Friday, July 31, 2015

Another Problem with Targeted Tax Credits  

Readers of MauledAgain know that I object to using the tax law to accomplish what can and should be accomplished, if at all, through other means. It ought not be the task of the IRS or a state revenue department to administer the health law, supervise the automobile industry, or determine whether appliances satisfy energy-saving requirements. One state tax credit that I find particularly unacceptable is the tax giveaway to “persuade” film companies to do their filming in the state granting the credit. Some of my thoughts on this issue can be found in Are Tax Incentives Worth It?. It was no surprise to me that a study demonstrated the return to a state for each dollar of tax giveaway was less than a dollar, and in some cases way less than the dollar.

Now comes a report that film writers are trying to get in on New York’s film and television production credit giveaway. New York enacted a tax credit to “encourage” California film and television production companies to film in New York. In computing the credit, amounts paid for the services of writers are not taken into account. Apparently the production companies continue to use writers who are based in Los Angeles. New York writers are annoyed that the California production companies aren’t doing business with New York writers. So they want a new tax credit that would use taxpayer dollars to pay California companies to hire New York writers. Some complain that after going to school in New York, writers need to move to California to make a living. The industry explains that producers prefer writers to be nearby, and thus because the producers pretty much congregate in Los Angeles, the writers also base themselves there.

Once tax credits are handed out, everyone wants in on the gravy train. Some of the staunchest opponents of social welfare expenditures become very quiet when tax credit expenditures are being dished out. Even the argument that tax credits are necessary to encourage an activity fall apart when applied to the film and television production industry, because production companies will churn out movies and shows even if the credits don’t exist, and we know that because they were doing business profitably long before these tax credits were foisted on an unsuspecting public as a way of directing even more taxpayer dollars into the hands of those who already had dollars.

The solution is not enactment of another film and television industry credit. The solution is repeal of the existing credit. If a writer needs to go to California to get a job, so be it. People in all sorts of industries are required to relocate in order to find buyers for their skills. That’s the way free markets work. If particular individuals in New York want production companies to do work in New York, then those individuals need to do what needs to be done, without taxpayer funding of their personal film-making preferences, to make New York attractive to production companies. Arguing that taxpayers should pay because taxpayers will benefit is a theory that has been disproven by the practical reality of the facts, as explained in Are Tax Incentives Worth It?.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Changing the Look of Tax Forms 

A reader pointed me in the direction of a three-year-old paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in the category of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, and also available here. Normally I don’t comment on old stories, but this paper, which somehow flew under the radar or at least under my radar, deserves more attention. The proposition advanced by the paper is that documents offering the opportunity to commit fraud should be signed at the beginning rather than at the end. The authors give as examples tax returns and insurance policy forms.

Though the authors base their suggestion on theoretical analysis, they back up their musings with practical testing generating empirical results. The authors explain that when people sign a form after intentionally filling it out erroneously, they are more likely to “engage in various mental justifications, reinterpretations, and other ‘tricks’ such as suppressing thoughts about their moral standards that allow them to maintain a positive self-image despite having lied.” In contrast, signing the form before filling it out “makes morality accessible right before it is most needed, which will consequently promote honest reporting.”

When I read this explanation, my first thought was that in other circumstances people are required to affirm the truth before providing information. The example that popped into my head was the treatment of witnesses in litigation. They are sworn in before they testify. Aside from the theoretical impact, there is a practical advantage, especially for the attorney engaged in cross-examination, arising from the ability to remind the witness that he or she is under oath.

So why not do this for a tax return? As a practical matter, would people refrain from signing until after they fill it out? Possibly, if the return is in paper format. But as the tax system shifts to what will be an entirely digital process, it would be rather easy to compel a taxpayer to sign and affirm to truth before permitting tax items and other information to be entered into the relevant fields.

Even in less formal situations, people often stress the need for honesty before getting into the facts. Consider a parent who is attempting to determine what happened while he or she was out of the room. It is not unusual for the parent to preface questions with a reminder that truth-telling is important.

The change would not be difficult to make. It’s a matter of rearranging the paper form, and modifying a few lines of code in tax return preparation software. Finding a way to tell people, on tax or other forms, that “telling the truth is important” make sense. In a era when truth-telling finds less favor among some segments of society, there is no good reason to refrain from reminding people that without truth all else, not just revenue, is lost.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tax Fraud in The People’s Court 

Every now and then an episode from a television court show touches on taxation. Sometimes it is tangential and sometimes it is direct. At various times during the past four years, I have commented on these cases, beginning with Judge Judy and Tax Law, and continuing through Judge Judy and Tax Law Part II, TV Judge Gets Tax Observation Correct, The (Tax) Fraud Epidemic, Tax Re-Visits Judge Judy, Foolish Tax Filing Decisions Disclosed to Judge Judy, So Does Anyone Pay Taxes?, and Learning About Tax from the Judge. Judy, That Is.

Because of my schedule and commitments, I don’t see many of these shows, and when I do, it’s often as a re-run. Thanks to a reader, my attention was directed to People’s Court case from about a month ago. It’s a humdinger.

The plaintiff, whose tax situation for some not-well-explained reason caused her to have no use for a credit connected with one of her children, agreed with the defendant, her cousin, to refrain from claiming her child as a dependent so that the defendant could claim the child and obtain a refund based on the credit. They agreed to split the money, though the testimony was confusing as to how much of a refund was expected or was received and how it would be split. The plaintiff first stated that it was $3,234, of which the defendant would keep $1,000, but then stated that it was $5,000, of which the defendant would keep $1,000. The defendant explained that it was $3,200, and that she would keep $1,600. The defendant ended up keeping most of the money, and according to the plaintiff she kept all or almost all. The defendant testified that she gave the money to the plaintiff’s sister, but the plaintiff testified she did not get along with her sister and had not had contact with her. Defendant then testified that she was going to give the money to plaintiff’s mother but the plaintiff’s sister said it was ok to give it to her, the sister. Plaintiff testified that she contacted the sister after learning of the defendant’s claim, and learned that the sister said that the defendant did not give any money to the sister.

The defendant admitted that the child did not live with her. The defendant admitted that she did not support the child. The child lived with, and was supported by, the plaintiff.

Judge Milian pointed out to the parties that they had engaged in tax fraud. She asked the plaintiff if she had done this in the past and the plaintiff, after a bit of hemming and hawing, admitted that she had pulled the same stunt with someone else in a previous year.

After judge dismissed the case because the law does not enforce fraudulent contracts, the plaintiff asked, “What about pain and suffering?” The judge: “Are you out of your mind.”

The parties in the case are poster children for what is wrong with American education, civic responsibility, and common sense. The defendant, who testified that she is a court reporter, surely knows that the arrangement was improper. The plaintiff, and her boyfriend, in post-trial interviews, continued to argue that there was nothing wrong with what they did, and expressed bewilderment that the defendant was not compelled to turn over some amount of money.

