Do You Really Need More Information?

By Gaute Solheim, Senior Tax Advisor, Norwegian Tax Administration

(Mr. Solheim writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Norwegian Tax Administration.)

In a previous post, I explained with reference to the Cui 2017 paper on Third Party Information Reporting (TPIR) why I expect good quality TPIR, based on a primitive analysis of the human factor in corporate filings. When I started rereading Cui’s paper, I only read a few lines before a chapter heading from the CIA textbook “The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” popped into my mind: Do you really need more information? That book contains a full chapter (starting on page 51) on how more information sometimes contributed nothing to the quality of the analysis, but was of immense help for the confidence of the analyst.

I will below make my argument for why the answer should be “yes” when it concerns the TPIR data mentioned by Cui in the paper, but it is a qualified yes. TPIR is a bit like cooking. Fantastic raw materials will not end up as gourmet meals on their own. You need a talented and skilled chef and a kitchen with the right tools, as well.

Having spent some time on capacity-building with less developed tax administrations than the Norwegian, I agree with Cui that establishing a TPIR machinery should not be the first priority in these countries. However, TPIR being the wrong starting point for some developing countries is not an argument for abstaining from it in Norway and other jurisdictions with better-resourced administrations. I will below state my case for why I find TPIR useful based on my observations working for the Norwegian Tax Administration (NTA) (which may of course differ from the opinions of the NTA itself). Continue reading “Do You Really Need More Information?”

The Human Factor in TPIR Filing

By Gaute Solheim, Senior Tax Advisor, Norwegian Tax Administration

(Mr. Solheim writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Norwegian Tax Administration.)

I happened to reread a paper by Wei Cui from 2017 on Third Party Information Reporting (TPIR) some weeks ago. Based on my own practical experience working for the Norwegian Tax Administration, I found it hard to agree with him on uselessness of TPIR. In this post, I will explain why I expect good quality in TPIR filing. I plan to write a later post on why TPIR is useful.

I will start with crediting Cui for outlining very well what I will call “the story of the corporate tax revenue collection machine.” He does a good job describing how the government has outsourced the bulk of the revenue collection to corporations. I would love to see papers adding empirical numbers to this description. My Norwegian perspective is a world of VAT, corporations withholding taxes on wages and delivering massive amounts of data used to prepopulate the personal tax filings. The way Cui describe the role of the corporations in the “tax revenue collection machine” is probably even more spot on for me than for a reader with a US perspective.

As I read Cui, he expect legal entities to cooperate sufficiently to ensure fairly good quality TPIR. He does some reasoning on why this is to be expected, but I did not find his arguments very convincing. This may be because for some years I have had a different line of reasoning ending with the same conclusion. What follows is based on material I used in a talk some ten years ago for my colleagues at the Large Taxpayer Office in Norway. The theme of that talk was why we found less evasion in our segment of taxpayers than what other tax auditors found when auditing smaller entities. I called the talk “The Human Factor in Tax Filing”. I believe the reasoning I used there also may explain high quality TPIR. Continue reading “The Human Factor in TPIR Filing”

Lead us not into temptation

By Gaute Solheim, Senior Tax Advisor, Norwegian Tax Administration

(Mr. Solheim writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Norwegian Tax Administration.)

The Norwegian Tax Administration (NTA) has succeeded in leading most of the taxpayers away from the temptation of tax evasion over the last two decades. Not all, but most. It was not by carefully guiding them down a narrow path. The NTA constructed a wide avenue built on large quantities of third-party information pushed into prepopulated tax filings. Norway tweaked details in the rules for the most used deductions, linking them to easy observable facts and standard rates instead of using actual cost. Feedback from audits were used to evaluate possible changes in rules, eliminating or reducing the temptations facing the taxpayer in the filing process.

After all this work, we still had a problem with taxpayers being formally non-compliant by not logging into the digital portal and clicking the button for submitting their prepopulated tax filing. The easy fix was to change the law. A taxpayer receiving the digital and prepopulated tax report would be deemed to accept it as his filing if he stayed passive. Presto, even more compliant taxpayers.

But, at least for internal use, the NTA retained the old division of taxpayers into those who want to comply and those who want to evade. The faithful and the sinners. What people want is hard to observe, and it is hard to design measures to influence what people want. The NTA kept it despite its actions being focused very much on making it irrelevant whether the taxpayer wanted this or that. Spending all my time auditing MNEs, I found it really hard to figure out the wants of a corporation. Continue reading “Lead us not into temptation”

The Trump Foundation and the Private Foundation Termination Tax

By Ellen P. Aprill

Michael Cohen’s accusations against President Trump in his statement before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform yesterday include arranging for a straw bidder to purchase a portrait of President Trump at an auction, using Trump Foundation funds to repay the fake bidder, and keeping the art for himself.  As part of the New York Attorney General’s  stipulation agreement with The Trump Foundation, the foundation must sell two other Trump portraits it currently owns. 

