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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Incorrectly Breaking Down the Internal Revenue Code 

Reader Morris asked me if I agree with the following claims in this article:
What most people don't realize, in fact, is that 99 percent of the Internal Revenue Code is a series of incentives, primarily for businesses and investors to fuel the economy. There are only about 30 pages in the Code that actually raise revenue; they include charts and tables that tell you how much tax to pay. There is one line that basically declares, "All income is taxable unless we say it isn't," and another that basically says, "No expenses are deductible unless we say they are."

Then, there are about 6,000 pages that tell you how to reduce taxes through tax deductions, tax credits and other incentives.
The answer is no.

First, the claim that the Internal Revenue Code contains 6,000 pages is sad proof that once an error or falsehood goes viral, it is impossible to eliminate it, or to prevent further spread. The ignorant claims with respect to the size of the Internal Revenue Code have been exposed and refuted by me in many posts, beginning with Bush Pages Through the Tax Code?, and continuing 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, and 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, Tax Myths: Part XII: The Internal Revenue Code Fills 70,000 Pages, Not a Surprise: Tax Ignorance Afflicts Presidential Candidates and CNN, The Infection of Ignorance Becomes a Pandemic, Getting Tax Facts Correct: Is It Really That Difficult?, and Reaching New Lows With Tax Ignorance. Though the claim of 6,000 pages is not quite as erroneous as the wildly outlandish, totally false, intentionally misleading, and warped claim that the Internal Revenue Code consists of 70,000 or 74,000 or seventy-thousand-whatever pages, it nonetheless contributes to the nation’s descent into what I called in Reaching New Lows With Tax Ignorance the New Stone Age.

Second, the portion of the Internal Revenue Code devoted to incentives is far from 99 percent. Far more than one percent of the Code deals with procedural matters, such as filing requirements, deadlines, information reporting, interest, penalties, audits, and litigation. Far more than one percent of the Code deals with exclusions from gross income, most of which cannot be fairly characterized as incentives. Of the Code sections providing for deductions and credits, more than a few are not incentives. For example, neither the credit for withheld taxes nor the deduction for trade or business expenses are incentives, the first because it is a true credit in the accounting and retail sense, and the second because business entrepreneurs pay and incur expenses for business reasons. Yes, there are incentives in the Internal Revenue Code, and yes, there are too many of them, and yes, they ought to be relocated into the statutes dealing with the federal agencies charged with oversight for the activities and transactions in question, but it is absurdly incorrect to consider 99 percent of the Internal Revenue Code as consisting of incentives.

Ignorance of this sort is appalling. It is dangerous. It is unjustified. It needs to be identified, and discredited. Unfortunately, we live in a world with this sort of misinformation flourishes and spreads. How sad.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Adverse Possession, Basis, and Gross Income 

Reader Morris directed my attention to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from several weeks ago that apparently I missed. I think, though, the reason I did not see it was its inclusion in a different Regional section of the paper, because I live to the west of the city and the story involves a situation in the northeastern part of the city.

The facts are simple. About thirty years ago, Frank Galdo and his wife purchased a home in the Fishtown area of Philadelphia. Across the street is a vacant lot, which, when the family moved in, was filled with trash and used by prostitutes and drug addicts. So Galdo cleaned up the lot, and added a concrete parking slab, fire pit, picnic tables, and a tree house. Many years later, the city, which owns the lot, told Galdo his use of the lot was unauthorized and ordered him to remove the improvements. So Galdo sued, claiming that he had acquired title to the property through adverse possession. He lost, because the trial court held that the city is immune to losing real property through adverse possession. He appealed. The Commonwealth Court held that, indeed, the city is not immune from adverse possession. If the city appeals to the Supreme Court, the Commonwealth Court decision could be affirmed or reversed. If the city does not appeal, or if it appeals and loses, the case goes back to the trial court for resolution of the fact question of whether adverse possession occurred.

So reader Morris asked a good question. Actually he asked several questions, and characterized them as “silly.” They’re not silly. They could be used as exam questions in a basic federal income tax course. Reader Morris asked, “If the man in the article is victorious after appeals , what is the tax basis of the lot? Would the new owner need to allocate basis of the property between the land and the tree house? How do you determine tax basis of property acquired by adverse possession? Does it matter that the city was the original owner?”

To answer those questions, one must back up and ask a preliminary question. Is the value of real property acquired by adverse possession included in gross income? The answer, I think, is yes. There does not appear to be any case dealing with the question. So I reach my conclusion through analogy. A person who finds something of value and takes possession of it has gross income equal to that value. In turn, to prevent double taxation, the person takes a basis in the item equal to the value at the time the item is found and taken into possession. Of course, as a practical matter, many taxpayers fail to report the income, and the basis question does not arise because the item eventually is consumed, thrown out, or sold for an amount less than what it was worth when found. Real estate, though, is different, and the basis question is an important one.

The basis in the tree house is the cost of the materials used to construct it. The tree house was not acquired by adverse possession so there is no reason to allocate to it any of the basis arising from including the value of the lot in gross income. And it does not matter whether the previous owner is the city, a corporation, an individual, a trust, a partnership, a limited liability company, or some other entity.

Friday, May 18, 2018

What Does It Mean to Be Retired for Tax Purposes? 

When people ask me if I am retired, I tell them, “Not really.” Yes, I’m retired, because I stepped down from my full-time tenure-track position on the law faculty. But I continue to teach, as a part-time employee, and I hold another small part-time position, as an employee, the proceeds of which I donate back to the organization; I’d rather be a volunteer but that’s a tale for another day. So it was interesting to me to encounter a recent Tax Court decision, Voight v. Martin, T.C. Summ. Op. 2018-25.