Worse, these two individuals have admitted, on a nationally syndicated television show, that they have committed several crimes. It would not be surprising that at some future date they are contacted and informed that they have been indicted. It would be disappointing if that does not happen.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Yet More Proof Targeted Tax Breaks Miss the Mark 

In my post earlier this week, Who Benefits from Tax Breaks for the Private Sector?, I shared this thought about tax breaks for specifically targeted individuals and companies:
How do they manage to get these tax breaks? They use a dual tactic. One is that they can afford to “own” legislators because they finance legislative campaigns. The other is that they can afford to hire PR experts who excel at convincing the public, and the few remaining independent legislators, that the tax break for a specific individual, entity, or industry is in fact an economic benefit for the public.
Now there is yet another example of why Americans should compel their legislators to stop falling for these deals.

According to this report, Intel, seeking to reduce costs by $300 million, is laying off hundreds, perhaps thousands, of employees because revenues are less than expected. That part of the story is far from uncommon, although it is another example of how the economic distress of the middle class is not a good thing for business. What caught my eye was the fact that last year Washington County, Oregon, had entered into an agreement with Intel. Under the agreement, Intel would invest up to $100 billion in Oregon, and in return receive a $2 billion tax break. According to the mayor of Hillsboro, Oregon, the agreement would permit Intel to increase its investment in Hillsboro, and would ensure economic security for workers.

So how has this worked out for the workers who are losing their jobs? How has it worked out for the Oregon taxpayers who are paying more taxes, or obtaining less tax relief, in order for the Intel tax break to be implemented? Has it occurred to anyone that the number of Oregonians who can't afford to purchase computers has increased, and that this consequence would cause further reductions in Intel’s revenue?

It’s time to put an end to targeted tax breaks.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

When Raising Taxes Isn’t a Tax Increase 

If a sports team that lost two games after winning the first five games of its season claimed to be undefeated because the losses came after wins, the reactions of most people would range from “idiocy” to “bull manure.” If a person who drove in a westerly direction for 10 miles turned around and headed east for three miles, most people would react in a similar fashion if that person claimed not to have traveled in an easterly direction because the easterly movement had followed a western trek. If a person who spoke for ten minutes after being silent for an hour claimed to have been mute because the speaking followed a period of silence, the person’s friends would have reason to worry.

People aren’t that foolish, are they? Few are. But politicians? That’s a totally different story.

According to this report, the governor of Kansas, whose foolish tax reductions for the wealthy three years ago caused economic detriment and social chaos, as explained in Success for the Anti-Tax Crowd: Closing Down Education, and who was compelled to raise taxes, though mostly on those not wealthy, as explained in So What’s Trickling Down?, to repair the damage, claims that the increases in sales and other taxes are not a tax increase because there were tax cuts three years earlier. There are only three explanations for this sort of claim. A person who offers this sort of nonsense, which unfortunately some people might believe, is ignorant, dishonest, or manipulative. Those are not pillars on which society and government ought to be built.

That the governor of Kansas lives in an oligarchic fantasy world is not news to those who pay attention to the “canary in the coal mine” role that Kansas has played for the past few years. As I commented in A Tax Policy Turn-Around?, things don’t work out well when they’re directed by politicians “running around the country spewing forth idiotic economic theories and bizarre social concepts.” Because admitting that the tax increases are tax increases would be, in effect, an admission that the tax cuts of three years favoring the wealthy ago were a bad idea, the governor of Kansas must resort to deflection in the hopes that the sinking ship of trickle-down isn’t really sinking. Denial is a terrible thing, isn’t it?

How twisted is the thinking process of people who claim that a 5-2 team is undefeated because the losses followed a greater number of wins? The governor of Kansas blames the Democrats in the Kansas legislature for the mess in Kansas. He complains that they “put forward no proposals to solve this issue. None.” Duh. Hey, governor, why should those not responsible for the mess clean up the slop? Republicans hold more than 75 percent of the seats in the Kansas legislature. They created the crisis. They’re not infants whose messes need to be cleaned up by their parents. They need to fix their own mistakes. If they want the Democrats to fix their errors, fine. Resign en masse, and let the Democrats take over the state house.

The insanity in Kansas is simply the opening round in a cascading collapse of the economy generated by the disciples of disproven trickle-down voodoo economics. The chicanery eventually is revealed, and the price must be paid. The longer people wait to throw out the ignorance, dishonesty, and manipulation, the higher will be the price.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Who Benefits from Tax Breaks for the Private Sector? 

Many people, I suppose, would respond to the question, “Who benefits from tax breaks for the private sector?” with the answer, “The private sector.” And they would be correct. The better question, though, is “Who benefits from a tax break designed for a specific individual, entity, or industry?” The answer, most people would suggest, is “The specific individual, entity, or industry for whom it was designed.”

The follow-up question, “Should this tax break have been enacted?” surely would bring the answer, “No.” And that is because the overwhelming majority of Americans do not get as many tax breaks as do the specific individuals, entities, and industries that in recent years have procured all sorts of tax relief. How do they manage to get these tax breaks? They use a dual tactic. One is that they can afford to “own” legislators because they finance legislative campaigns. The other is that they can afford to hire PR experts who excel at convincing the public, and the few remaining independent legislators, that the tax break for a specific individual, entity, or industry is in fact an economic benefit for the public.

Readers of this blog know that I’m no fan of these targeted tax breaks. Interference in the so-called free market that causes the market to be less free, which is what these tax breaks do, is far worse than interference in the market necessitated by abuses of the market committed by those sufficiently powerful to twist the market. Of course, those who oppose regulatory control of market bullies are diehard supporters of market interference that benefits them.

A recent example caught my eye because of the stark contrast between promise and performance. According to this report, the city of New York’s Independent Budget Office examined the economic consequences of a real property tax break. The city gave the developer of One57, a luxury Manhattan condominium project, $65.6 million in real property tax reductions. In exchange, the developer promised to build affordable housing. It turns out that the developer spent $5.9 million to build 66 affordable apartment units in the Bronx. The Budget Office calculated that the city could have built almost 370 affordable housing units had it simply spent the $65.6 million directly to construct those units.

So where does the remaining $59.7 million go? The folks who can afford to purchase these condominium units enjoy a reduction in the annual cost of owning them, because they pay reduced real property taxes. These buyers are not people in need of affordable housing. In other words, a slice of the economic elite gets wealthier while those who should be benefitting from the tax break are short-changed.

The tax break in question was not limited to the one development. It cost the city roughly $1.1 billion annually. Why not just let the market for upscale residential housing sort itself out without paying wealthy people to do what they would be doing anyway?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Be Careful With Divorce Tax Planning 

Two recent Tax Court cases, published on the same day, illustrate the need for taxpayers to be careful when planning how to work out the economic effects of a divorce. Though the rules are fairly straight-forward, as tax rules go, it is easy to get into trouble, especially when alterations are made without thinking through all of the consequences.