This stipulation agreement with the New York Attorney General has saved the Trump Foundation from a burdensome penalty tax in connection with the involuntary termination.  As had been widely reported at the end of last year, the New York Attorney General announced on December 18 that its investigation had found “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation – including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more.”  Under the stipulation agreement, the Trump Foundation will dissolve and submit to the court a list of non-for-profit organizations to receive the Foundation’s remaining assets.  The Attorney General and the state court will need to approve the organizations that receive the Trump Foundation’s funds. Continue reading “The Trump Foundation and the Private Foundation Termination Tax”

TIGTA’s Report on the Growing Gig Economy

By: Joseph C. Dugan, Trial Attorney, Department of Justice, Civil Division

On February 14, 2019, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) released a Valentine’s Day treat: a comprehensive report following a TIGTA audit concerning self-employment tax compliance by taxpayers in the emerging “gig economy.”

As Forbes noted last year, over one-third of American workers participate in the gig economy, doing freelance or part-time work to supplement their regular incomes or stringing together a series of “gigs” to displace traditional employment.  Popular gig services include ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft; arts-and-crafts hub Etsy; food delivery services GrubHub and Postmates; and domestic support networks Care.com and TaskRabbit.  Even Amazon.com, the second-largest retailer in the world and a traditional employer to many thousands of workers in Seattle and at Amazon distribution centers worldwide, has gotten in on the gig economy with its Amazon Flex service.  And for those interested in more professional work experience to pad their resumes, Fiverr connects businesses with freelance copywriters, marketers, and graphic designers.  The power of smartphones and social media, coupled with flat wage growth in recent years, makes the digital side hustle appealing and, for many households, necessary.

From a tax revenue perspective, the gig economy is great:  it is creating billions of dollars of additional wealth and helping to replenish government coffers that the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has left a little emptier than usual.  From a tax compliance perspective, however, the gig economy presents new challenges.  Gig payers generally treat their workers as independent contractors, which means that the payers do not withhold income tax and do not pay the employer portion of FICA.  Instead, the contractor is required to remit quarterly estimated income tax payments to the IRS and to pay the regressive self-employment tax, which works out to 15.3% on the first $128,400 in net earnings during TY2018, and 2.9% to 3.8% on additional net earnings.  That self-employment tax applies even for low-income freelancers (i.e., it cannot be canceled out by the standard deduction or nonrefundable credits). Continue reading “TIGTA’s Report on the Growing Gig Economy”

The IRS Did Not Violate the First Amendment in Declining to Exempt Organizations to Help Marijuana Dealers

By Ellen P. Aprill

Several commentators have called attention to the statement of the IRS in Revenue Procedure 2018-5, just reiterated in Rev. Proc. 2019-1, that it will not issue a determination letter recognizing exemption from income tax for “an organization whose purpose is directed to the improvement of business conditions of one or more lines of business relating to an activity involving controlled substances (within the meaning of schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by Federal law regardless of its legality under the law of the state in which such activity is conducted.”

These commentators suggest that this position could constitute impermissible viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.  I do not view the IRS announcement in this way. Instead, I see it as an application of the long-standing principle denying exemption to entities with an illegal purpose or engage primarily in illegal activities.

The illegality doctrine has long prevented exemption under section 501(c)(3), the category that encompasses what we generally call charities. In the words of Section 101(c) of the ALI Draft Restatement of the Law of Charitable Nonprofit Organizations, “[a] purpose is not charitable if it is not lawful, its performance requires the commission of criminal or tortious activity, or it is otherwise contrary to fundamental public policy.”  Continue reading “The IRS Did Not Violate the First Amendment in Declining to Exempt Organizations to Help Marijuana Dealers”

The § 199A Regulations: Looking Toward Finalization

By: Leigh Osofsky
Professor of Law, UNC School of Law

As the holiday season approaches, tax practitioners and commentators are waiting for the arrival of a much-anticipated event: the finalization of the § 199A regulations. The Treasury Department has indicated that it is trying to finalize the regulations before the end of the year or shortly thereafter. Treasury has moved expeditiously with this monumental regulatory project for good reason: with the New Year comes the first tax filing season that will require application of § 199A (though those filing estimated returns may have already tried to apply the section). While the proposed regulations indicate that taxpayers may rely on the proposed regulations until the date that the final regulations are published in the Federal Register, it is nonetheless beneficial to have a bit more certainty regarding the operation of the provision as soon as possible going into filing season.

