Taxing R2-D2? ABA Tax Section Panel on Automation and AI

Kerry Ryan
Associate Professor
St. Louis University School of Law

I had the pleasure of attending the midyear meeting of the ABA Tax Section this past weekend in San Diego. The Tax Policy & Simplification committee organized an interesting panel entitled: “Taxing R2-D2: How Should We Think About the Taxation of Robots and AI.” The panel was organized and moderated by Surly’s own Leandra Lederman, and panelists included Shu-Yi Oei (Boston College), Roberta Mann (Oregon Law), and Robert Kovacev (Steptoe & Johnson LLP).

For those of you who read Shu-Yi’s post, you know that she is “deeply skeptical” of the “robot tax” frame. At best, it is misleading—no one is attempting to impose a tax on a “robot” (whatever that is?) per se. As Robert Kovacev succinctly put it: “robots don’t pay taxes, people pay taxes.” The key question is which people: owners, workers, and/or consumers? Roberta linked this question to the long-standing debate about who ultimately bears the burden of the corporate income tax.

At worst, the “robot tax” terminology captures (and perhaps amplifies) the fear (“the robots are coming!”) and angst driving much of this discussion. The underlying concern relates to the potential negative impact on labor of increased utilization of technology/artificial intelligence (AI)/automation in the production process. Experts disagree about whether, over the longer term, automation will reduce the number, or merely the type, of human workers. The unanswered question is whether this is just the next in a long line of technological shifts in the economy dating as far back as the Industrial Revolution, or whether AI/machine learning truly represents a technological tipping point.

What is clear is that the transition to this new automated workplace may lead to worker displacement (particularly for those in manual/routine jobs). Mass unemployment could negatively impact the tax base—fewer workers mean fewer taxpayers. Notice that any revenue loss would hit at the same time as funding demands increased for re-training and/or social protection programs (existing and/or proposed universal basic income) for displaced workers.

Assuming you believe there is a problem(s), what is the policy prescription? While most of the panelists agreed that tax has a role to play here, they disagreed as to the contours of that role. Should we plug the hole in the income tax base by shifting more of the tax burden onto capital, as opposed to labor? Do we attempt to tax work completed by robots in the same manner as comparable work by employees (see Bill Gates proposal)? Should we raise the overall level of taxation (under existing or new tax structures)? Do we view automation as imposing negative externalities on the labor market and impose some type of Pigouvian tax? Should we attempt to slow the pace of technological development, rather than workplace implementation, by reducing either direct funding or tax incentives for R&D and innovation (see South Korea)?

Many interesting questions with no easy answers. At the very least, we must resist allowing zeitgeist to drive the policy response, while at the same time affirming the legitimacy of the underlying concerns and working to minimize their negative consequences on workers and their families.

The Future of Nexus

By Adam Thimmesch

As I’ve previously blogged, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in South Dakota v. Wayfair last month. The question presented in the cert petition was whether the Court should overrule the physical-presence rule of Quill. For most folks, the resolution of the case will be felt most directly in whether their favorite online stores start to collect use tax on their purchases. (If your favorite vendor is Amazon, fear not, you’re already paying…at least on some of your purchases.) For states, it could mean an infusion of tax revenue at a time when many are struggling with budget issues…or maybe they will use the funds to pay for President Trump’s infrastructure plan.

The primary issue in Wayfair is whether the Court should abandon its long-standing physical-presence rule. That rule dates back to the Court’s early regulation of states and how they taxed the itinerant drummers and mail-order companies of the 1800s and early 1900s. The Court originally imposed that jurisdictional limitation under both the Due Process and dormant Commerce Clauses, but it abandoned the former with its 1967 decision in National Bellas Hess v. Illinois. (Lawyers reading this post should remember something about personal jurisdiction and the Court’s move away from a physical-presences test for purposes of that concept during this same time frame.)

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IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brooks, “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform”

By: Leandra Lederman

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Left to right: Jake Brooks, Leandra Lederman, Bill Popkin, David Gamage, Tim Riffle

On February 1, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Jake Brooks from Georgetown Law School as the second speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Jake presented an early draft of a paper titled “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform,” which led to a lively and interesting discussion about what incrementalism is, what constitutes fundamental reform, how politics may affect the making of tax policy, and whether and how tax law differs from other fields of law.