In one case, Mehriary v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2015-126, the taxpayer and her eventual former husband agreed that he would have exclusive use, ownership, and possession of one of their residences, on Morton Road in New Bern, North Carolina, and that she would take their residence on Sweet Briar Road in the same town. He quitclaimed his interest in the Sweet Briar property to the taxpayer. They also agreed that the taxpayer would pay alimony to her former husband, in the amount of $4,000 each month for 60 months. These payments would be made to the bank holding the mortgage on the Morton property, and if the mortgage loan was paid in full, remaining payments would be made to the former husband. The agreement “advised the parties to seek the opinion and advice of a tax professional as to the tax ramifications of the agreement.” Subsequently, the taxpayer proposed a modification, under which the taxpayer would quitclaim the Sweet Briar property to her former husband in lieu of $80,000 of the alimony obligation, and he agreed. The taxpayer quitclaimed the property in February 2011, and in September 2011 requested the local court to modify the divorce decree to reflect the modification. The taxpayer deducted an $80,000 loss on her 2011 federal income tax return for the transfer of the Sweet Briar property, explaining at trial that she did so because her insurance company had characterized that property as an investment property.

The Tax Court held that the transfer of the Sweet Briar property was a transfer of property between former spouses incident to a divorce, and thus under section 1041 no gain or loss was permitted to be recognized by the taxpayer. The Tax Court also held that the taxpayer’s attempt to characterize the transfer as a deductible alimony payment failed because the transfer was not in cash, as required by section 71. Finally, the Tax Court upheld the imposition of a section 6662 accuracy-related penalty, pointing out, among other things, that the taxpayer had been advised to seek a tax professional’s opinion but that she did not introduce any evidence that she relied on professional tax advice.

In the other case, Muniz v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2015-125, the taxpayer and his eventual former wife agreed that he would pay alimony to her, along with $409 per month to cover health insurance for her and her son, followed by the lesser of $500 or the cost of health insurance for nine months. The former wife waived all rights to any other alimony payments. The parties then agreed to an order requiring the taxpayer to pay her $6,000 in satisfaction of the alimony obligation under the first agreement, and the taxpayer did so. The court reserved ruling on her request for attorney fees and costs. Subsequently, the court ordered the taxpayer to pay $45,000 to his former wife, which she characterized at trial as a settlement for attorney fees and division of marital assets. The taxpayer paid the $45,000, and deducted the payment. His former wife did not include it in gross income. The taxpayer is a licensed attorney, and also holds a CPA license which at some point he put on inactive status.

The Tax Court held that the $45,000 payment was not deductible alimony. It pointed out that the alimony covered by the first agreement did not add up to $45,000. It pointed out that the former wife waived rights to any other alimony aside from the $6,000 payment. The Tax Court also noted that the $45,000 appeared to be a property settlement. The court explained that under applicable state law, the obligation to pay the $45,000 survived the death of the former spouse, and thus failed to qualify as deductible alimony for federal income tax purposes. The court rejected the taxpayer’s argument that because making the $45,000 payment extinguished any additional obligation on his part to make payments to his former wife the payment was alimony, noting that there is no such test in the Internal Revenue Code or in applicable state law. Finally, the court upheld the imposition of a section 6662 accuracy-related penalty, pointing out, among other things, that the taxpayer did not explain what sources he used to determine his tax liability, that he did not consult a tax professional for advice, and that the fact he is a licensed attorney who at one time held a CPA license “should have alerted him to the fact that alimony is not deductible under section 215(a) unless it satisfies the requirements of section 71(b).

What makes these cases stand out is that in one of them the taxpayer was an attorney-CPA, though it isn’t clear he was a tax professional, and in the other, the taxpayer was advised to obtain advice from a tax professional. I wonder how many state judges ask parties in divorce cases if they have consulted a tax professional. I wonder how many attorneys representing parties in divorce cases advise their clients to do so or ask if they have done so. Not that doing this will eliminate these avoidable outcomes, but perhaps it will reduce the number of these unfortunate outcomes. The fact that both of these cases were handed down on the same day simply magnifies the prevalence of these sorts of situations.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Goodbye Because of Tax? Hardly. 

As Pennsylvania moves deeper into budget crisis, rhetoric over the governor’s attempts to replace the shale impact fee with an extraction tax has escalated. The industry, ever protective of its already exalted status in Pennsylvania, has produced a variety of arguments attempting to justify what continues to be a farce. Pennsylvania remains the only state not to impose an extraction tax on the production of natural gas from shale. How that came about is, of course, another example of what the ultra-wealthy do with some of their dollars, namely, purchase legislatures willing to do their bidding.

One of the assertions made by the industry is laughable. According to this story, the president of the Marcellus Shale coalition claimed that replacing the impact fee with an extraction tax would increase the industry’s cost of doing business in Pennsylvania to the point that it would “divert investments to more hospitable states.” How? For one thing, all of the other states in which there is shale gas to extract have extraction taxes, so where are the “more hospitable” states? For another, so long as there is shale gas in Pennsylvania to extract and sell at a profit, the industry isn’t going to walk away and leave those profits in the ground.

However one wants to characterize this not-so-veiled threat, it is difficult to avoid calling it a bluff. The fact that even some members of the shale industry, including executives of some of the companies doing business in Pennsylvania, “recognize the need for a severance tax” demonstrates the thinness of the Coalition’s threat.

Those same executives “were amazed” that Pennsylvania, unlike all of the other states, has no severance tax. Reportedly, “they thought Pennsylvania was being a chump for not having one.” Of course. Chump. It’s what happens when those with a fiduciary duty to the people sell out to a handful of the oligarchy.

When all is said and done, the shale extraction industry is not leaving Pennsylvania. I doubt the governor takes the threat seriously. The question is whether the legislative chumps will wise up

Monday, July 13, 2015

So Is It a Tax or a Fee? 

There’s a difference between a tax and a fee. I explained it in Please, It’s Not a Tax. So why do some people use the word “tax” to describe a fee? As I explained in that post from six years ago, because it riles up the anti-tax crowd and generates opposition that would not otherwise show up. For most people, paying a fee for something in return is more palatable than paying a tax.

This nomenclature silliness has recently moved back to center stage. According to numerous reports, including this one, Republicans are using the word “fee” to describe an increase in the penalty imposed on businesses for failure to file a required Form 1099-MISC that is included in legislation currently being considered. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, in and of itself, because payment of a penalty is tantamount to payment of a fee, because the person paying it does so because the person chose to do or not do something that triggers the penalty.

