Friday, July 08, 2011
Apparently Baucus has not read the aforementioned GAO report, or my letter, or if he read them, he soon forgot what they said, because he then asked “whether the complexity of the tax code discourages compliance and to what extent it contributes to the tax gap by making it hard for taxpayers to calculate their bill accurately.” As I explained in Closing the Tax Gap Requires Congressional Introspection, the IRS has concluded that tens of billions of dollars of tax revenue go uncollected because the complexity of the Internal Revenue Code causes taxpayers to make mistakes.
The irony is that Baucus then preached, “The tax code has grown far too complex, and it’s becoming much too difficult for honest Americans to calculate and pay their tax bill. We should make determining a taxpayer’s responsibility as easy as possible so we are able to collect more of the $345 billion in taxes that are owed but unpaid each year Especially in these tough economic times, $345 billion is far too much to waste. A simpler tax code will ease the burden of compliance on honest Americans and help them meet their responsibilities.” No kidding. Guess what? The sun rises in the east.
Congress is responsible for what’s in the Internal Revenue Code, and one example of its many contributions to unnecessary tax complexity is recounted in Objections Raised to Elimination of Legislative Tax Deceit. For whatever political points are scored by standing up and criticizing one’s own handiwork, the members of Congress should shut down the yapping and grandstanding and crank up the doing. Fix the Code. It’s a technically easy thing to do, and the obstacles, chiefly political, can be overcome with courage. Courage. If they need to have a hearing on the definition of courage, that might be a useful expenditure of Congressional staff time. It won’t take long. Courage is doing what is right for the nation while disregarding the benefits, political and otherwise, of catering to the small groups that want the tax law tailored to their preferences.
But I think the Congress will continue as it has, complaining about complexity and doing nothing to fix it while piling on more complexity. Does it not remind us of the five-year-old who trashes his or her room and then complains that the room needs to be tidied up, all the while continuing to pull more toys onto the floor without putting any away? Here’s a challenge for Senator Baucus. The next time someone proposes a tax law change that adds complexity contributing to the tax gap, stand up, explain why it is wrong, and vote against it.
Wednesday, July 06, 2011
So it’s not surprising that in his Legal Skills Prof Blog post, Lou suggested, “The plan: admit top undergraduate students at your college to your law school after three years of college and thus shave off a year of college expenses.” Is this possible? Would it work?
Admitting students to law school after three years of college is feasible if certain conditions are met. Testing for proficiency would make it more likely to succeed, but for the fact that unlike medical school faculties, law school faculties adhere to the questionable practice of not requiring any specific courses as a prerequisite to admission. It’s difficult to imagine law faculties agreeing on a list of courses in which proficiency should be tested.
What matters is not the number of years invested in college, but the amount of learning that takes place. Simply chopping off the last year of college makes no sense, because in many instances there are important courses that are left for the student’s last year, and unless the student has the foresight to take these courses during the first three years, something that might not be permissible in some universities, the student will enter law school with even less sufficiency of undergraduate education. I phrase the issue in that manner because I do not think that undergraduate education, in general, prepares students for law school as well as it could and should. These are deeper questions I’ve addressed in posts such as Bringing Practical Awareness Into Law School Education and Undergraduate Majors and LSAT Scores: Chickens and Eggs.
An example demonstrates what I mean when I claim that what matters most is the amount of learning, not the number of years. When I was enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, I was required to complete 120 credit hours, or 40 courses, to earn the degree. My friends in the College of Liberal Arts were required to complete 96 credit hours, or 32 courses. This meant that each semester, Wharton students were taking five courses while their colleagues in the College were taking four. Were those four courses equivalent to Wharton’s five courses? No. Wharton students were enrolled not only in Wharton courses, but were required to complete two semesters of Physics, two semesters of Calculus, two semesters of Statistics, and a variety of courses in other colleges, for the purpose of obtaining a well-rounded education, but not at the expense of cutting into the core Wharton courses. Students in the College were permitted to take courses in other schools but did so as replacements for, and not in addition to, whatever their core course load happened to be. Someone I knew at the university’s radio station, where I worked, decided to take five courses each semester while enrolled in the college, and with two summer school courses, completed college in three years, saving not only a year but knocking down tuition by 25 percent. She did not, however, give up on the amount of learning she experienced. There is no reason today’s students cannot increase their semester course loads and thus cut down on their college tuition while retaining their education experience. I’m all in favor of that approach. I’m not in favor of reducing tuition by reducing the education experience. Students arrive in law school sufficiently deficient in education and in need of remedial experiences that exacerbating this condition would not bode well for their professional success.
Yes, three years of college might be enough. Or perhaps two, for the very energetic and talented student. Law schools can make this tuition reduction dream come true by designating education that students need before entering law school and providing proficiency examinations to identify the students who are ready to take advantage of the time-saving, tuition-lowering approach. Whether law schools and their faculties can let go of the “we can teach you to be lawyers (or legal philosophers) in three years no matter what you studied in college” delusion remains to be seen. Law schools that truly care about making the legal profession more accessible to students who are stretched in terms of financial resources will find ways to do what is right even if it is bold, risky, and innovative.
Monday, July 04, 2011
When I claim that it’s not a free country, I don’t mean that the United States is not an independent country. There is a huge difference between free and independent. Free means to be without cost. The United States was not created, nor has it been maintained, without cost. Many people have paid, in blood, in service, and in sacrifice, in order for this country to exist and to continue existing. It is misleading to use the phrase “it’s a free country” as some sort of blank check for unbridled behavior and willful refusal to contribute to the nation’s health and well-being. There are those who claim that because we live in a “free country,” they should be “free” to do what they want and “free” to refuse to pay taxes. Some go so far as to claim that the War of Independence was fought to eliminate taxation. One of the causes, and certainly not the only cause, of the War of Independence was the refusal to submit to taxation without representation. There is taxation, there is representation, but it’s not clear that the representatives are doing what the represented want. One need only read Americans Support Higher Taxes. Really. to get a sense of how twisted representative taxation has become in a nation that is not free, and has not been free for quite a long time, from self-centered partisanship.