The paper, which is not yet publicly available, argues that “fundamental tax reform,” while sometimes necessary, should not generally be the goal of tax policy, and that instead, policymakers should take an incremental approach to changing tax laws. “Incrementalism” has a long history in political science, and was first described by Charles Lindblom in an influential 1959 article, “The Science of Muddling Through.” In general, Lindblom’s approach in that article was to reject the urge to use a formal method that involves clarifying the principal goals up front, identifying the means to achieve them, and then analyzing every relevant factor in the decision. Lindblom instead advocated the use of a more casual method that he termed “successive limited comparisons,” which ignored important possible outcomes or alternatives and did not involve distinguishing means and ends. (Page 81 of Lindblom.) Lindblom argued that this “muddling through” approach was not only what was actually practiced by administrators, but also a method for which they need not apologize because administrators are less likely to make serious and lasting mistakes if they proceed through small, incremental changes (pp.86-87). As Jake acknowledges, Lindblom wrote at a time with much more limited ability to model and process large quantities of empirical data. He notes that incrementalism has continued to be an important theory in the literature. Despite technological advances, we cannot see the future, and there remain limits to what empirical data can help us predict.

Jake’s argument is driven in part by arguments in favor of tearing the Internal Revenue Code out by its roots and starting over. I agree with Jake that such an approach seems extremely risky. Policy driven by rhetoric and “horror stories” risks being ill-conceived, hasty, driven by political rent-seeking, and even destructive, as I have written about in the context of IRS reform. But does that necessarily mean that legislative tax changes should take a Lindblom-style incremental approach? Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brooks, “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform””

IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brennan & McDonald, “Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective”

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Left to right: Tim Riffle, Tom Brennan, Leandra Lederman, David Gamage, Karen Ward

By: Leandra Lederman

 

On January 18, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Tom Brennan from Harvard Law School as the first speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Tom presented an early draft of a paper co-authored with Robert L. McDonald, Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective. We had a lively and interesting discussion about it in the workshop, as well as over dinner.

The paper, which I do not believe is publicly available yet, deals with the taxation of hybrid securities. It describes current law on how those securities are categorized as debt or equity, as well as the history of how the law developed. The paper criticizes the binary categorization of hybrid instruments as either debt or equity. It thus argues for a bifurcated approach.

The core of the current draft is a proposed new approach to debt and equity that considers the capitalization of a corporation as a whole and taxes the components in line with the underlying economics. The paper disaggregates the risk-free return, the risky return, and abnormal returns (rents). The paper proposes two possible systems of taxation: the “unlevered equity system” and the “levered equity system.” In the unlevered equity system, debt consists of risk-free obligations (like short-term Treasury bills) and equity is unlevered ownership of assets. In the levered equity system, the definition of debt is the same but equity is fully leveraged ownership of assets (fully financed by risk-free obligations). Under the unlevered approach, although particular investors may own a mix of debt and equity, the corporation itself effectively issues no net debt because it issues no risk-free obligations.

A key insight of the paper applies the Domar-Musgrave economic result that, under certain assumptions, risky returns on assets do not bear tax. Brennan and McDonald point out that the Domar-Musgrave insight also applies to corporations, although the securities are liabilities for them instead of assets. (Many years ago, I applied Domar-Musgave analysis in an article of mine on the tax favoritism for entrepreneurship, but I had not thought about its possible application to corporate income, which is a fascinating idea.) The implication of that insight, as Brennan & McDonald note, is that the risk-premium portion of return on investment effectively does not bear tax. As a result, under the unlevered system, all corporate income would bear corporate tax because the unlevered system does not have any net debt obligations. By contrast, adopting the levered system would make the corporate tax burden only rents, given a tax deduction for debt. The paper explains that this reaches the same result as the Mirrlees Review’s exemption for “normal returns” on corporate capital, as well as the allowance for corporate equity (ACE), if the ACE deduction is defined in a particular way. Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brennan & McDonald, “Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective””

More on Section 199A and Worker Classification (**Threaded Tweet Alert!)

Shu-Yi Oei

Last Friday, Diane and I posted a new paper called “Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All into Independent Contractors?” on SSRN. This was something that started as a blog post but then grew too long and so became a short paper. We plan to develop the ideas in it more robustly in future work.

On Saturday, I made one of those goofy academic tweet threads summarizing the paper, and then it occurred to me that I really liked my goofy tweet thread! Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of posting the tweets here for the marginal reader who is just interested enough in the topic to read the tweets but possibly not interested enough to read the actual paper.

Diane and I look forward to continuing conversation on this.

Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All Into Independent Contractors? (New Paper on SSRN)

By: Diane Ring

Shu-Yi and I started a blog post on new Section 199A that morphed into a seven-page essay that ultimately found its proper home on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All Into Independent Contractors?

Abstract

There has been a lot of interest lately in new IRC Section 199A, the new qualified business income (QBI) deduction that grants passthroughs, including qualifying workers who are independent contractors (and not employees), a deduction equal to 20% of a specially calculated base amount of income. One of the important themes that has arisen is its effect on work and labor markets, and the notion that the new deduction creates an incentive for businesses to shift to independent contractor classification. A question that has been percolating in the press, blogs, and on social media is whether new Section 199A is going to create a big shift in the workplace and cause many workers to be reclassified as independent contractors.

