Are Forty Percent of Tax Compliance Employees About to Get the Boot?

By Stephanie Hoffer, @prof.hoffer

New technology has the potential to completely change the face of tax law and accounting: that was the take-away from a recent installment of a tax and tech series organized by Professor Jeffrey Owens and Julia de Jong of Vienna University’s Digital Economy Taxation Network.   The roundtable on Governance Implications of Disruptive Technology assembled experts from Microsoft, PWC, think tanks, and the academy.

The session began with a staggering prediction that large companies will sack up to 40% of their tax compliance employees in coming years.  Why?  Experts anticipate that technological progress in data collection and algorithmic reporting will allow audit functions to be built directly into data collection and management.  This integration will allow governments to coordinate seamlessly with taxpayers by assuming the role of tax preparers whose reliance on algorithms largely eliminates the need for auditors.  Similarly, data technology will eventually obsolete VAT returns, an administrative headache for most of the globe and a major source of work for the accounting industry. Eelco van der Enden, a partner with PWC Netherlands, went so far as to predict the breakup of Big Four accounting within ten years as technology grabs the tax prep reins and renders auditing obsolete.

Disruptive technologies that leverage data also have the potential to revolutionize how we address the tax gap.  As van der Enden noted, “[d]ays are gone when you could create a bunch of bullshit” in a tax return to force regulators into a negotiation.  The ready availability of data from sources as disparate as taxpayer reporting, social media accounts, and even satellite pictures of the planet are poised to revolutionize business and tax transparency.  In addition, advances like quantum computing, when combined with what has been called a tsunami of data, will allow tax systems to handle an exponentially increasing amount of complexity.  Transfer pricing, for instance, will be a whole new ballgame with the advent of close-to-omniscient tech.  When (not if, but when) complexity no longer results in a loss of efficiency on the human side, tax administrations could see large gains from re-regulation in some cases.

As Harald Leitenmuller of Microsoft concluded about tax experts going forward, “[t]he future of your profession is to be a good data scientist who can leverage the knowledge hidden in the existing data.”  Congress and IRS, take note.

(Written with thanks to Fulbright Austria for supporting my work.)

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Ring, “Silos and First Movers In the Sharing Economy Debates”

Prof. Diane Ring

By: Leandra Lederman

On March 1, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Surly’s own Prof. Diane Ring from Boston College Law School as the fourth speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Diane presented a new paper, which I believe is not yet publicly available, titled “Silos and First Movers In the Sharing Economy Debates.” This interesting paper focuses on the classification of workers in the “sharing” or “gig” economy as employees or independent contractors, arguing that “[t]wo interacting forces create the most serious risk for inadequate policy formulation: (1) silos among legal experts, and (2) first-mover effects.” (Page 1 of the draft.) The silo argument is that lawyers operate in subject areas that are isolated from each other, such that tax experts, for example, fail to perceive the effects of tax-related worker-classification rule changes on non-tax (such as employment) law, and vice versa. The first-mover argument is that the first actors on the worker-classification issue can wield outsized influence, shaping the debate in legal contexts other than the one directly affected.

The paper and presentation provide interesting insights into how giants of the service-worker sharing economy—not just Uber and Lyft, but also TaskRabbit—influence the development of the law on worker status. And subject-matter silos are a common complaint among legal academics. That issue has arisen in administrative law, for example, where there may be different rules developed in the context of different agencies. Courts and policymakers may struggle with tax exceptionalism (in the parlance of Kristin Hickman). But I wonder both if the legal silos in the gig economy are as strong as the paper suggests, and whether the effects the paper observes are first-mover effects or something else. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Ring, “Silos and First Movers In the Sharing Economy Debates””

Stephanie McMahon, “Tax as Part of a Broken Budget: Good Taxes are Good Cause Enough”

By: Leandra Lederman

Left to right: David Gamage, Leandra Lederman, Stephanie McMahon, Matt Metz (JD/MPA student)