Somewhere along the line the notion that the freedoms enjoyed in our independent nation need to be protected through the participatory service of citizenship was corrupted. Though a brave few continue to put their lives on the line, the proportion of Americans willing to pitch in has diminished, while the chorus of cries for self-centeredness has grown larger and louder. Once upon a time, when it was necessary to defend the nation’s freedoms, everyone pitched in, one way or another. Some served in the military, almost everyone was subjected to rationing, almost everyone paid taxes, many stepped up to perform volunteer services, and almost everyone bore the burden of lifestyle restrictions. Today, claims that letting the poor get poorer, the sick sicker, the unemployed more desperate, and the rich richer will strengthen the freedoms on which this independent, and expensive, nation has been built resonate among those whose ability to see beyond the horizon and into the future is weak or missing. Too many seek ways to avoid paying taxes, very few volunteer for military service, and too many turn their attention to how assets can be hidden off-shore.
Perhaps Independence Day should be a time not only to celebrate what was done several hundred years ago by people willing to pay the price, but also an occasion to examine the extent to which some people take freedom for granted, and others misunderstand what freedom means and what it requires. Freedom is not free. Independence is not free. Trend lines suggest that there may come a day, perhaps sooner than later, when not enough people will be willing to pay what needs to be paid for freedom. The cost in that event will be loss, not only of freedom, but of independence.
Friday, July 01, 2011
Today is July 1, 2011, so it is fitting that I succumb to the temptation to share my standard response to an email that has been circulating relentlessly since the beginning of the year. The email claims, in these or in slightly modified words, “This year of 2011, July has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This happens once every 823 years. It is called 'money bags' so forward this to your friends and money supposedly will arrive within 4 days.” The first sentence is true. The second is total nonsense. The third consists of a sentence that might be true and an admonition that is silly.
Every time I receive this email I send a “reply all” in my feeble and apparently doomed-to-fail attempt to educate the world and take a bite out of the stupidity that is overwhelming our inboxes. Here is what I write:
It amazes me that this July thing keeps circulating. So I keep debunking it.The “Money Bags” email also includes this claim to authoritative justification, coupled with another admonition: “Based on Chinese Feng Shui: ‘The one who does not forward.....will be without money.’” Perhaps it should explain, “The one who does not forward…..will provide a helpful step in the education of the world.” Perhaps the tax on stupidity should be a tax on each person who forwards the “Money Bags” email, computed by multiplying one cent by the number of people to whom the email is sent. The tax form could state, “Make many forwards…..give U.S. Treasury positive balance.”
There are 5 Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in a July if July 1 is a Friday (So that the Friday-Saturday-Sunday combination is July 1-2-3, 8-9-10, 15-16-17, 22-23-24, and 29-30-31). It doesn’t work if July 1 is any other day.
July 1 will be on a Friday roughly every 7 years, with skips on account of leap years. July 1 is a Friday on 2011. July 1 was a Friday in 2005, 1994, 1988, 1983. July 1 will be a Friday in 2016, 2022, 2033, 2039, 2044, 2050, 2061, . . .
Folks, that’s NOT “once every 823 years.” Not even close.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Last week, as reported in this Philadelphia Inquirer story, a series of shootings rocked the small borough of Darby, just outside Philadelphia. Giving the story an added attention-getting twist is the fact that on the day of the first shooting, a former mayor was robbed. Toss in a car chase, a “midday gunfight,” and a shooting near an elementary school. The last event prompted borough officials to declare a state of emergency. That permitted the borough to request, and receive, law enforcement assistance from other municipalities, in addition to giving the “police expanded powers to pull people off the streets.”
About 11,000 people live in the borough. The borough has eight full-time and several part-time police officers. The former mayor has demanded the hiring of an additional 15 full-time officers to bring the ration between population and police staffing “back up to the national standard formula.” The difficulty is that the borough lacks the money to make those hires. The former mayor admits that the borough’s residents, who are on the low end of income measurements and who have already been hit with school tax and county tax increases, would find it impossible to pay even more taxes. Yet the former mayor also stated, “We should have raised taxes – that’s what we should have done, but we didn’t do it because Darby Borough as it hard enough as it is.” Contributing to the borough’s financial woes are multiple heavy flooding incidents during the past several decades and a cut-off of federal and state funding. And it’s unclear how the borough will pay for the outside assistance received during the state of emergency.
Those are the facts. Here is the question. What should the officials of Darby Borough do, or at least try to do? I could leave this as an essay question, but perhaps multiple choice appeals to some. There are a variety of choices. Raise taxes and perhaps see the population decrease as people flee. Raise taxes and end up collecting very little. Leave things as they are and watch the criminal element continue its ascendancy. Ask the state and federal government, namely, taxpayers from other jurisdictions, to provide financial assistance. Persuade an adjacent municipality to absorb the borough and take on its financial and social and crime problems. Declare the borough extinct, shut down the local government, and let the state figure out what to do with the resulting wild, wild West.
The process of trying to find an answer to the question is significant for more than the people of Darby Borough. There are municipalities throughout the country in the same conundrum, and there are even more on the verge of slipping into similar situations. The gated communities may feel safe, but as things around them crumble, the adverse effects will spill over political boundaries. Local communities throughout the nation are far more interlocked with each other than standard political maps show.
So what would you do if you were a Darby Borough official? Resignation is not an option other than as part of the declaration of extinct borough choice.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Now comes news that after several months of negotiations with respect to the debt ceiling, Republican legislators participating in the process walked out. Why? They were unhappy that “Democrats were pushing for higher tax revenues.” If everyone who disliked what the other party requested during negotiations walked out of those meetings, negotiations would never be successful. Some quoted in the story suggest the walk-out could be a negotiating ploy. I don’t think so. I think the anti-tax movement is firmly committed to shrinking the federal government into the size of a meaningless formality.
