as decided, is decided incorrectly. As I wrote yesterday to a listserv of tax professors, the grade that the court would earn in my basic tax course on this particular issue would not be a passing one.

It's worse. The combination of the court's "human capital" analysis and its declaration of constitutional infirmity in section 104(a)(2) will encourage the tax protest crowd to treat the decision as justification for the invalidity of imposing an income tax on wages. As Stephen Bainbridge put it, "Let a 1000 lawsuits bloom. Every tax nut in the country is probably getting ready to file suit challenging some tax or another using Murphy as a template." If these cases come before the same panel of the D.C. Circuit that decided Murphy, we'd get an interesting view of a court either agreeing with the tax protestors and spawning a tax crisis of huge proportions or twisting and shifting in an attempt to dig itself out of the mess it has created. Even folks who should know better are mischaracterizing the case: Is the Internal Revenue Code Unconstitutional? No, it isn't, and the post makes that clear, but the headline is more than a wee bit over the top, and certain to attract tax protesters the way sugar attracts ants.

There has been speculation on how the court could have gone so far off kilter. The suggestion that the judges cannot read statutes, or cannot figure out the tax statute, may or may not be correct. Their biographies on the D.C. Circuit's website suggest that they have the education and experience that would have exposed them to statutes, though probably not the Internal Revenue Code. But we're not talking here about complex portions of the Internal Revenue Code. We're talking about very, very basic concepts learned early in the basic tax course.

What happens next?

Hopefully the government asks for a rehearing by the D.C. Circuit and the court gets it right. There's the remote chance that after reading blog commentary the three judges realize the mess the opinion creates, withdraw it, and revise it. The former is much more likely than the latter.

If things remain as they are, expect the government to take this case to the Supreme Court. Though there has been some disagreement about the probability of that Court taking the case, I think that it will. Perhaps it won't get it right, but I think there's a far better chance that it would, as for example, does Orin Kerr. There also would be the opportunity for tax lawyers and tax professors to file amicus briefs, something that I don't think happened in the Tenth Circuit because this case seems to have flown in under the radar.

Stay tuned. As these things go, it's early and much more awaits us.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Ranking Tax Faculty: What Really Matters? 

My posting the other day about ranking tax faculty by relying on SSRN downloads prompted some rapid and thought-provoking responses. Somewhere along the way the facetiousness of my proposed "Ranking Tax Faculty by Tax Management Portfolio Authorship" effort was lost.

Ted Seto, who extracts the tax faculty rankings from the SSRN data, shared some perspectives and asked some questions. He noted that Tax Management portfolios are not held in the same high regard in some portions of the academy as are articles. He's right. That's one of my pet peeves about the rankings game and the evaluation of law faculty. Treating law review articles as superior to all other forms of publication is a an anachronistic remnant of a dying elitism. Though there are good, but easily countered, arguments that some forms of tax publication, such as blogs or listserv postings, aren't as carefully reviewed as are law review articles, it makes no sense to consider treatises, portfolios, and articles in practitioner journals such as Tax Notes and Journal of Taxation to be inferior to something published in a traditional academic law journal.

Ted also pointed out that court citation counts don't interest most academics. Again, he is quite right. The reason probably is that many, perhaps most, law review articles are not cited by the courts, which is in and of itself telling. Why be interested in something that sends an unwelcome message?

Ted also pointed out that reputational surveys, which lie at the heart of some rankings, such as the ones done by US News, are biased by extraneous factors. If a school's athletic teams do well, somehow that translates into academic prominence. Academics on the West Coast claim that East Coast schools do better in the rankings because of their location, press coverage, and similar factors.

Ted asked me: "What objective proxy measure would you use instead? Or would you really prefer to stick with reputational surveys?" Here's my reply:

I think you and share similar concerns. The focus on academic journal articles to the detriment of books and other publications, to say nothing of digital course materials, etc., skews the rankings. I confess that to placate my dean and colleagues I periodically (no pun intended) put something into an academic journal. The impact of university name on program rankings is very real, and another source of skewing. Reputation surveys canvas opinions, which are worth, well, sometimes a lot and often not much.

Why have rankings? Supposedly to give various groups some sort of baseline against which to make decisions. Prospective applicants need information, hiring partners need information, law schools seeking faculty need information. So perhaps there should be different rankings based on the group seeking information. Not that I'd go so far as to
rate "party law schools" (as is done for undergraduate schools) to assist prospective applicants, but things such as percentage of students receiving scholarship financial aid, work study opportunities, and the like would be factors useless to hiring partners. On the other hand, bar pass rate should be a factor with meaning for most rankings
constituencies, and that's a statistic that is more objective than many of the others.

