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…”

The IRS vs. the KKK

By Sam Brunson

My family’s summer vacation has already given me two posts (here and here), and it still promises a couple more, including this one.

As we drove across Alabama, we stopped by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The BCRI is, in large part, a museum of the civil rights movement; it is not only interesting and informative, but it is deeply powerful and affecting to see how white Americans (mis)treated African Americans, what motivated civil rights activists, and what they faced in their activism.

I didn’t go in looking for taxes, but the Institute handed them to me anyway: Continue reading “The IRS vs. the KKK”

The Front Lines of Sharing Economy Legal Debates

By: Diane Ring

Last month I blogged about new proposed legislation in Congress that sought to provide a safe harbor for gig worker classification for tax purposes. However, as I noted, the proposal implicitly favored one side of the debate by making the safe harbor one that would ensure the “easy” ability to classify a worker as an independent contractor (rather than an employee). In that post, I suggested that having tax lead the charge in this sharing economy worker classification debate perhaps allowed the tax “tail” to lead the employment relations “dog”. There are pressing nontax issues in the sharing economy that are driving litigation and dominating worker concerns – particularly employment law issues. Just last week, we saw further evidence of serious tensions in the landscape of sharing economy labor law.

On Tuesday, July 31, 207, in Chamber of Commerce of the United States, et al.,  v. The City of Seattle, a U.S. federal judge dismissed a challenge to legislation approved by the Seattle City Council in fall 2015. Pursuant to the Seattle law, businesses that hire or contract with taxi-drivers, for-hire transportation companies and “transportation network companies” must bargain with drivers if a majority want to be represented. That is, Seattle effectively allows Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize. Not surprisingly, Uber and Lyft objected to the law . . . Continue reading “The Front Lines of Sharing Economy Legal Debates”

Tax at the National Parks: Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site Edition

By Sam Brunson

Last week, my family and I were at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. I wasn’t terribly familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen before visiting; frankly, their story is amazing, inspiring, and shocking. Basically, Army War College study from the early twentieth century claimed that African Americans lacked intelligence, ambition, and courage, and were thus unfit for the military, and especially unfit to be airmen.

The Tuskegee Institute had an airfield where it trained African American pilots; eventually the government accepted it as a training ground for military pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen proved the Army War College study wrong with a distinguished record of military service. Still, the military in the 1940s was segregated, and these Tuskegee Airmen served in segregated units and, when they returned home, they faced continued racism. Many, tired of what they experienced, went on to join the civil rights movement. And many of them share their stories, through audio, video, pictures, and artifacts, at the NHS. Continue reading “Tax at the National Parks: Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site Edition”

The Tail, the Dog, and Gig Workers

By: Diane Ring

tail.dog

New legislation has just been introduced in the Senate that creates a “safe harbor” for independent contractor status. The proposed legislation provides that if a worker relationship satisfies certain criteria, then that worker can bypass the sometimes messy, multi-factor test for distinguishing between employees and independent contractors, and will be classified as an independent contractor for tax purposes. What prompted action now to address what has been a decades-old classification challenge for workers, businesses and the IRS alike? The gig economy. (Hence, the not-so-catchy title for the legislation: The New Economy Works to Guarantee Independence and Growth (NEW GIG) Act of 2017 (S. 1549).)

The legislation’s sponsor, Senate Finance Committee member John Thune, (R-S.D), described the impetus for the legislation as follows: “My legislation would provide clear rules so that these freelance style workers can work as independent contractors with the peace of mind that their tax status will be respected by the IRS.”

Is this really what gig workers are worrying about? . . . Continue reading “The Tail, the Dog, and Gig Workers”

What My Noisy New Hobby is Teaching Me about Tax

Shu-Yi Oei

While Sam was out there visiting the National Parks, I went and acquired a noisy new hobby.

drums

So far, I’ve only had two drum lessons but am completely hooked. What took me so long to pick up the drums? If you love music, get a kick out of repetitive motion, and enjoy making a big noise, I highly recommend it.