The problem, though, is much worse than negotiating procedures gone awry. In an article appearing the same day as the negotiating walk-out news, two economists offered their take on the debt ceiling issue as part of a larger exploration of the sad state of the economy. Both stressed the importance of raising the debt ceiling. One proposed that doing so would be “the quickest solution” to restore “investor and consumer confidence,” and that it needs to happen “sooner rather than later.” The other economist added the warning that simply chopping federal spending would “dramatically increase unemployment and put us in a double-dip recession.”
The nation’s budget deficit is a problem. Problems need solutions. Solutions arise from identifying and examining the causes of the problem. The causes of the budget deficit are easily identified. There are two causes. One is insufficient revenue. The other is spending that exceeds available revenue. In solving a problem, it also helps to identify when the causes came into existence. The latest budget problem, one of hyper-deficits unlike any previous deficits, arose when Congress decided to increase spending in order to fund two wars while simultaneously cutting taxes. Another mechanism for solving problems and dealing with the causes of problems is to examine similar situations. In 1941, when Congress moved forward with huge increases in military spending, did it cut taxes? Of course not. Aside from a fringe element, Americans did not demand tax cuts during wartime. Americans knew that wars cannot be fought on the cheap. Americans sacrificed. Those Americans, though, were of a different generation, perhaps the greatest, perhaps not, but surely smarter and more patriotic than the crew that demanded tax cuts to increase discretionary spending while they continued living their lives as though war were something on a movie or television or laptop screen. Where was the sacrifice? Aside from the devoted few who have given of their lives and time in military service, most Americans bought into the “we can have our butter and buy guns too” siren song of the economically short-changed pipers.
So if a combination of tax cutting and spending increases created the problem, does it not make sense that a combination of tax cut repeals and spending reductions should solve, or help solve, the problem? The Democrats have suggested spending cuts, even though that would, to some, be contrary to the stereotypical Democratic economic policy. Republicans, however, have no hesitation in continuing to resist restoring taxes to what they were before the Great Mistake was made. As I wrote in Paying Interest Alone Does Not Foreclose Treasury Default:
The nation is approaching, more and more quickly, the point of no economic return. I wonder when someone will make it clear to the entire nation, and not just to the few readers of this and a few other blogs who understand the maxim, a nation is doomed when it spends trillions on war while simultaneously continuing and increasing tax cuts that especially benefit the wealthy. I wonder when someone will succeed in persuading the nation that the only hope is a reversal of the mistake, even though it cannot be fully reversed. Even a partial reversal poses the possibility of redemption. Toomey wants “concrete steps toward fiscal sanity.” Would not undoing the fiscal insanity of the past decade be the place to start?There is a very real risk that the Great Mistake will evolve into the Great Implosion.
Friday, June 24, 2011
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer article, someone set up a website called WhatsYourPrice. Notice that I’m not providing the link, and those who are sufficiently curious can find their way there on their own. I haven’t visited the site, so I’m relying on the reporter who wrote the article. What makes this web site different is that “so-called generous members (most men) open their wallets and bid real money for a first date with members who list themselves in the ‘attractive’ category (mostly women).” The web site makes its money by charging members for the right “unlock e-mail conversations with attractive members.” Winning bidders pay a separate amount to the person with whom they sought a date. The article explores the psychology and social implications of the arrangement, including charges that the web site is nothing more than a fancy escort service. Members claim that’s not the case. No matter, what I found most interesting is the tax angle.
Clearly the amounts charged by the web site constitute gross income. Whether it pays income tax depends on whether it’s collecting more than it is paying in expenses, and only the owners of the site know the answer to that question. As a visible business, it’s quite likely that the web site operators are filing tax returns. They’re not the ones with the interesting tax question.
What are the tax consequences of being paid to go on a date? One woman interviewed for the story explained that she received $120 in a card handed to her by the member who successfully bid for a few hours of her time, which she says was spent at dinner at a fine restaurant. Is the $120 gross income? How can it not be? It’s not a gift. It was delivered in exchange for a few hours of the woman’s time, company, conversation, and attention. How does that $120 differ from $120 paid to a psychologist, plumber, or painter? What are the tax consequences of the meal received by the woman? Does the fact that she was paid to go to dinner make the value of the dinner she received additional compensation? Assuming that people who are treated to dinner on dates for which they are not being paid almost surely are not reporting the value of the dinner as gross income – though there are arguments that they should be reporting it – does the tax nature of the dinner transaction change because of the $120 compensation? If so, should the tax treatment of other dinner dates depend on what other “consideration” is involved in the overall transaction? One member’s explanation of her goals may come back to haunt her come tax time: “If it's going to be a big, huge waste of time, at least I'm going to get paid for it. A lot of these guys are wealthy gentlemen, and I think my time is as valuable as their time." Getting paid for one’s time is compensation gross income. As for deductions, apparently the “attractive” members don’t pay the web site to unlock emails. No payment, no deduction. The ones paying the web site fees aren’t carrying on a trade or business or for-profit activity, and the payments surely aren’t charitable contributions. No deduction.
In contrast to my guess concerning the web site owners’ tax compliance, I am rather confident that the people being paid to go on dates are not even thinking about the tax consequences and very likely are not reporting gross income, or, for example, state sales tax. I am just as confident that they would characterize the payment as a gift, though the fact that they entered a market place, albeit digital, to acquire the payments makes the gift argument almost frivolous.