For me, in measuring faculty (individually or collectively, for different purposes), I want information on what faculty should be doing: teaching effectiveness, publication, and service. The first and third I'll leave for now. When it comes to publication, what is the purpose? To enrich teaching? Then its measure is within the measure of teaching
effectiveness. Is it to get attention for the school? Where? Among whom? Is it to contribute to an academic environment? I think the point of publication is to demonstrate to the various constituencies that a school's faculty can think, express itself, and be persuasive. What's the best test of its effectiveness in doing so? The extent to which
their publications (of any sort) are favorably quoted, reprinted, republished or cited by courts, journals, mainstream media, blogs, etc. and the extent to which their publications are so quoted, etc., as reference sources. In contrast, I'd subtract for cites and quotes that demonstrate serious flaws in a publication, such as a court's dismissal
of an article because it omits consideration of relevant precedent.

Thus, mere cite counts is insufficient, for the same reason SSRN downloads don't tell us why there was a download or what someone's reaction to the downloaded article was. To do what I propose would require resources, of time and/or money, to sift through the cites so that they could be evaluated as positive, neutral, or negative. It's not
a matter of looking for the A publications (the universally accepted treatise, for example) or F publications, for they, like student grades, announce themselves. It's in the middle that it matters, and so the measure of quote/cite/etc. would need to be carefully done.

As you can tell, I would consider all publications. So there would need to be some interesting research. I've yet to figure out how to identify all the people who have cited/quoted me in the digital world. Every once in a while I come across something very positive that I didn't know was "out there."

One idea that occurs to me, that probably will never fly, reflects the fact that at many schools faculty are subject to a merit compensation system. So perhaps some sort of "citation bank" where faculty provide their publications and discovered cites, perhaps supplemented with cites found by others (student research assistants independent of the school?). Then this pool of information would be available not just to those doing rankings but also to Deans and administrators seeking a better measure of faculty value beyond "I published an article in X" or "I have z downloads" or "it was cited y times." So we could factor out the times I cite myself, or the 20 downloads of someone's article by the entire faculty of his or her institution!

The fight over what to count means something with compensation committees. I've been there and I've skirmished, though because of what I publish it never has been an issue because there's enough traditional stuff to let administrators defer the question of how to value the blog, for example. But for someone doing rankings, there's no fight ... the rankings are created and then people can argue about its value, and those who make good points contribute to refinement of the rankings system (as I think has happened with U.S. News to a small extent).

If the goal of faculty publication is simply to get the school's name "out there," then a variant statistic would be relevant though perhaps of dubious quality. As I've mentioned to my faculty, a portfolio sent to 10,000 subscribers gets something in front of far more people than an article published in a journal with 300 subscribers. Of course, we don't
know if 1 person or 20 people share a portfolio or article, and we don't know if a subscriber to her law school's journal reads a particular article in it. So mere numbers are as unhelpful as mere cite counts or download statistics. At the moment, I remain fond of my "analyzed quote/cite/etc" approach.

I must hasten to add that I appreciate your SSRN download analysis. It is information, and it has its uses. But it also has its limits, and my concern is that unknowing folks (e.g., non-tax faculty) would consider it to be much more than what it is. My Dean wanted to know why and how we were behind Chapman, and I responded that somehow we were ahead of Florida. Tax folks would know that those three are in inverse order, but non-tax people might not.
Mike McIntyre made several observations. Though he suggested that they might be "perhaps useless," I find them helpful, perhaps because I agree with them to some extent. One, for students selecting law schools, the US News rankings have credibility, a sina qua non of any rating system. Two, a rating system should reflect its audience, but it might not make sense to invest resources into a system that helps faculty making lateral moves pick their destination school. Three, it's difficult for schools to make significant moves in the U.S. News rankings but it probably is a bit easier than it was before U.S. News rankings appeared, when national reputations were "nearly immutable." Four, there may be some East Coast bias in the rankings, but West Coast schools are beginning to attract "top students and top scholars" and have "caught up a lot quicker" because of U.S. News rankings. Five, bar passage and job hunting success might be sensible factors in theory, but in reality few schools' "actual worth fluctuates anywhere near as much" as those factors do. Six, counting books and articles says little about quality, but because no one can agree on how to measure quality, we end up using things that can be counted, though counting is sufficiently flawed that reputational surveys may be better.