The problem is that when the same increase was included in legislation several years ago, the same Republicans – individuals, not just the party – raised a ruckus, calling the increase a tax. But now that it is part of legislation favored by Republicans, the name is changed. For example, Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform – Grover Norquist’s operation – wrote of the current legislation, “This is a fine for failing to comply with tax law, not a tax increase.” Yet several years ago, writing with respect to the same statutory language, Ellis described the increase in the penalty as a tax increase. Another official of Americans for Tax Reform did the same thing, claiming that the provision currently under consideration is not a tax increase, while describing the very same language in the earlier legislation as a tax increase. Requests for clarification of the inconsistency did not bring any sort of comprehensible explanation, other than to tag an opponent of the current legislation, who is a conservative activist as a “liberal Democrat.”

In the meantime, John Boehner is pushing Republicans to support the legislation and the penalty increase in it. This is the same John Boehner who several years called the exact same provision “one of Washington’s dumbest ideas.” The switch would make more sense if Boehner would announce that he changed his mind because he has shifted to a different political philosophy. But he has not. It’s also worth noting that the current legislation is being crafted in the same manner that brought Republican criticism of how the earlier legislation was enacted. This would make more sense if Boehner would step up and announce that he now approves of the very sort of tactic that he thought was horrible when it was employed by the other side of the aisle. Again, requests for clarification did not bring any sort of comprehensible explanation.

So what is it? A tax or a fee? Apparently, it’s whatever the politicians want to call it as part of the process of putting spin on what they are advocating. Of course, it would make much more sense to be transparent and honest. The problem with transparency and honesty is that it gets in the way of political power play, and exposes covert political deals for what they really are. And apparently the same sort of labeling is applied to people to fit the accusations that some people want to make. Expediency trumps integrity in post-modern America.

All of this leaves a bunch of Republicans who pledged to vote against tax increases finding themselves voting for tax increases, and thus violating the pledge that they took to an unelected self-appointed individual. Do they really think calling it something other than a tax increase excuses the vote? Apparently the answer is yes, because the person to whom the pledge was made has redefined the definition of what the pledge opposes.

And people wonder why this nation is in a mess. Rather than screaming, “Take back our country,” – and I wonder, from whom? – perhaps they need to vote, “Bring back integrity.” Or at least what little of it once existed in the political process.

Friday, July 10, 2015

When the Rich Beg, for Tax Breaks 

It’s getting tiresome, this begging by wealthy people and entities for tax breaks. Actually, it’s not so much begging as it is blackmail. Wealthy individuals and corporations argue for tax breaks using a double-edged sword. They claim that because they do good things for the economy that they deserve tax breaks. They also threaten to pull out of particular areas, or to refrain from bringing operations into a particular area, if the tax break is not granted.

Readers of this blog know that this digging at the public trough is most visible when professional sports teams insist on building their empires on the backs of taxpayers. In So Who Are the Takers of Taxpayer Dollars?, I described a series of incidents in which the public, including those uninterested in a particular sport, were stuck with some or all of the cost of building palaces for the elite who can afford to own professional teams. Of course, they claim that the taxpayers get more than their money’s worth in return because of the alleged economic benefits of what taxpayers are being compelled to finance, often without having a vote on the matter. In “Give Us a Tax Break and We’ll Do Nice Things.” Not., I explained how these promises fail to materialize.

Now comes news that Disney wants to extend by 30 years a tax break that it negotiated in 1996. The exemption provides that if the city of Anaheim ever enacts an entertainment gate tax, it will not apply to Disneyland. Anaheim has not enacted such a tax, but faced with increasing financial pressures, it’s not guaranteed that it would not enact such a tax in the future.

So what is the basis for Disney escaping the tax? Apparently it plans an expansion of Disneyland, which it promises will several thousand construction jobs and about 2,000 permanent jobs. The problem with this justification is that every business and every individual contributes to the creation of jobs, and those jobs benefit the economy because the individuals holding the jobs earn money that they spend, in turn infusing economic energy into businesses. Even self-employed individuals ratchet up the economy. If creating a job justifies tax breaks, then everyone is entitled to being exempt from taxation. Of course, that’s part of the plan. Without taxes, there is no government. Necessary services would be privatized, far beyond what already has been put into the hands of the back-room oligarchs, and instead of paying taxes, citizens would be paying fees to enormous enterprises who could charge what they want, as there would be no government to regulate them or district attorneys or attorneys general to prosecute them for mistreating the citizenry, oh excuse me, the serfs.

So if Disney doesn’t receive its desired tax break, what would it do? Pack up and leave? The cost of doing so far exceeds the value of the tax break. Refuse to expand its facility? Perhaps, but again, it would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. No, what it would do is add the tax to the cost of a ticket. And that makes sense. It shifts to those making use of the services provided by Anaheim to Disney a cost that otherwise would be imposed on all taxpayers, including those who do not benefit from, or make use of, Disneyland.

Even the member of Anaheim Council who supported the exemption in 1996 opposes its extension. He woke up. How long until the rest of America wakes up? The morning it discovers there are no taxes and that a handful of oligarchs run their lives the way medieval nobility controlled the peasants? Or will America change course and say “no” to the wealthy who beg for tax breaks while criticizing the poor as takers?

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Name a Tax 

A reader sent me this story, and asked a question. First, the story.

According to the story, the governor of Rhode Island has proposed a state property tax on second homes with values of $1,000,000 or more. Apparently the proposed tax is named after Taylor Swift, who purchased a mansion in the state two years ago. The usual debate over whether taxes are good or bad for the economy is underway. Nothing that I read added to the list of arguments made on both sides of the issue.

Second, the reader’s question. He asked, “If you could have a tax named after you what would it be?”

My answer? The understandable tax.

In every sense of the word. Think about it.

And then say it aloud. The Maule Tax. Say it again and again. Have fun.

Monday, July 06, 2015

So What’s a Taxpayer To Do? 

Almost all taxpayers who retain tax return preparers to prepare their federal income tax returns do so because they find the task too challenging. They turn to tax return preparers because they are accustomed to handing tasks to experts when the requirements surpass the client’s level of competence. A handful of taxpayers probably could do their own returns but find it less expensive to pay someone to do the job.

So what happens if the preparer makes a mistake? The taxpayer is not absolved. We were reminded again of this lesson by the Tax Court in the recent case of Devy v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2015-110. The taxpayer paid “Tax Whiz,” a tax return preparation business, to prepare and file his 2011 federal income tax return. The return included a claim for the American Opportunity credit. Because of the credit, the return reported a $1,853 refund due to the taxpayer. But the refund was intercepted and transmitted to the state of New York to satisfy an outstanding child support debt of the taxpayer. The taxpayer was not entitled to the credit because the taxpayer did not have any qualifying educational expenses in 2011. The taxpayer stipulated that he did not ask Tax Whiz to claim the credit. He also stipulated that he did not review the return before it was filed.

