Tax losses pose a special problem for the federal fisc. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first some set-up as to how tax noncompliance differs on the income side versus the deduction and credit side. The overall purposes of this post are to address some questions I’ve gotten and pull together some tax enforcement themes that are implicated by the recent NY Times reporting on Pres. Trump’s returns.
The Importance of Third-Party Reporting
A lot of tax noncompliance occurs with respect to income. Not for folks with mainly wage and salary income who maybe earn a little bit of interest from a bank account. All of that is reported by third parties (the payors) to the IRS, on information returns like Form W-2 or Form 1099. The taxpayer/payee receives a copy the information return and that both simplifies reporting and communicates what information the IRS has about the transaction. As Joe Dugan and I argue in a forthcoming article, third-party reporting is very effective. With the IRS able to do simple return matching to catch any incorrect reporting (intentional or otherwise), IRS figures like this bar graph show that there’s not a lot of noncompliance where there’s substantial third-party information reporting.
Where much tax noncompliance occurs is with respect to income earned by the self-employed and small businesses, where there’s much less third-party reporting and also more use of untraceable cash. (I added the red circle to the IRS image below.)
I was inspired last night while watching the debate to write some limericks about President Trump’s tax returns. I’m sharing them here to collecting them in one place. It would be great to see others add to the collection, too–there may not be as much love as on #TaxValentines Day–but #TaxLimericks could be a broader genre!
For the last several months, I’ve been meeting a guitarist and sometimes other musicians at a Chicago park to play outdoor socially-distanced jazz. This Sunday, driving home, my wife asked me if we knew what Trump had paid in taxes. “Of course not,” I confidently responded. “It looks like we do now,” she said.
And with that, my work goals for this week changed. I’m sure everybody reading this has seen Sunday’s New York Times story (and probably also its follow-up from yesterday). Along with a ton of other tax people, I’ve been trying to make sense of and contextualize the story, both to myself and to the public. And I’ve largely been doing my thinking in real-time on Twitter.[fn1]
I thought that I’d assemble a lot of those Twitter threads here into one place. At most I’ll lightly edit them and I’ll link to the actual threads on Twitter, too. Because over there I included GIFs on almost every tweet and I think I outdid myself. The relevant content will be here, though. Continue reading “#TrumpTaxReturns”→
The 2020 Indiana/Leeds Summer Tax Workshop Series ended on Thursday, after 13 weeks of talks. It was terrific getting to spend the summer with so many tax enthusiasts–professors, practitioners, and students–from all over the world! Dr. Leopoldo Parada and I really enjoyed co-hosting this series, and we expect to continue it next summer!
We received speaker permission to share videos of most of the talks. The speaker’s scripted remarks and our introductions are included. Those videos can be found at this link.
The complete speaker list and papers presented were as follows:
Ruth Mason, University of Virginia
The Transformation of International Tax
Stephen Daly, King’s College London
Trust, Tax Administration and State Aid
Susan Morse, University of Texas
Modern Custom in Tax
James Repetti, Boston College
The Appropriate Roles for Equity and Efficiency in a Progressive Income Tax
Diane Ring & Shuyi Oei, Boston College
Regulating in Pandemic: Evaluating Economic and Financial Policy Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis
Umut Turksen, Coventry University
The Role of Human Factors in Tax Compliance and Countering Tax Crimes
Allison Christians, McGill University
Accurately Counting Value in the International Tax System
Joshua Blank, University of California, Irvine
Automated Legal Guidance
Michael Devereux, University of Oxford
The OECD GloBE Proposal
Ana Paula Dourado, University of Lisbon
The Concept of Digital Economy for Tax Purposes: a Reassessment
Ricardo García Antón, Tilburg University
Enhancing the Group Interest in Transfer Pricing Analysis
Steven Dean, New York University
A Constitutional Moment in Cross-Border Taxation
Monica Victor, University of Florida
The Taxman’s Guide to the Galaxy: Allocating Taxing Rights in the Space-based Economy
Thank you again to all those who joined us, and we hope to see you next year! #IndianaLeedsSummerTax
On Tuesday the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Espinoza, holding that Montana couldn’t prohibit “student scholarship organizations” from making tuition payments to religiously-affiliated private schools. I wrote about the decision over on the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog.
