Teaching Depreciation with a #DBCFT Lurking

Shu-Yi Oei

I’m teaching depreciation in my Basic Federal Income Tax class this week. As I suspect is the case for most tax profs, our coverage of depreciation comes right after we wrap up discussion of expense taking in §§ 162 and 212 (and § 195) but before we get to § 165 losses.

Depreciation is literally my favorite topic in the entire universe to teach. I mean, if I was going to get a tattoo of a Code section on myself, it would literally be “26 U.S.C. § 168 (as amended).” No disrespect meant to 26 U.S.C. §§ 167, 179, 197 and friends. [Distraction: Here is a virtual tattoo generator. You, too, can practice getting your favorite Tax Code section inked on yourself.] I firmly believe that you can teach any number of core skills in tax class by teaching depreciation (e.g., statutory construction, policy choices, reading cross-references, political economy and legislative change, time value of money, etc.). Conversely, I also tend to think that if you can understand the depreciation statute in Basic Tax and explain it to your classmates, you can do pretty much anything in our legal profession.

Therefore, putting aside all of the reasons why cash-flow expensing may not have the effects that one might hope, I will be absolutely heartbroken if we actually end up with a cash-flow tax, because then what am I gonna talk about in tax class?

All of which brings me to today’s dilemma: Do I mention the ubiquitous #DBCFT in teaching depreciation this week? Or can I just pretend it’s not happening? If one does teach cash-flow expensing, when does one bring it up (i.e., in what order of coverage)? My inclination is to (1) explain the basics of how economic cost recovery over time works in theory; (2) talk briefly about the ACRS changes in 1981; (3) teach the Simon v. Commissioner cases (violin bows) to illustrate the policy tensions that arise once we move from true economic recovery and actual useful lives to ACRS and statutory recovery periods; (4) discuss #DBCFT as an alternative design approach, noting the possible benefits and downsides of that approach, noting that there’s some discussion in the ether right now re whether we should be doing this (and deemphasizing the border adjustment features); (5) introduce bonus depreciation concepts (§§ 168(k) and 179) as an illustration of how expensing has surreptitiously worked its way into the conversation in the guise of bonus depreciation circa financial crisis; and then (6) move right along to parsing the actual statutory elements of §§ 167 and 168 and understanding how it all stitches together.

This strikes me as a nice middle ground between (1) dorkin’ out and going #DBCFT full bore and totally losing the class, and (2) just ignoring the current debate. I’d be curious to know what other tax profs are doing with coverage here.

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