Twitter Tax Feeds for 2017

By David Herzig

I promised I would update the twitter tax feeds in my last post.  There are a number of new names on the updated list as tax professors continue to enter the twitterverse.  I did update the list to be in alphabetical order.  As always, if I am missing someone, please let me know.

Starting with the SurlySubgroup (@surlysubgroup)

Jennifer Bird-Pollan (@jbirdpollan)

Sam Brunson (@smbrnsn)

Phil Hackney (@EOTaxProf)

David Herzig (@professortax)

Stephanie Hoffer (@Profhoffer)

Leandra Lederman (@leandra2848)

Ben Leff (@benmosesleff)

Francine Lipman (@Narfnampil)

Diane Ring (@ringdi_dr)

Shu-Yi Oei (@shuyioei)

Other United States/Canadian Tax Professor (in alphabetical order):

Continue reading “Twitter Tax Feeds for 2017”

Privacy Is Dead: Crowdsourcing Tax Enforcement

Sam Brunson
Professor, Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Periodically, the IRS estimates the tax gap (that is, the difference between taxes due and taxes owed). For the years 2008 through 2010, the IRS estimates the annual tax gap was about $458 billion. After including late payments and amounts collected through IRS enforcement efforts, the annual tax gap diminished by $52 billion a year, leaving a $406 billion tax gap in each of those three years.

The $406 billion tax gap is equivalent to just over 16 percent of taxes due. And the IRS is unlikely to significantly close this gap going forward. While the has proven remarkably efficient at collecting revenue—in fiscal year 2015, it collected $3.3 trillion on a budget of just under $11 billion—Congress has been cutting the IRS budget for the last decade or more, while, at the same time, assigning the IRS more responsibilities. In spite of its efficiency, the IRS must do more with less, and its ability to find taxpayers who do not pay their taxes is thus bound to suffer.

These constraints are reflected in the data about IRS enforcement activities: in 2015, the IRS audited about 0.8 percent of individual tax returns and 1.3 percent of corporate income tax returns. Not only does the IRS audit very few returns, but the number has been falling: in 2010, the IRS audited about 1.1 percent of all individual returns.

There is no easy solution to the tax gap, or to the audit rate. Increasing IRS funding, or decreasing its non-revenue-raising responsibilities, would perhaps be the most effective fix, but that currently appears unrealistic. In a 2015 Pew survey, 48 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the IRS, up from 40 percent five years earlier. And Republicans—who will control both the Executive and the Legislative branches of the federal government—score significant political points campaigning against the IRS. So properly funding the IRS appears unlikely in the near future.

An alternative solution, then, would be to reduce the costs to the IRS of enforcement. One way to reduce those costs? Crowdsource enforcement.

A Brief History of Tax Return Disclosure

Crowdsourcing tax enforcement is an old, albeit out-of-favor, idea. In fact, it was not until 1976 that Congress definitively ended more than a century’s experimentation with deputizing the public to help enforce the tax law. Beginning in 1861, the Civil War income tax law provided for public access to tax returns. To ensure that public access (and titillate their readers), newspapers published the returns of prominent citizens. This public disclosure ended when the income tax was allowed to expire, but Congress experimented anew with it in each successive iteration of the federal income tax.

Congress had one principal goal in publicizing tax returns: ensuring that taxpayers paid their taxes. Essentially, public access to taxpayers’ returns allowed the government to crowdsource enforcement—people would notice, for example, that their neighbor had paid suspiciously little in taxes. Knowing that the Panopticon was watching their returns, taxpayers would have every incentive to pay their full tax liabilities.

Not everybody appreciated this mandatory disclosure of tax returns, of course. From the start, public disclosure faced significant opposition. Every time Congress reintroduced public disclosure of tax returns, opponents of disclosure argued that such forced disclosure was both un-American and intrusive. According to critics, the publicity not only violated taxpayers’ privacy, but it might actually endanger taxpayers, exposing their wealth and addresses to criminals and kidnappers. Even without danger, the benefits, according to critics, were limited to individuals’ indulging their idle curiosity.

Moving to Privacy

By 1976, the public disclosure of tax returns had been severely curtailed. In spite of being “public records,” they were no longer generally available to newspapers or the public at large; rather, they were open to inspection by the general public under regulations approved by the president or pursuant to presidential order.

