Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes

Copyright Missouri History Museum, Some Rights Reserved

By Sam Brunson

In the aftermath of Chuck Berry’s death on March 18, I learned that I’m way more familiar with his music than I had realized. I’ll confess that I never spent a lot of time thinking about Chuck Berry, but his songs (it turns out) were an accidental soundtrack to my growing up. My dad had two or three oldies stations programmed into the radio, and Berry’s music was ubiquitous on their playlists. And many songs I’m partial to have turned out to be his. (I’m thinking particularly of Nina Simone’s cover of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”)

Still, I’m not a big enough fan to try to write about Berry on a tax blog. Or, rather, I wasn’t until last night, at the gym. As I listened to Sound Opinions, I learned that, like so many musicians, Berry had a run-in with the IRS. Continue reading “Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes”

Update on the Future of Treasury Regulations

cfrBy Sam Brunson

I previously wrote about the fact that Treasury and the IRS were going to essentially stop issuing guidance in light of the Trump administration’s one-in-two-out rule for regulations.[fn1]

There seems to be some movement on this front. Yesterday, Commissioner Koskinen announced that the IRS was set to begin issuing “subregulatory” guidance again. He didn’t define what he meant by subregulatory, but it probably includes revenue procedures, notices, and revenue rulings, at least. (Interestingly enough, the Tax Notes reporting doesn’t mention revenue rulings,[fn2] while the BNA reporting does. I don’t know if that difference is accidental, or if the two organizations are interpreting differently what Commissioner Koskinen means by subregulatory.) Continue reading “Update on the Future of Treasury Regulations”

Satan, Tea Parties, and the IRS

By Sam Brunson

Did you hear that the IRS granted a Satanic cult tax-exempt status in ten days?!? Meanwhile, Tea Party groups’ exemption applications languished for months or even years?!?

I know, it sounds pure conspiracy theory: the IRS loves Satan and hates conservatives. But it’s true! Or, at least, kind of! But it needs to be contextualized, because comparing the exemption application of Reason Alliance, Ltd. (the putative Satanic cult) and Tea Party groups is inapposite.[fn1] Continue reading “Satan, Tea Parties, and the IRS”

Did Rachel Maddow Break the Law? #TrumpTaxReturns

By Sam Brunson

Last night, Rachel Maddow dropped a bombshell: reporter David Cay Johnston had a leaked copy of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return, and he shared it on her show.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely a bombshell; in our leakhappy environment, it was almost inevitable that we’d eventually see some of Trump’s returns. And this barely counts as a return: it’s just his Form 1040 from 2005 (that is, the first two pages of a return). When I grade voluntary presidential candidate tax disclosures, one year’s Form 1040 realistically gets you a D+; the 1040 says how much you ultimately paid in taxes, but very little more than that. (For example, you can see that Trump had itemized deductions of just over $17 million, but you can’t tell what itemized deductions he took. I mean, is it mortgage interest? state and local taxes? charitable contributions? some combination? Without the full return, we have no way of knowing.) Continue reading “Did Rachel Maddow Break the Law? #TrumpTaxReturns”

The Taxman and Jazz Radio

By Sam Brunson

Yesterday, driving my son to swim lessons, I flipped my radio to WDCB, Chicagoland’s jazz radio station. An organ trio was playing something that sounded vaguely familiar. And then they returned to the melody, and it was the Beatles’s “Taxman.” And just like that, two of my favorite things—jazz and taxes—intersected.

Several months ago, Leandra did a great post on the history and context of “Taxman.” And her post yesterday on taxes in a series of novels got me thinking about how often tax shows up in jazz. When I posted about the musical tax canon, I mentioned Fats Waller’s “We the People,” but here, I specifically wanted to look for jazz covers of “Taxman.” And I found two: Continue reading “The Taxman and Jazz Radio”

Past Moratoria on Tax Guidance and Regulations(?)

By: Sam Brunson

cch_standard_federal_tax_printOn my previous post talking about the the IRS’s announcement that it was putting a moratorium on issuing new regulations and formal guidance, a commenter asked if it was such an odd thing for a new Administration to temporarily pause guidance. After all, who wants to issue guidance before the new Administration’s people are in place and agenda is set, lest the new Administration change its priorities and positions in the coming months?

I didn’t remember any such (formal, at least) pause in 2009, but, when I got home, I decided to look back a few years. I looked at new regulations and revenue rulings in the first month of the Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan presidencies (I didn’t bother with George H.W. Bush, because that was a Republican to Republican switch). Also, because we don’t know how long the current limitations on regulations and other guidance will last, I also expanded my search of revenue rulings for the first three months of the new administrations.[fn1] Continue reading “Past Moratoria on Tax Guidance and Regulations(?)”

The (Near) Future of Treasury Regulations

cfrToday’s Tax Notes reports[fn1] that the IRS has announced that it will not release pretty much any new formal guidance (including revenue rulings and revenue procedures) for the foreseeable future.[fn2]

Why not? A confluence of an Executive Order and a January 20 memorandum. The EO, “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Cost,” requires that, for every new regulation issued, two existing regulations be eliminated.

The January 20 memorandum further prohibits agencies from sending regulations to the Federal Register until they’ve been reviewed by an agency or department head appointed by Trump. Continue reading “The (Near) Future of Treasury Regulations”

Newspapers and the Total Destruction of the Johnson Amendment

By Sam Brunson

Yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump promised to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name “Johnson Amendment” (and I kind of hope you are—it’s a stupid name), that refers to the phrase in section 501(c)(3) that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. It was proposed by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, and inserted into the tax code with little fanfare and no legislative history.

There’s a lot that can (and, in fact, has) been said about Trump’s proposal, which follows up on a campaign promise he made, apparently repeatedly. I wouldn’t doubt if we return to it a few times here at Surly. But I just wanted to point out one potential consequence: Continue reading “Newspapers and the Total Destruction of the Johnson Amendment”

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.

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”