Is this a trivial issue? No. The web site claims to have 50,000 members. It says that bids average $138. One woman reported bids of $300. It appears that members are getting three to five dates per month, though it’s not clear if those are actual dates or unlocked email communications seeking dates. But even a cautious estimate of two dates per month for 50,000 members for $138 per date generates $3,312 of annual gross income per member and $165,600,000 of gross income. The income might not be much when compared to the off-shore tax shelters of wealthy individuals and corporations, but often is said, “Every little bit helps.” There’s probably $10 million of sales tax revenue lurking in these transactions.
Will the IRS and state revenue departments chase after these monies? Probably, if nothing else but for the fun of auditing transactions far more entertaining than checking on cost of goods sold calculations, home office deductions, or medical expense deductions. I do think, though, that I and my students will have at least as much fun, if not more, when we get to the fifth or sixth tax class of the fall semester. As I and my colleagues frequently tell them, “We don’t need to make up this stuff.”
EDIT: A former student who now teaches as an adjunct in the Graduate Tax Program emailed me to let me know that he, too, thought about the tax issue and looming IRS audits. So I'll amend the "Perhaps I am the only one . . ." to read "Perhaps I and a few others were the only ones . . ." I wonder how many other former students have "TAX ISSUE!" screaming in their heads when they read or see things. Hopefully I'll hear from so many graduates that I need to amend yet again, along the lines of "Perhaps I and an ever-growing number of tax-educated people are the only ones . . ."
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The disconnect between careful analysis of a tax proposal and the realities of how legislators, and those pushing them to act one way or another, is no more evident than in the post-defeat lamentation and promised resurfacing of the soda tax proposal by Jeff Gelles. In Consumer 11.0: The Soda Tax’s Time Will Come, Gelles predicts that the soda tax eventually will be enacted, despite opposition from soda manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and truck drivers, because “it makes too much sense for the rest of us.” To his credit, Gelles addresses two questions that I have been asking throughout my series of soda tax postings (What Sort of Tax?, The Return of the Soda Tax Proposal, Tax As a Hate Crime?, Yes for The Proposed User Fee, No for the Proposed Tax, Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Shelved, But Will It Return?, Taxing Symptoms Rather Than Problems, It’s Back! The Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Returns, The Broccoli and Brussel Sprouts of Taxation), namely, why tax sugary beverages and not other items containing sugar, and why focus on sugar and ignore other ingredients that can be unhealthy?
Gelles likens “Big Soda” to “Big Tobacco” in his attempt to classify soda as a pernicious item. He cites a Yale University researcher whose target of “high-calorie, low-nutrition foods” has been twisted into a campaign against one specific type of such items. This researcher claims “[Soft drinks are] completely empty calories. I mean, even a Twinkie has some nutrition.” Gelles claims that research “suggests . . . that people’s bodies react differently to calories consumed in sweetened drinks than in food [because l]ess sated by the sugary liquids than by solid food, they are more likely to consumer additional calories beyond their basic needs.” Gelles lumps soda with “pollution and tobacco” as “externalities” that should be taxed to reduce “public harm that everybody must pay for.” Gelles quotes a University of Pennsylvania economist for the proposition that sugary drinks “imposes costs that we all may have to pick up” and that “it’s very likely that your future self would prefer that the government impose taxes to prevent your young dumb self from destroying the body that your future self will inherit, the same way that my future self would want higher cigarette taxes to prevent my current self from destroying my lungs.”
The problem with these attempted explanations for why sugary beverages are singled out in the “we need revenue, let’s tax something” version of the defeated proposal is that they rest on erroneous factual assumptions, conflate information, and ignore reality. First, though moderate and sensible use of sugar does not trigger obesity and other illnesses, there is no such thing as moderate use of tobacco because any use of tobacco ramps up the risk of cancer and other disease. Second, sugar is not the only substance that, consumed excessively, causes health problems. Excessive intake of fat, for example, is just as dangerous, if not more so. Even water can be deadly, as evidenced by people who have died in foolish water drinking contests. Where is the logic behind “Sugar is bad, tax it, fat is bad, don’t tax it”? The notion that people will take in more sugar drinking soda because soda is not filling ignores the fact that gulping down a huge amount of liquids will leave a person with less stomach room, and less desire, to take in food. Does it make sense to encourage the ingestion of Twinkies rather than soda because it’s better to fill the stomach with sugar and fat? Finally, the notion that cigarette taxes has cut smoking is debatable, particularly with respect to tobacco use among younger people, who supposedly are the targets of the “tax will teach you a lesson” proponents.
From a health perspective, the target needs to be the items originally indicted by the Yale researcher, namely, high-calorie, low-nutrition substances. The issue isn’t so much the item, other than the true poisons such as nicotine and trans-fats, but the quantities being consumed. Even low-calorie, high-nutrition foods can be dangerous if consumed in excess. The focus on soda, intense as it is on the part of the soda tax advocates, suggests something more is at work. I wonder if we would be seeing “donut tax” proposals offered with the same zealousness had it been donut manufacturers who tossed money at school boards to install vending machines in the schools. I wonder.
All of this suggests that what people have learned in civics classes – few and far between as they are – about how legislation gets enacted is woefully inadequate. Legislation, including tax legislation, is far more influenced by back-room deals, promises, threats, and proliferation of overhyped allegations than it is by careful analysis, research, and thorough consideration of the bigger picture and long-term consequences. I could mention the sausage factory, but I won’t. It might just give someone an idea of something else to tax.
Monday, June 20, 2011
Of the 4,375,660 returns with adjusted gross income of $200,000 or more, 18,783 reported no U.S. income tax liability. That’s a significant increase from 2007, when 10,465 out of 4,535,623 returns with adjusted gross income of $200,000 or more reported no U.S. income tax liability. What does this mean?
For there to be no U.S. income tax liability, the taxpayer either has deductions exceeding adjusted gross income or credits exceeding tax liability computed on taxable income. Though individuals paying income taxes to foreign countries can “wipe out” their U.S. income tax liability, 10,824 of the 4,375,660 returns with adjusted gross income of $200,000 or more reported no income tax liability to any nation, period. The corresponding number in 2007 was 4,841.