Federal agencies had more access to tax returns than the general public, but even federal agencies could only see them on a case-by-case basis, after providing a written request. In the 1970s, though, in the wake of Watergate and fears about the “proliferation of computerized data banks,” the government began to strengthen citizens’ privacy rights. The 1976 Tax Reform Act cemented those privacy rights, broadly forbidding government employees from disclosing taxpayers’ returns or return information.

Over the next two decades, privacy became such a central principle of American society that, in 1993, Professor Richard Pomp wrote that it was “unthinkable for proposals” for public disclosure of tax returns to be “taken seriously.” Less than a decade later, though, in the wake of Enron’s collapse, legislators, academics, policymakers, and the media were seriously discussing the implications of making corporate tax returns public.

A Post-Privacy World?

A decade and a half after Enron’s collapse, the table appears perfectly set for returning to public disclosure of tax returns. Earlier privacy concerns seem irrelevant, if not quaint, in today’s world. For many individuals, the public already has access to information about their salaries. At least half of the states maintain public databases of state employee salaries.[fn1] Securities and Exchange Commission rules require publicly-traded corporations to disclose the compensation of its five most highly-paid employees. And Forbes lists the income of the most highly-paid musicians, actors, and athletes, as well as its estimates of the net worth of the world’s wealthiest individuals.

Beyond this broad array of information already available, today’s privacy situation is almost the polar opposite of the post-Watergate world. While exponentially more personal information is stored on computer servers today than 40 years ago, Americans have largely put that information online voluntarily. Technology entrepreneurs argue that social norms have moved away from privacy. And while the entrepreneurs may have financial motivations for arguing that the norms have changed, they are not alone in that view. Many experts believe that within another decade, much of what we consider private today will no longer be considered private.

It may not even require movement with social norms to arrive at a post-privacy world with respect to tax returns. The IRS, tax, and accounting firms have, until now, done an admirable job keeping returns private. In contravention of decades of precedent, president-elect Donald Trump refused to release his tax returns. In spite of the pressure, only three pages of (state) tax returns were ever leaked. But the fact that he faced no leaked returns does not mean that they will not, in the future, be leaked: the extensive Panama Papers leaks suggest that no data—even private law firm data—is necessarily safe from public scrutiny. In fact, hackers may have accessed information on more than 700,000 taxpayers in an IRS data breach.

Of course, the fact that taxpayer information could be compromised, and that notions of privacy may change significantly in the future, do not present an affirmative case for requiring all taxpayers to disclose their tax returns.

Consequences of Crowdsourcing Enforcement

Requiring the public disclosure of tax returns has at least two beneficial results, from a tax compliance perspective. At the ex ante level, it forces taxpayers to think about how aggressive they want to be. When tax returns are private, only the taxpayer, her advisors, and maybe the IRS (if hers is one of the 0.8 percent of returns it audits) will know how she structured her tax life. She can thus maintain a public image as a tax-compliant citizen, even while pushing the boundaries. If, however, she knows that her tax returns will be available to the public, she is forced to internalize the non-monetary costs of her tax planning. Perhaps saving money by paying less in taxes is more important to her than being seen by her peers as complying with the tax law, in which case she may continue to take aggressive positions. To the extent there is a social norm of tax compliance, however, knowing that her peers will have access to her tax returns may cause a taxpayer to be more conservative.

At the ex post level, requiring taxpayers to publicly disclose their tax returns reduces the IRS’s search costs as it enforces the tax law. It would, of course, continue to use its matching system and other techniques for determining which returns to audit, but it would also have hundreds or thousands of additional eyes scrutinizing tax returns. Friends, neighbors, competitors, and former spouses may all have some interest in seeing tax returns, and potentially in reporting bad behavior.

This ex post crowdsourced auditing does have potential problems, of course. It would increase the noise, as presumably some percentage of tips would be false positives. And if it turns out that significant numbers of taxpayers are taking aggressive tax positions, it may encourage other similarly-situated taxpayers to take similarly aggressive positions.  In both cases, though, the sheer quantity of data may correct for the problem. The IRS may not want to act on every tip, but if it sees a pattern of behavior from a number of taxpayers, it may decide to look closely at returns that engage in that behavior. And if the IRS were to strategically target aggressive positions taken by a number of taxpayers, that could discourage other taxpayers from following suit.

