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”

Tax and Changing Labor Markets: The OECD Weighs In

By: Diane Ring

Across the globe, policy makers are wrestling with the possibility that the nature of work is changing and that those changes might be positive or negative. One of the most prominent changes identified is the rise of “non-standard” work, essentially work that is not part of a traditional employer-employee relationship. The rise of the gig economy, and perhaps its even greater growth in the public imagination, have fueled concerns about the prospect of disappearing employment and its replacement with less stable and less desirable non-employee work options.

The degree to which this shift is taking place is an empirical question which has been difficult to pin down. As my co-author Shu-Yi Oei and I have explored in our paper, Tax Law’s Workplace Shift (forthcoming in the Boston University Law Review), data on the changing nature of work comes from empirical studies, which suffer from limitations due to the questions asked, the terminology employed, and comparability of studies over time and across databases. But regardless of any precise conclusions on the rate at which work is changing, there are valid reasons to be concerned and inquire about the impact of tax law on any such shifts. The OECD has begun to weigh in on these questions, releasing a new working paper entitled Taxation and the Future of Work: How Tax Systems Influence Choice of Employment Form, by Anna Milanez and Barbara Bratta (March 21, 2019).

The OECD Project

In this paper, the OECD tackles the question of whether tax considerations may be driving any increases in non-standard work. Using three labor scenarios—traditional employee, self-employed worker, and incorporated worker (e.g., a personal services corporation)—the paper asks how the tax burdens change across the three labor scenarios in eight test countries (including the United States).

In particular, the paper measures the “tax payment wedge” in each labor scenario in each country.

Payment wedge = total employment costs minus worker take home pay                                                                                  total employment costs

where total employment costs equal take home pay, income tax, employee social security contributions, employer social contributions, and payroll taxes minus any cash transfers (i.e. cash payments from the government to the worker, such as those made with respect to dependent children).

What did the OECD find across these eight test countries? Continue reading “Tax and Changing Labor Markets: The OECD Weighs In”

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”

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Williamson, Filer Voter: An Experiment Testing Voter Registration at Tax Time

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Left to right: Pamela Foohey, Leandra Lederman, Vanessa Williamson, David Gamage, Tim Riffle

By: Leandra Lederman

On February 28, Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Tax Policy Colloquium, hosted this year by my colleague David Gamage, welcomed Vanessa Williamson from the Brookings Institution. Vanessa presented a report that is due to be released at the end of March on a “Filer Voter” experiment she conducted at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites in Cleveland, Ohio and Dallas, Texas.

For those who may not be familiar with it, VITA is an IRS-run program that offers free tax return preparation (generally federal and state) for taxpayers who made $54,000 in income or less (for 2018) and meet certain other requirements. An IRS web page provides training materials and certification tests for volunteers. The IRS works with local groups in that it provides VITA grants to partner organizations. For example, in Bloomington, the VITA program is run by United Way of Monroe County.

Vanessa’s Filer Voter experiment involved offering some taxpayers who come to VITA sites for tax-return preparation the opportunity to register to vote. The experiment was structured as follows: Each VITA session was divided in half by time, and within each session, the first half or second half was randomly assigned the treatment of offering voter registration, and the other half of the session was the control. The study included collection of demographic information and consent forms from taxpayers in both the treatment and control groups. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Williamson, Filer Voter: An Experiment Testing Voter Registration at Tax Time”

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”

Zelenak: IU Tax Policy Colloquium, “The NCAA and the IRS” & Tax Sitcom Night

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Left to right: Tim Riffle, David Gamage, Leandra Lederman, Larry Zelenak, Kevin Brown

By: Leandra Lederman

On February 14, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Tax Policy Colloquium hosted Larry Zelenak from Duke University School of Law. Larry presented his fun new paper, co-authored with his colleague Rich Schmalbeck, “The NCAA and the IRS: Life at the Intersection of College Sports and the Federal Income Tax.” Larry really hit this one out of the park, with a crowd that was nearly standing-room-only! Larry also hosted a terrific Valentine’s evening event, “Tax Sitcom Night,” featuring three classic sitcom episodes in which couples encounter the federal income tax together. I’ll discuss each of these briefly in this blog post.