After the IRS issued a notice of deficiency, the taxpayer filed a petition in the Tax Court. The Tax Court held that the taxpayer was not entitled to the credit. The taxpayer’s argument that he had nothing to do with the claiming of the credit failed to change the outcome. The Tax Court, citing and quoting earlier cases, explained that taxpayers cannot avoid their duty to file accurate returns by retaining a tax return preparer.

The difficulty with this situation is that it presumes a taxpayer, in reviewing a return prepared by a professional, will spot errors even though the taxpayer put the task in the professional’s hands because the profession is the expert. It’s one thing for a taxpayer to notice, for example, that the amount of salary reported on the return is significantly lower than what the taxpayer knows was earned. It’s a totally different issue to expect taxpayers to identify errors that are beyond the skill set of the typical citizen. Once one moves past simple items such as wages, interest, dividends, and cash charitable contributions, it is easy to get caught in the web of complexity surrounding most deductions and credits.

This problem would not be so severe if the tax law were not so complicated. What makes it particularly disturbing is that most federal income tax law complexity is unnecessary, a result not of the complexity of life but a consequence of the smoke and mirrors constructed to disguise tax breaks and the inadequacies of using tax law to regulate behavior better handled by other laws and by agencies other than the IRS.

The only ray of sunshine in this mess is a perverse one. Perhaps taxpayers will sign up by the tens of thousands for tax courses that help them learn how to review the tax preparation work of their hired professionals. Just kidding. Most people won’t go near a tax course.

Friday, July 03, 2015

When the Job of a Tax Is Finished 

What should be done when the purpose of a tax is finished? Presumably, the tax should be repealed. We know, of course, that this doesn’t happen as often as one would expect, which would be every time. As nicely described in this article, it took 108 years for the federal government to stop collecting a telephone tax enacted to defray the cost of the Spanish-American War.

Taxes that are imposed on undesirable activities, the so-called “sin taxes,” present the same question. There is a tax on cigarettes, designed to do two things. One is to discourage people from smoking tobacco. The other is to provide funding for the costs borne by society because of smoking. One might think that if everyone stopped smoking, the tax would de facto suspend, because no one would be purchasing tobacco. But is it that simple?

Recently, e-cigarettes have caught on among some people trying to break their addiction to tobacco, as well as among people who resisted taking up tobacco but who were sold on the benefits of e-cigarettes. According to this report, Montgomery County, Maryland, plans to impose an excise tax on e-cigarettes. Supporters of the tax argue that e-cigarettes should be treated in the same manner as tobacco. Objectors claim that the tax is nothing more than a means of raising revenue, and that it will suppress the growth of a new industry.

It is tempting to conclude that the answer depends on whether the use of e-cigarettes should be treated as an undesirable activity or as one that generates societal costs that should be funded through a tax on their use. Those objecting to the Montgomery County excise tax claim that e-cigarettes are “far healthier” and that they help people stop using tobacco. There are two issues raised by these claims. One is whether e-cigarettes are healthier than tobacco products. On this question, the jury is out. Compare this study, concluding that e-cigarettes pose at least as many risks, with this commentary, claiming that e-cigarettes are healthier. The other issue is whether e-cigarettes, even if healthier than their tobacco counterparts, pose enough health risks to warrant treating them as tobacco, alcohol, and gambling, three things widely targeted by sin taxes.

Whether the tax would “kill” the e-cigarette business is problematic. Opponents of the tax argue that the tax won’t raise much revenue because users will make their purchases outside of the county, but if this is the case, then the industry would not suffer and surely not die. Opponents also claim that the use of e-cigarettes should not be subjected to sin tax because e-cigarette users are “trying to atone for their sins by quitting their use of tobacco.” That argument begs the question, because if the use of e-cigarettes is unhealthy, applying a sin tax can be justified. Exempting e-cigarettes from a sin tax simply because their use arguably isn’t as bad as the use of tobacco is as futile as arguing that muggings should be decriminalize because they’re not as bad as murders.

The decision to impose a tax on e-cigarettes requires something more than simply labeling them as just like tobacco. It requires a determination of whether the use of e-cigarettes poses societal risks and costs similar in nature to those posed by the use of tobacco, the use of alcohol, or gambling. If the use of e-cigarettes eventually causes tobacco use to cease, then the cigarette tax will disappear de facto. Whether an e-cigarette tax takes its place remains to be seen.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Learning About Tax from the Judge. Judy, That Is. 

When, from time to time, I mention that I watch episodes of Judge Judy whenever I get the chance, sometimes the reaction is one of bewilderment, as though I’ve descended into the depths of letting myself be entranced by reality TV. Of course, there is reality TV and then there is reality TV. It’s one thing to be caught up in the over-hyped drama of people playing to the cameras. It’s quite a different thing to have the chance to observe what tax practitioners understand to be “life in all its fullness.”

Last week my attention was drawn to an assertion made by a defendant in a case heard by Judge Judy. This was not the first time her show generated material for this blog. In the past, I’ve shared my reactions to other cases, starting with Judge Judy and Tax Law, and continuing through Judge Judy and Tax Law Part II, TV Judge Gets Tax Observation Correct, The (Tax) Fraud Epidemic, Tax Re-Visits Judge Judy, Foolish Tax Filing Decisions Disclosed to Judge Judy, and So Does Anyone Pay Taxes?.

This time, a defendant was being sued by a former roommate, to whom he had not paid rent he ought to have paid. The defendant’s answers to the judge’s questions did not sit well with her. In answering one of the judge’s questions about where he lived, the defendant, referring to the premises shared with the plaintiff, claimed, “My things were here but I didn’t live there.” How one can live in a place other than where all of one’s things are raised eyebrows. When asked about his finances, a matter relevant to figuring out the economics of the rental arrangement, the defendant answered a question by explaining, “It’s a cash business so I don’t have to pay taxes.” Really? I wonder how many people in this country would have thought that was a guiding principle had Judge Judy not smartly set the record straight.

Ultimately, the defendant’s claim came back to smack him as Judge Judy explained her reasoning. “You dealt with her [the plaintiff roommate] the way you dealt with the IRS. ‘It’s a cash business so I don’t pay taxes.’” The defendant’s display of such nonsense and arrogance in dealing with his responsibilities cemented the decision against him. In other words, a person who confesses to being a tax cheat finds it difficult to convince people that he or she isn’t cheating on other matters.

