We Should be Taking President Trump’s Tax Plan Seriously

By: David J. Herzig

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?

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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!

Continue reading “We Should be Taking President Trump’s Tax Plan Seriously”

A Libertarian Tip

By: David Herzig

Yesterday on Twitter, Scott Greenberg (@ScottElliotG) posted the following tweet from Matt Bruenig.

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Well, David Gamage, Omri MarianAndy 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;[1] 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!

[1] 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”. 

The Surly Subgroup Turns One!

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.

Surly regulars and guest bloggers have covered various tax-related issues surrounding politics and the 2016 election—including disclosure of presidential tax returns, the Emoluments Clause, the Trump Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation. We’ve written about churches, 501(c)(3)s and the IRS treatment of non-profits. We’ve discussed the tax reform proposals of the 2016 presidential candidates and the #DBCFT. We’ve written several administrative law posts about Treasury Regulations and rulemaking.

Politics aside we’ve also covered other important issues in tax policy—including taxation and poverty, healthcare, tax policy and disabilities, tax compliance, and tax aspects of the Puerto Rico fiscal crisis. We’ve discussed several issues in international and cross-border taxes, touching on the EU state aid debate, the CCCTB, taxation and migration, the Panama Papers, tax leaks more generally, and tax evasion in China.

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.

We’ve blogged about various conferences, workshops, and papers, both tax related and not-so-much tax related. We’ve also had lots of fun writing about taxes in popular culture – Surly bloggers and guest bloggers have written about the tax aspects of Pokémon Go, tax fiction, music-related tax issues (Jazz Fest! Prince! “Taxman”!), soccer players, dogs, Harry Potter fan fiction, Star Trek, and John Oliver. Surly bloggers even recorded a few tax podcasts!

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.

Thanks for reading!

Panama Papers: The One-Year Anniversary

By: Diane Ring

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.

So what has happened over the past year as a result of the leak? Continue reading “Panama Papers: The One-Year Anniversary”

The Games We Play

Shu-Yi Oei

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:

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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.

Here are a couple:

Continue reading “The Games We Play”

Neil Gorsuch and the Tax Law

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”

Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes

Copyright Missouri History Museum, Some Rights Reserved

By Sam Brunson

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.”)

Still, I’m not a big enough fan to try to write about Berry on a tax blog. Or, rather, I wasn’t until last night, at the gym. As I listened to Sound Opinions, I learned that, like so many musicians, Berry had a run-in with the IRS. Continue reading “Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes”

Death, Taxes, and a Beach Read

51bm1qlqlzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_By: Leandra Lederman

Back in December 2011, I received a targeted mailing. It was the postcard below, which I received at the office. Tfullsizerender-1hus 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.”

I had just presented my latest tax compliance article, “Does Enforcement Crowd Out Voluntary Tax Compliance?” and here were tax gap figures showing up in a novel! “Death, Taxes, and Cheap Sunglasses” was published in 2015, when the annual federal tax gap was in fact estimated at $450 billion. (The updated tax gap figures, released in April 2016, and which I blogged about previously, are available here.)  Continue reading “Death, Taxes, and a Beach Read”

TaxSlayer: Technically Acceptable for VITA Returns?

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?”

When Leaks Drive Tax Law (a.k.a. our new paper!)

Shu-Yi Oei

Diane Ring and I just posted our new article, Leak-Driven Law, on SSRN. I had previously blogged about this paper as part of Leandra Lederman’s 2017 Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration, The abstract is here:

Over the past decade, a number of well-publicized data leaks have revealed the secret offshore holdings of high-net-worth individuals and multinational taxpayers, leading to a sea change in cross-border tax enforcement. Spurred by leaked data, tax authorities have prosecuted offshore tax cheats, attempted to recoup lost revenues, enacted new laws, and signed international agreements that promote “sunshine” and exchange of financial information between countries.

The conventional wisdom is that data leaks enable tax authorities to detect and punish offshore tax evasion more effectively, and that leaks are therefore socially beneficial from an economic welfare perspective. This Article argues, however, that the conventional wisdom is too simplistic. In certain circumstances, leak-driven lawmaking may in fact produce negative social welfare outcomes. Agenda-setting behaviors of leakers and media organizations, inefficiencies in data transmission, suboptimally designed legislation, and unanticipated behavioral responses by enforcement-elastic taxpayers are all factors that may reduce social welfare in the aftermath of a tax leak.

This Article examines the potential welfare outcomes of leak-driven lawmaking and identifies predictable drivers that may affect those outcomes. It provides suggestions and cautions for making tax law, after a leak, in order to best tap into the benefits of leaks while managing their pitfalls.

In this paper, we wanted to explore how leaks of taxpayer data in the offshore context have shaped international tax law and policy, both in the US and other countries. We especially were interested in the possibility that—while leaks might appear useful on the surface from a tax enforcement and informational standpoint—there are unexplored pitfalls and downsides to relying on leaks to direct lawmaking and policy priorities.

In the non-tax world, of course, leaks have suddenly become very salient, in terms of both their usefulness and their dangers. But (non-tax lurkers take note!) tax law has been dealing with leaks of taxpayer information and what they mean for tax enforcement for at least the past ten years. Of course, tax leaks have some distinctive characteristics that make them different from other types of leaks. For example, the tax leaks that are the subject of this paper are usually (though not invariably) leaks of private taxpayer data, rather than leaks about governments from government sources.

We do think that the framework we introduce in our paper for analyzing the upsides and downsides of leak-driven lawmaking can be applied to explore how non-tax leaks and reactions to them may be socially beneficial but could also lead to less than ideal results. In both tax and in other fields, the meta-issue is not just how governments and private actors can use leaked information to sanction bad behaviors, make decisions, or design laws. Rather, the issue is how the actions and responses of leakers, governments, journalists, international organizations and the public work together to create and promote certain outcomes. Once we understand the underlying dynamics, then we can consider how the outcomes they create should be evaluated, supported, or resisted.

If you’re working on leak-related scholarship in either tax or other fields, we’d love to chat.