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.

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.)

 

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”

Some Initial Thoughts on the Paradise Papers Leak

Shu-Yi Oei

Another data leak broke on Sunday, November 5, while I was on a plane home from Bergen, Norway. Coincidentally, Diane Ring and I were in Bergen presenting our Leak-Driven Law paper at a tax conference organized by Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance, Norwegian Centre for Taxation, and Notre Dame University.

This new “Paradise Papers” leak involves a set of 13.4 million records from 1950 to 2016.

From the ICIJ’s website:

“The new files come from two offshore services firms as well as from 19 corporate registries maintained by governments in jurisdictions that serve as waystations in the global shadow economy. The leaks were obtained by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a network of more than 380 journalists in 67 countries.”

The two offshore services firms in question are the offshore law firm Appleby and Asiaciti Trust, an offshore specialist headquartered in Singapore. Over 7 million of the records came from Appleby and affiliates.

Diane and I argued in Leak-Driven Law that (1) the high-salience and shocking nature of tax and other leaks and (2) the interventions of the press and other actors in processing, framing, and generating publicity about these leaks are important features that can affect how legal responses and reactions occur in the aftermath of a leak. We’ll be keeping track of how events unfold in the aftermath of this latest leak and how it fits or doesn’t fit with the observations in our paper:

Some initial notes and reactions:

This was at Least in Part a Cyber Hack.

Most of the news coverage I’m seeing is focused on the content on the leak, but it’s worth noting that at least with respect to Appleby, this new leak was in part a result of a cyberattack on Appleby that happened last year. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that this was a data theft by an insider (e.g., employee) turned whistleblower. In its response to the leak, Appleby defended itself and noted the challenges of cyber-crime for individuals and businesses.

The Appleby Hack Occurred in 2016.

Continue reading “Some Initial Thoughts on the Paradise Papers Leak”

ABA Tax Section 5th Annual International Tax Enforcement and Controversy Conference (Washington, DC, Oct. 27, 2017)

 By: Diane Ring

Yesterday my frequent co-author, Shu-Yi Oei, and I attended the ABA’s conference on “International Tax Enforcement and Controversy” in DC. The panels and discussion covered a range of interesting intersecting issues. These included: (1) the relationship among international organizations and bodies (such as the OECD, UN, World Bank, IMF and G20) in directing the shape of international tax law content and enforcement; (2) the place of developing countries in the evolving international tax system; (3) competing goals of finance ministers and tax ministers in various countries and the impact of that conflict on taxpayers; (4) the consequences of and responses to limited IRS resources; and (5) continuing benefits to enforcement from the Swiss Bank Program.

But probably the most significant theme that ran through the day’s discussion was the role of data, especially “big data”. . . .

Continue reading “ABA Tax Section 5th Annual International Tax Enforcement and Controversy Conference (Washington, DC, Oct. 27, 2017)”

International Sharing Economy Conference: Day 2 Takeaways

By: Diane Ring

Yesterday I blogged about Day 1 of the international sharing economy conference, titled “Reshaping: Work in the Platform Economy.” Today the Conference resumed in Amsterdam and included a fascinating roundtable with representatives from some of the platform firms alongside some sharing economy workers. Each offered their experience/perspective on the sector, posed questions to each other, and took questions from the audience.

Not surprisingly, just as there are a range of business models and niches in the sector, there are also a variety of reasons why workers participate in and do platform work. What workers seek from the platforms (beyond good pay) may differ from worker to worker. For example, a sharing economy worker may desire contact with other workers, a sense of community, predictability, or worker dignity. Building on the Day 1 discussions, several themes emerged by the close of the Conference:

Continue reading “International Sharing Economy Conference: Day 2 Takeaways”

Tomorrow’s Ninth Circuit Oral Argument in Altera

By: Leandra Lederman

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 SenseAltera 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.

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”