Learning the drum set is a matter of first impression for me. [FN1] So the actual noise making aside, it’s given me an unexpected midsummer opportunity to revisit what it feels like to learn a new skill for the first time, which of course makes me think about the fundamentals of teaching and writing in tax.

Here are some newbie observations:

  1. Assembling the Drum Set

I went out and bought a cheap drum set so I could practice at home. What really surprised me was the amount I learnt about the drums simply by virtue of assembling the drum set. Things I know now that I didn’t know before:

  • That restaurant in New Orleans called the High Hat? Turns out it probably isn’t named after an actual hat.
  • Who knew you had to tune the drums? It’s almost as if it’s a musical instrument or something.
  • The crash cymbal and high hat sit much lower to the ground than I had ever imagined.
  • You can actually turn the snares on a snare drum on and off. Did I know that? Nope.

The experience of assembling my own drum set was so useful that it got me thinking about how one might get one’s tax students to do the equivalent of assembling a drum set. Continue reading “What My Noisy New Hobby is Teaching Me about Tax”

Tax at the National Parks: Great Smokey Mounains Edition

By Sam Brunson

This will be the third in my series of tax-in-the-National-Parks posts. (I’m as surprised as you.)[fn1]

We spent a couple days camping at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, there were a series of displays about Appalachian life.[fn2] As I was looking at the moonshine still, I noticed this sign: Continue reading “Tax at the National Parks: Great Smokey Mounains Edition”

House Appropriations Bill

By: David Herzig

With all the diversions this week, it was easy to miss that the House Committee on Appropriations posted on June 28th the Appropriations Bill for FY 2018.  The bill seems to include a couple items that not many were expecting.  So, I thought I would highlight some of the key provisions.  Since it is Friday before a Holiday weekend, I’ll keep it short for now.  There are four main provisions I will address: (1) IRS Targeting/Johnson Amendment; (2) ACA Penalties; (3) Conservation Easements; and (4) 2704 (Estate/Gift Tax).

I. IRS Targeting/Death of Johnson Amendment

First, is a clear response to the “targeting” of groups from the Lois Lerner Administration. In three separate sections (107, 108 and 116), the bill attempts to regulate the IRS, not Continue reading “House Appropriations Bill”

Tax at the National Parks: Grand Portage Edition

By Sam Brunson

A year ago, the National Parks surprised me with a tax name-check. I mean, realistically, there shouldn’t have been anything surprising about encountering a picture of Al Capone at Alcatraz, but I didn’t think I’d see taxes there.

So consider this the second year in a row where the National Parks have surprised me with tax. My family was at Grand Portage National National Monument (which is incredibly cool, btw) learning about the Ojibwe and the North West Company and the thriving fur trade. In one room, there was a display about hatmaking. And, on the wall, was this cartoon:

Continue reading “Tax at the National Parks: Grand Portage Edition”

Mortgage Interest Deduction

By: David J. Herzig

The Trump and Republican tax plans have circled around the idea of repealing the mortgage interest deduction.  Although I’m not convinced it will happen (see e.g., Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s remarks).  The mere threat of the repeal has garnered a fair amount of attention.

For example, the other day this chart was making its rounds on twitter.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 7.42.50 AM

I have not verified the methodology of the chart or the data.  I interpret that the chart examines (in absolute numbers) how many mortgages exist at $1,000,000. The implicit conclusion of the chart is that homeowners in states like D.C., Hawai’i, California and New York have the most at stake in retaining the deduction.

Why?

Because there seems to be evidence that the mortgage interest deduction contributes to housing inflation.  Back in 2011 the Senate held hearings on incentives for homeownership. [1]  It has been suggested that the elimination of the deduction will drop home prices between 2 and 13% with significant regional differences. [2]  So, if the mortgage interest deduction is eliminated, then the aforementioned states might have numerous problems, including a smaller property tax base.

What exactly is the Mortgage Interest Deduction?

Continue reading “Mortgage Interest Deduction”