The taxpayer has worked for Tulane University from February 8, 1985, to June 7, 1991. When Tulane encountered financial difficulties, it eliminated the taxpayer’s job. As part of the arrangement, the taxpayer received a severance package that included an extended tuition waiver for himself and his dependents. The separation notice showed the petitioner’s reason for leaving as “Elimination of Position,” and neither the box “Not Physically Able to Work” nor the box “Retirement, Pension” were checked. Because the taxpayer had six years of service, the taxpayer was granted six annual tuition waivers. After leaving Tulane, the taxpayer worked at Cornell and at America Online before becoming self-employed.

In the fall of 2012, the taxpayer’s daughter entered Tulane, and attended through the spring semester of 2015. The taxpayer filed applications to apply the tuition waivers for the spring and fall semesters of 2013. On the application, he identified his eligibility for the waiver as “Laid Off-Benefits Package.” Tulane granted a waiver of $21,575 on August 6, 2013. In 2014 Tulane sent a Form W-2 to the taxpayer, showing wages of $21,575, social security tax withheld of $1,338, and Medicare tax withheld of $313. Tulane also billed the taxpayer $1,650 for “2013 Waiver FICA Taxes.” The taxpayer did not report the $21,575 on the joint income tax return he filed with his spouse.

At some point before April 4, 2016, the taxpayer sent an email to Tulane asking about the Form W-2. On that date, a Tulane payroll department official replied, explaining, “[b]ecause you were not an employee with the University, and you received the Tuition Waiver Benefit, the waiver is considered income to you”. On the next day, the taxpayer responded and asked, “Please send me something that shows my dates of employment when I was actually working for Tulane as a staff member.” On May 16, 2016, the payroll official replied, “Per your request; your dates of employment were 02/08/85-06/07/91.”

The IRS issued a notice of deficiency, and among the adjustments was a determination that the taxpayer had failed to report the $21,575 tuition waiver as income for 2013. The taxpayer and his spouse timely filed a petition in which they made two assertions. First, the tuition waiver benefit is not taxable. Second, the IRS determined that a similar tuition waiver benefit for 2012 was not taxable.

At trial, the taxpayer argued that including the tuition waiver benefit as income in 2013 would be improper because the tuition waiver benefit represents “money that I earned 20 years ago,” apparently claiming that the benefit should have been taxed in 1991. The Tax Court determined that the benefit would be included in income in the year in which it was actually or constructively received, that it was actually received in 2013, and was not constructively received in 1991 because in that year neither the taxpayer nor his dependents had satisfied Tulane’s admissions standards and enrolled in the university. Therefore, unless an exclusion applied, the year in which the income would be included was 2013.

The taxpayer argued that the section 117 exclusion for scholarships and qualified tuition reductions applied to the waiver. The Tax Court explained that under section 117(d)(2), in order for the waiver to be a qualified tuition reduction, it must be provided to an employee of a qualified education institution for the education, below a graduate level, at a qualified education institution of either the employee or someone treated as an employee under section 132(h). Persons treated as employees under section 132(h) are former employees who separated from service “by reason of retirement or disability” and the dependents of employees, spouses and surviving spouses, and others not applicable to the taxpayer’s situation. Because the parties agreed that the taxpayer’s daughter was his dependent in 2013, that Tulane is a qualified education institution, and that the taxpayer did not end employment with Tulane by reason of disability, the issue was whether the taxpayer was either a current employee of Tulane in 2013 or was treated as an employee because he had separated from service by reason of retirement under section 132(h).

The taxpayer argued that he was an employee because he received a Form W-2, because the references on that form to “employer” and “employee” suggested to the taxpayer that sometime in 2013 “Tulane University thought I worked there.” The Tax Court noted that the issuance of a Form W-2 does not create an employment relationship, and that a Form W-2 may be required even when there is no longer an employment relationship, such as when social security and Medicare taxes are imposed on wages as defined in section 3121, which can include payments for employment “even though at the time paid the relationship of employer and employee no longer exists.” Thus, whether the taxpayer was an employee in 2013 is a factual question, resolved under common law rules. Aside from the Form W-2, the taxpayer did not present any evidence of an employment relationship. The taxpayer conceded he did not work for Tulane after 1991, and Tulane’s records confirm that he had not been an employee since 1991.

The taxpayer next argued that because the term “retired” in section 132(h) is not defined, being “laid off” as he was constituted early retirement. The Tax Court concluded that the taxpayer’s employment with Tulane had not terminated because of retirement. Because there is no definition in the Code of the term “by reason of retirement,” the court applied the principles that the plain language of a statute must be enforced, and that words must be construed so that they are not superfluous or insignificant. Turning to Black’s Law Dictionary, the court adopted the definition of “retirement” as the “[t]ermination of one’s own employment or career, esp. upon reaching a certain age or for health reasons; retirement may be voluntary or involuntary.” The court explained that this definition’s specific mention of termination of a career and special focus upon age or health as reasons for termination conforms with the ordinary meaning of the term “retirement” to refer to a time after an individual stops working. Thus, to give meaning to the inclusion of the term “retirement” requires that retirement be recognized as different from other methods by which an employee may separate from service, including being laid off, because otherwise the term “retirement” as used in section 132(h) would be is rendered superfluous or insignificant. The court also noted that this definition of retirement was consistent with the definition applied by the Supreme Court in the context of bankruptcy.

The Tax Court explained that the taxpayer had not retired because Tulane identified the reason for the termination of employment to be “Elimination of Position” even though retirement was a preprinted option, because the taxpayer’s severance package included assistance in finding further employment, and because the taxpayer testified that he was laid off because Tulane was having “money troubles.” Thus, the termination of the taxpayer’s employment was not contingent on age, years of service, or health considerations. Additional proof that the taxpayer was not retired was found by the court in the taxpayer’s continuing to work for a variety of other employers and for himself after he was laid off by Tulane.