I addressed several of Mike's points:
The serious flaw in U.S. News or any subjective evaluation-based ranking is that it polls people who are not necessarily aware of what changes have been taking place in legal education. How many of the polled judges and practitioners who graduated years ago will shift their perception from what the relative positions were 20 years ago? In other words, much of the pre-U.S. News lock-in that you describe continues to exist, to a great extent, in the subjective polling. When reputation numbers are inconsistent with other information, which should be considered suspect? Depends on the numbers, I suppose. There are some schools, as you point out, that have changed significantly, but are those changes showing up in US News as they should? Some are. Some aren't.

As for rankings audiences, the other group, perhaps, of substantial size with interest would be employers. But perhaps their minds are already made up, and no ranking will convince them otherwise.

Of course, law faculty are interested, not only for issues of lateral movement and even (perhaps) law review submission selection, but for purposes of convincing central administration that their efforts in upping the school's ranking warrants more money staying at the school and not going to main campus. Now to persuade some Deans that this proposition has some merit ....
In turn, Mike agreed that there is a flaw in the reputational aspect of the rankings, but it probably was not too important because in making decisions, law school applicants react to reputation and not to the outcome of objective measurement. That applicants behave in this manner is evident from the extent to which they will pass by lower-tuition high quality state schools for more expensive prestigious schools. Mike also noted that the ignorance of survey responders with respect to many schools is muted if there are sufficient survey responses. I'm not so sure of this. Ten times as many ignorant responses doesn't filter out the nonsense. Mike agrees, though, that there is a bias, as demonstrated by the high ratings that a Princeton Law School gets in some tests, simply because Princeton has a fine reputation. Mike wonders why the academy would do rankings for employers, and I agree. I'm not proposing that law schools do the rankings, I'm just suggesting that if employers, or someone in the private sector on behalf of employers, did a ranking the reflected the needs of employers, translate, the needs of clients, we might see something very different, and surely not paying much attention to SSRN downloads though perhaps paying a bit of attention to Tax Management portfolios. Mike sees a risk in employer-focused rankings, because law schools might succumb to student pressure to "teach to [those] ratings," but I'm not convinced that's in and of itself a bad thing. Employers have as much incentive to tell law schools, in effect, "this is what we need you to provide to us" and law schools seem to have to tell employers, "this is how we educate lawyers-to-be so figure out how to adapt your practice to their arrival in your offices." Mike closes by noting that "[a] 'objective' rating system that truly measured quality would be a disaster for a large number of schools." Do tell. That's my point. Using the wrong ranking masks problems. As Elliott Manning put it: "In short the ratings are like the drunk looking for the car keys under the street light, instead of the middle of the block where he dropped them--because the light is better there.  This also part of the national trend of judging schools by scores on standardized tests, because they are easier to measure--never mind whether they actually teach students to think."

Finally, Paul Caron weighed in with a defense of rankings based on SSRN downloads. Because the SSRN rankings tend to correlate with "the right top schools," Paul concludes that "most people would find SSRN's tax faculty ranking more persuasive" even though I claim that ranking by Tax Management portfolio author is "no more or less meaningful than any other tax faculty ranking." Paul agrees that SSRN is incomplete, but defends it on the basis that 3,500 law faculty have posted 11,500 papers on SSRN. Paul is correct that the response is "not to go in the other direction and focus on the offerings of a single publisher." I agree. As I noted at the beginning of this post, there was an intended facetiousness to my rankings. Of course ALL publishers should be considered. Think not only Tax Management, but the various editions of Tax Notes, the practitioner journals, and all the other forums in which good, sound legal reasoning is displayed. There may be 2.4 million SSRN downloads, whatever that measures, but how many millions of times has a publication that is not an SSRN article been opened and used by someone trying to solve or prevent a tax or legal problem?

I think Paul agrees, because he quotes his previous proposals to use "all faculty publications" and to weigh them in some manner that reflects utility and value. He suggests that an extensively quoted publication should carry more weight than a mere cite in a footnote. Of course. Here's the challenge. Even if the resources are acquired to do such a ranking, it will be resisted, chiefly by those who don't do as well under it, on the ground that "we've been using SSRN-download rankings and why change something that isn't broken?" That's why I prefer to abandon SSRN-based rankings so that the advantage it obtains by showing up early in the game doesn't overshadow the fact that it shows up early because it quick and easy. The defense of using SSRN-download rankings because anything is better than nothing ought not apply because there are all sorts of anythings and somethings that are not preferable to nothing.