On February 28, Prof. Stephanie McMahon from the University of Cincinnati College of Law gave a faculty workshop at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. She presented her paper titled “Tax as Part of a Broken Budget: Good Taxes are Good Cause Enough.” The thesis of the paper is that Treasury regulations are needed to effectuate the statutory tax laws consistent with Congress’s budgeting expectations, and that given the importance of the revenue raised by taxes to the functioning of the U.S. federal government, tax regulations should be excused from the Administrative Procedure Act’s pre-promulgation notice-and-comment process under the APA’s “good cause” exception. The paper thus tackles two arguments that Prof. Kristin Hickman has advanced in her work: post-promulgation notice and comment is insufficient for tax regulations, and there is no reason for “tax exceptionalism” in administrative procedures. Stephanie’s paper also contains a detailed explanation of the tax legislative process.

Given the importance of tax rulemaking and the difficulties the IRS has suffered with its well-known budget cuts, it is very nice to see a paper defending Treasury’s rulemaking strategy. Moreover, Stephanie’s argument is creative and thoughtful. However, the argument seems to depend on regulations being a critical part of the revenue-raising process, as the need for revenue is what Stephanie relies on to justify application of the good-cause exception. But are regulations needed for that? In explaining the budget process, Stephanie’s paper points out that regulations are not scored as part of that process. I think she agrees that tax statutes can raise revenue even in the absence of regulations. Instead, she argues that regulations help effectuate, albeit imperfectly, Congress’s scoring of the tax legislation. But some Internal Revenue Code sections do not expressly call for regulations. Others do, but some of the latter never actually see regulations promulgated. Yet, the tax laws are applied despite these “spurned delegations.” And given President Trump’s anti-regulation Presidential Executive Order on Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs, we may see more tax statutes operating without regulations. Continue reading “Stephanie McMahon, “Tax as Part of a Broken Budget: Good Taxes are Good Cause Enough””

Undue Burdens and the Retroactivity Issue in Wayfair

By Adam Thimmesch

The major question presented in South Dakota v. Wayfair is whether the Supreme Court should overturn its long-standing physical presence limitation on state taxing power. (I believe that it should, as do most people who have studied the issue.) One of the secondary issues presented in Wayfair is whether the Court could apply such a repeal on a prospective basis only or whether a repeal would have to apply retroactively. Daniel Hemel had a great post introducing this issue last month, but I think that it is worth adding another dimension to the analysis.

The retroactivity issue presents itself as obvious in some respects—why couldn’t the Court issue a prospective only decision? And yet, this issue has troubled the Court, and it appeared as a consideration in Quill itself. The retroactivity issue is also being addressed in the briefs in the case (South Dakota’s merits brief was filed on Monday), and the Court is sure to bring up the issue in oral arguments in April. It seems possible that the Court would have enough votes to overturn Quill on its merits, but that no clear majority would appear regarding the retroactivity of its holding. Worst case, disagreement about that issue could cause some Justices to get cold feet on the primary issue. For these reasons, it is worth exploring retroactivity from a couple of different angles.

Continue reading “Undue Burdens and the Retroactivity Issue in Wayfair”

PyeongChang 2018!

I love the Olympics. Like, a lot. I mean, I realize that hosting the Olympics is basically a gigantic financial sinkhole. And I understand that the Olympics aren’t part of a massive geopolitical power struggle anymore. But the athleticism! the competition! the near-perfect score on a third run, after you lost a ski on your first two! I love it.

And, of course, I love the tax aspect to the Olympics, a tax aspect that has changed significantly for the last two. See, medalists don’t just get a valuable medal and an adorable stuffed tiger: the U.S. Olympic Committee pays Olympians $37,500 for a gold, $22,500 for a silver, and $15,000 for a bronze.

And, since the Rio Olympics in 2016, (most) medalists don’t have to pay taxes on that prize money. Continue reading “PyeongChang 2018!”