So in order to be retired, at least for purposes of section 132(h) and the provisions that reference it, a person needs to leave employment on account of age, years of service, or health, without thereafter undertaking self-employment or employment with the same or a different employer. By that definition, I am not retired. Perhaps someday I will be. Check back later.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Yet Another Reason For “First the Jobs, Then the Tax Break” 

So that big tax giveaway last December was touted as the impetus for an increase in good-paying jobs in this country. As I pointed out in posts such as You’re Doing What With Those Tax Cuts? and More Proof Supply-Side Economic Theory Is Bad Tax Policy, that wasn’t going to happen, isn’t happening, and isn’t going to happen. Oh, sure, there has been an increase in low-paying jobs and a drop in the unemployment rate that might be more a reflection of people dropping out of the job market than a surge in good-paying jobs, but as I described in Much More ado About Almost Nothing and the previous posts cited therein, the two or three percent of workers getting a few hundred after-tax dollars of one-time bonus payments aren’t exactly heading out to buy yachts or even cover the increased cost of fuel for their vehicles.

Now comes yet another example of the tax cut scam. As reported in many stories, including this one, Walmart, recipient of a very large tax break, has used a chunk of that money, on the order of $16 billion, to acquire control of India’s largest retail company. That will permit that company, Flipkart, to create more jobs, in India. At the same time, Walmart is closing stores in this country and laying off thousands of workers in the United States. And despite all the buzz about raises and bonus payments, a significant number of Walmart employees need public assistance such as Medicaid, SNAP, and subsidized housing in order to survive.

As I suggested in How To Use Tax Breaks to Properly Stimulate an Economy and How To Use the Tax Law to Create Jobs and Raise Wages, it’s time to stop with the “here’s a tax break, now create the jobs you promised and if you don’t, oh well, see you at my next campaign fund raiser” approach to tax legislation, and to implement the “create jobs, get a short-term tax break, don’t cut those jobs next year, get another short-term tax break” style of holding tax break recipients’ feet to the fire. When a child says, “Give me a cookie and I’ll behave properly,” sensible parents reply, “Show me you can behave properly and then you’ll get a cookie.” It’s that simple, really.

Monday, May 14, 2018

What Should Taxes Fund? 

Several days ago, an article about a tax proposal dispute in Wichita, Kansas caught my eye. The Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance came together and announced a plan for a public vote to establish 0.25 percent to the sales tax, with the proceeds earmarked for public safety funding. The proposal is a reaction to stagnant and decreasing funds for public safety.

The debate ensued when the city’s mayor announced opposition to the proposal. He explained that City Council knows more funding is needed for the police and fire departments and that it is examining ways to find the money from sources in the existing budget. He expressed disappointment that those advocating the sales tax increase did not consult with him before issuing their plans.

The mayor argues that sales tax add-ons should be reserved for “extras” and not for items that are “top priorities,” such as public safety. The advocates for the sales tax increase referendum point to sales tax add-ons and special tax districts set up for a variety of projects, including a new municipal library and a “privately held pickle-ball theme restaurant.” They think that their proposal has a better chance of success than a one-percent sales tax increase proposed in 204 to fund water supply improvements, street repairs, public transit, and business development. That plan received only 37 percent of the vote.

The entire situation puzzles me. City services, including safety, transit, roads, and water supply, need funding, and yet a private restaurant gets its hands on tax revenue that other restaurants don’t get. Voting down road repair funds while voting for taxes that enrich a privately owned restaurant makes no sense. And it’s wrong. I have written many times about the short-term and long-term adverse consequences of shifting public tax revenue into private pockets in reliance on unproven claims that the general public will be better off economically. As I’ve written before, and will write again, if a person wants to start a business, it will flourish if it is properly managed and the public desires the goods or services being offered. If it cannot succeed on its own, it’s not worth operating. I’m not objecting to public money being loaned to businesses at appropriate interest rates that generate interest income for governments, provided the loans are properly secured and the money eventually returns. I’m objecting to individuals and corporations with enough money to fund tax referenda or to lobby governments to shift tax revenue into their pet projects, who reap huge profits, and who then lead the way in opposing tax increases.

I wonder why many of the people who argue for reduced taxes or for the elimination of all taxes don’t oppose these deals. Most anti-tax advocates claim that governments waste tax revenue, or spend it in ways that violate whatever standards and values the particular anti-tax individual or group has in mind. Raising taxes to fix highways gets criticized and opposed every day, and yet somehow increasing the regressive sales tax, or some other tax, to fund a pickle-ball restaurant, or a sports stadium owned by billionaires gets a green light.

Friday, May 11, 2018

When Winning Money Isn’t the Cure 

Several days ago, a television commercial caught my ear as it came to a close. Generally, I don’t pay much attention to commercials, letting them drone on in the background as I do work that doesn’t require full concentration. So the next time this commercial aired, about twenty minutes later, I listened. I heard a pitch for a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. The prize is $1,000,000 payable immediately and $1,000 per week for life. Then came the bit that caught my ear the first time. It was something along the lines of never worrying about money again.

Curious, I did a quick search, and found a more detailed version of the commercial. I had the prize amounts right, and then comes the guarantee that amuses me: “That’s a lot of dough! And when you think of all the possibilities of how you can spend it, it would be a dream come true to win, wouldn’t it? Say goodbye to bills and debt, and say hello to a financially stress- free life!”