I'll close with my two responses to Paul's commentary. The first deals with a systemic SSRN flaw:
SSRN is biased in favor of recent articles, having almost nothing, as best I could tell, that was published before the mid to late 90s. Some of the most influential pieces of tax publishing, whether in article form or otherwise, was generated long before the mid 90s.
The second summed up the point I tried to make on Friday:
Don't take my facetious jab at SSRN rankings too seriously. The point of my post wasn't to advocate using one publisher, but to

(a) count everything, not just the self-glorified world of articles, beyond which the world has moved,


(b) count something that has meaning in terms of influence, such as citations by courts and other authors, filtered for approval and disapproval, rather than download numbers that can easily be bloated, don't tell us if the downloaded item was read, and, most importantly, don't tell us anything about the quality of the downloaded item.

The point of my post was an exaggerated display of the "easy to count, therefore gets attention" game that is going in with the rankings game, whether by US News, Leiter, or any of the others, except for a few attempts here and there to introduce something of greater value.
In a world where "money talks," perhaps a fun way to figure this out would be a web site that offered free subscriptions to lawyers, gave them $1,000,000 in non-redeemable credit, provided a list of all law faculty publications, and asked the lawyers to spend the $1,000,000 as though they were purchasing what they needed for whatever it was they were doing as lawyers. Assuming the Justice Department didn't brand such a technique some sort of on-line gambling national security threat, it might trigger a high response rate by combining the concepts of money, lawyers, and games. So what would they buy? Yes, I know that some would argue that some truly valuable legal scholarship would fare badly in such an experiment, and my response would be, "Why?"

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Maule on Legal Education, 2006 edition 

Paul Caron's post today of Advice for the Incoming Law School Class of 2009 on TaxProf Blog, and its reference to the columns in Villanova's Gavel Gazette sharing what Paul called "thoughtful advice for law students," reminded me that I ought to update and repost my Maule on Legal Education posting from September 1, 2004 every year at this time. There's now a sixth column in the series, and the URLs need to be revised because the school juggled the content on the website where the columns are archived.

With my son in the Class of 2009 at Michigan, I have yet another reason for directing another group of law students to things my students claim they wish they had been told before they set forth on their legal education journey. It should be nice for him to have the essence of those oral discussions bundled into a coherent written package. So here they are, in chronological order:
Money for Nothing and Work for Free?, The Gavel Gazette, at 1 (March 5, 2001)

Crumbling Myths & Dashed Expectations, The Gavel Gazette, at 1 (Sept. 3, 2002)

Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn, The Gavel Gazette, at 1 (Sept. 29, 2003)

Time CAN Be on Your Side. Or at Least by It, The Gavel Gazette, at 1 (Feb. 16, 2004)

Doing Puzzles While Learning & Practicing Law, The Gavel Gazette, at 1 (Sept. 20, 2004)

Up All Night = Grades Go Down, The Gavel Gazette, at 1 (Nov. 7, 2005)
Are they worth reading? Should busy law students, particularly frenzied and disoriented first-year law students, invest perhaps 15 minutes in what I have to say? Consider that there have been three republications in other media, two have been reprinted, one has been quoted, at least six law faculty at other schools distribute one or more of them to their first-year students during orientation or the first week of class, and collectively they have been cited at least 10 times.

A close look at the publication dates reminds me that the seventh in the series hopefully will appear this fall. I haven't yet picked from my topic list.

Don't Do This Tax Stunt at Home 

Buried in a column in the Sports section of this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer is a story that offers all sorts of issues for examinations in several law school courses. For me, it speaks volumes about how the left hand and right hand communicate.

The folks over at TaxBrain, which describes itself as "Your Home for Online Tax Preparation and e-Filing," came up with an ideal for promoting their services. OK, maybe their advertising agency or other consultants had this brainstorm.

Picture the race track at Altamont, California. Track officials, drivers, and other staff are doing whatever it is they do on days when there are no races. Suddenly a man jumps into a race car and starts to drive it. Don't mess with NASCAR, folks. Using tow trucks, employees put up a road block. A NASCAR driver ran over to the car, dragged the man out of it, and wrestled him to the ground.

It's not recommended that citizens try to drag car-jackers from vehicles, but under these circumstances, those seeking to stop and apprehend the would-be thief had circumstances, numbers, and opportunity on their side. The problem was that they didn't have information on their side. The guy who took the car was an actor. No one noticed, it appears, the cameras that were filming the action. They were filming a commercial for TaxBrain. Nice, but no one had bothered to tell the track officials, drivers, and other personnel on the field at the time.

The columnist closed his short account of this episode with this witty remark: "The drivers had not been told, apparently for fear it would tax their brains." The lawyers and law students can comb through this event to find the legal questions, and, yes, the tax issues.

I don't know if, after everything calmed down, they returned to filming the scripted commercial. If the cameras were running and caught everything, perhaps they ought to run what they have as the ad. Phrases such as "you can't run away from the tax collector," "run-away taxation," "don't let anyone block your attempt to file," "you can run but you can't hide," and "here's what happens when communication between taxpayer and tax advisor breaks down" might be put to use.