Is this really going to happen? How large an effect will tax have on labor markets and arrangements? We think that predicting and assessing the impact of this new provision is a rather nuanced and complicated question. There is an intersection of incentives, disincentives and risks in play among various actors and across different legal fields, not just tax. Here, we provide an initial roadmap for approaching this analysis. We do so drawing on academic work we have done over the past few years on worker classification in tax and other legal fields.

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear South Dakota v. Wayfair (!)

By Adam Thimmesch

The Supreme Court announced this afternoon that it will hear arguments in South Dakota v. Wayfair, the anti-Quill case that has been fast tracked for the Supreme Court since 2016. That decision means that the physical-presence rule, long-abhorred by states and tax academics, might be coming to an end. Of course, a reversal is not certain, and the Court could uphold that rule after hearing the case on the merits. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, however, the Court agreeing to hear it means that those involved in state taxes will have plenty to write about in the coming months.

Continue reading “Supreme Court Agrees to Hear South Dakota v. Wayfair (!)”

Private IRS Debt Collection: A Surly Taxsplainer

By Sam Brunson

Picture by John Biehler. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

You may have heard that the IRS spent $20 million last year on private debt collection, and managed to raise … almost $7 million.[fn1] So what’s up with that? A number of things.

First things first, though: in 2015, Congress mandated that Treasury enter into one or more debt collection contracts with private debt collectors. The IRS missed its initial deadline, but started the program in April 2017.[fn2] Initially, the IRS contracted with four debt collection agencies, assigning them about $920 million of inactive tax receivables.[fn3] (“Inactive tax receivables” basically means tax debt that the IRS has stopped trying to collected, and where it has had no contact with the taxpayer-debtor for at least a year.) The debt collectors receive a fee of up to 25 percent of the amounts they collect. (They seem to be paid additional amounts, too, as I’ll lay out later.) Continue reading “Private IRS Debt Collection: A Surly Taxsplainer”

The 2018 Tax Policy Colloquium at the IU Maurer Law School

ColloquiumPosterBy Leandra Lederman

The 2018 Tax Policy Colloquium at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law will kick off next Thursday, January 18, with the presentation by Harvard Law School professor Tom Brennan of a fascinating and timely paper he is co-authoring with Robert L. McDonald, Debt and Equity Taxation: A Combined Economic and Legal Perspective. Tom is a terrific speaker, and I expect the workshop to be really interesting.

Last year, I did a closing post noting that some themes had emerged in the semester’s colloquium. This year, I plan to blog each workshop afterwards, with permission of the speakers. The full workshop schedule follows after the jump. If you will be in Bloomington and are interested in attending one or more workshops, just let me know and I can send you the paper once I receive it. (Most of the paper drafts will not be publicly available.)

The Tax Policy Colloquium is a course for students; I expect about 14 this semester, including a visiting scholar from another school on campus who has asked to audit. I conduct a background session with the students to help them get up to speed on the concepts presented in the paper draft. Typically, the actual workshops are attended not only by the students but also by my colleague David Gamage, senior tax attorney/Maurer alumnus Tim Riffle, and a few other faculty–law school colleagues and/or tax or economics faculty from other schools on campus. Sometimes other members of the community attend, such as a tax professor from another law school; another attorney practicing in Bloomington or Indianapolis; a student not enrolled in the class (Shuyi Oei‘s and Ben Leff‘s talks in 2016 were particularly popular with other students!); and/or a local judicial clerk. Eric Rasmusen from the IU Kelley School of Business and Margaret Ryznar from IU’s McKinney Law School in Indianapolis have each attended several of the talks.

Continue reading “The 2018 Tax Policy Colloquium at the IU Maurer Law School”

What’s Up with the Sharing Economy? (Report from the 13th International Human Rights Researchers Workshop)

By: Diane Ring

Sometimes we do get what we are seeking. In some of my recent work on the sharing economy I have advocated for more discussion and analysis across legal boundaries, so that the rules we develop have outcomes that more closely match our goals and don’t bring unexpected—and undesired—surprises. The two-day conference on “Sharing Economy: Markets & Human Rights” that I have been attending at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, Israel has provided just such an opportunity. The papers presented cover a wide range of legal fields and issues from taxation to discrimination, and will ultimately be published together in the Law & Ethics of Human Rights Journal. Although we are all benefiting from the discussion of our drafts and will continue to revise our work, some interesting themes have emerged already . . .


Continue reading “What’s Up with the Sharing Economy? (Report from the 13th International Human Rights Researchers Workshop)”