The French election for president—an event worthy of note in its own right (particularly on the heels of the Brexit vote)—generated a political, international relations, security and media firestorm due to a late-breaking data leak and hack. On Friday, the campaign of French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron announced that it had been the subject of a major computer hack. At least 9GB of emails and personal and business documents from Macron’s campaign were posted to a document sharing site called Pastebin. Initial reports contended that the hack and leak were an effort to aid Macron’s far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, and may have been undertaken with Russian assistance. While Macron won the election, the potential fallout out from these leaks may have only just begun.
There’s an important tax dimension to the story, which may have been slightly overshadowed by Friday’s massive data dump. Two days before, on Wednesday, Le Pen hinted during a debate at possibility that Macron might have an offshore account in the Bahamas. Apparently, two hours before the debate, documents were anonymously posted on an internet forum that purported to include Macron’s signature and to show that he had a Bahamas bank account. During the debate, Macron responded that the claim was false and constituted “defamation.” On Thursday, Macron and his campaign outlined the spread of this offshore-account assertion on various sites and contended some were connected to “Russian interests.” On Friday, Macron lodged a complaint with the French prosecutor’s office regarding offshore account allegations made online.
Though the Friday hack and data dump have dominated the spotlight, the alleged tax leak is in fact part of the bigger and quite troubling picture of leaks in the modern cyber environment . . .
Today President Trump’s top tax advisors laid out the first details of the his tax plan. Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin unveiled the plan which according to Fox News, Cohn called “the most significant tax reform legislation since 1986, and one of the biggest tax cuts in American history.”
Oh, did I mention that the details of the biggest cuts were printed on a single sheet of paper?
There has been plenty of ink (and jokes) already spilled about the plan. For example, you can read Richard Rubin of the WSJ (here) or Alan Rappeport of the NY Times (here). The long and the short of the plan is it seems to very very costly. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget guesses it could cost $3 to $7 trillion with their estimate at $5.5 trillion. That is a lot of money!
Yesterday on Twitter, Scott Greenberg (@ScottElliotG) posted the following tweet from Matt Bruenig.
Well, David Gamage, Omri Marian, Andy Grewal and I had fun in 120 characters debating the quality of the tax advice provided on both the receipt and the note. Suffice to say: (A) this will be appearing on a number of basic income tax exams shortly; and, (B) neither piece of advice provided by “Mr. Libertarian” seems to be correct. Both David and I pointed out that the “tip” did not seem to meet the old Duberstein detached and disinterested test. Clearly there was a quid-pro-quo; don’t spit on my food and I will give you extra money in addition to the bill.
Joking around about the gift/income distinction made me think that tipping is very tax inefficient. Assuming that what I said is true: tips are not gifts and they are income to the recipient. This means that the payment is not deductible by the payor (just personal consumption) yet income to the recipient, i.e. the server. If it is ordinary income to the recipient, then there should be a corresponding wage deduction, right?
Let’s assume the following counterfactual. The restaurant includes the tip as part of the bill. The restaurant pays the employee salary including the entire tip. Under this structure, the restaurant would receive an entire wage adjustment for the tip paid. The customer is still does not receive a deduction for paying the employee’s wages and the employee still pays the same amount of income tax. But the employer captures the unused deduction for wages by the customer. Theoretically, this deduction could be shared by all the stakeholders to reduce costs to all parties.
Who cares? Well, only economists and tax professors, probably. Back to finals preparation!
 Here is David Gamage’s hypo: customer leaves $1K and says, I just won the lottery and want to share some of my winnings as a “gift”.
Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. Today is the one-year blogiversary of the Surly Subgroup. What started off as a group-blogging experiment hatched at last year’s Critical Tax Conference at Tulane Law School has provided quite a bit of entertainment for Surly bloggers and our guest bloggers, and hopefully for our readers as well.
It’s obviously been a big year on tax and other fronts. Since our inception, we’ve published 206 blog posts on a variety of topics. And we’ve drawn readers from 140 different countries.
We hosted our first ever online Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration, which featured posts by ten different authors on a variety of tax administration topics. The Mini-Symposium was spearheaded by Leandra Lederman. Leandra had organized and moderated a discussion group on “The Future of Tax Administration and Enforcement” at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting, and many of the discussion group participants contributed to the online symposium. We hope to organize future online symposia on other topics.