It's a good thing they weren't using an airplane rather than a race car. Imagine an actor taking off in a plane at an airfield where the staff hasn't been told what's happening. The sight of the fighter jets would not be pretty. Might make a bizarre tax return preparation commercial.

Next time they ought to have the actor jump on someone's horse. Saddled by taxes? Rein in those tax liabilities? Chomping at the bit for that refund?

And who said tax ads couldn't be humorous? Or at least attention-grabbing?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ranking Tax Faculty by Tax Management Portfolio Authorship 

As the latest trend of "ranking" law schools and law faculty by using the number of downloads of papers from the Social Science Research Network website became more popular, it didn't take long for the Monthly Rankings of the Top 15 Graduate Tax Faculties (as measured by the number of SSRN downloads) to appear. In the latest edition, Villanova ranks ninth, having moved up one place since the last monthly ranking. With 468 all-time total downloads, Villanova is only 20 downloads shy of eighth place, but far out of first place, held by Michigan with a total of 4,672 downloads.

Curiosity took hold. Two of my articles are posted on SSRN. None of the others are on that site, perhaps because they are older, perhaps because no one responsible for the posting knows they exist, or perhaps because they don't meet some prerequisite of which I am unaware. My guess is that they are too old. Curiosity became even stronger when I discovered that no one has ever downloaded either article. Wow, are they that useless, uninteresting, and unwanted? Of course not. One of the articles, "Instant Replay, Weak Teams, and Disputed Calls: An Empirical Study of Alleged Tax Court Judge Bias," published in print at 66 Tenn. L. Rev. 351, had been digested in one tax journal, extensively quoted in one case and another tax article, and cited in at least 20 other articles, including one by the then Chief Judge of the Tax Court. The article inspired several other authors to examine the alleged bias issue from other perspectives. The other article, "IRS Hot Asset Reg Re-Tuning Falls Flat, Causing Sharp Pain for Partner Estates," published in print at 94 Tax Notes 751, was republished in full in another tax journal and has been cited in at least two other tax articles and in a law casebook teacher's manual. It also brought a phone call from a Treasury Department attorney working on the area of tax law addressed by the article.

So people are reading these articles, but they're not being downloaded from SSRN. Why? My guess is that it's easier to get the article from sources such as LEXIS and Westlaw. It may also be that these articles did not show up on SSRN until after they appeared in print.

So if I'm not contributing to the 468 downloads of Villanova papers, who is? I checked SSRN for downloads of papers written by my tax colleagues. One colleague has seven articles on SSRN, of which four have not been downloaded. The three that have been downloaded include one that is pending publication, so SSRN is the only source for it at this point. The downloads of the other two articles that have been dowloaded may have taken place while they were awaiting appearance in print. The downloads of the three articles total 139, almost evenly distributed. That's not quite one-third of 468. So I turned to another tax colleague, who has written books, book chapters, and articles by the bucket load. He has just one paper posted, and again I suppose it's because his other articles are too old or perhaps were not submitted to SSRN for some other reason. The one posted article has been downloaded 330 times. Wow. A close look provides what I think is the explanation. The article is an examination of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and its impact on excessive executive compensation, published by Pennsylvania Bar Institute. It's not an easy article to find. So those who are interested will turn to SSRN. When the total downloads of 139 for one colleague's three articles is added to the 330 for my other colleague's article, it comes to 469. That's one more than 468, probably because of a download since the most recent statistics were compiled for the Monthly Rankings of the Top 15 Graduate Tax Faculties.

Those rankings are what they say they are, namely, rankings by SSRN downloads. What does such a ranking tell us? Not much. It doesn't tell us how often an article has been republished, digested, quoted, or cited. It doesn't tell us anything about a faculty member's books, book chapters, or other publications.

The rankings game has become an epidemic of nonsense in our post-modern world. Many of the folks who provide rankings do so to make money, with U.S. News and World Report taking the prize, but sharing the field with outfits such as Philadelphia Magazine, which pops out now and then with a "Best of Philly" rankings of restaurants, hospitals, doctors, and all other sorts of places, events, and people. Several law-focused publications try to identify "Superlawyers" and "Top Law Firms." Trying to find statistical "proof" of what is nothing more than opinion for some reason attracts enough interest to generate income for the enterprises doing this for profit. To his credit, Ted Seto puts together the Monthly Rankings of the Top 15 Graduate Tax Faculties as a public service and isn't generating even one tiny penny for his efforts. I suppose he does it because it's fun and no one else was doing it.