Two Final Thoughts

Administratively, requiring disclosure would be tremendously easy. In 2015, almost 88 percent of individual returns were filed electronically. With electronically-filed returns, the IRS could automatically redact certain sensitive information (for example, social security numbers and, perhaps, names of dependents) and instantly make the returns available online. The 12 percent of returns filed on paper would take more work to redact, but the IRS could require taxpayers who filed on paper to file an unredacted and a redacted version of their returns.

But culturally, it would be hard. Although we may be approaching a post-privacy world, we are not there yet. Although people freely post all kinds of personal information to the internet, few people voluntarily publicize their tax returns, and mandatory disclosure could still face significant pushback.

As an intermediate step toward full publicity, then, perhaps the tax law should make such disclosure option, but offer a carrot to those who opt in. For example, such a program could provide that those who disclose their tax returns will be protected from penalties for a certain number of years.


[fn] I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but even a quick Google search found me databases for these states: Arkansas; California; Connecticut; Florida; Illinois; Indiana; Iowa; Kentucky; Maryland; Massachusetts; Minnesota; Missouri; Montana; New York; North Carolina; Ohio; Oklahoma; Pennsylvania; South Carolina; Tennessee; Texas; Utah; Virginia; Washington; Wisconsin.

Applying Offer-in-Compromise Principles to Student Loan Repayment

W. Edward “Ted” Afield
Associate Clinical Professor and Director, Philip C. Cook Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, Georgia State University College of Law

Thanks to Leandra for organizing this group of posts from the excellent discussion our AALS Discussion Group had about the future of tax administration and enforcement.  During our discussion, I discussed how areas of tax administration and procedure are starting to become intertwined with other areas of law.  Currently, in an article that I am finalizing, I am exploring this theme in the context of the various student loan repayment programs, such as Income Based Repayment and Pay As You Earn, and examining how these programs would benefit from being modeled after tax liability relief programs that emphasize providing relief based on a taxpayer’s ability to pay.

Although the student repayment programs were not instituted through the Tax Code, they have nevertheless implicated the Code by tying repayment to adjusted gross income and creating a potential tax liability through debt forgiveness.  John Brooks has persuasively argued here and here that this model of student loan repayment is best analyzed as a system of taxation, or “quasi-public spending” rather than pure loan repayment.  As Brooks explains, under these repayment programs, government funds are used to finance student education and are repaid with a percentage of students’ incomes, making these programs appear very similar to a tax imposed to pay for a government benefit.  Brooks acknowledges that the analogy is not a perfect one, given that progressivity disappears at higher income levels, the “tax” is not due for life (rather, it is only due until the loan is repaid), there is currently a significant balloon payment for forgiven loans that produce taxable cancellation of debt income, the programs are administered by the Department of Education rather than by the Internal Revenue Service, and the benefit is predominantly funded by taxpayers who took out student loans (although taxpayers as a whole still fund a portion of the debt forgiveness).  Despite these differences between the loan repayment programs and the income tax, the fact that repayment is tied to income rather than the amount of the debt or the interest rate on the debt prevent student loan repayment programs from functioning as pure loans.

Tying these programs to taxpayer income produces distortions and unanticipated inequitable outcomes such as: Continue reading “Applying Offer-in-Compromise Principles to Student Loan Repayment”

Leak-Driven Lawmaking

Shu-Yi Oei
Hoffman F. Fuller Professor of Law, Tulane Law School

Over the past decade, a steady drip of tax leaks has begun to exert an extraordinary influence on how international tax laws and policies are made. The Panama Papers and Bahamas leaks are the most recent examples, but they are only the tip of the leaky iceberg. Other leaks include (in roughly chronological order) the UBS and LGT leaks; the Julius Baer leak; HSBC “SwissLeaks”; the British Havens leaks; and the LuxLeaks scandal.

These tax leaks have revealed the offshore financial holdings and tax evasion and avoidance practices of various taxpayers, financial institutions, and tax havens. In so doing, they have been valuable in correcting long-standing informational asymmetries between taxing authorities and taxpayers with respect to these activities. Spurred by leaked data, governments and taxing authorities around the world have gone about punishing taxpayers and their advisers, recouping revenues from offshore tax evasion, enacting new domestic laws, and signing multilateral agreements that create greater transparency and exchange of financial information between countries.