So as I also tell people who wonder about my decision to invest time watching Judge Judy and other court shows, just because it’s entertaining doesn’t mean it isn’t educational. One can learn much more about people by observing them in and out of courtrooms than by studying assorted theories about human behavior. And that includes attitudes and actions involving taxation.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Anti-Tax Bully Strikes Again 

Readers of MauledAgain know that I consider Grover Norquist to be an anti-tax bully. In Debunking Tax Myths?, I shared opinions expressed by others who share my position, and criticized the commentators who defend Norquist and his tactics, in particular one commentator who disputes claims that “Republicans are in the thrall of one Grover Norquist.” In If the Government Collects It, Is It Necessarily a Tax?, I explained that “Grover Norquist is not a tax guru. He does not practice tax law, nor tax accounting. He is not a commercial tax return preparer. He would struggle to earn points on any well-designed tax law exam.” In Tax Policy, Elections, and Money, I shared my thoughts about why and how he has so much influence, pointed out that his goal, in his own words, is to “drown [government] in the bathtub,” explained that he grew up economically privileged without encountering economic deprivation, criticized his maneuvers that bypass representative government, and suggested that his antipathy toward taxes and government has roots in psychological abuse suffered at the hands of a cruel parent.

Now comes a report of how Norquist strong-armed the Louisiana legislature into enacting a completely bizarre piece of legislation that raises taxes while appearing not to raise taxes. It is so bizarre and difficult to explain that one legislator moved to change the name of the act to the “DUMB Act,” an acronym for Don’t Understand Meaning of Bill Act. But I will try.

Louisiana faces a huge budget deficit. That comes as no surprise to those of us who insist that cutting taxes for the wealthy does not raise revenue. And that’s what happened in Louisiana. What should have been done is enactment of legislation to undo what clearly was another mistake from “make the wealthy wealthier” club. But that could not happen because Louisiana’s governor and many of its legislators have taken the “Norquist pledge,” putting the aims of an unelected lobbyist above their fiduciary duty to all the people.

So a plan was devised. The legislation increased the state cigarette tax. It also created a $1,600 fee for each of the 220,000 students in the state university system. But the fee would be matched with a tax credit, which would be paid to the universities by funneling to them the money from the cigarette tax increase. How is this not a tax increase? I don’t know. But the overall effect of the legislation somehow comes out as revenue-neutral, which satisfies Norquist’s anti-tax stance. How do we know that? Before the legislation was introduced, Louisiana’s governor met privately with Norquist to get his approval, which he obtained. Isn’t that amazing? A state governor is not permitted to do anything that affects taxation without getting clearance from America’s non-elected, self-declared “guru” of taxation. Norquist, not surprisingly, claimed that what some legislators called a “purely fictional, procedural, phantom, paper tax credit” was not his creation.

The legislature included the bizarre tax credit in the legislation, because the governor threatened to veto the bill if the gimmick was removed from it. Without the gimmick, the only options were to repeal the previously enacted unwise tax cuts or to make further cuts in education and other state services. In other words, the price for the anti-tax bullying became obvious, as it has in the other states bullied into unwise fiscal decisions. The gimmick permitted the governor to stay in the good graces of Norquist, whose support he needs as he attempts to spread his fiscal failings nationally with a presidential run. The legislature went along with this nonsense because, as one explained, “Our love for higher education is greater than the embarrassment over the instrument.”

The writer of the article reveals that many Louisiana legislators have “soured” on Norquist, resenting the need to “please a Washington power-broker, rather than local constituents” in working out local and state issues. The writer suggests that this time, “Norquist may well have pushed his anti-tax crusade too far.” Only time will tell if Americans throughout the nation catch on, as have some legislators in Louisiana and other states, and as have some taxpayers throughout the nation. I liken the anti-tax movement to the pleas of a child who wants to eat nothing but ice cream. Maturity brings the realization that what seems to be wonderful is, in the long run, damaging. Maturity also brings the end of bullying, the end to enabling bullies, and the willingness to stand up to bullies and bullying. Placation isn’t going to work, either in the short run or in the long run.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Should Bicyclists Pay Taxes for Road Upkeep? 

A story from two years ago with tax roots is now going viral, as a recent addendum to the story notes. Discussions about what was reported has taken off on sites such as this one.

The tax at the center of the story is a bike tax proposed in the state of Washington. Supporters argue that bicyclists use roads financed by vehicles subject to fuel taxes, and that bicyclists should share in the cost of maintaining the roads. Opponents point out only four percent of the cost of maintaining roads and streets in Seattle come from taxes and fees connected to road use, and that state-wide only 25 percent comes from road taxes. The balance comes from taxes and fees paid by taxpayers generally.

The issues that can be debated about the wisdom of subjecting bicycles or bicyclists to a tax are not unlike those presented by the nonpayment of fuel taxes with respect to electric vehicles. There are a variety of proposals addressing the questions. But the proposed bicycle tax inspired an argument that grabbed attention two years ago and is again getting noticed.

When responding to a constituent who objected to the proposed tax, a Republican member of the Washington legislature rejected the claim that bicycling is good for the environment because bicyclists have “an increased heart rate and respiration.” Accordingly, he argued that a person riding a bicycle is “giving off more CO2” than if the person were “driving in a car.” He then confessed to not having “done any analysis” of the CO2 amounts produced by bicyclists as compared to cars. He then added the disproven claim that people who ride bicycles do not contribute taxes or fees to road upkeep.

What hasn’t received as much attention is the fact that the legislator apologized for the “carbon emissions line” of the email that he had sent. He described it as “over the top,” as an issue that should not have entered the discussion about the proposed tax, and was “a poor job” of articulating his point that a bicyclist does “not necessarily have a zero-carbon footprint.” He offered that he had “always recognized that bicycling emits less carbon than cars.”

This clearly is a case of speaking or writing too quickly. That’s an affliction from which all of us suffer, to a greater or lesser extent. Unlike the legislator in question, most politicians fail to rectify their errors, perhaps because they consider the making of an apology to be a weakness easily exploited in the political game. In all fairness, the tendency to speak or write too quickly has been amplified by digital technology riding the crest of the instant gratification culture, even though that same digital technology makes it easier to ascertain facts while yet making it easier for the purveyors of falsehoods to make their lies look true.

The tax in question was a $25 fee on bicycles costing more than $500. To me, that’s a tax probably not worth enacting because, among other things, its presents issues of administration inefficiency and appears too easy to circumvent. On the other hand, making bicycles subject to a mileage-based road use fee, at a small fraction of the rate applicable to automobiles, doesn’t seem to be any more efficient. In the world of privatization and monetization, are we going to see toll booths on bike lanes? Or worse, a carbon tax applied to each person’s exhalation of CO2?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

So What’s Trickling Down? 

Back in January, in A New Play in the Make-the-Rich-Richer Game Plan, I explained how Kansas politicians were struggling with the need to repair a fiscal mess. The problem, coming as no surprise to those who understand taxation, is that the tax cuts for the wealthy enacted by Kansas Republicans “backfired, causing the rich to get richer, the economy to stagnate, public services to falter, and the majority of Kansans to end up worse than they had been.” Among the many proposals to deal with the state budget deficit were several that fell heavily on those not wealthy. These proposals would eliminate sales and income tax exemptions, increase alcohol and tobacco taxes, and raise sales taxes.