So I am going to start my own tax faculty rankings. It won't be limited to graduate tax faculty or even law school faculty. It will focus on what I consider to be a very important aspect of what tax faculty should be doing for their schools, law or otherwise, namely, bringing them to the attention of the tax and legal world. If downloads from SSRN are supposed to be some indication of a law school's "visibility" then my new rankings surely will measure "visibility."

Here's my reasoning. The more people who see a faculty member's name attached to a written publication that they are using, the higher the visibility of the faculty member's law school, the name of which accompanies the faculty member's name. If SSRN downloads are primarily by law faculty and other academics, the universe for SSRN tax article downloads is somewhat limited. On the other hand, the universe of tax practitioners is much larger, perhaps by several orders of magnitude. So, let's measure visibility in that world. The highest quality scholarly publication, designed as such, available to tax practitioners is Tax Management's three portfolio series. Thorough, copiously footnoted, practical, analytical, and replete with conceptual explanations and suggested ways of dealing with predicted upcoming legal issues, these books are the gold standard of tax writing. Yes, that allegation is going to bring all sorts of criticism, but the level of peer review and professional editorial review that is added to the experience, knowledge, and understanding of the authors surpasses anything that shows up in academic journals save for the few that are faculty-edited. Because so few tax articles find homes in academic journals, compared to other areas of the law, it doesn't hurt to measure the rankings from a place where tax is naturally at home, a place where tens of thousands of tax practitioners and tax academics regularly go to Tax Management portfolios to work through a tax question.

So here goes, using the Tax Management author publication list, which is a few months out of date. When I have the time, I might count citations to the portfolios that appear in cases, Department of Justice briefs, and articles.

Note: I omitted overseas law schools. An * indicates a tax lawyer who is on the faculty of a school other than a law school.

Villanova 15 portfolios (Maule 14, Mulroney 1)
Iowa State 6 portfolios (*Harl (Prof of Agriculture, Prof of Economics) 3, *McEowen (Prof of Agricultural Law) 3)
Southern Methodist 4 portfolios (Lischer 3, Campfield 1)
Suffolk 4 portfolios (Polito 3, Rounds 1)
Emory 2 portfolios (Pennell 2)
Georgia 2 portfolios (Hellerstein 2)
Houston 2 portfolios (Streng 2)
Michigan 2 portfolios (Avi-Yonah 2)
Washington and Lee 2 portfolios (Danforth 2)
George Washington 1 portfolio (Brown)
Florida State 1 portfolio (Dodge)
Nova 1 portfolio (Gilmore)
Washington 1 portfolio (Huston)
John Marshall 1 portfolio (Kennedy)
Miami 1 portfolio (Manning)
Nova 1 portfolio (Marty-Nelson)
Quinnipiac 1 portfolio (Wenig)
New York University 1 portfolio (Shaviro)
American 1 portfolio (*Williamson (Prof of Taxation, Director of Graduate Tax Program in Business School))

So what do these rankings mean? Nothing more than what they are, namely, an insight into how many practitioners (and the occasional academic) are seeing the name of a school when they turn to Tax Management Portfolios for high quality analytical legal guidance in resolving a tax problem for a client or mapping out a tax strategy for a client. It's a ranking no more or less meaningful than any other tax faculty ranking.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Should Tax Refund Anticipation Loans Be Blocked? 

While reading this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer, my eye caught a headline,H&R Block to discuss tax-refund lending, probably because it had the word "tax" in it. H&R Block, the nation's leading tax return preparation enterprise, has been lending money to clients to whom federal income tax refunds were due. The company is not alone in this practice, but because of its size and nationwide presence, it gets a wide and bright spotlight cast upon it.

This morning's story focuses on a narrow aspect of the longer tale. The company agreed to meet with he managers of three state pension funds owning H&R Block stock to discuss the company's lending practices. The managers think that the lending activity puts their investment at a higher risk. While a tax return preparation company might conclude tax refund anticipation loans are good business, third parties might disagree. Recently Liberty Tax Services of Virginia Beach was told by First Bank of Delaware that it was ending a long-term contractual relationship because Liberty had decided to make riskier loans that the bank went so far as to describe in terms of "legally questionable."

Two questions popped up as I read the article. First, is it appropriate for the company that is preparing the tax return and thus calculating the refund to make loans based on that refund? Second, is it appropriate to charge interest at the rates being charged?

