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.

More on Section 199A and Worker Classification (**Threaded Tweet Alert!)

Shu-Yi Oei

Last Friday, Diane and I posted a new paper called “Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All into Independent Contractors?” on SSRN. This was something that started as a blog post but then grew too long and so became a short paper. We plan to develop the ideas in it more robustly in future work.

On Saturday, I made one of those goofy academic tweet threads summarizing the paper, and then it occurred to me that I really liked my goofy tweet thread! Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of posting the tweets here for the marginal reader who is just interested enough in the topic to read the tweets but possibly not interested enough to read the actual paper.

Diane and I look forward to continuing conversation on this.

Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All Into Independent Contractors? (New Paper on SSRN)

By: Diane Ring

Shu-Yi and I started a blog post on new Section 199A that morphed into a seven-page essay that ultimately found its proper home on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All Into Independent Contractors?

Abstract

There has been a lot of interest lately in new IRC Section 199A, the new qualified business income (QBI) deduction that grants passthroughs, including qualifying workers who are independent contractors (and not employees), a deduction equal to 20% of a specially calculated base amount of income. One of the important themes that has arisen is its effect on work and labor markets, and the notion that the new deduction creates an incentive for businesses to shift to independent contractor classification. A question that has been percolating in the press, blogs, and on social media is whether new Section 199A is going to create a big shift in the workplace and cause many workers to be reclassified as independent contractors.

Is this really going to happen? How large an effect will tax have on labor markets and arrangements? We think that predicting and assessing the impact of this new provision is a rather nuanced and complicated question. There is an intersection of incentives, disincentives and risks in play among various actors and across different legal fields, not just tax. Here, we provide an initial roadmap for approaching this analysis. We do so drawing on academic work we have done over the past few years on worker classification in tax and other legal fields.

The Law With No Name or the “2017 Budget Reconciliation Act”

Victor Thuronyi

Legislative drafting conventions are conservative, and it is traditional for a bill to have a long title which describes the purposes of the bill in technical detail, and then to include in the first section a short title which provides a more user friendly name.  The short titles of Acts used to be fairly straightforward (e.g., the “Revenue Act of 1939”) but by the late 70s or early 80s, they tended to get cute and political, so now we have names like the “PATRIOT Act” and the “Affordable Care Act.”

The tax bill just passed by both houses of Congress introduces a new and somewhat unprecedented variation.  There is no short title.  There used to be: the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” (TCJA).  However, at the last minute, it was stripped out of the bill because the Senate Parliamentarian ruled that it was extraneous to the bill’s purpose of affecting revenues, which is what a reconciliation bill is limited to.  Hard to argue with that – the name of the law does not have an effect on revenues.

As a result, it would not be accurate to refer to this piece of legislation as the TCJA.  Opponents have been referring to it as the Trump Tax Scam, and likely will continue to do so.  It is probably too much to ask the media and tax advisors to refer to it that way, since that does seem overtly political.  The “2017 Budget Reconciliation Act” perhaps would work (BRA for short).  Several pieces of legislation enacted through reconciliation procedure have been called “Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 19xx” so there is precedent.  So calling it a Budget Reconciliation Act is a correct generic description in the absence of an official short title.  I believe that calling it a tax reform act would also be political, since it falls far short of reform.  Budget reconciliation is perhaps as neutral as one can get.  An additional argument for this is that the bill contains not only tax provisions but also provisions on Alaska drilling, which are not tax related, but are related to budget reconciliation.

 

Potential Effects of Tax Reform on Work (Guest Posts @ On Labor Blog)

Shu-Yi Oei

Diane Ring and I were invited to write a guest post for the On Labor blog, to explain the potential effects of tax reform on work arrangements for a labor law audience. There was some interest in tax reform among labor law experts in light of the New York Times article that ran on December 9, titled “Tax Plans May Give Your Co-Worker a Better Deal Than You.”

We wrote a pair of posts, describing the potential effects of tax reform on work arrangements (including decisions to form a passthrough or to classify oneself as an independent contractor).

