William W. Oliver Professor of Tax Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington. Find my research at http://ssrn.com/author=48125 and my full publication list at http://www.law.indiana.edu/people/lederman/publications.shtml. I teach Income Tax, Corporate Tax, Tax Procedure, and Tax Policy Colloquium. I generally write about tax compliance and tax administration, the U.S. Tax Court, and the federal income tax as it applies to individuals and corporations. I'm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/leandra2848; come for the law and policy tweets, stay for the #taxvalentines!
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.
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””→
On February 1, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Jake Brooksfrom Georgetown Law School as the second speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Jake presented an early draft of a paper titled “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform,” which led to a lively and interesting discussion about what incrementalism is, what constitutes fundamental reform, how politics may affect the making of tax policy, and whether and how tax law differs from other fields of law.
The paper, which is not yet publicly available, argues that “fundamental tax reform,” while sometimes necessary, should not generally be the goal of tax policy, and that instead, policymakers should take an incremental approach to changing tax laws. “Incrementalism” has a long history in political science, and was first described by Charles Lindblom in an influential 1959 article, “The Science of Muddling Through.” In general, Lindblom’s approach in that article was to reject the urge to use a formal method that involves clarifying the principal goals up front, identifying the means to achieve them, and then analyzing every relevant factor in the decision. Lindblom instead advocated the use of a more casual method that he termed “successive limited comparisons,” which ignored important possible outcomes or alternatives and did not involve distinguishing means and ends. (Page 81 of Lindblom.) Lindblom argued that this “muddling through” approach was not only what was actually practiced by administrators, but also a method for which they need not apologize because administrators are less likely to make serious and lasting mistakes if they proceed through small, incremental changes (pp.86-87). As Jake acknowledges, Lindblom wrote at a time with much more limited ability to model and process large quantities of empirical data. He notes that incrementalism has continued to be an important theory in the literature. Despite technological advances, we cannot see the future, and there remain limits to what empirical data can help us predict.
Jake’s argument is driven in part by arguments in favor of tearing the Internal Revenue Code out by its roots and starting over. I agree with Jake that such an approach seems extremely risky. Policy driven by rhetoric and “horror stories” risks being ill-conceived, hasty, driven by political rent-seeking, and even destructive, as I have written about in the context of IRS reform. But does that necessarily mean that legislative tax changes should take a Lindblom-style incremental approach? Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brooks, “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform””→
On January 18, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Tom Brennan from Harvard Law School as the first speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Tom presented an early draft of a paper co-authored with Robert L. McDonald, Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective. We had a lively and interesting discussion about it in the workshop, as well as over dinner.
The paper, which I do not believe is publicly available yet, deals with the taxation of hybrid securities. It describes current law on how those securities are categorized as debt or equity, as well as the history of how the law developed. The paper criticizes the binary categorization of hybrid instruments as either debt or equity. It thus argues for a bifurcated approach.
The core of the current draft is a proposed new approach to debt and equity that considers the capitalization of a corporation as a whole and taxes the components in line with the underlying economics. The paper disaggregates the risk-free return, the risky return, and abnormal returns (rents). The paper proposes two possible systems of taxation: the “unlevered equity system” and the “levered equity system.” In the unlevered equity system, debt consists of risk-free obligations (like short-term Treasury bills) and equity is unlevered ownership of assets. In the levered equity system, the definition of debt is the same but equity is fully leveraged ownership of assets (fully financed by risk-free obligations). Under the unlevered approach, although particular investors may own a mix of debt and equity, the corporation itself effectively issues no net debt because it issues no risk-free obligations.
A key insight of the paper applies the Domar-Musgrave economic result that, under certain assumptions, risky returns on assets do not bear tax. Brennan and McDonald point out that the Domar-Musgrave insight also applies to corporations, although the securities are liabilities for them instead of assets. (Many years ago, I applied Domar-Musgave analysis in an article of mine on the tax favoritism for entrepreneurship, but I had not thought about its possible application to corporate income, which is a fascinating idea.) The implication of that insight, as Brennan & McDonald note, is that the risk-premium portion of return on investment effectively does not bear tax. As a result, under the unlevered system, all corporate income would bear corporate tax because the unlevered system does not have any net debt obligations. By contrast, adopting the levered system would make the corporate tax burden only rents, given a tax deduction for debt. The paper explains that this reaches the same result as the Mirrlees Review’s exemption for “normal returns” on corporate capital, as well as the allowance for corporate equity (ACE), if the ACE deduction is defined in a particular way. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brennan & McDonald, “Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective””→
The 2018 Tax Policy Colloquium at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law will kick off next Thursday, January 18, with the presentation by Harvard Law School professor Tom Brennan of a fascinating and timely paper he is co-authoring with Robert L. McDonald, Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective. Tom is a terrific speaker, and I expect the workshop to be really interesting.
Last year, I did a closing post noting that some themes had emerged in the semester’s colloquium. This year, I plan to blog each workshop afterwards, with permission of the speakers. The full workshop schedule follows after the jump. If you will be in Bloomington and are interested in attending one or more workshops, just let me know and I can send you the paper once I receive it. (Most of the paper drafts will not be publicly available.)
The Tax Policy Colloquium is a course for students; I expect about 14 this semester, including a visiting scholar from another school on campus who has asked to audit. I conduct a background session with the students to help them get up to speed on the concepts presented in the paper draft. Typically, the actual workshops are attended not only by the students but also by my colleague David Gamage, senior tax attorney/Maurer alumnus Tim Riffle, and a few other faculty–law school colleagues and/or tax or economics faculty from other schools on campus. Sometimes other members of the community attend, such as a tax professor from another law school; another attorney practicing in Bloomington or Indianapolis; a student not enrolled in the class (Shuyi Oei‘s and Ben Leff‘s talks in 2016 were particularly popular with other students!); and/or a local judicial clerk. Eric Rasmusen from the IU Kelley School of Business and Margaret Ryznar from IU’s McKinney Law School in Indianapolis have each attended several of the talks.