The first question should be answered in the negative because there is a conflict of interest. The higher the loan, the more interest income is generated for H&R Block. This puts the company in the position of trying to maximize the refund, when the company should be maximizing the client's compliance with the tax law. Every "close call" is going to be affected, subtly or not so subtly, by the impact on the lending activity. It's best to leave the refund anticipation loan to some other lender, to whom the customer can go after he or she is handed a copy of the return by the preparer. H&R Block, after all, should stick to tax return preparation and not open up a bank.

The second question must be answered in the negative. According to the story, and I've read similar reports elsewhere, the annualized interest rates on these refund anticipation loans are as high as 700 percent. SEVEN HUNDRED PERCENT? Toss in the fact that roughly 80 percent of the people using refund anticipation loans are low-income, and suddenly there is a recipe for all sorts of unacceptable situations. I'm not alone in this reaction. H&R Block has been sued on account of its refund anticipation loan practices, has paid out tens of millions in damages, and still must defend charges brought by the California Attorney General. State banking commissioners have been asked to investigate.

Monday, August 14, 2006

(Tax Credit) Money Cannot Buy Discipline and Respect 

The violence gripping Philadelphia has attracted a variety of proposals to deal with the problem of young people killing other young people, many of them infants and children. Many of the victims are unintended bystanders, without any connection with the killers other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now, United States Representative Bob Brady has asked the president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the chair of a Philadelphia law firm "to draft legislation that would grant tax breaks of some sort to businesses that hire teens, helping them stay out of trouble," as reported this morning by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The story does not clarify if this is a proposal to amend federal tax law, state tax law, or local tax law.

If it's a proposal to amend federal tax law, Brady's more than a bit behind the times. Section 38 of the Internal Revenue Code provides a work opportunity credit for employers who hire certain disadvantaged individuals. Section 51(d)(1)(D) includes "a high-risk youth" among those who are eligible, that term being defined in section 51(d)(5) as persons between 18 and 25 who live in an empowerment zone, enterprise community, or renewal community. Putting aside the dozens of paragraphs required to define those terms, the upshot is that many of the killings are taking place in or near such zones and communities.

Some of the killers are not yet 18, so is Brady's intent to expand section 51(d)(5)? There's no need. Section 51(d)(1)(F) brings within the scope of the tax credit any "qualified summer youth employee," defined in section 51(d)(7) as individuals who work between May 1 and September 15 and who are at least 16. During the rest of the year, these children should be in school, and the tax law ought not encourage employers to hire students away from school. After all, without education of some sort, how are these employees supposed to know how to do a job correctly?

If Brady's proposal is to amend state or local tax law, I doubt the addition of a few more dollars to a credit will make a difference to employers making hiring decisions. Many employers run businesses that cannot afford, financially or otherwise, to risk mistakes. Some, of course, take that risk, which is why customers encounter bad service, ISP network crashes, mis-packaged orders, and a whole array of errors that encourage them to take their patronage elsewhere.

Brady demonstrates more of the "throw money at the problem" mentality that has failed to prove itself as viable. What's required are things that money cannot purchase, though it can facilitate delivery. All the money in the world cannot buy discipline and life value if there aren't any teachers capable of instilling those qualities into children while they are developing. If someone could demonstrate that the lack of money is the reason so many youth lack discipline, think violence is the answer to every problem, have no regard for the lives of infants and other innocent bystanders, and lack comprehension of their responsibilities as citizens, make the case. The reason so many children are turning into criminals is that attempts to instill discipline are met with protest, disguised as advocacy of rights and vilified as attempts to destroy culture.

What's required, Mr. Brady, aren't tax credits, or, as it appears you are suggesting, increased tax credits. What's required is resolve. Resolve to back up teachers who discipline unruly youngsters. Resolve to enforce penalties. Resolve to encourage education systems, and their directors, to accord higher deference to quality values to the point that they overwhelm the culture of the street. Resolve to curtail the drug trade that fuels most of the violence and to label it as the threat that it is. The role for money is not an exit into the hands of credit-claiming business entrepreneurs but as fuel for school systems to increase and energize their programs that teach discipline, obedience, respect for other people, respect for law, and those other qualities that are no less important than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Friday, August 11, 2006

What Will Alaska Do? Cut. And Prepare to Sue? 

In my post on Wednesday addressing the impact of the Prudhoe Bay oil field shutdown on Alaska's revenues, I asked "What Will Alaska Do?" and suggested that "[i]f the Permanent Fund is indeed a contractual creature, we may be seeing some very interesting state revenue downturn litigation unlike anything seen with respect to mere tax revenue decreases." I advised everyone to "Stay tuned."