What amuses me, or perhaps saddens me, is the notion that this amount of money can deliver a financially stress-free life. Let’s think about this for a minute. Someone already living a financially stress-free life, like a person with $20 million in the bank and income of $1,000,000 a year, would not consider winning this sweepstakes to be the reason for that financially stress-free life. Someone with little or no assets and a meager income would be delighted with winning, but a financially stress-free life would not be guaranteed. After taxes, $1,000,000 could end up being somewhere between $600,000 and $700,000, depending on where the winner person lives (assuming the winner lives in the United States). Why no guaranteed financially stress-free life? Though $500,000 in the bank and $50,000 of income a year before taxes might seem wonderful, ten, twenty, thirty years from now it will pale in the face of inflationary increases in the cost of goods and services. For example, even if the after-tax remains of the $1,000,000 is invested well, it won’t keep pace with the rate of increase in the cost of health care, education, and some other items. On top of that, think of all the possible financial demands that might hit a person. An illness requiring medicine that costs $50,000 a year, not covered by insurance. An accident, with damages exceeding insurance coverage, letting the victim clean out the winner’s investments. For many people, handling this sort of money is in and of itself stressful, though perhaps that’s not technically financial stress.

True, for a few people on the edge between the economic position of those with little assets and meager income and those wallowing in wealth, the sweepstakes prize might be enough to tip the scales and move the person from a worrisome financial situation to the presumed comfort of wealth. But I doubt it. Studies show that most lottery winners aren’t very well off a few years after they hit it big.

What saddens me about the sweepstakes is its status as a mirror on the dire economic straits in which too many people find themselves in this new era of robber barons, income and wealth inequality, and money addiction. Life should not be such that only a handful of people, whether those who win the contest lottery or the birth lottery, can luxuriate, while some of the others labor tediously, with a scant few hitting the “rags to riches” lottery because their idea happened to synchronize with everything else in the world, and while the rest of the others throw their hands up in despair and surrender to misery. A quick read of the comments to the Publishers Clearing House announcement reveals the depths of despair and false hope into which this nation has fallen.

There are times when I think the worse addiction is money addiction. No, that’s not when someone without money or with insufficient money to meet basic needs yearns for financial security. It’s when people drowning in wealth beg, borrow, and steal more, cry for more, demand more, and never admit to how much would be enough. I doubt they enter sweepstakes or lotteries because those running the contests have yet to offer a prize consisting of an infinite amount of money. Even that would be insufficient. How sad.

Perhaps if a cure for money addiction is discovered, there would be no more need for people to pin their last dollar and all their hopes on a lottery or sweepstakes contest. But I doubt those suffering from the addiction want to fund a search for the cure.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Perhaps Chocolate Should Be Its Own Food Group? 

Perhaps I don’t write about chocolate as much as I should. I’d like to, but there are so many other topics to discuss. So few, if any, of my commentaries touch on music, model trains, religion, or the First Amendment. T appears that chocolate is the focus of a MauledAgain blog post about once every two years. The list is short: More Praise for Chocolate, with a Tax Twist, Proof Chocolate is Medicinal: More Reason to Buy Me IRS Chocolates, Should the Tax Law Provide a Fix for This Looming Catastrophe?, Chocolate: Good News. Bad News. Tax News?, Chocolate? Yes!, One More Price Comparison: Chocolate, Income and Wealth Inequality Becoming a Disaster, and Horrors! Say It Isn’t So! .

Sadly, the last two of that series of posts about chocolate were far from heartening. They were reactions to bad news about chocolate. But now comes good news, though it is in many respects, an unsurprising repeat of the good news shared in the at least three of the first five posts in that series listed in the preceding paragraph.

According to this story from late last month, studied presented at the Experimental Biology 2018 annual meeting demonstrate that consumption of dark chocolate with a minimum of 70 percent cacao “has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity.” The report indicates that this is the first time the effect of the flavonoids in cacao on human subjects has been measured.

Perhaps I have not been consuming enough chocolate. Perhaps, in light of the report’s mention of the need for more studies, I can become a volunteer. Imagine, volunteering to eat more chocolate in return for having blood drawn every few days. It’s a deal.

Monday, May 07, 2018

It’s So Easy to Criticize a Revenue Plan, and So Much More Difficult to Present a Revenue Solution 

Almost two years ago, in Does the “No New Taxes” Crowd Think Tax-Financed Public Goods Are Free?, I criticized Connecticut Republicans who accused the state’s governor of “planning a new tax” simply because the state’s Department of Transportation applied for federal grant money to set up a pilot program exploring how mileage-based road fees could be used on the heavily congested I-95 corridor. Connecticut has a problem. Current law prohibits tolls on its roads and highways. The state’s highways need repair, reconstruction, and maintenance. Without some sort of revenue, at least $4.3 billion of those repairs will be postponed or canceled.

According to this report, the Speaker of the House has predicted that no matter which party controls the state house and the legislature, those in office in January 2019 will face the challenge of dealing with the funding shortfall. Both the speaker and the outgoing governor support reinstituting tolls, which were eliminated several decades ago after a fatal crash at a tollbooth. Tolls would generate roughly $1.2 billion annually.

It did not take long for opponents of tolls to jump into the debate. They claim that state citizens already pay too many taxes. They make this argument even though pending proposals include a variety of discounts for state residents, a concept I discussed six years ago in User Fees: Differential Rates Based on Residency.

If Connecticut limits its tolls to interstate highways, its residents could easily avoid the tolls in most situations by using parallel highways. One of the reasons Connecticut’s interstate highways are in bad condition and congested is their use as local roads by residents. Unlike most interstate highways, I-95 in Connecticut has exits and entrances almost every mile. Traffic is slowed, and wear and tear increases, by vehicles that pop onto the highway at one exit, move slowly as though they are on local roads, and then jump off at the next exit, probably with the goal of avoiding one or two traffic lights. If the use of Connecticut’s interstate highway system as a local street system were deterred by tolls, there would be a double benefit. Tolls would be paid mostly by interstate traffic, and the wear and tear on the highway would be reduced, thus cutting costs.