Larry and Rich’s paper argues that the IRS has not done as much as Congress to cut back on “unreasonably generous tax treatment” of college athletics. The paper covers four principal topics, which Larry explained was a combination of Rich’s work on two issues and Larry’s on the other two. The four topics are:

  • The possible application of the unrelated business income tax to college sports;
  • the federal income tax treatment of athletic scholarships;
  • the recently changed tax treatment of charitable deductions for most of the cost of season tickets to college ball games; and
  • the new 21% excise tax of IRC § 4960 on compensation in excess of $1 million on certain employees of tax-exempt organizations.

Each of these topics is interesting in its own right, and together they make a strong case that the IRS, and Congress at times, have tilted the playing field in favor of college athletics at the expense of protection of the federal fisc. I won’t give a play-by-play of these four issues here, as the paper does a great job of it and is available on SSRN, but I will mention a couple of highlights. Continue reading “Zelenak: IU Tax Policy Colloquium, “The NCAA and the IRS” & Tax Sitcom Night”

New Paper on Tax Enforcement and Corporate Malfeasance

By: Leandra Lederman

I just finished drafting a paper that got me reading a lot about corporate fraud. I find fraud fascinating, so this was a bit of a treat! The new paper is Information Matters in Tax Enforcement, and it’s co-authored with my former student Joe Dugan (JD ’15), who is an attorney at DOJ (but did not write in his official capacity). We recently posted the article on SSRN (here), and will soon be looking for a home for it.

This article was prompted by Professor Wei Cui’s publication of Taxation Without Information: The Institutional Foundations of Modern Tax Collection, 20 U. Pa. J. Bus. L. 93 (2018). Cui sets forth the contrarian thesis that “modern governments can practice ‘taxation without information.’” His argument rests on two premises: (1) “giving governments effective access to taxpayer information through third parties does not explain the success of modern tax administration”; and (2) modern tax administration succeeds because business firms are pro-social, fostering compliance. Professor Daniel Hemel favorably reviewed Cui’s article on TaxProf blog.

Cui particularly takes issue with Henrik J. Kleven et al., Why Can Modern Governments Tax So Much? An Agency Model of Firms as Fiscal Intermediaries, 83 Economica 219 (2016), and Dina Pomeranz, No Taxation Without Information: Deterrence and Self-Enforcement in the Value Added Tax, 105 Am. Econ. Rev. 2539 (2015), both of which show the importance of third-party information reporting to tax enforcement. Cui’s article also criticizes Leandra Lederman, Reducing Information Gaps to Reduce the Tax Gap: When Is Information Reporting Warranted?, 78 Fordham L. Rev. 1733 (2010), which argued that information reporting is useful but not a panacea, and set forth six factors to evaluate the likely effectiveness of proposed information-reporting requirements.

Information Matters in Tax Enforcement takes on both of Cui’s arguments, as well as his subsidiary claim that the value-added tax (VAT) does not involve third-party reporting or reporting of individual transactions. Joe and I marshal a lot of evidence to show (1) third-party information reporting is generally very effective, and (2) firms are not inherently pro-social. Rather, the literature supports Kleven et al.’s argument that numerosity increases compliance. That is, where more people would have to collude, cheating is less likely due to the increased risk of defection. The fact that large firms generally are more tax compliant than small ones—a point Cui concedes—is consistent with that. Large firms are also subject to more regulation and oversight, which produce reliable information flows from the firm to the government. Joe and I also show that VATs do involve third-party reporting, with the modern trend being digital real-time reporting. Continue reading “New Paper on Tax Enforcement and Corporate Malfeasance”

Section 199A’s Workplace Shift

By Diane Ring

As we mark the one year anniversary of tax reform, the aftermath continues to dominate tax policy analysis. New § 199A, which my co-author, Shu-Yi Oei, and I initially explored here and here and here, continues to attract significant attention, both in terms of the provision’s likely substantive effects, and the legislative, regulatory, and political issues it raises.

One of the most compelling, yet underanalyzed, questions is how § 199A could impact labor and dramatically reshape work, the workforce, and the workplace. In a new paper posted on SSRN on December 3, titled “Tax Law’s Workplace Shift,“ Shu-Yi and I tackle these issues in detail. In brief, the paper explores the factors that will determine whether § 199A is likely to cause a workplace shift from employee to independent contractor arrangements, and, if it does, how such a shift should be normatively evaluated. Ultimately, we show how our evaluation of these § 199A workplace effects must depend on the types of workers and work at issue. Continue reading “Section 199A’s Workplace Shift”

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.