Yesterday, the Governor of Alaska did two things. According to this story, he imposed a state hiring freeze and instructed the state's attorney general to "investigate the 'state’s right to hold BP fully accountable for losses to the state.'" Neither action should be a surprise. The first decision is most unfortunate, because it means some folks who otherwise would have found jobs won't and Alaska citizens will face cutbacks in state services as state job openings go unfilled. The second action triggers a process that will be interesting, because somewhere along the way we will learn if the state will seek lost tax revenue, lost contractual payments, or both.

The Governor also announced his intention to charge a cabinet-level committee with the task of keeping tabs on the fallout from the oil field closure. His goal is “to make certain we retain the ability to exercise all of Alaska’s prerogatives under our Prudhoe Bay leases, unit agreements, state laws and rights of way agreements.”

One other bit of information released by the Governor clarifies two bits of information guess in my Wednesday post. According to the Governor, Alaska indeed is losing $6.4 million a day, not $4.6 million, so the latter figure apparently is, as I had surmised, the result of a transposition or typographical error. The Governor also noted that the state receives 89 percent of its revenue from oil transactions. When I made the comparison to New York, I had made a 60 percent estimate. So it's much, much worse than the calamity I described.

For years, people in the "lower 48" and perhaps Hawaii looked with a bit of envy at people in Alaska on account of the Permanent Fund dividends that they were receiving. Now, suddenly, there's not much to envy. Fortunes and lives can take a turn for the worse in a heartbeat, can't they?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Tax Revenue Leaks from Oil Field Shutdown: What Will Alaska Do? 

There's a tax angle to just about every news story that comes across the wires, or in this digital and wireless age, should I say every news story that comes through the ether? This time it's the shutdown by BP of its operations at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil fields, news of which has triggered all sorts of discussions about the impact of this decision on oil and gasoline supply, oil and gasoline prices, and peak oil concerns.

What has received very little attention, generally a sentence or two such as in this AP story, is the consequences of the closure for Alaska's tax revenues. The Governor of Alaska stated that "Alaska will lose $6.4 million in revenue every day "the fields are shut down. The AP story, quoting an Alaska state legislator and using forecasts from the Alaska Department of Revenue, reports that the state will lose $4.6 million a day in tax revenues. I'm guessing transposition error, and that the loss is $6.4 million per day, as was also reported by this source. Much of that revenue goes into the Alaska Permanent Fund, which makes payments to every Alaska citizen. In 2005, the annual per capita dividend was $845.76. For some people in Alaska, that $800 makes the difference between getting by and struggling to meet life's basic needs.

How much does $6.4 million a day mean to Alaska? Considering that Alaska's population as of July 2005 was roughly 664,000, and considering that New York State's population as of that time was approximately 19,300,000, an equivalent revenue loss in New York State would be almost $186 million per day, or almost $68 billion for a year. That's more than SIXTY PERCENT of New York State's $112 billion budget. No state can handle that sort of revenue shortfall without some serious economic deprivation, whether in the form of increases in other taxes, spending cuts, debt burden overload, or some other adverse consequence. Mix in the impact on the private sector economy, and the results are devastating.

Sudden and unexpected downturns in tax revenues have happened in the past. They will happen again. Taxpaying corporations go bankrupt or move operations out of the state. Taxpaying individuals, as a group, experience income declines or increases in deductible expenses. In most instances, however, the root cause of the events causing tax revenue decreases are either beyond the control of the taxpayer or reflect a legitimate business decision by the taxpayer. In contrast, the shut-down at Prudhoe Bay is the result of corrosion that was not noticed until it was too late because BP had not inspected the pipeline since 1992. What is it about preventative maintenance that causes so many corporations and so many people to ignore it?

What I don't know is whether the amounts paid into the Alaska Permanent Fund by BP and the other oil producers with interests in Prudhoe Bay are simply taxes imposed by statute or amounts specified in contractual agreements between Alaska and the producers. Why does this matter? If the payments are contractual, did BP breach the contract by not conducting more frequent inspections and performing more preventative maintenance? It is not difficult to imagine Alaska's officials considering this question as they ponder ways to deal with a crippling revenue shortfall.

The Permanent Fund receives not only tax revenues but also "At least 25 percent of all mineral lease rentals, royalties, royalty sales proceeds, federal mineral revenue-sharing payments and bonuses received by the state," according to the Fund's web site. There definitely are contractual overtones to the arrangement, but it is embedded in the state Constitution and statutes, which makes it more like a tax and less like a contract. The proposal for a pipeline carrying natural gas across the state is described as a contract. If the Permanent Fund is indeed a contractual creature, we may be seeing some very interesting state revenue downturn litigation unlike anything seen with respect to mere tax revenue decreases. Stay tuned.

Newer Posts Older Posts

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?