In short, it’s been a busy year, and we’ve had a lot of fun with the Surly platform. We hope you have as well. Going forward, we’re going to keep the blog posts coming. We also hope to draw more regular and guest bloggers and to organize other online symposia.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Panama Papers leak. In April 2016, the ICIJ announced the leak and a few weeks later (May 9, 2016) released a database that included a subset of the leaked data. The leak itself comprised over 11 million records spanning 40 years from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. At its core, the leak revealed the true ownership of over 200,000 offshore entities, thereby raising a host of tax and political questions regarding many of the entities’ owners.
I’ve been ever so slightly glum since my colleague Ann Lipton went and blogged about this game called the Unicorn Startup Simulator over at BLPB. The goal of the game is for your startup to have a billion dollar valuation by the end of the year while keeping your employees happy. You have to make a series of decisions juggling those two goals. Turns out that’s harder than one might imagine. Here is what keeps happening to me:
So, I guess the message is “don’t quit your day job”?
Anyway, I was feeling grumpy about not having cool tax games to call our own but then I went hunting around and realized, WAIT, we do have tax games! Whether they’re cool or not is another story.
On Friday, the Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch as the newest Justice on the Supreme Court, and today he was officially sworn in, taking the seat that Justice Scalia’s passing left vacant.
When Justice Scalia passed away, I looked at the tax opinions he had authored. It turns out, Justice Scalia didn’t author a whole lot of tax opinions, and those that he did author were, as I said, “workmanlike,” without the verbal pyrotechnics, wit, and flair he was known for.
I was curious whether Justice Gorsuch would bring anything different to that seat, so I looked for tax opinions he had authored.[fn1] My search terms brought up 34 hits; the vast majority were not actually cases dealing with the federal income tax.[fn2] In fact, I only saw two cases dealing with federal income tax issues, and neither of them really dealt with the tax law. Continue reading “Neil Gorsuch and the Tax Law”→
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.”)
Back in December 2011, I received a targeted mailing. It was the postcard below, which I received at the office. Thus far, I haven’t found a Maurer colleague or tax friend who received this mailing. Some marketer apparently did his or her homework and identified me as someone with an interest in both tax and chick lit! I don’t get to read novels very often anymore, but this looked like exactly the kind of book I would enjoy. I even acted on the sticker on the reverse of the postcard, which said “A book makes a great holiday gift!” “Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure” was a great start to the Christmas list request I had recently received.
I received the book for Christmas and got hooked on the series. I’ve gotten through Book 10 so far. They’re a lot of fun. It never occurred to me to blog about them, though, until I read the first page of “Death, Taxes, and Cheap Sunglasses” while on a plane, and saw a link with tax issues I frequently write about. The opening paragraph reads:
“I slid my gun into my purse, grabbed my briefcase, and headed out to my car. Yep, tax season was in full swing once again, honest people scrambling to round up their receipts, hoping for a refund or at least to break even. As a taxpayer myself, I felt for them. But as far as tax cheats were concerned, I had no sympathy. The most recent annual report indicated that American individuals and corporations had underpaid their taxes by $450 billion. Not exactly chump change. That’s where I came in.”
Adam C. Mansfield
Staff Attorney, Legal Services for Students, University of Kansas
The first time I logged into the TaxSlayer training lab I knew that this tax season was going to be a problem. It became obvious when I typed “1040NR” into the form lookup box in the upper left corner of the TaxSlayer screen and the search came up empty. Next I tried “1042-S” and “8843.” Same result. Now I’m not some old fuddy-duddy that doesn’t like change. I love working with new gadgets, software, or operating systems—as long as it does what it is supposed to do.
I work for Legal Services for Students at the University of Kansas. The main target population for our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) grant is nonresident alien (NRA) students and scholars. Every tax year we help hundreds of international students and researchers determine their residency status, calculate any applicable tax treaty benefits, and prepare their federal and state returns. In the past, TaxWise has worked just fine for this purpose. I had no problem preparing a return for the student from Bangladesh who had income in both Kansas and Missouri or the Chinese student who has multiple 1042-S forms for scholarships and awards but still needs to apply treaty benefits to his or her wages. This year, TaxSlayer is just not up to the task.
I feel bad for Whitley, a member of TaxSlayer’s customer support squad, who is left with the task of informing me that they are aware of the “issue” that prevents their software from properly applying and reporting a tax treaty benefit on a nonresident alien return. She proceeded to tell me that they could only handle “simple” state returns in conjunction with an NRA return. This means that I can’t make any adjustments to the state return in order to properly apportion income. They are “working diligently to iron out the wrinkles.” Not being able to prepare a pretty basic nonresident alien return is a little more than just a wrinkle. Continue reading “TaxSlayer: Technically Acceptable for VITA Returns?”→