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Glogower, “Taxing Inequality”

Left to right: Damage Gamage, Ari Glogower, Leandra Lederman, Tim Riffle

By: Leandra Lederman

On February 15, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Ari Glogower from Ohio State University Moritz College of Law as the third speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Ari presented his paper titled “Taxing Inequality,” which argues in favor of a federal wealth tax and proposes a mechanism for integrating the base of such a tax with the base of the federal income tax. Ari’s paper sparked a really interesting discussion both in and outside the workshop on a wide range of issues, from distributive justice to the mechanics and likely impacts of his proposal.

The paper focused first on why we should have a federal tax on wealth. The draft points to rising economic inequality, and it grounds the need for a wealth tax in the theory of “relative economic power.” That theory, borrowed from political science, focuses on spending power—as opposed to actual spending—as a source of economic power. The basic idea is that the mere ownership pf wealth creates economic power without spending it. Moreover, “excessively unequal distributions of economic resources and market power can result in unequal divisions of political and social power as well.” (p.19) One of Ari’s paper’s contributions is to apply this economic-power theory as a justification for a progressive tax system.

The draft then describes the problem that tax-system designers have in imposing both a wealth tax and an income tax. Because the two types of taxes are imposed on different bases, if the taxes are not coordinated, taxpayers with very different abilities to pay based on their income or wealth may be taxed identically. The paper includes some nice examples of taxpayers with the same income but vastly different stocks of wealth and vice versa. It shows, for example, that a taxpayer with $200,000 of current income and no wealth (or negative wealth in the form of student-loan debt) has lower ability to pay than a taxpayer with $200,000 of current income and $35 million in wealth. (Ari’s talk included a great slide featuring an image of Scrooge McDuck swimming in money as the wealthy taxpayer, but for whatever reason, he resisted our suggestion to rename the paper “Taxing Scrooge McDuck”!) Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Glogower, “Taxing Inequality””

Taxing R2-D2? ABA Tax Section Panel on Automation and AI

Kerry Ryan
Associate Professor
St. Louis University School of Law

I had the pleasure of attending the midyear meeting of the ABA Tax Section this past weekend in San Diego. The Tax Policy & Simplification committee organized an interesting panel entitled: “Taxing R2-D2: How Should We Think About the Taxation of Robots and AI.” The panel was organized and moderated by Surly’s own Leandra Lederman, and panelists included Shu-Yi Oei (Boston College), Roberta Mann (Oregon Law), and Robert Kovacev (Steptoe & Johnson LLP).

For those of you who read Shu-Yi’s post, you know that she is “deeply skeptical” of the “robot tax” frame. At best, it is misleading—no one is attempting to impose a tax on a “robot” (whatever that is?) per se. As Robert Kovacev succinctly put it: “robots don’t pay taxes, people pay taxes.” The key question is which people: owners, workers, and/or consumers? Roberta linked this question to the long-standing debate about who ultimately bears the burden of the corporate income tax.

At worst, the “robot tax” terminology captures (and perhaps amplifies) the fear (“the robots are coming!”) and angst driving much of this discussion. The underlying concern relates to the potential negative impact on labor of increased utilization of technology/artificial intelligence (AI)/automation in the production process. Experts disagree about whether, over the longer term, automation will reduce the number, or merely the type, of human workers. The unanswered question is whether this is just the next in a long line of technological shifts in the economy dating as far back as the Industrial Revolution, or whether AI/machine learning truly represents a technological tipping point.

What is clear is that the transition to this new automated workplace may lead to worker displacement (particularly for those in manual/routine jobs). Mass unemployment could negatively impact the tax base—fewer workers mean fewer taxpayers. Notice that any revenue loss would hit at the same time as funding demands increased for re-training and/or social protection programs (existing and/or proposed universal basic income) for displaced workers.