Connecticut Republicans claim that a better approach is to borrow money to pay for the repairs and maintenance. What is unclear is how those loans would be repaid. Would not some source of public revenue, whether taxes or user fees such as tolls, be required? My reaction to that idea remains what it was two years ago in Does the “No New Taxes” Crowd Think Tax-Financed Public Goods Are Free?:
[Connecticut state senator Toni] Boucher and her anti-tax colleagues also fail to understand that Connecticut taxpayers are financing the cost of providing highways for nonresidents who travel through the state, especially those who do not stop and patronize Connecticut businesses. There are no toll roads in Connecticut, perhaps another indication that somehow, some way, magically, highways will appear and take care of themselves without anyone being “hit” by a tax, fee, or other charge, ever.

The fact that the grant [to study mileage-based road fees] being sought by the interstate coalition is nothing more than money for learning about the mileage-based road fee doesn’t matter to the anti-tax crowd. Opposition to funding this grant is nothing more than opposition to education. It does not surprise me that anti-tax and anti-education efforts are political comrades, if not one collective.

Another Republican legislator, state senator Fasano, claims that “More taxes and more burdens on Connecticut drivers is not the way to improve transportation in our state.” Then what is the way, senator? Taxes on milk? Slave labor? Pretense that potholes don’t exist? Deporting half the population and thus cutting down on traffic congestion? Walls at the border so that nonresidents of Connecticut cannot use Connecticut highways? What wonderful plan do you have to fix the problem? Criticizing everyone else is not a plan. It’s an indication that you have no plan, other than to appeal to the basic selfishness of drivers who want free highways and think someone else is going to pay for them. It’s an appeal for support from “takers not makers” who you claim to despise.

* * * * *

If the anti-tax crowd had their way, there would be no taxes. But then there would be no highways, or police, or anything else. Or there would be corporate-owned highways, corporate-owned police, and corporate-owned everything else, dictated by the oligarchy and impervious to the voting booth. Once we reach that point, surely most of the people sucked into the anti-tax movement will realize it was nothing more than a front for oligarchic takeover of public services, and they’ll be screaming for the do-over or reset button. Unfortunately, in much of life, there is no reset button.
Though the failings of the anti-tax movement and its corollary let-the-oligarchs-own-and-control-everything plan should be obvious to anyone with a pulse, the inability of too many people to balance the long-term with the short-term makes it too easy for the manipulators to prevail. Maybe when they’re on a collapsing bridge or recovering from a pothole-induced injury supporters of the “no taxes, everything is free the way it was when I was two” movement will find enlightenment.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Lawmakers “Hoping” But That’s Not Enough 

It came as no surprise to read the report that Apple has increased its dividend payment and is investing $100 billion to buy back stock, which will drive up the per-share stock price and increase earnings per share without increasing earnings. Where is Apple getting the money to do this? If you answer “tax cut,” you are correct. The writer of the article notes that, “Lawmakers have been hoping Apple and other companies would use the overseas cash to create more jobs in the U.S. and spend more on other projects that will help accelerate economic growth.” That makes me laugh. Lawmakers are hoping? Perhaps lawmakers should have been studying, reading, learning, analyzing, and thinking. Perhaps lawmakers should have been writing. What should they be reading? This, from How To Use Tax Breaks to Properly Stimulate an Economy:
The worst way to use the tax law to encourage behavior is to hand out tax breaks without requiring anything in return other than promises. Promises too often are made to be broken. This is why the legislation enacted in December is proving to be a long-term failure. It came with promises of increased pay and increased production, but it did nothing to require those things. So a few bonus crumbs of several hundred dollars were handed to a small fraction of the work force, an even smaller group picked up a $1,000 bonus, and tens of thousands of individuals lost their jobs.

A good example of why strings-free tax cuts is a bad approach to stimulating the economy is provided by another in the ever-growing list of large corporations that, having been the beneficiaries of huge tax reductions, do the opposite of stimulating the economy. As reported in many stories, including this one, Pfizer has announced that it is terminating its research into cures or treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. It also is terminating the jobs of 300 workers. Surely if someone said, “Gee, we expected you would use that huge tax cut, amounting to at least $5,000,000,000, to increase research and hire people,” the response would be either, “We promised no such thing,” or “What we’re doing is better for everyone than expanding research and hiring people,” the translation being, “What we’re doing is better for our highly compensated executives and our shareholders.” The key to that translation is Pfizer’s planned $10 billion share buyback. Do the decision makers in the Congress and at these corporations not understand that the key to increased sales in the future is a consumer class with money to spend, something that doesn’t happen when inflation outpaces raises, when one-time bonus payments fail to reappear, when workers are laid off, and when income and wealth inequality grow rather than diminish?

Of course, this is not earth-shaking news. In 2004, a similar tax break, permitting companies to repatriate foreign earnings without the otherwise applicable tax consequences generated layoffs, share buybacks, and increases in the compensation of the executives. The beneficiaries of this tax break had promised to hire more employees and increase business investment. It’s just so easy to make a promise when there are no adverse consequences to breaking it. The corporations can break their promises and their tax cuts are not rescinded. The Congress breaks its promises and Americans let it get away with its failures, time and again.

Though I dislike using the tax law to encourage behavior, Congress should at least have the good sense to tie the tax break to the promised hiring, the promised research, the promised price cuts, the promised pay raises, and everything else the tax cut advocates dished out during their slick marketing campaign. But, I suppose, after enough workers are fired, after enough people realize they are worse off than they were two years ago, let alone ten years ago, perhaps Americans will shut the door on these tax cut sales pitches and demand accountability, including accountability in the form of tax cuts tied to performance rather than to promises.
They also could learn from the plan I have proposed multiple times, as described most recently in How To Use the Tax Law to Create Jobs and Raise Wages:
Though I detest using the tax law to encourage or discourage behavior, it isn’t enough simply to criticize. So, although I would prefer other avenues, if I were to craft tax law provisions to create jobs and raise wages, I would do something very different. Whether anything needs to be done is problematic, because we’re being told that the labor market is tight, unemployment is down, and wages in a handful of economic sectors are rising because of shortages of skilled workers. Of course, we also are being told that skilled people in their fifties and sixties are finding it difficult to find jobs.