Something that struck us in our attempt to translate the policy issues for a non-tax legal audience was the sheer complexity of some of the new provisions in the new proposed provisions and the difficulty of discussing them with integrity–maintaining nuance, not oversimplifying or being hyperbolic, but still being understandable. As others have noted, the creation of the proposed tax legislation and the subsequent commentary on it have both happened very quickly. Our attempt to explain clearly the proposed legislative provisions to a non-tax legal audience and to discuss the policy issues at stake really highlighted for us the complexity of these proposed laws, the policy pitfalls, and the perils of operating at high speed.

In any case, here are the posts:

Work-Related Distortions in the Tax Reform Bills: Understanding the New Proposed Provisions (Part 1 of 2)

…The goal of this two-part blog post is to summarize for a labor law audience how the proposed tax legislation creates these outcomes and to highlight the important policy issues that observers and commentators might be concerned about. This Part 1 focuses on the statutory provisions, and Part 2 will discuss the key policy conversations that are taking place….

Work-Related Distortions in the Proposed Tax Bills: Understanding the Policy Conversations (Part 2 of 2)

This post follows up on our prior post, which focused on the complex provisions of the proposed Senate tax bill. This post discusses some of the key concerns that have been expressed about the new tax bill. (Again, we focus here on the Senate version of the proposed legislation. The specifics of the analysis may change once we get the Conference version, though the broader policy and design questions are likely to persist.)

 

The Senate Tax Bill’s “Clarification” of Independent Contractor Status: Tax and Employment Law Tradeoffs

By: Diane Ring

Shu-Yi Oei and I have been tracking the recent tax reform developments as well as a couple of proposed tax bills that deal with worker classification, information reporting, and tax withholding. Based on a description prepared by the Joint Committee on Taxation, it looks like the Senate Tax Bill is going to include a new safe harbor provision guaranteeing worker classification as an independent contractor and will make changes to independent contractor withholding and information reporting. We posted our analysis of this proposal and its potentially serious implications on TaxProf Blog: The Senate Bill and the Battles Over Worker Classification.

Our main points:

1. Not just tax: This worker classification safe harbor is not just about tax, it will likely have impacts on employment/labor law outcomes and protections as well.

2. Not just gig workers: Based on the Joint Committee description, the proposal is not limited to gig economy workers —anyone who meets the safe harbor requirements (which are pretty easy to satisfy in many cases) can be classified as an independent contractor. This may have the effect of encouraging employers to push workers into work relationships that come within the safe harbor. Or, in certain cases, it may facilitate the strategic movement of higher-income workers into independent contractor status — see point 4 below.

Continue reading “The Senate Tax Bill’s “Clarification” of Independent Contractor Status: Tax and Employment Law Tradeoffs”

Paradise Papers: Day 2

By: Diane Ring

The most recent big financial data leak, dubbed the Paradise Papers, is now in full swing in the media. On Monday, Shu-Yi Oei blogged the initial release and its immediate takeaways (including the revelation that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross continued to hold investments in a shipping business that had business connections to key Russian figures). But each passing hour brings new information and individuals into the public spotlight – and in the process sheds light on how such information is likely to be used and what the media and the public seem to find most noteworthy.

So what did Day 2 bring? . . .

Continue reading “Paradise Papers: Day 2”

Tax Leaks: The New Normal?

By: Diane Ring

Today, the Guardian is reporting that big-four accounting firm Deloitte suffered a hack back in March, 2017. The underlying attack may have originated in the fall of 2016 and may have allowed access to Deloitte systems for several months.

Deloitte itself is not unfamiliar with cybersecurity. As stated on its website, among the services that Deloitte offers clients is Cyber Risk. However, being a victim of a hack provides a new perspective. At this point, details are scarce on exactly which clients have been affected and what specific information may have been accessed, but it has been reported that “confidential emails and plans of some of its blue-chip clients” may have been compromised. This doesn’t sound good. But it is also no surprise.