The IRS does not disclose the specifics of what causes the zero tax liability. The IRS provides some general explanations of how a taxpayer can have zero tax liability, and presents some information showing what sorts of deductions are claimed on these returns, but that data does not answer the question. Nor do the combined tables help, because they don’t pinpoint what deductions or credits are wiping out taxable income or tax liability on specific returns. The “largest effect” tables also don’t provide a clear answer.
It does appear that for returns showing tax liability to other nations, the foreign tax credit is the most significant reason for the reduction of U.S. income tax liability to zero. The individuals filing those tax returns are paying income taxes, just not to the U.S. On the other hand, individuals not paying income taxes to any nation aren’t claiming the foreign tax credit. Other things are the cause. Huge unreimbursed casualty losses are a possibility, but how many can there be? Because charitable contribution deductions are limited, those cannot account for zero taxable income. Is it a consequence of one or more of the dozens and dozens of credits? If so, are the credits being claimed by the individuals and for the activities that Congress intended? Knowing how badly the first-time homebuyer credit worked out, is there a possibility that other credits similarly are abused?
A simpler income tax also can be a more transparent tax. The fewer gimmicks, loopholes, special provisions, and other warps in the system, the less likely that two people in the same situation end up paying different amounts of federal income tax. Complexity provides a shadow in which too much tax avoidance can hide.
Friday, June 17, 2011
In an editorial the other day, Jonathan Saidel made the same point. Calling the proposed tax discriminatory, he notes, “Taxing these particular products and this particular industry, while exempting many other products containing high levels of sugar or other potentially unhealthy ingredients, would be simply unfair.” Saidel also suggests that the tax would cause job losses and encourage black market activity. In another twist that had not crossed my mind, he also suggests that some or many city retailers would tax all beverages, even those not containing sugar, “to simplify their bookkeeping.”
In related news, a member of City Council declared the soda tax proposal “dead on arrival.” At least six members of the 17-person Council have expressed complete opposition to the idea. Although they may have been influenced by the anti-soda-tax rally outside City Hall, they had announced their opposition long before the rally.
I wonder whether the mayor re-floated the soda tax idea to provide a backdrop against which to set his proposed real property tax increase. If City Council decides to increase real property taxes – and signs are that it dislikes that idea no less than it dislikes the soda tax – the mayor can respond to complaints by claiming that he had offered a soda tax option that Council refused and thus it isn’t his fault that real property taxes were raised. Perhaps the mayor belongs to the school of parenting that thinks a good way to get children to eat broccoli is to offer them brussel sprouts.
UPDATE: Philadelphia City Council again rejected the soda tax, opting for an almost 4 percent increase in the real property tax. The blame-shifting and finger-pointing is inevitable.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Does it make sense to increase deductions for acquisitions of equipment? How does that restore confidence in the economy, which is essential to putting the nation back on track. How does a tax provision that encourages businesses to use their limited funds to buy machinery put people in this country back to work? Nothing in the provision requires that the property be built in the United States, and it's almost certain that such a requirement would violate at least a few trade agreements and treaties. What's the point of enacting tax breaks that create jobs in other nations? Dollar-for-dollar, a tax break for creating jobs directly is worth much more than a tax break for purchasing equipment.Almost a year ago, in If At First It Doesn’t Work, Try, Try, Try Again, I criticized the Obama Administration** for proposing a change in the tax law that would permit taxpayers to deduct the full cost of asset acquisitions made in 2011. I noted:
Such is the life of one of the business world’s favorite tax breaks. Entrepreneurs salivate at the idea of getting a deduction for making an investment. The idea of getting a tax break for swapping cash for equipment of equal value is the sort of thing that makes lower-income taxpayers roil, because they don’t have the opportunity to get, in effect, cash flow from the government in the form of lower taxes by swapping cash for equipment of equal value.I then asked:
The previous incarnation of section 168(k) “bonus depreciation” as well as continual expansion of section 179 expensing have been consistently hailed as solutions to the nation’s economic woes of the moment. Yet no evidence exists that these tax giveaways have had the claimed effect. Why is it, for example, that during 2008 and 2009, while businesses basked in the benefit of 50-percent bonus depreciation, the economy got worse, not better? Where are all the jobs whose creation was promised when the proposal for the 2008 and 2009 tax break was being trumpeted as the answer? Where is the economic recovery that supposedly was an inescapable consequence of enacting those tax breaks? Similar questions can be asked about the long parade of tax breaks for business investments during the past 50 years. Though the economy doesn’t benefit, though economic fundamentals do not improve, though joblessness doesn’t abate, something fuels the repetitive re-enactment of this bundle of tax breaks. Could it be that it’s good for business? Could it be that what’s good for business isn’t necessarily good for those in need, especially if the funds generated by the tax break go the same way as the excess cash that businesses have been accumulating during the past year and a half, namely, somewhere other than the economy?Last December, in When the Bonus Depreciation Tax Deduction is Not a Bonus for the Economy, I concluded:
This expansion of section 168(k) bonus depreciation is touted as yet another essential piece to putting the economy back on track, which is pretty much the equivalent of asserting police departments would be improved if they hired and gave guns and badges to convicted felons. This approach hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work now. It’s yet another unnecessary concession to those holding lower-income and middle-income citizens hostage.Now comes an interesting report that explains why companies awash in cash are spending, when they choose to spend, on equipment but not people. We are told that equipment “is getting cheaper” and workers “are getting more expensive.” We are told that in order to compete with China and other countries providing cheap labor, processes need to be automated. Using equipment rather than people is efficient, because the economy “is producing as much as it was before the downturn, but with seven million fewer jobs.” Machines, we are told, don’t need to be trained, whereas people require training and clearances that cost money and the time of more experienced existing employees. Business spending for workers has grown 2 percent, whereas spending on equipment and software has grown 26 percent. The article then points out that tax incentives to make equipment and software purchases makes it likely that this trend will continue. The article confirms another complaint that I previously voiced. We are told that “much of the equipment used to replace American workers is made by workers abroad.” None of this is good news for the unemployed and the underemployed.