The best way to encourage employers to hire workers is, of course, to put money into the hands of consumers, because the American economy, when at its best, is demand-driven. Supply-side economics is nonsense, and most people are coming to understand that. Many advocates of demand-side economic theory also support tax rate reductions, but aimed at the 99 percent rather than the top one percent. There are flaws, though, in tax rate reductions, because there is no guarantee that the tax cuts will find their way into the economic sectors most in need of revitalization, and because getting money into the hands of those with no tax liabilities requires something more than rate reductions, namely, refundable credits. Refundable credits are problematic.

A somewhat middle position is to provide employers with an additional deduction based on wage and job growth. For example, employers could be allowed to deduct not only compensation paid, but, in addition, a percentage, perhaps 25 or 30 percent, of the excess of the compensation paid during the taxable year and the compensation paid during the previous taxable year, perhaps leaving out of the computation increases in compensation paid to individuals earning more than a specific amount, such as $150,000, $200,000 or some similar figure in that range. This incentive would, or at least should, encourage employers to raise the pay of their low compensation employees rather than CEOs and other highly compensated employees. As for employers that would have no use for these deductions, encouraging failing businesses or successful businesses that use tax shelters to mask taxable income, they ought not be encouraged to continue on those paths. In this way, tax breaks would be tied to performance. People who don’t create jobs ought not get to share in tax breaks held out as job-creation inducements.

The danger in advocating a “somewhat middle position” is that it invites criticism and attacks from all sides. In the current political climate, where compromise is disdained, cooperation avoided, and extremism rampant, the best that can be said about advocating a middle position is that it provides a framework on which to rebuild the nation when, or if, its citizens realize that political climate change is necessary.
If members of Congress gave closer attention to recent economic news and commentary, and applied critical thinking and careful analysis, they might realize how close the economy has crept to the edge of the cliff. It is best to avoid keeping one’s visual focus on the blue sky when a cliff looms underfoot.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

State Income Tax Deductions for the Marijuana Industry: Do They Exist and Do They Violate Federal Law? 

Last week I attended a continuing legal education program at the law school which focused on the ethical and practical problems faced by attorneys whose clients are engaged in growing or selling medical or legally approved recreational marijuana or who do business with anyone so engaged. Among the issues addressed were several dealing with the section 280E Internal Revenue Code restriction on the deduction of business expenses by those engaged in growing or selling marijuana. Those activities technically remain illegal under federal law.

The program touched on some of the tax issues I have addressed from time to time, but not all of them. See, for example, No Deductions for Medical Marijuana Distribution Expenses, A Not So Dopey Tax Question, Why Not Read the Entire Sales Tax Statute?, and God’s Blessing Can’t Save Prohibited Deductions. In these commentaries I have described two cases involving the application of section 280E to medical marijuana businesses and the question of whether sales of medical marijuana in New Jersey are subject to the New Jersey sales tax.

As I listened to the discussion, another issue popped into my head. It was inspired by the discussion of how state law permitting the sale of medical marijuana collides with federal law that treats the sale of marijuana as a crime. Leaving to others more expert in questions of federalism, states’ rights, comity, and politics, I wondered how many of the states permitting the sale of marijuana continue, perhaps unintentionally, to penalize growers and sellers of medical or legally approved recreational marijuana. Most states require taxpayers to compute state taxable income by starting with federal taxable income, or perhaps in a few instances federal adjusted gross income, and then adding and subtracting adjustments designed to reflect differences between how the state tax law treats a receipt or expenditure and how the federal tax law treats those items. For example, if a state’s tax law provides for a different standard deduction than does the federal tax law, an adjustment is provided to account for that difference.

So do any of the states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana and that require computation of state taxable income by using federal taxable or adjusted gross income as a starting point provide for a subtraction to permit deduction of the expenses denied by section 280E? If not, why not? The answer to the first question is simple. Some states have, and some states have not. A bit of quick research, not designed to examine every state, indicates that an adjustment exists, for example, in Colorado, and Hawaii, but not yet, for example, in California or Massachusetts. The answer to the second question probably is a simple matter of a state legislature not being aware of the need to provide for an adjustment, or of not getting around to it because of other, perhaps unrelated, issues.

Finally, I again leave for the experts in constitutional an criminal law the question of whether state legislators and other officials, by enacting legislation that permits behavior contrary to federal law, and that provides economic support in the form of state income tax deductions, are aiding and abetting violation of federal criminal law. It will be interesting to see how these issues play out, especially as those opposed to federal interference with state law when it’s a matter of civil rights, environmental protection, abortion, or gun control suddenly becomes fans of Washington, D.C. when it comes to marijuana control. As a neutral observer with no stake in the matter, being neither an advocate or opponent of marijuana use, it will be enlightening to watch what happens when the “keep D.C. out of our state” crowd starts doing what its adherents claim to hate and start trying to prohibit state income tax deductions for the medical marijuana industry.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Yet Another Reason the 2017 Tax Cut Legislation Isn’t Good for Most Americans 

Last week, in Another Reason the 2017 Tax Cut Legislation Isn’t Good for Most Americans, I commented on one of the many flaws in the 2017 tax legislation. It wasn’t the first. Now there is another one to examine. I doubt it will be the last Eventually I’ll run out of adjectives to modify the word “Another” as the list of stupidities in the 2017 tax legislation continues to grow. Eventually it will be time to use numbers.