Leaks and hacks can target a wide variety of data including business plans, mergers and acquisitions, scientific developments, business forecasts, individual identities, and government records. In recent years, tax-related information has proven especially attractive to leakers and hackers. As my co-author, Shu-Yi Oei and I explored in our recent article, Leak-Drive Law studying tax leaks that have occurred over the past 10 years, tax information can be valuable and their release by leakers can have powerful impacts. Moreover, as the tax community has embraced increased reporting and transparency to the government, the number of caches of well-organized data held by corporations, tax advisers and governments increases. Such caches may be magnets for those seeking to hack into it or leak it.

As we continue to move forward in this new world, what do we know? Continue reading “Tax Leaks: The New Normal?”

European Commission Prods OECD, EU, and Members States on Digital Taxation: An Analysis

By: Diane Ring

Complaints regarding the international tax system’s ability to handle the digital economy (think Google, Amazon, and a myriad of online service providers) are now ubiquitous. The heart of the problem is two-fold: (1) technology allows these corporations to effectively conduct business in a country without a physical presence there, and (2) much of these businesses’ value derives from intangibles whose value can be difficult to document.

The first reality limits a host country’s ability, under current law, to assert jurisdiction to tax the businesses. The second means that for core transactions by these businesses, such as licensing intangibles to related parties, it can be very difficult for the tax authorities to guarantee that the transactions are at arm’s length prices (and not shifting profit into low tax jurisdictions). The topic is pervasive enough to have merited its own Action Item in the ongoing OECD BEPS Project (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting).

However, a real, coordinated global response has been much harder to secure.  This week, the European Commission (EC) made its most recent foray into the debate with a Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council. But the EC was not just talking to European Union (EU) bodies; it was directly speaking to the OECD and EU member states. What exactly is the EC’s goal with this Communication?

Bottom line the EC seems to have several intersecting objectives: (1) clarify the problem, (2) identify and prod global actors, (3) delineate proper approaches, and (4) warn about the implications of nonaction. Continue reading “European Commission Prods OECD, EU, and Members States on Digital Taxation: An Analysis”

So about that Robot Tax…

Shu-Yi Oei

I came across a couple of news stories recently about how South Korea is introducing the world’s first robot tax. But based on the press reports, it sounds like the so-called robot tax is actually just a reduction of the tax deductions available to businesses that invest in productivity-boosting automation. The news sources themselves concede that this “robot tax” not exactly a tax on robots but rather a tax benefit reduction for automation investment.

Talk of a “robot tax” has landed at the forefront of tax news since Bill Gates mentioned it in a Quartz interview back in February of 2017. But of course, scholarship about robots (not to mention robots themselves) has been around for quite a bit longer. There’s even a “We-Robot” robotics law and policy conference that’s been going on since 2012, which I keep meaning to crash, but then there’s always something else going on.

A lot of what seems to be driving the tax conversation is the fear that robots are taking over jobs, though there’s some uncertainty about the extent to which robots are to blame.

Personally, I’ve been having a hard time squaring the newly ascendant tax conversation about the robot tax with the broader legal scholarship on robots. In some of the news and other commentary discussing Robotaxation, my reaction has been something to the effect of “I’m not sure that word means what you think it means.” Turns out, there is something of an existing conversation about what constitutes a robot in the first place—see, for example, Richards and Smart (2013) for a nice discussion of some of the definitional issues. See also this “What is a Robot?” piece in The Atlantic. In defining “robot,” it might matter how a robot moves in the physical world, what kind of quasi-independent agency it seems to exercise (autonomous vs. semi-autonomous), how humans interact with it, and even what sorts of emotions it triggers in us mere humans. We might understand some automated machines to be robots but others to just be automated equipment. And these distinctions make sense, from the viewpoint of areas like tort law, privacy law, the law of principals and agents, and the more general regulation of robots (and of artificial intelligence as a subcategory of robots).

But in some of the tax discussions about robots that I’ve seen on the interwebs, it’s quite clear that the authors don’t necessarily mean Robot when they say Robot. Continue reading “So about that Robot Tax…”