After writing the post, I saw this entry in a SCOTUSblog symposium on the Espinoza decision. And, like the authors of that piece, I found the Supreme Court’s decision unsurprising (for reasons that I mention on the other blog). But one part of their analysis jumped out at me as reflecting a critical misunderstanding of the way Montana’s tax credit scheme worked.
Specifically, the authors wrote:
The secular instruction in these schools means that the state gets full secular value for its money. There are complications in putting a dollar amount on this secular value. It might be the schools’ full cost, given that they satisfy compulsory-education requirements. Or some of the cost might be attributed to teaching religion. But one thing we know: the secular value is far more than zero. A $2,250 tuition voucher (the amount involved in the court’s 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) can easily be allocated entirely to secular value. All the more so in Espinoza, where the tax credit was capped at $150.
This paragraph isn’t critical to the blog post; it’s not mentioned in the majority’s analysis. And yet I’m afraid it may have been in the back of the mind of the Justices. Because, after all, what’s $150 out of private school tuition? Continue reading “How the Espinoza Tax Credits Work”→
Susan Morse and Stephen Shay have blogged on Procedurally Taxing on both May 22 and June 11 on Altera’s efforts to have the U.S. Supreme Court grant certiorari in Altera v. Commissioner. Altera is a closely followed case involving an administrative law challenge to the validity of a Treasury regulation, so I wanted to flag those blog posts for Surly Subgroup readers.
Recall that in Altera, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a cost-sharing regulation under IRC § 482, reversing the Tax Court’s unanimous decision invalidating the regulation as arbitrary and capricious. The Ninth Circuit ruled 2-1 for the government in both its original opinion, which was withdrawn due to the death of one of the judges on the panel, and again in a revised opinion. The Ninth Circuit also denied rehearing en banc, a victory for the IRS’s rulemaking process. (Full disclosure: in addition to joining in two earlier amicus briefs in favor of the Commissioner, which Susie and Steve spearheaded, I co-authored with them and Clint Wallace a 2019 amicus Brief in Opposition to the Petition for Rehearing En Banc.)
COVID-19 has impacted society in nearly every dimension, and state and local governments have been hit especially hard. Those governments are simply not equipped to deal with major revenue shocks like those that accompany a global pandemic. In that vein, a group of scholars has joined forces to create Project SAFE (State Actions in Fiscal Emergencies), which is focused on providing research-backed policy recommendations for states. Among the project’s areas of focus is how states can help themselves by modifying their own taxing and spending programs and priorities.
The Call for Papers opens today and will close on May 10, 2020 at midnight British Summer Time (7pm Eastern Daylight Time). If you are interested in presenting in the Workshop, please send the following before then to firstname.lastname@example.org and L.Parada@leeds.ac.uk:
Your name, title, and affiliation.
The paper title and an Abstract of no more than 1,000 words.
Whether or not you already have a draft of the paper. (We expect to circulate a draft of each paper—at least 10 pages—a week in advance of each talk.)
Whether or not the paper has been accepted for publication.
A list of any Thursdays between May 28 and August 6 that you would not be available to present, or a statement that any Thursday in that date range would work for you.
My co-authors and I (Hiba Hafiz, Shu-Yi Oei, and Natalya Shnitser) have just posted an updated version of our Working Paper, Regulating in Pandemic: Evaluating Economic and Financial Policy Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis. The Working Paper is revised and updated to incorporate the provisions of H.R. 748 (the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” or the “CARES” Act) enacted into law on March 27, 2020. In addition, the revised draft considers recent action by the Federal Reserve, the Department of Labor, and other agencies all through the analytical framework we offer for evaluating these initiatives.
The Tax Policy Colloquium at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, which I’ve been blogging about, ran in person in Bloomington until our Spring Break. The fourth talk of the semester was given by Prof. Orly Mazur of SMU Dedman School of Law on March 5, 2020. She presented her interesting law-and-technology paper titled “Can Blockchain Revolutionize Tax Compliance?” (In general, she argued that it can’t: blockchain is unlikely to dramatically change tax enforcement by, for example, replacing third-party information reporting.)