So, what can we expect of the final regulations? Much of what we saw in the proposed regulations – the basic regulatory approach – will likely stay the same. As Shuyi Oei and I catalogued in a recent article, Beyond Notice-and-Comment: The Making of the § 199A Regulations, Treasury put significant work into formulating the proposed regulations. Treasury engaged in extensive dialogue with interested constituencies prior to the release of the proposed regulations in addition to going through OIRA review. The proposed regulations offer a lengthy and detailed presentation of why Treasury chose particular approaches such as, for instance, a narrow reading of the critical “reputation or skill” clause from the statute. These types of fundamental decisions from the proposed regulations are thus unlikely to radically change.

This is not to say there will be no changes at all in the final regulations. Treasury has signaled it may make some changes to parts of the aggregation rules. And S Corp banks lobbied extensively both as part of the notice-and-comment period and outside of it to increase the de minimis threshold for the specified service trade or business (“SSTB”) characterization. If their lobbying effort is successful, the threshold will go up in the final regulations and allow more S Corp banks and similarly situated businesses to avoid classification in the undesirable SSTB category. This would be a real win for such banks, especially given that the statute itself does not explicitly provide for a de minimis exclusion from the SSTB category. Many other taxpayers pleaded for greater clarity, and, in particular, clearer exclusion from SSTB categorization, including in a slew of requests made as part of the notice-and-comment process. Shuyi Oei and I documented much of this dynamic in our recent work. However, Treasury is unlikely to grant the certainty requested by all, as the taxpayers making the requests are surely aware.

So, who will get a present in finalization and who will get a lump of coal? We will all find out soon enough. But my money is on few major changes and a lot of little ones around the edges.

Tax Implications of the Recent Dynamex Worker Classification Ruling

Heather Field
Professor of Law
UC Hastings College of the Law

Greetings from San Francisco, the epicenter of the gig economy, where workers-rights advocates are celebrating Monday’s California Supreme Court decision in the Dynamex case.  The ruling, which cites an article by my colleague Veena Dubal, is expected to make it harder for businesses in California to classify gig economy workers (and others) as independent contractors rather than employees.  As a result, these workers are more likely to be protected by rules about minimum wage, overtime, rest breaks, and other working conditions, although there are open questions about exactly how these rules will apply to gig workers.

But what is good for workers for employment/labor law purposes may not be so good for workers for federal income tax purposes.  As readers of this blog know, independent contractors can generally deduct their business expenses above-the-line and may be able to take the new Section 199A deduction equal to up to 20% of qualified business income (significantly reducing the effective tax rate). Employees, on the other hand, can do neither.  Thus, the employment/labor law win for workers in the Dynamex case may come with some unexpected and unwanted tax losses for these same workers.  This is especially true for workers with non-trivial amounts of unreimbursed business expenses (although the amount of a worker’s unreimbursed expenses may decline if the worker is classified as an employee because California Labor Code 2802 generally requires employers to reimburse significant business expenses of employees).

So, taking tax into account, is independent contractor status or employee status better for workers?  This question involves complicated employment/labor law and tax law tradeoffs. For example, despite the tax disadvantages of employee classification mentioned above, employee status can benefit workers for employment tax and tax compliance purposes.  Others (including Shuyi Oei here, Shuyi Oei and Diane Ring here, here and here, and Kathleen DeLaney Thomas here) have written extensively on worker classification/taxation topics, and at least some of them have additional articles forthcoming on these topics.  I will defer to them for more details as I am not an expert (at least right now) on worker classification or its tax implications.  But even I know that, when analyzing the implications of the Dynamex case, it will be important for commentators to consider the tax, not just employment/labor, consequences.

One possibility is that the Dynamex case will change California worker classification only for employment/labor purposes and not for tax purposes.  After all, the language of the ruling makes it clear that the issue addressed in the case is how to classify the workers “for purposes of California wage orders” (emphasis in original).  So the case does not technically have any impact on workers’ tax classifications.  Thus, a worker currently classified as an independent contractor for all purposes could be reclassified under the Dynamex standard as an employee for California wage order purposes but could remain classified as an independent contractor for tax and other purposes.  The applicable classification standards are different enough that, for some workers, it would be possible to have hybrid status.  But I am skeptical about whether businesses will do nuanced context-by-context worker classification determinations.  It is possible, particularly if workers (and scholars?) fight for hybrid worker status, but it seems more likely, at least to me, that businesses will just determine worker status based on the employment/labor standard and use that classification across the board.  Of course, a worker who believes they have been misclassified for one or more purposes could try to fight the classification, but that is a tough road.