After reading the article, it occurred to me that there is something more than the tax subsidy that helps tilt the equation even more in favor of equipment investment. The tax law process also encourages businesses to prefer asset acquisition over employee hiring. Although there have been several employment credits put into the tax law, companies are reluctant to hire because employment involves a different sort of commitment. A tax break that encourages the purchase of a piece of machinery does its job in the year the machinery is acquired. The business no longer worries about the effect of future tax law changes on its decision. In contrast, a tax break that encourages hiring encourages the employer to make a long-term commitment, and if the tax break is repealed or adversely modified, the employer can find itself out on a limb. Compounding the problem is a concern that the article mentions in passing, namely the “uncertain future costs of health care and other benefits,” which, I hasten to point out, are regulated in part through the tax law. Making the tax break permanent would alleviate this problem, but Congress refuses to do that because it removes the opportunity to solicit funds from lobbyists as the tax break reaches its expiration date. As I noted in Congressional Mis-delegation Endangers Tax Collections, “Most of the tax breaks come with expiration dates, most of which are annually extended by a Congress that can hold the extension hostage to the vote collection process. There’s much more leverage available to a legislator when a tax break is on the verge of expiring than there is when a tax break is permanent.”
Business leaders explain that workers seeking new jobs require retraining, but that it is difficult to accomplish this in the short term. Job applicants lack the “right skill sets to work in modern manufacturing.” They are, according to one business owner, “deficient in computer, mathematics, science and accounting skills.” That’s no surprise to me, nor to anyone else who has been questioning the course and major selections of college students and the scope of high school education. When the same business owner claims, “It seems as if technology has evolved faster than people,” he misstates the case. The problem is that technology has evolved faster than has the education system.
Here is what needs to be done. First, as I suggested in When the Bonus Depreciation Tax Deduction is Not a Bonus for the Economy, section 168(k) bonus depreciation and expanded section 179 first-year expensing should be limited to the excess of the taxpayer’s business equipment expenditures for the current year over the average of the taxpayer’s business equipment expenditures for the three previous years. That rewards business expansion rather than mere continuation. Second, the deduction should be limited to purchases of equipment produced in the United States by American workers. Third, the deduction should be available for American-manufactured equipment acquired by domestic taxpayers and put into service overseas. Fourth, Congress needs to enact a non-expiring credit based on the excess of the taxpayer’s inflation-adjusted current year domestic payroll for employees earning less than the cut-off for the highest income tax bracket over the average of that amount for the previous three years. Fifth, Congress needs to tailor education loans, including issuance and repayment terms, so that they favor students who enroll in, and earn above-average grades in, the majors and courses teaching the skills that are needed in the American workforce, provided those students remain employed for at least ten years in positions that make use of that education.
Though the preference for investment in equipment rather than workers comes across as a short-term problem, it is a long-term issue and a pending permanent disaster for the economy. In many ways it is not so much a problem but a symptom of a deeper flaw. What Congress has done with the tax law, though perhaps good for Congressional campaign fund-raising, undermines the health of the nation. Not only does the tax law need to be fixed as I’ve suggested, the process by which it is changed needs to be altered. It is time for a cultural revolution in the Congress, a reform whose necessity is reflected not only by the tax law mess but by the other Congressional nonsense that has been gathering so much attention during the past two weeks.
**Something that should be noted carefully by those who suggest that my tax policy positions are one-sided. When it comes to criticizing flaws in the tax law, I am quite generous, and party affiliation protects no one from my remonstrances.
Monday, June 13, 2011
In 2006, Congress enacted legislation requiring tax-exempt organizations to file annual information returns. Previously, smaller organizations were not required to do so. The new law also provided that failure to file for three years in a row automatically revokes tax-exempt status. Fortunately, the IRS has instituted a procedure that can be used to reinstate tax-exempt status. The IRS has invested time, money, and other resources trying to make tax-exempt organizations aware of the change in the law. It sent more than 1,000,000 notices to organizations that had not filed, published a list of those at risk of losing tax-exempt status, extended the deadlines by five months, and set up transition relief for very small tax-exempt organizations, including a reduction of the $850 or $400 filing fee to $100.
What’s interesting is the reaction of at least one person connected with an organization that lost its tax-exempt status. According to another Philadelphia Inquirer article, the vice president and treasurer of one such organization stated, “I guess they want more paper so they can keep themselves busy.” He explained that his organization was properly registered with the state’s Bureau of Charitable Organizations, but that he was not aware of the federal return filing requirement. He intends to file what needs to be done to be reinstated as a tax-exempt organization, noting, “I’m sure they’ll need to hire five more people to read it.”
This outlook suggest that the IRS is not busy, is looking for work, and yet needs to hire more people to do that work. Aside from the internal inconsistency, the comments reflect a misunderstanding of what happened. The Congress decided that information filing for tax-exempt organizations should include those previously excluded from the requirement, because too many organizations not required to file were taking advantage of that lack of oversight to abuse the system. Surely the IRS, already overburdened with tax and social program administration, was not looking for more work. It was the Congress, not the IRS, that enacted the law imposing automatic revocation on organizations failing to meet their filing obligations.