Tax professors are of course among the many people affected by the recent, significant changes to federal tax law. I have heard from several people wondering how best to adapt their courses starting in January to these changes. I think that exchanging ideas and sharing syllabi, etc., may be very helpful.
Accordingly, several of us have each agreed to serve as the point person for a particular course. The point person can set up an email list for those who express interest by email, and then use that list to exchange questions, ideas, syllabi, URLs, handouts, etc. with others teaching the same course. Of course, casebook authors may also be working on updates, and other listservs may be helpful, but these distribution lists will allow those interested to participate in topic-focused groups to exchange materials and ideas in advance of and throughout the semester.
The point people thus far are the following Surly bloggers, for the following courses:
To get on an email list, please email the applicable point person. And folks interested in serving as a point person for another course (i.e., in setting up the email list and getting it started), please post in the comments below, with the course name and your email address.
The Tax Cuts and Job Act’s conference bill includes section 13307, titled “DENIAL OF DEDUCTION FOR SETTLEMENTS SUBJECT TO NONDISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS PAID IN CONNECTION WITH SEXUAL HARASSMENT OR SEXUAL ABUSE.” Fellow Surly blogger Sam Brunson blogged about an earlier version of this provision, which obviously reflects the recent, widely publicized revelations of sexual harassment and sexual assault that began with the Jody Kantor & Megan Twohey exposé of Harvey Weinstein in early October and was followed by a floodgate of allegations spanning a wide range of industries. Unfortunately, this tax provision, as drafted, is less than clear and could potentially have perverse—perhaps unintended—effects.
The provision seems intended as a policy-based provision rather than much of a revenue-raiser; it was one of very few things in the conference bill scored as raising less than $50 million over the entire 2018-2027 budget window. And, in the press release accompanying the predecessor of this provision, the Settlement Tax Deductions are Over for Predators Act (the STOP Act), which was introduced by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), Rep. Buck stated, “‘When we allow companies to deduct sexual assault and sexual harassment related settlements, we’re asking the American taxpayer to subsidize hush money payments that cover-up sexual misconduct.’”
But what exactly does the provision disallow? The principal language in the conference bill (the material other than the effective date and relettering) is a new subsection added to Code section 162 that reads:
“PAYMENTS RELATED TO SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND SEXUAL ABUSE.—No deduction shall be allowed under this chapter for—
“(1) any settlement or payment related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if such settlement or payment is subject to a nondisclosure agreement, or
Susan Morse and Stephen Shay have blogged today on Procedurally Taxing about the Ninth’s Circuit oral argument tomorrow in Altera Corp. v. Commissioner, as has Dan Shaviro on his blog, Start Making Sense. Altera is the transfer pricing and administrative law case involving the Treasury’s cost-sharing agreement regulation. The Tax Court invalidated the regulation under the Administrative Procedure Act, as arbitrary and capricious. That is because the Tax Court accepted the taxpayer’s argument that it need not share stock-based compensation costs under a qualified cost-sharing agreement because arm’s length parties would not do so. The Tax Court found that Treasury had inadequately addressed evidence in the notice-and-comment process that parties not under common control did not share stock-based compensation costs, although Treasury explained in the Preamble to the regulation that cost-sharing agreements between uncontrolled parties are not sufficiently comparable to those in controlled-party transactions.
Altera raises an important administrative law question about what is required of Treasury for its regulations to be valid. Susie and Steve spearheaded an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit in favor of the Commissioner, in which I joined, along with Dick Harvey, Ruth Mason, and Bret Wells. An amicus brief prepared by another group of professors also supports the Commissioner. There are also amicus briefs by business groups on the other side. See Susie and Steve’s blog post for more detail. And for prior coverage on the Surly Subgroup, see this post on our amicus brief, explaining why the Ninth Circuit should reverse the Tax Court’s decision invalidating the regulation.
It is well known that the IRS was accused in 2013 of targeting Tea Party and other conservative groups for delays in their 501(c)(4) applications for tax-exempt status. TIGTA’s May 2013 report (and Lois Lerner’s statements at an ABA Tax Section meeting a few days earlier) launched the controversy, which harmed the IRS and a number of its employees. (Cf. my earlier Surly post, “Don’t Impeach IRS Commissioner Koskinen.”)
In 2016, I published an article, “IRS Reform: Politics As Usual?,” analyzing the facts underlying these accusations and the law applicable to the IRS’s determination of tax-exempt status. I argued that the facts showed that the IRS was not motivated by partisan politics. Rather, what happened was that IRS employees included a keyword approach in its efforts to triage the large volume of applications for tax-exempt status it was receiving. Its “Be On the Lookout” (BOLO) list of words was designed to help it identify for further scrutiny those organizations that were engaged in more political activity than was permitted under section 501(c)(4), which, generally speaking gants exempt status to organizations “for the promotion of social welfare.” As I describe in that article, the IRS tried but failed to get ahead of a brewing political controversy on this. There was evidence even in the 2010 IRS PowerPoint highlighting types of groups applying for a determination of exempt status under 501(c)(4) that the IRS had both Tea Party and progressive political organizations on its radar. But the news was full of stories of the IRS supposedly targeting conservative tax-exempt organizations.
The Washington Post has reported in an article titled Liberal groups got IRS scrutiny, too, inspector general suggests, that TIGTA will be issuing a new report finding that the IRS also used keywords to try to identify progressive groups engaging in too much political activity to qualify for the tax exemption under 501(c)(4) they were applying Continue reading “The Real IRS Scandal”→