Given the Dynamex decision, will worker classifications change, and if so, for which purposes?  I do not know.  We will have to wait and see how businesses react to the ruling.  Regardless of how businesses respond, I hope that, in analyses of the Dynamex decision and in future discussions about worker classification, commentators will be able to move beyond our legal silos, as Diane Ring recommends in a newly posted paper. This would advance a more holistic analysis that integrates labor, tax and any other relevant issues, and that approach could really help businesses and workers in our evolving economy.

The Workability of Pike Balancing for Sales and Use Tax Collection Obligations

Hayes Holderness
Assistant Professor
University of Richmond School of Law

As covered in earlier posts (here, here, here, and here), the Supreme Court is currently considering the case of South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc., which calls into question the physical presence rule for sales and use tax collection obligations. This rule holds that a state cannot require a person to collect the state’s sales and use taxes unless that person has a physical presence in the state; the rule was justified as a way to prevent undue burdens on interstate commerce. On March 28th, Wayfair filed its brief with the Court laying out its argument for retaining the physical presence rule.

The arguments in Wayfair’s brief are mostly expected: that state and local sales and use tax systems are still too complex and varying to expand taxing authority to remote vendors, that the dollars at stake are relatively small and declining, and that the physical presence rule benefits small vendors who would otherwise be unable to meaningfully engage in interstate commerce. However, one section of Wayfair’s brief addresses the argument of many amici that the balancing test from Pike v. Bruce Church, Inc., 397 U.S. 137 (1970), should replace the physical presence rule going forward. (Surly Blogger Adam Thimmesch has been at the forefront of these arguments.) Wayfair pulls no punches—it argues that Pike balancing would be “fundamentally unworkable for addressing the burdens of state sales tax collection,” i.e., that it would be unable to prevent undue burdens on interstate commerce in this context.

Continue reading “The Workability of Pike Balancing for Sales and Use Tax Collection Obligations”

Taxing R2-D2? ABA Tax Section Panel on Automation and AI

Kerry Ryan
Associate Professor
St. Louis University School of Law

I had the pleasure of attending the midyear meeting of the ABA Tax Section this past weekend in San Diego. The Tax Policy & Simplification committee organized an interesting panel entitled: “Taxing R2-D2: How Should We Think About the Taxation of Robots and AI.” The panel was organized and moderated by Surly’s own Leandra Lederman, and panelists included Shu-Yi Oei (Boston College), Roberta Mann (Oregon Law), and Robert Kovacev (Steptoe & Johnson LLP).

For those of you who read Shu-Yi’s post, you know that she is “deeply skeptical” of the “robot tax” frame. At best, it is misleading—no one is attempting to impose a tax on a “robot” (whatever that is?) per se. As Robert Kovacev succinctly put it: “robots don’t pay taxes, people pay taxes.” The key question is which people: owners, workers, and/or consumers? Roberta linked this question to the long-standing debate about who ultimately bears the burden of the corporate income tax.

At worst, the “robot tax” terminology captures (and perhaps amplifies) the fear (“the robots are coming!”) and angst driving much of this discussion. The underlying concern relates to the potential negative impact on labor of increased utilization of technology/artificial intelligence (AI)/automation in the production process. Experts disagree about whether, over the longer term, automation will reduce the number, or merely the type, of human workers. The unanswered question is whether this is just the next in a long line of technological shifts in the economy dating as far back as the Industrial Revolution, or whether AI/machine learning truly represents a technological tipping point.

What is clear is that the transition to this new automated workplace may lead to worker displacement (particularly for those in manual/routine jobs). Mass unemployment could negatively impact the tax base—fewer workers mean fewer taxpayers. Notice that any revenue loss would hit at the same time as funding demands increased for re-training and/or social protection programs (existing and/or proposed universal basic income) for displaced workers.

Assuming you believe there is a problem(s), what is the policy prescription? While most of the panelists agreed that tax has a role to play here, they disagreed as to the contours of that role. Should we plug the hole in the income tax base by shifting more of the tax burden onto capital, as opposed to labor? Do we attempt to tax work completed by robots in the same manner as comparable work by employees (see Bill Gates proposal)? Should we raise the overall level of taxation (under existing or new tax structures)? Do we view automation as imposing negative externalities on the labor market and impose some type of Pigouvian tax? Should we attempt to slow the pace of technological development, rather than workplace implementation, by reducing either direct funding or tax incentives for R&D and innovation (see South Korea)?

Many interesting questions with no easy answers. At the very least, we must resist allowing zeitgeist to drive the policy response, while at the same time affirming the legitimacy of the underlying concerns and working to minimize their negative consequences on workers and their families.