Last week, the Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation released Tables Related to the Federal Tax System As in Effect 2017 Through 2026. One of the provisions examined by the Staff is the new deduction designed to benefit low and middle income business owners. The deduction was intended to help businesses that would not benefit from the corporate rate reduction. Anticipating abuse by high-income, the Congress restricted its use by professionals in certain service businesses because the Congress apparently thinks that everyone in those types of businesses are high income taxpayers. But because the legislation was rushed through the Congress, did not go through the usual set of extensive hearings and comments, and was drafted by an uncoordinated group of lobbyists each pushing their special deal without anyone taking a broad, overall look at the intersection of the changes and Internal Revenue Code provisions as amended, something unjustified happened.

According to the Staff, of the $40.2 billion in tax savings provided by the deduction in 2018, $17.8 billion will go to taxpayers with income of $1,000,000 or more, and another $3.6 billion with go to taxpayers within income over $500,000 and under $1,000,000. That means that more than 50 percent of the tax cut provided by this deduction doesn’t go to low and middle income business owners. It goes to the wealthy. By 2024, the pecentange going to that group becomes even higher.

This absurd outcome is yet another demonstration of the foolishness of removing all but the most powerful and wealthy individuals from the process of enacting tax (and other) legislation. In a rush to earn points with taxpayers, most of whom will benefit very little in terms of real dollars, and some of whom actually suffer financially, from the legislation, caution was thrown to the wind, and examination of unintended consequences was abandoned. Sadly, too many people getting a few dollars after taxes from a one-time bonus are thinking that they are making out well, despite the eventual price they will pay, one way or another, when the economy crashes from the weight of the overwhelming budget deficit and national debt burden generated by yet more shifting of wealth from the 99 percent to the one percent. Whether it’s in the form of higher taxes in the future, which is something the 2017 legislation provides, cutting or elimination of Medicare and Social Security, degradation of national defense capacity, wholesale failure of infrastructure, a collapsed stock market, interest rates higher than those of the 1970s, or worse, the uninformed, the easily misled, and the apologists for ignorance and greed will be the focus of the laughter of those who have engineered one of the, if not the, biggest and most destructive wealth shifts in history.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Some Statistics About Tax Attorneys 

The latest 2018’s Best & Worst Entry-Level Jobs report from WalletHub includes some rather interesting information about tax attorneys. It also includes information about some other types of attorneys, though not all. I did not see any references to criminal defense attorneys or trusts and estates lawyers. In fact, only four attorney positions are on the list: tax, employment law, patent, and unclassified. Nor did I find any references to physicians, pharmacists, or nurses as I did searches for occupations and careers that wandered through my brain.

Tax Attorney I (I’m not sure what the “I” signifies and I did not see Tax Attorney II) was ranked at the top of “highest starting salaries,” even ahead of Patent Attorney I. Despite the lure of the dollars, Tax Attorney I only ranked 30th in the “Best First Jobs” list. Tax Attorney I ranked first in “Growth Potential,” 94th out of 109 in “Job Hazards,” and 28th in “Immediate Opportunity.” The short list of jobs ranking worse in “job hazards” are pretty much the sorts of jobs one would expect to be fairly risky. The top four positions in “Growth Potential” were monopolized by the four attorney classifications, and by score, Tax Attorney I bested all but the unclassified Attorney I.

Engineering jobs dominated the top twenty in the “Best First Jobs” list, which comes as no surprise. At the bottom of the list are a variety of blue-collar jobs, which the trade schools are advertising as offering much higher salary and growth opportunities than most other career tracks.

Though the lists are interesting, they ought not steer individuals one way or the other when it comes to selecting careers. The problem, for me, is that “tax attorney” means many different things. Being a tax attorney in the Office of Chief Counsel to the IRS or the Tax Division at the Department of Justice presents different financial opportunities and job hazards than being a tax attorney in a small suburban or rural practice. Working as a tax attorney for a Big Four accounting firm or a large international law firm are very different propositions in terms of financial opportunities and job hazards. Tax attorneys also show up in corporate legal departments, as attorney-advisors to Tax Court judges, and as solo practitioners. Whatever information is attributed to tax attorneys as a group says very little about the possibilities with each of these variations.

Of course, there was nothing about tax law professor. It’s not an entry-level job. Maybe the next survey will focus on jobs that are entered as a second or later career step. I’ve never considered being a tax law professor a job. Perhaps that will keep it off that next list.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Another Reason the 2017 Tax Cut Legislation Isn’t Good for Most Americans 

It’s no secret I’m not a fan of the 2017 tax legislation that lowered taxes significantly for the wealthy, gave some modest or trivial tax decreases for most taxpayers, jettisoned enough deductions to offset part of those decreases, and opened the door to even wider income and wealth inequality gaps. Claims that the cuts for corporations would generate meaningful wage increases and a parade of new jobs have been, aside from the occasional outlier, disproven by the continuing stream of job cuts and token $100 to $1,000 one-time bonus payments.

So when I read the headline to a recent article, I was not surprised. The headline said it all: “Big banks saved $3.6B in taxes last quarter under new law.” Nor was this a surprise to expert analysts, who predicted that banks would save $19 billion in taxes for 2018. Though higher interest rates charged on loans generated a small portion of the banks’ bottom line increases, most of the increases came from the tax cuts.

What are the banks planning to do with this infusion of funds? Most of it will be paid to shareholders as high dividends and stock buybacks. Employees will get raises, but I doubt they are holding their breath because they are probably praying that the raises keep them even with rising inflation.

What about bank customers? Will banks increase the insulting one-tenth of one percent interest rate on checking accounts and the paltry rates on money market and savings accounts? Will banks roll back the constantly-increasing overdraft fees, late charges, paper statement fees, ATM fees, and other charges and penalties? Will banks lower, or at least refrain from increasing, interest rates on loans?

