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.
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.
On February 28, Prof. Stephanie McMahonfrom 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.