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 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”

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”

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”

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”

Prognosticating Estate Tax Repeal using State Interests

By: David Herzig

Last week Tax Foundation tweeted about the states that have either a state level estate or inheritance tax.

Screen Shot 2017-06-01 at 8.29.10 AM

The map and subsequent conversations I have had reinvigorated my interest in the prospect of an estate tax.  Briefly in this post, I wanted to say a couple things about the state level estate or inheritance tax, the map, and the effect of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (“EGTRAA“) on the prospects of the elimination of federal estate tax.

I’ll readily admit that it has been a while since I did an estate tax return.  So, I needed some refreshing regarding the idiosyncrasies of the interaction between the state and federal taxes.  Some recent history is not only necessary but illustrative of the prospects of permanent federal estate tax repeal.

Brief History of Switch From Credit to Deduction

Prior to the enactment of EGTRAA, the federal estate tax provided an tax credit for an amount paid because of a state level estate tax.  The mechanics of credit was essentially a revenue sharing agreement for the tax collected between the federal government and the states – essentially, up to 16% of an estate’s value.  The credit applied whether or not the state had an independent estate tax.  This tax was known as a “pick-up” or “sponge” tax.

Continue reading “Prognosticating Estate Tax Repeal using State Interests”

Macron and the Potential Future of Tax Leaks

By: Diane Ring

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 . . .

Continue reading “Macron and the Potential Future of Tax Leaks”

What is the Johnson Amendment?

By: David Herzig

As the world braces for the upcoming Executive Order from President Trump,

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 8.18.56 AM

I wanted to take a minute and describe the Johnson Amendment.  Later today, after the actual Executive Order is made public, Ben Leff will be writing up a more through post.

A couple of months ago President Donald Trump told the audience at the National Prayer Breakfast that he would “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. Which raises the question: what is the Johnson Amendment. Because he brought it up at the National Prayer Breakfast, it also leads to the question of how does affects churches.

In 1954, without explanation, Lyndon Johnson proposed a small amendment to the tax law governing tax-exempt organizations: forbid them from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. One of the few consistent talking points during president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign was that this so-called “Johnson Amendment” should be repealed; since comprehensive tax reform is part of Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office, the repeal may happen immediately. Continue reading “What is the Johnson Amendment?”

We Hear What We Want to Hear

Shu-Yi Oei

I’ve been preoccupied by country music these past few days. For this, I blame my Tulane colleague, Sally Richardson, who recently wrote this post on Property Law Profs Blog. In it, Sally makes the following observation:

Last week, my good friend, brilliant colleague, and property law scholar extraordinaire, Jim Gordley (Tulane), told me that he had been on a road trip and listened to a good deal of country music.  In the course of listening to a series of country songs, Jim decided that country music was about two things:  love and breaking the law.  Being from the south and having listened to my fair share of country music, I have to admit that Jim is right.  Just listen to Friends in Low PlacesAchy-Breaky HeartBefore He CheatsFolsom Prison Blues, and Ol’ Red and you can see for yourself.  Sure, there are some other songs about dogs and beer, but those are really in the minority.  Most country music is about love and the law.

Sally also shares some really genius lyrics coined by Jim, which include:

I assign and convey to you
That unencumbered heart
With one restrictive covenant
That we shall never part,
And this condition subsequent
That if you let it break,
Then I in my discretion
May reenter and retake.

Reminds me a bit of the Conway Twitty tax case—both the Tax Court’s Ode and the IRS AOD in response!

Of course, as a matter of substance, I think Jim and Sally are dead wrong. Love and breaking the law…pshaw! Aside from some notable lines such as the one about Ilsa the acrobat falling in love with Horatio the Human Cannonball, country music is, in fact, all about economic security, lending and financing, foreclosure, bailouts, and tax.

Let me explain:

Caveat: I have an immense soft spot for country music. Some days I have half a mind to move to Nashville and try to earn a living as a country music songwriter. (I’m only very slightly kidding about that.) However, I do not actually know anything about country music. And obviously, country music has a bazillion subgenres is about lots of other things as well (as this article describes), including the painful, painful process of creating legal scholarship.

Continue reading “We Hear What We Want to Hear”