So long as people view the IRS as the source of all that is wrong with taxation and the tax system, or the cause of anything they dislike about tax law and tax enforcement, and overlook the responsibility of the Congress for the tax law, tax policy, and tax administration deficiencies afflicting the nation, the problems will not be solved. Once people understand what Congress has done and is doing, there may be increasing numbers of incumbents who fail to be re-elected. But until Congress understands what Congress should be doing, replacement of incumbents by newcomers who continue the bad habits of Congress will continue unabated.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Olson proposed that the “simple solution” is a HUD-directed spending program. For years, I have been advocating leaving social welfare spending out of the Internal Revenue Code and sparing the IRS the task of doing other agencies’ work. Most recently, in Congressional Mis-delegation Endangers Tax Collections and The Problem with Income Tax Vehicle Credits, I criticized the Congress for burdening the IRS with administration of all sorts of programs that ought to be handled by the federal agencies charged with oversight of those sorts of programs. I noted that The IRS Oversight Board Annual Report to Congress 2010 corroborated my position. Now the National Taxpayer Advocate has joined in the criticism.
So why does Congress continue to put non-tax programs into the tax law? Olson pointed out one of the factors. A spending program administered by an agency other than the IRS is “scored against the budget,” that is, it is characterized as spending. On the other hand, by hiding the spending as a tax reduction in the form of a tax credit or tax deduction, the Congress makes no less of an increase in the federal budget deficit but can claim that it has not increased spending. Until people understand that a $100 tax credit issued to ten million taxpayers is no different, for federal budget purposes, than the writing of ten million $100 checks, the nation’s attempt to get its fiscal house in order is doomed. Worse, by distracting the IRS with additional program responsibilities without increasing its funding, Congress forces the IRS to divert resources from its primary mission, namely, protecting the revenue.
Members of Congress have figured out that if they enact legislation granting $3 billion to a pet project, they risk taking heat for bestowing taxpayer dollars on a special interest. They have also learned that if they jam a tax credit into the Internal Revenue Code that reduces the tax liability of the taxpayers operating that pet project, not only is the give-away not treated as federal spending, it is also much more likely that no one will notice. But a few of us do, and my hope and goal is to cause most of us to notice. Perhaps then the betrayal will be sufficiently visible to bring about the electoral upheaval that betrayal should bring.
Wednesday, June 08, 2011
One question that needs to be considered is the impact of such a toll on adjacent highways. It is not unreasonable to suppose that motorists unwilling to pay the toll will return to the local roads that they used before Route 422 was constructed. Indications of that outcome are provided every time an accident forces travelers off Route 422 and onto local roads. The congestion is horrendous. With local traffic also having increased, complete gridlock is not out of the question. Those who are willing and able to pay the toll will discover that they are driving on a much less congested highway because some or much of the traffic has been pushed off the road by the tolls.
Am I suggesting that charging for use of highways is foolish? No. I’m suggesting that imposing a toll on a short stretch of one road can backfire. Tolls work when motorists have no alternative. For example, anyone trying to drive from southeastern Pennsylvania into New Jersey, or vice versa, must cross a toll bridge. There are no feasible alternatives to most toll roads in the country, and where tolls have been imposed on highways to which there are viable alternatives, the toll roads have not done well. I wrote about this phenomenon in Selling Off Government Revenue Streams: Good Idea or Bad?.
There is a better solution. Readers of MauledAgain know what I’m going to suggest. Yes, it’s the mileage-based road fee. I’ve written about this approach many times, beginning in Tax Meets Technology on the Road, and thereafter in Mileage-Based Road Fees, Again, Mileage-Based Road Fees, Yet Again, Change, Tax, Mileage-Based Road Fees, and Secrecy, Pennsylvania State Gasoline Tax Increase: The Last Hurrah?, Making Progress with Mileage-Based Road Fees, Mileage-Based Road Fees Gain More Traction, Looking More Closely at Mileage-Based Road Fees, The Mileage-Based Road Fee Lives On, and Is the Mileage-Based Road Fee So Terrible?
The toll being proposed for Route 422 would be collected using the EZ-Pass system. The per-mile charge can be set at different levels depending on the classification of the vehicle, as currently is done with tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The mileage-based road fee can be collected in the same manner, though it would require installing EZ-Pass sensors on at least all arterial highways. A more efficient mechanism, of course, is reliance on the odometer readings of vehicles that are reported on annual vehicle registration applications and by state vehicle safety inspection stations during the annual vehicle inspection. The mileage-based road fee would prevent the shifting of costs from motorists to the residents of the towns whose local streets would become clogged by drivers seeking to avoid paying the toll. A toll system works when, like the increasingly obsolescent gasoline tax, it is inescapable.
The president of the King of Prussia Chamber of Commerce, as reported in this story, suggests building high-speed lanes on Route 422 and imposing a toll only on those lanes. Though possible on that road to some extent, this approach permits those with monetary resources to enjoy a pleasant commute, while saddling the economically disfavored with increasing congestion consequences. The idea would widen the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, in contrast to setting aside high-speed lanes for carpools and environmentally beneficial vehicles, which is a totally different, and more socially beneficial, separation of motorists.
Proponents of putting a toll on Route 422 know that they will meet resistance. One member of the legislature, whose campaign included state opposition to tolls, claims, “Tolling is just another way of taxing people going to work in these hard economic times.” If a tax is an amount charge for the use of a public service, it’s true that a toll is a tax in that sense. So what? As the writer of the story reports, getting approval for the tolls “might be a tall order considering the current antitax mood of the electorate. Many daily commuters oppose what they see as an imposed cost for a currently free resource.” And therein lies the problem. The legislator complained, “They're already paying a lot of money in gas taxes and other fees.” But are those taxes and other fees enough? Apparently not, because the motorists using Route 422 are dissatisfied with the poor quality of the highway and the congestion that they encounter.
There always is resistance to paying for something, particularly when the something is at some point made available for free. In the long run, however, there is no free. There’s simply the game of shifting costs to others, whether it’s conning someone into picking up the dinner tab or compelling someone to do one’s work. The motorists who use Route 422 should be paying for the cost of their use, but imposing a toll would simply overburden alternative local roads without collecting from motorists using those roads the cost of their use. What is needed is a comprehensive plan that imposes costs on those who benefit, that makes it impossible to avoid paying, that prevents shifting the costs to others, and that protects the local roads adjacent to the tolled highway.