Now comes news that the Kansas legislature has enacted a series of tax amendments in an attempt to fix the fiscal catastrophe that has afflicted the state. According to this report, the changes increase the sales tax, expands the sales tax to include not only food but also clothing, cars, and prescription medicines, provides a restricted nonrefundable income tax credit for sales taxes paid by low-income workers who have children, increase the cigarette tax, reduces the state income tax deduction for real property taxes and mortgage interest.

The legislation does not roll back the tax rate cuts enacted in 2012 that caused the problem. This leaves untouched a bundle of tax cuts that had the perverse effect of increasing tax liabilities for the poor. For the most part, the legislation does not affect small business owners. The Republican governor’s explanation is that his tax policy is to spare small business owners because they create jobs. However, the jobs promised three years ago when the tax cuts were enacted have not appeared. That’s no surprise, because small business owners aren’t going to hire more employees when their businesses aren’t experiencing increased sales. Increased sales require low and middle income taxpayers, who constitute the vast majority of potential business transactions, to have disposable income to use in patronizing the small businesses. The governor also proposed reducing the earned income tax credit, persuaded the legislature to cut food stamp and welfare benefits, and resisted an attempt to reduce the sales tax rate on food.

Some commentators predict that Kansas residents living close to Missouri will travel there to purchase groceries, saving as much as $550 annually in sales taxes. Increases sales taxes paid by Kansas businesses probably will be passed along to customers, adding to the amount ordinary people are paying to finance the tax cuts for the wealthy. How all of this will boost the Kansas economy into anything worthy of admiration remains a mystery to all but the self-deceived advocates of playing puppet to the oligarchy.

According to this analysis, the legislation leaves in place most of the tax exemption for “pass-through” income, which caused hundreds of millions in revenue losses as businesses restructured, on paper, in order to qualify for the tax break. Only 6 percent of the revenue raised by the legislation to pay for the tax cut mistake comes from those who have taken advantage of, and will continue to take advantage of, this tax exemption. The governor threatened to veto any legislation that eliminated the unjustified provision that has become a tax give-away.

Almost all of the tax cuts in the 2012 legislation went to a privileged few in Kansas at the top of the income scale. And yet, according to analysts, more than 60 percent of the revenue raised to eliminate the deficit caused by the 2012 give-away comes from taxpayers who are not part of that elite group, and arguably most of the rest also comes from them. Of course, the legislature could have done what I suggested, that is, taking the high road by repealing the tax cuts for the wealthy and demanding that the beneficiaries of those tax cuts repay the state, with interest, for having failed to produce the promised jobs and economic paradise that they dangled as bait to get their unwarranted benefits. But the legislature chose not to take the high road.

The only good news in this story is something I shared in A Tax Policy Turn-Around?. Republican governors, eyeing the Kansas debacle, are pulling back from across-the-board tax cut proposals, though apparently some continue to speak in terms of cutting taxes.

The bad news is summed up in the headline to one of the cited reports: After Cutting Taxes On The Rich, Kansas Will Raise Taxes On The Poor To Pay For It. Indeed. About the only thing trickling down is misery.

Monday, June 22, 2015

When Tax Ignorance Gets Particularly Scary 

As one of my readers put it, absurd claims about the size of the Internal Revenue Code is one of my favorite topics. Indeed it is. My exploration of this persistent misrepresentation began more than ten years ago in Bush Pages Through the Tax Code?, and continued with Anyone Want to Count the Words in the Internal Revenue Code?, Tax Commercial’s False Facts Perpetuates Falsehood, How Tax Falsehoods Get Fertilized, How Difficult Is It to Count Tax Words, A Slight Improvement in the Code Length Articulation Problem, Tax Ignorance Gone Viral, Weighing the Size of the Internal Revenue Code, Reader Weighs In on Weighing the Code, Code-Size Ignorance Knows No Boundaries, Code-Sized Ignorance Discussion Also Is Growing, The Scary Specter of Code Size Ignorance, and Code Size Claim Shrinks But Not Enough.

Though it disturbs me when someone repeats the misrepresentation about the size of the Internal Revenue Code, it doesn’t surprise me when it comes from someone who isn’t involved with tax policy and taxation. Politicians who repeat this erroneous claim should know better, and are in a position to inform themselves, but very few politicians know much about tax policy or taxation beyond the talking points that their handlers provide them. On the other hand, when those who should know better and who profess to be experts in tax policy speak or write about the size of the Internal Revenue Code, they owe it to themselves and to their audiences to get the facts right.

Why does it matter? If a person with common sense visits a physician and is told to drink a quart of turpentine every evening, that person isn’t going to trust anything else that the physician advises. By now, with at least ten years of corrective explanation available not only from myself but from others, it makes no sense at all that two academics, one a fellow of an economic institute and the other a professor of economics would assert that the tax code, as of 2010, was “nearly 72,000 pages long.” It wouldn’t take much research to figure out that this claim is way off the mark. Perhaps getting a copy of the Internal Revenue Code and counting the pages -- even using a method of extrapolation – would generate something much closer to the correct number than grabbing something off the internet.

It’s unfortunate that these two commentators begin their article with this claim. Usually, when I start to read something that puts forth a serious factual error I set it aside. In this instance, I continued to read, wondering if I would find any other errors. Like the other advocates of the “flat tax,” including a presidential candidate who a few days ago shared his particular version, they claim that complexity is eliminated by setting the tax rate at one percentage and eliminating all deductions. They fail to mention issues of timing, such as cash versus accrual, installment sales, or nonrecognition, make no attempt to consider the application of any tax to partnerships and LLCs, ignore the treatment of cost of goods sold, and make no attempt to discuss basis. As I explained in, among other posts, The Flat Tax Myth Won’t Die, those who understand taxation don’t accept simplistic flat tax proposals as anything even close to solving the complexity problem.

As a consequence, readers who stop reading when they see the 72,000-page silliness miss the valid claims that the authors offer. They point out that politicians buy votes with tax breaks for their “preferred constituencies,” a polite phrase for puppetmasters. Yes, the IRS makes mistakes when answering taxpayer questions. Absolutely, it is better to judge politicians by what they do after being elected than simply by what they say they will do. Indeed, tax law complexity provides cover for hiding tax breaks dished out to those rich enough to buy them.