Assuming you believe there is a problem(s), what is the policy prescription? While most of the panelists agreed that tax has a role to play here, they disagreed as to the contours of that role. Should we plug the hole in the income tax base by shifting more of the tax burden onto capital, as opposed to labor? Do we attempt to tax work completed by robots in the same manner as comparable work by employees (see Bill Gates proposal)? Should we raise the overall level of taxation (under existing or new tax structures)? Do we view automation as imposing negative externalities on the labor market and impose some type of Pigouvian tax? Should we attempt to slow the pace of technological development, rather than workplace implementation, by reducing either direct funding or tax incentives for R&D and innovation (see South Korea)?

Many interesting questions with no easy answers. At the very least, we must resist allowing zeitgeist to drive the policy response, while at the same time affirming the legitimacy of the underlying concerns and working to minimize their negative consequences on workers and their families.

ABA TaxSection Midyear Meeting Panel: Evolving Constraints on Tax Administration

tax-consultant-3094808_1920With a major new tax act to implement, it would be nice if the IRS had a positive image, a steadily increasing budget, and clarity on how to best promulgate guidance. Sadly none of that is true. The IRS public image after the Tea Party crisis in 2013 is poor; its budget has lagged behind its needs over the past 5 years; and, the legal landscape in which it enacts guidance has begun to seriously shift particularly over the past 10 years with cases like Mayo, Altera and Chamber of Commerce making it difficult to know the best strategy for publishing useful guidance on the new 2017 Tax Act.

The Teaching Taxation committee, held a panel this past Friday at the ABA Tax Section’s Midyear Meeting called Evolving Constraints on Tax Administration to consider this landscape the IRS finds itself in at the start of 2018. Our panel included Caroline Ciraolo, a partner at Kostelanetz & Fink, LLP and former Acting Assistant Attorney General in the DOJ Tax Division, James R. Gadwood, Counsel, Miller & Chevalier,  Kristin E. Hickman,  law professor at Minnesota Law School, and fellow Surly blogger Leandra Lederman, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Continue reading “ABA TaxSection Midyear Meeting Panel: Evolving Constraints on Tax Administration”


Heart1By: Leandra Lederman

It’s the time of year when tax experts are Twitterpated! Yes, on tax Twitter, it’s not Singles Awareness Day, but rather time for #TaxValentines! Twitter member Jeremy Cape reportedly started them a few years ago. Many of the valentines take the traditional format of the classic love poem, such as this never-before-tweeted basic tax valentine:

Roses are red

Violets are blue

I adore taxes

And I also love you


I like to play with the second line, such as in this one that I tweeted last year:


This next one plays with “rose” and is also a public service announcement:


Some of the tax valentines include plays on words, political commentary, and/or comments on recent tax developments. Here’s an example, with my follow-up, too:

Continue reading “#TaxValentines”

The Future of Nexus

By Adam Thimmesch

As I’ve previously blogged, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in South Dakota v. Wayfair last month. The question presented in the cert petition was whether the Court should overrule the physical-presence rule of Quill. For most folks, the resolution of the case will be felt most directly in whether their favorite online stores start to collect use tax on their purchases. (If your favorite vendor is Amazon, fear not, you’re already paying…at least on some of your purchases.) For states, it could mean an infusion of tax revenue at a time when many are struggling with budget issues…or maybe they will use the funds to pay for President Trump’s infrastructure plan.

The primary issue in Wayfair is whether the Court should abandon its long-standing physical-presence rule. That rule dates back to the Court’s early regulation of states and how they taxed the itinerant drummers and mail-order companies of the 1800s and early 1900s. The Court originally imposed that jurisdictional limitation under both the Due Process and dormant Commerce Clauses, but it abandoned the former with its 1967 decision in National Bellas Hess v. Illinois. (Lawyers reading this post should remember something about personal jurisdiction and the Court’s move away from a physical-presences test for purposes of that concept during this same time frame.)

Continue reading “The Future of Nexus”