Thus, it is clear that leaked data has started to be a significant driver in how countries conduct cross-border tax enforcement and make international tax law and policy. But using leaks to direct and formulate tax policy responses comes with some potentially serious pitfalls.

In a new paper—coming soon to an SSRN near you[fn.1]Diane Ring and I explore the social welfare effects of leak-driven lawmaking. Our argument, very generally, is that while data leaks can be socially beneficial by virtue of the behavioral responses they trigger and the enforcement-related laws and policies generated in their wake, there are under-appreciated downside hazards and costs to relying on leaked data in deterring tax evasion and making tax policy.

Continue reading “Leak-Driven Lawmaking”

Mind the Gap: Effect of IRS Budget Cuts on the Tax Gap and Potential Solutions

Roberta Mann
Mr. and Mrs. L. L. Stewart Professor of Business Law, University of Oregon School of Law

The Internal Revenue Service faces many challenges: scandals, threats to impeach the Commissioner, increasing burdens from expanding responsibilities, and, of course, the tax gap. In 2015, Jon Forman and I published an article entitled “Making the IRS Work,” which discussed ways of making the IRS more efficient given likely continued budget cuts under a Republican majority Congress. We concluded that while the IRS could become more efficient, the best way to enhance compliance and protect taxpayers would be to increase the IRS budget.

Since then, the prospect of increasing the IRS budget has not improved. Commissioner Koskinen reported that the IRS budget is down by $900 million since 2010. While the Obama Administration requested $12.280 billion to be appropriated for the IRS in FY2017, representing $1.045 billion more than the amount enacted for FY2016, the House passed a bill providing $10.999 billion in appropriations for the IRS in FY2017, representing $236 million below the amount enacted for FY2016. The Senate bill maintained FY2016 funding in its appropriations for the IRS.

An underlying assumption of our analysis is that the IRS should continue to function as an effective revenue collector. With lower budgets, the IRS must become more efficient to continue to effectively collect revenue. Uncollected revenue leads to the tax gap, which in general terms is the difference between the revenue owed and the revenue collected. A large tax gap not only constrains revenue, but also can lead to reduced voluntary compliance. IRS budget cuts over the past several years have not yet significantly affected the tax gap, which the IRS updated in April 2016. Continue reading “Mind the Gap: Effect of IRS Budget Cuts on the Tax Gap and Potential Solutions”

The Stages of Administrative Law Exceptionalism

Christoper J. Walker
Associate Professor, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

At the American Bar Association’s annual Administrative Law Conference in December, I had the privilege of moderating a panel entitled Your Agency Is Not That Special: The Decline of Administrative Law Exceptionalism. The panel consisted of leading experts on administrative law exceptionalism from three distinct regulatory fields: Jill Family for immigration, Kristin Hickman for tax, and Melissa Wasserman for patent law. The panel also included Mark Freeman, a senior attorney from the Justice Department’s Civil Appellate Staff, who has briefed and argued a number of important administrative law exceptionalism cases.

As we explained in the panel description, “[a]dministrative law exceptionalism—the misperception that a particular regulatory field is so different from the rest of the regulatory state that general administrative law principles do not apply—has plagued the modern regulatory state. We have seen it front in center in a variety of regulatory contexts from tax and financial regulation to patent law and immigration.”

On the tax front, Professor Hickman and I discussed at some length the Tax Court’s decision in Altera, which is presently on appeal in the Ninth Circuit, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s challenge to the IRS’s inversion rule, which is pending in federal district court in Texas. Both of these cases have significant implications for the future of tax exceptionalism, though that is not the purpose of this blog post. Continue reading “The Stages of Administrative Law Exceptionalism”

2017 Mini-Symposium on “The Future of Tax Administration and Enforcement”

By: Leandra Lederman

On January 7, 2017, I had the pleasure of moderating a Discussion Group I organized for the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) annual meeting. The topic of the discussion was “The Future of Tax Administration and Enforcement.” The topic was prompted by the funding crisis in which the IRS finds itself and the challenges that poses for tax administration, which I wrote about in two articles published last year, “The IRS, Politics, and Income Inequality,” 150 Tax Notes 1329 (Mar. 14, 2016) and “IRS Reform: Politics As Usual?,” 7 Columbia Tax J. 36 (2016) (the latter of which was part of a symposium Kristin Hickman organized on tax administration).