So I’m left with one conclusion. Though the authors identify the problem – namely, the ownership of Congress by the oligarchy, though they don’t put it in those terms – they go off track when it comes to finding a solution. And that conclusion is reinforced when my confidence is shattered at the outset, after wondering what do they really know and understand, and then realizing the answer is, not all that they need to know and understand.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Tax Fray Between the Bricks and Mortar Stores and the Online Merchant Community 

Sometimes I wonder, when it appears that people exhibit ignorance, if they actually lack understanding and knowledge or simply are pretending to be deficient in order to accomplish some other goal. If it’s the latter, my admiration is withheld because that sort of approach lacks transparency. If it’s the former, I remain baffled at the inability of so many people to understand the use tax. In many posts, such as Taxing the Internet, Taxing the Internet: Reprise, Back to the Internet Taxation Future, A Lesson in Use Tax Collection, Collecting the Use Tax: An Ever-Present Issue, A Peek at the Production of Tax Ignorance, Tax Collection Obligation is Not a Taxing Power Issue, Collecting An Existing Tax is Not a Tax Increase, How Difficult Is It to Understand Use Taxes?, Apparently, It’s Rather Difficult to Understand Use Taxes, and Counting Tax Chickens Before They Hatch, I have tried to explain how the use tax works. It’s rather simple. When a resident of a state with a sales tax makes a purchase in another state and brings the item back into the state, that resident must pay a use tax. Of course, compliance is unsatisfactory. The only items with respect to which states manage to collect most of the use tax that is due are items requiring title, such as vehicles, boats, airplanes, and a few similar items. The rise of Internet commerce has made it even more difficult for states to collect the use tax, because the number of people who crossed state lines to make purchases to bring home is dwarfed by the number of people who can make out-of-state purchases without leaving their home or business. So, of course, states want out-of-state retailers to collect the use tax on their behalf, even if the retailer has no physical presence with the state.

In the latest attempt to deal with this issue, Representative Jason Chaffetz has introduced the Remote Transaction Parity Act (RTPA), which would authorize states to require all retailers to collect the use tax if they sell products in the state. Bricks and mortar stores want this sort of legislation because they consider themselves to be at a disadvantage caused by the online retailer’s ability to refrain from collect the use tax that the brick and mortar stores must collect in the form of a sales tax. It is important to note that this disadvantage existed long before there was an internet, such as in the case of Pennsylvania residents shopping in the no-sales-tax state of Delaware. The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) supports the RTPA because it would “restore basic free market competition for retailers” and eliminate the “free pass” given to online businesses that are “little more than a government subsidy.” RILA argues that they “want everyone to play by the same rules.” In contrast, the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) opposes the RTPA because it “opens the gates to an unprecedented expansion of taxation and taxpayer harassment by out-of-state tax collectors,” and fails to “solve the core issue of nexus, or where precisely an electronic transaction takes place.” By eliminating the requirement that businesses must have a physical connection with a state before the state can require it to collect use tax, IPI argues that RTPA would open the door to every state being permit to audit businesses in every other state.

For me, it is easy to see that RILA and IPI are arguing past each other. When IPI argues, for example, that RTPA would require “consumers, [to] pay taxes in the state where the customer resides,” it overlooks the fact that under law that has been around for decades, a consumer living in a state with a sales tax must pay use tax on items purchased in other states and brought into the state. So the issue, as I have repeatedly pointed out, is not a matter of whether a tax exists, but who should be responsible for seeing to it that the tax is paid. The ultimate responsibility is on the consumer, and the imposition of collection requirements on a retailer arises when the retailer avails itself of the state’s services by making itself present in the state. The question of what constitutes presence in the state when a transaction takes place over the Internet is the key issue, and here, IPI makes a good point by noting that RTPA doesn’t address that question. On the other hand, when RILA considers the inability of Pennsylvania to require a Delaware merchant to collect Pennsylvania use tax when selling items in Delaware to a Pennsylvania visitor to be some sort of government subsidy, it ignores the practical reality that the Delaware merchant chose to do business in Delaware and Pennsylvania, and that if there is a subsidy, it is the choice of Delaware not to impose a sales tax.

So what’s the answer? I proposed a solution in Tax Collection Obligation is Not a Taxing Power Issue:
Perhaps a better approach is for states to seek voluntary contracts with out-of-state retailers, compensating them for serving as tax collectors. There may be state Constitutional provisions or legislation that prohibits contracting tax collection to out-of-state individuals or entities, though I doubt that is the case. For some businesses, being compensated to engage in use tax collection might help the bottom line.
Taking this route is more consistent with free market principles than is converting out-of-state businesses into involuntary workers.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

How Does a Politician Fix a Tax Law The Politician Doesn’t Understand? 

Perhaps we have been handed another clue in the great mystery of why tax laws don’t get fixed. It’s common knowledge that one reason for tax law complexity is the attempt to disguise a provision aimed at a select few. And it’s no secret that another reason is the entrenched opposition by tax break beneficiaries to removal of what is an overall burden on everyone else. But perhaps a no less significant reason is the inability of politicians to understand how existing tax law functions.

An example of the problem popped up last week, according to this story. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who harbors hopes of becoming the next president, claimed that one reason for the nation’s economic troubles is that United States corporations are taxed twice on income earned overseas. His assertion overlooks the foreign tax credit, designed and implemented to prevent the very thing that Christie claims is happening. Christie’s shallow understanding of federal income tax law was corroborated by his pinning the blame for the nonexistent double taxation on the IRS. So common is this misunderstanding – or perhaps so successful has been the campaign by Congress to blame the IRS for the existence of the federal income tax – that the writer of the article made the same error, rebutting Christie’s bizarre claim with the explanation that “the IRS provides a foreign tax credit to prevent double taxation.” With apologies to those who try to excuse away the error, it is the CONGRESS that enacted the foreign tax credit.

Rejections of Christie’s claim, which he has made in multiple speeches, also came from others. The co-director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center called Christie’s statement “wrong.” A former Treasury analyst who worked in both the Clinton and Bush administrations was a bit gentler, saying that “Governor Christie appears to be confused.” But confusion is simply one reason for being wrong. Another reason is ignorance, which can generate a wrong answer without any confusion entering the picture.

From my perspective, Christie is not confused. I’m confident he knows very well that what he is saying is wrong, but repeats it because is sound good. It riles up the anti-tax crowd, a group whose support Christie needs to nurture. These sorts of misrepresentations are hallmarks of campaigns that cannot succeed with the truth. When I read or hear this type of inaccuracy, lie, or exaggeration, my first thought is that the person has insufficient confidence in what they are peddling that they feel a need to pump up the hype. It’s a reaction I don’t limit to politicians, as I also invoke it when dealing with advertising and sales pitches. Oh, wait, is there really any difference?

What concerns me most is when someone trying to get a repair job demonstrates ignorance of what needs to be fixed. I’ve listened, for example, to enough support-line technicians tell me things about software to avoid implementing their suggestions. Not that I haven’t encountered ones who knew their craft, or repair personnel who got the job done correctly the first time around. So when I hear someone campaigning and asking to be elected to a job reveal a lack of understanding about a basic principle of federal income taxation, I shudder at the thought of putting that person in charge. It would be too easy for those trying to game the system to game that person.

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