Boredom and Taxes

I’ve been known to occasionally get bored at work, notwithstanding my job being the best job in the world and taxes being one of the most interesting topics in the world. For better or worse, when I’m bored, I can always turn to the internet for entertainment. Of course, as we know, that wasn’t always the case.

I’ve been looking at nineteenth-century tax assessment lists for a project I’m working on. The lists are fairly sterile, mostly a series of names, with the amount of income and various types of property that each individual had. Copying the various assessments to the formal assessment book must have been relatively mind-numbing work, especially for assistant assessors who were grossly underpaid.[fn1] Also, they were overworked:

Perhaps the most burdensome administrative tasks fell on the assessors, the workhorses of the collection staff. Their offices were kept open at all hours. They were required to issue a summons after notice to make returns had been issued, to hear appeals, examine taxable property, accept income tax returns, and audit returns for correctness.[fn2]

Continue reading “Boredom and Taxes”

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 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”

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”

Welcome to Surly, Adam Thimmesch!

Great news: Adam Thimmesch of the Nebraska College of Law has agreed to come aboard as a Surly blogger. You may remember Adam from last year, when he gave us a great (and popular!) post on Pokémon Go.

While Adam will provide a fuller introduction of himself in due time, let me say: we’ve been sadly deficient in our SALT expertise, and Adam will capably fill that slot, as well as blogging about whatever other tax issues he finds interesting. So welcome, Adam!

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.

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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.

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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”

… and police are on their way to your house to arrest you

By Sam Brunson

Over the last couple weeks I’ve gotten at least three calls from numbers I’m not familiar with. When I pick up, a heavily-accented recorded voice tells me that I haven’t paid my taxes, the IRS has filed a lawsuit (or, in one recording, a “law-sweet”) against me, and that police are on their way to arrest me. I can get out of my problems if I call them back immediately.

I’ve called back three times. The first time, I got flustered when asked for personal information, and told the guy I knew it was a scam. The third time, the call center noises were so loud that I could barely hear the person, and eventually, she put me on hold and then the call dropped. The second, though …

The second, I told the guy on the phone that my name was Carlos Danger. (I had to spell “Danger” for him.) I gave him a fake string of 9 digits (that he read back to me, and I was lucky that I mostly remembered it. Protip: if you’re giving a fake SSN to scammers, do something memorable. David Herzig, for example, recommends 867-53-0909). He put me on hold, and checked his computer, and then told me his records showed I owed $9,700 in back taxes. Continue reading “… and police are on their way to your house to arrest you”

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,

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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?”