The AALS Discussion Group included experts on tax law, administrative law, and cybersecurity. The discussion spanned topics that included IRS resource and task priority issues, administrative law aspects of tax administration, and cross-border tax administration concerns. In the coming weeks, Surly Subgroup will be hosting a mini-symposium featuring posts by members of the Discussion Group. The first substantive post will be this Friday, January 20, and is by Christopher Walker from The Ohio State University, Michael E. Moritz College of Law, who is a member of the group but was unable to attend the discussion itself due to a flight cancellation. The panel on January 7 was as follows:

Over the next few weeks, watch for more Mini-Symposium posts! They will be categorized under “2017 Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration.”

Tulane Seeks Fall 2017 Visitors

Here’s another hiring announcement from Tulane Law School, this time for Fall 2017 visitors:

Tulane Law School invites applications for a one-semester visiting position in the Fall of 2017. Our specific needs for the Fall 2017 semester include basic income tax and corporate tax, criminal law, and professional responsibility. Applicants must possess a J.D. from an ABA-accredited law school, strong academic credentials, and at least three years of relevant law-related experience; prior teaching experience is strongly preferred. Applicants should submit a letter of interest, CV, and the names and contact information of three references through Interfolio at https://apply.interfolio.com/40060. For additional information, please contact Onnig Dombalagian atodombala@tulane.edu.

Tulane University is an equal employment opportunity/affirmative action employer committed to excellence through diversity. All eligible candidates are invited to apply for position vacancies as appropriate.

Deficient Notices of Deficiency and the Remedy Question

By: Leandra Lederman

In QinetiQ v. Commissioner, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit refused to invalidate a Notice of Deficiency that simply stated “that QinetiQ ‘ha[d] not established that [it was] entitled’ to a deduction ‘under the provisions of [26 U.S.C.] § 83.’” The taxpayer had argued that the Notice “failed to provide a reasoned explanation for the agency’s final decision, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701-06.” The court’s analysis of this issue focuses on the distinction between court review that is subject to the APA and court review that is not. The QinetiQ court found that review of IRS deficiency actions, which predates the APA, falls into the latter category.

The QinetiQ case can readily be grouped with Mayo Foundation and the post-Mayo cases focused on the intersection of administrative law with federal tax law. In a recent post on the Procedurally Taxing blog, Bryan Camp does a nice job of analyzing the case in that context. But another perspective on the case is that the APA argument in QinetiQ is the latest packaging of some taxpayers’ complaints about uninformative Notices of Deficiency. In fact, QinetiQ also argued that the Notice violated Code section 7522, which requires various IRS notices, including Notices of Deficiency, to “describe the basis for, and identify the amounts (if any) of, the tax due, interest, additional amounts, additions to the tax, and assessable penalties included in such notice.”

As I wrote over two decades ago, in one of my first articles, “‘Civil’izing Tax Procedure: Applying General Federal Learning to Statutory Notices of Deficiency,” 30 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 183 (1996), the conflicts and confusion over the validity of Notices of Deficiency stem from two issues. The first is that courts often focus on only one of the Notice’s functions in isolation, such as its jurisdictional role as the “ticket to Tax Court” in deficiency cases. My 1996 article argued that the Notice of Deficiency not only plays that role, it also provides notice to the taxpayer (like civil process) and acts as an inchoate complaint, helping to frame the issues if a Tax Court case ensues. As I explain there, less content should be required for jurisdictional purposes than to frame the content of the litigation. Code section 7522 arguably reflects this idea, as I’ll explain further below. Continue reading “Deficient Notices of Deficiency and the Remedy Question”

TurboTax vs. H&R Block: Deductible Moving Expenses and Haunted Houses

Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw this Promoted Tweet:

Curious, I looked to see what it was responding to. TurboTax, it turns out, will have a (pretty awesome, actually) new Super Bowl ad, starring Kathy Bates: Continue reading “TurboTax vs. H&R Block: Deductible Moving Expenses and Haunted Houses”