Monday, June 06, 2011
The mayor explained that he prefers the tax on sugary beverages because it “affects fewer people.” He noted that “It’s paid for by people who access a certain product, versus real estate, which is virtually everyone.” Does it make sense to put the burden of marginal tax increases for school funding on people who drink sweetened beverages? What is the rationale? It can’t be the notion that it “affects fewer people,” because that rationale supports all sorts of taxes, such as one on people who fly kites or one that increases the tax rate on millionaires. A kite tax affects fewer people. The flaw in the mayor’s reasoning is illustrated by his claim that the real property tax affects virtually everyone. It does if one takes into account indirect effects and pass-through, but that reasoning makes the soda tax one that affects virtually everyone.
My opposition to a tax focused solely on soda has been explained in a series of posts, starting with What Sort of Tax?, and continuing in The Return of the Soda Tax Proposal, Tax As a Hate Crime?, Yes for The Proposed User Fee, No for the Proposed Tax, and Philadelphia Soda Tax Proposal Shelved, But Will It Return?. On March 24, 2010, my editorial, Why Phila. Soda Tax Already Has Gone Flat, was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Two months ago, in Taxing Symptoms Rather Than Problems, I explained the flaws in Mark Bittman’s lambasting of those who oppose taxes aimed specifically, and only, at sugary beverages.
This time around, the mayor isn’t hiding behind the pretext of using the soda tax to improve Philadelphians’ health. To his credit, Mark Bittman at least argued from the health angle, as did the mayor in 2010. The current proposal does not direct any of the revenue to health improvement, nutrition education, and exercise promotion programs. The current proposal appears to be nothing more than “because we can” as an explanation for the tax. As I’ve argued previously, if the purpose of the tax is to improve health, it ought to be imposed not only on sugary beverages, but on sugary foods, on products containing fat, and on food and drinks containing carcinogens and other harmful substances. Even a wider tax fails to reach those who leave healthy foods, such as whole grains, out of their diet, nor does it reach those who eat such huge quantities of supposedly healthy foods that they violate the chief cause of obesity, namely, caloric intake exceeding caloric burn.
The Philadelphia Inquirer story suggests that the mayor’s proposal will trigger two weeks of backroom negotiations before City Council goes into summer recess. The core of the discussion needs to go deeper than the mayor’s tax and revenue proposals. It needs to address two fundamental questions. Who should pay to educate the city’s children? Why is the cost of that education so disproportionately high? These are difficult questions. One can argue that those who benefit from education should pay for it, but identifying those who benefit from the education of a particular student is challenging. The student benefits. So does the student’s family. So do the employers who seek to hire from a pool of educated applicants. So do the city’s residents, whose lifestyle and living conditions improves with each additional uneducated child being transformed into an educated child. Thousands of articles and commentaries have been written on the question of whether a property tax, a sales tax, an income tax, some other tax, or a combination of taxes should be used to fund schools. Philadelphia’s problem is that its revenue base is shrinking, as tax increases encourage those who are better off to move away, leaving the city increasingly home to lower and low income individuals.
In those discussions, someone needs to explain why the school district’s expenditures exceed its revenue by $629 billion. According to the fiscal year 2009 budget, expenditures were $2.3 billion. Two years later, according to this story, they had risen to $3.1 billion. The current proposal for fiscal 2012 is roughly $2.8 billion. Where does the money go? More than $600 billion is used to pay for the operation of charter and other alternative schools, to which at least one-fourth of the city’s school children have gone, an outcome that speaks volumes about the school district’s own schools. Surely running multiple-track school systems is economically inefficient, as evident from the explanation on page 31 of the fiscal 2012 budget. With an expected enrollment of 145,064, the per-student cost of Philadelphia’s school system is more than $19,000, and adjusting for payments made to charter schools, which brings the enrollment to 206,699, the per-student cost is more than $13,000. The per-student cost of a unified system operated with the features that have made charter schools attractive surely would face a lower per-student cost and thus a lower demand for revenue.
Perhaps the people running the charter schools ought to be handed the keys to the entire district. That, of course, highlights something that doesn’t get enough attention. The charter schools draw students who want to learn. Students who do not have a love of learning, often lacking parental and home support for educational advancement, not only fail to make academic progress but also impose additional costs on the system, ranging from the hiring of additional personnel to deal with the underlying psychological and other issues but also to prevent and react to the physical violence that permeates the Philadelphia school system. The current approach doesn’t work and it needs to be fixed. The explanation of the fiscal year 2009 budget contains a reference to the more than $600 million spent to “reform” the system. Why does it cost that much additional money to get the people who currently are being paid to deliver quality education to provide the quality education they are being paid to deliver? Is it a matter of sending administrators and teachers back to school to learn how to administer schools and teach students? Is it describing the money used to create the alternative charter school system? This definitely is an instance where the pumping of money into the system ought to be preconditioned on an explanation of how the money is being used and what it is purchasing. The problem, it seems, is that the revenue being raised to educate the city’s students isn’t getting the job done.
As one member of City Council put it, “This is a mess. I don’t know what alternatives we really have.” The statement of another member of City Council, “At this time, I’m not comfortable with signing off on any level of contribution until we get an accurate accounting of what is actually needed,” suggests that the sort of deep exploration of the school system budget might happen. Might. In the meantime, the push for a soda tax has resumed. But even if enacted, it would be nothing more than a band-aid for a hemorrhaging school district.
UPDATE: According to this report, Philadelphia's mayor has called for the Philadelphia School District to open its books. I'm not the only one who has asked for an "explanation of how the money is being used and what it is purchasing."