The shift of assets from the 99 percent to the one percent continues. And the belief, deep in the hearts of most of the 99 percent, that they are destined to acquire membership in the one-percent club, and their desire that it be at least the economic paradise it presently is, blinds most people to economic reality even though most people sense that something is very wrong, and even though far too many people already are suffering. Oh, sure, the advocates of the asset shift will claim that there are more jobs now than during the past few years, but they neglect to mention that some of those jobs are part-time and most pay minimum wage or just a bit more than that. The writing is on the wall. Can enough people read? Can enough people understand? Can enough people do what needs to be done?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Tithing, Taxes, and Income 

Reader Morris pointed me in the direction of a question at the intersection of tax and theology. There are many questions at that intersection, but this one was interesting for several reasons. The question as posted was “Do I tithe off my tax return,” which made little sense, but which was clarified by the video, where the question was articulated as “Do I tithe off my tax refund?”

People who tithe contribute ten percent of their income. So they encounter the same question that greets students in basic income tax courses. “What is income?” The question is asked in both contexts for the same reason, specifically, to avoid double counting. For example, if a person pays tax on their wages, and puts some of their take-home pay into a savings account, that person does not have income subject to income tax when the person takes money out of the savings account, aside from any interest that is earned. Similarly, if a person tithes on their wages, they ought not consider themselves bound to tithe on amounts taken out of the account, aside from interest earned on the deposits.

An income tax refund, aside from the portion generated by refundable credits, is very similar to withdrawal of money from a savings account. The refund arises from the fact more money was put into the taxpayer’s account at the IRS, through withholding or estimated tax payments, than is necessary to pay the tax liability. The fact that some people like to pay in more than is necessary because it forces them to save, even without any interest being earned, demonstrates how similar putting some take-home pay into a savings account is to putting extra money into one’s IRS account.

I wonder, though, how many people tithe on amounts that are included in taxable income but that are not easily recognized as income because the amounts are not received in cash, do not pass through the person’s accounts, or are reinvested rather than being withdrawn. Do people who tithe compute the tithe on gross income as defined for federal income tax purposes, or on expanded income that includes amounts excluded from gross income? Do recipients of scholarships tithe on the scholarship amount? Under federal income tax law, the scholarship is income but is not included in gross income because of an exclusion. Do people tithe on gifts, another amount that constitutes income but is not included in gross income? The answers, we are told, are “the subject of debate within the Christian community.” Some claim, for example, that an inheritance is subject to tithing, but others disagree. Unlike the Internal Revenue Code, Scripture does not contain a definition of income.

Followup: Reader Morris has shared a reference to Adam Chodorow's paper, Maaser Kesafim and the Development of Tax Law, in which he "explores the development of the rules of Maaser Kesafim, the Jewish practice of non-agricultural tithing, and compares the income definition rules found in the halacha to those found in the Internal Revenue Code." Millenia ago, the "ancient rabbis" were struggling with the issue of what should be included in income. So it appears that the measurement of income for purposes of tithing is not only "the subject of debate within the Christian community" but also within the Jewish community, and has been for a long time.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Who Should Decide Tax Policy? 

According to this recent story, a billionaire who is registered as an independent but who has donated to both major political parties though chiefly to Republicans has announced he is now going to support Democratic candidates in order to give Democrats control of Congress. Seth Klarman explained that his goal is to undo at least some of the policies of the current Administration.

Klarman focused on tax policy. Not unlike the handful of wealthy individuals who understand the foolishness of supply-side economics and trickle-down theory, Klarman stated, “I received a tax cut I neither need nor want. I’m choosing to invest it to fight the administration’s flawed policies and to elect Democrats to the Senate and House of Representatives.” Klarman holds members of the current Congress responsible for having “abandoned their historic beliefs and values.” One of those values is fiscal responsibility and the avoidance of needless federal deficits.

Though Klarman also has concerns about other issues, such as trade protectionism and the environment, it is his reaction to the recent tax law changes that gets my attention. It’s not that he agrees with my position on supply-side economics and trickle-down theory. It’s the opportunity he has to use money to influence or even control the debate about tax policy. Granted, he would have had that opportunity without the tax cut he received, but the tax cut gives him even more political clout. Unlike many other wealthy tax cut recipients, he has made no secret of his intent to step up his political campaign contribution and related efforts. Though I applaud him for his transparency and honesty, as well as his tax policy position, his disclosure inspired me to think about how tax policy, which affects everyone, is in the hands of a small group of Americans who have the resources to control legislatures and executive branch officials. Of course, this is a problem not only for tax policy, but for other issues, such as environmental, trade, labor, health, transportation, and housing problems.

The flaw in the system is the infusion of money into the political process. Perhaps every time someone uses money to try to influence a legislator or executive branch official, that person must bring along someone who holds the opposite view on the issues being discussed. Or perhaps wealthy individuals who fund political decisions should be required to provide funds to those whose voices are suppressed because they lack the financial resources to bring their views to the table. Oh, wait. There is an easier way to do that. Instead of giving the wealthy tax cuts that provide even more money to use in controlling the political process, repeal those tax cuts and instead provide substantial tax relief to the unvoiced, so that they can use their new-found economic gains in part to bring their viewpoints to bear on the decision makers.

One of the principal purposes of the income tax is to eliminate the wealth and income inequality that almost destroyed the nation’s economy during the era of unregulated wealth when a paradise existed for robber barons. By distorting the income tax, Congress has, over the past three and a half decades, reopened paradise for the wealthy. Congress claims to act on behalf of everyone, but it acts in accordance with the conditions imposed on the funding its members receive. One of those conditions is to make it even easier for the wealthy to restore the oligarchy of feudalism, which is their paradise.

Does it matter that Klarman is trying to undo the tax cuts? Does it matter that he has more economic power to do so because of the very thing he is trying to undo? It is a conundrum, for him and for all of us. Who should be deciding tax policy?

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