The subsequent IU Tax Policy Colloquium talk, by Prof. Rita de la Feria of the University of Leeds School of Law, was on March 27. She presented a paper, coauthored with Michael Walpole of UNSW, titled “The Impact of Public Perceptions on VAT Rates Policy,” which is part of a larger project proposing a progressive VAT. The paper argues that, although having a single consumption tax rate that is broadly applied is most equitable, there typically are numerous exemptions and/or lower rates, for political economy reasons.
With the move to online classes due to the pandemic, this talk occurred via Zoom. It was unfortunate that, due to the pandemic, we were not able to host Rita in Bloomington. However, the silver lining was that I was able to invite tax experts and other faculty from all over the world to attend. Rita and I also both publicized the talk on social media. As a result, several academics and other tax experts either asked to attend, or, if they saw the notice too late, asked if there is a video they could watch, which there is. In addition to me, Rita, and the students in the class, there were 22 attendees, which produced a terrific discussion. The students later told me how wonderful it was to have so many international tax experts asking questions and making comments. Continue reading “Virtual Tax Policy Colloquia”→
As is apparent to the entire nation, the United States is currently trying to manage a fast-moving public health crisis due to the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19). The economic and financial ramifications of the outbreak are serious. Yet the policy responses being developed have limited time for assessment and evaluation—despite their likely dramatic impacts. Three of my colleagues (Hiba Hafiz, Shu-Yi Oei, and Natalya Shnister) and I are currently working on a project that analyzes and tracks these emerging responses. Having spent the past several years working together as part of Boston College Law School’s Regulation and Markets Workshop, it made sense to combine our efforts and expertise to try and contribute to effective policy guidance at this critical time.
Our new Working Paper (“Regulating in Pandemic: Evaluating Economic and Financial Policy Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis”) discusses the ramifications of proposed and legislated policy and other actions and identifies three interrelated but potentially conflicting policy priorities at stake in managing the economic and financial fallout of the COVID-19 crisis: (1) providing social insurance to individuals and families in need; (2) managing systemic economic and financial risk; and (3) encouraging critical spatial behaviors to help contain COVID-19 transmission. The confluence of these three policy considerations and the potential conflicts among them make the outbreak a significant and unique regulatory challenge for policymakers, and one for which the consequences of getting it wrong are dire.
This Working Paper—which will be continually updated to reflect current developments—will analyze the major legislative and other policy initiatives that are being proposed and enacted to manage the economic and financial aspects of the COVID-19 crisis by examining these initiatives through the lens of these three policy priorities. It starts by analyzing the provisions of H.R. 6201 (the “Families First Coronavirus Responses Act”) passed by the house on March 14, 2020. By doing so, this Working Paper provides an analytical framework for evaluating these initiatives.
On February 20, 2020, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed our third Tax Policy Colloquium guest of the year: Prof. Zachary Liscow from Yale Law School. Zach presented his draft article titled “Equality, Taxation, and Law and Economics In the 21st Century.”
As its title suggests, the article takes on income inequality. The article argues that the standard approach of redistributing only through the tax system and hinging non-tax policies on efficiency is misguided. It makes the case that (1) people want more equality than we currently have; (2) people do not think of tax and transfers together and fungibly trade off between types of redistribution but instead have (conceptually) “separate public accounts” for taxation and other government activities; (3) in part, that is because people have an idea of “desert” that is linked to cash income, resulting in resistance to heavily redistributionist taxation; and thus (4) rather than striving for “optimal” taxation and efficient legal rules, the government should tilt non-tax policies (such as transportation policy) to increase their redistributive aspects. As the abstract states, this argument “turns standard economics prescriptions on their heads.”
On February 6, 2020, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed our second Tax Policy Colloquium guest of the year: Prof. Werner Haslehner from the University of Luxembourg’s Department of Law, who is currently a Global Research Fellow and adjunct professor at NYU Law School. Werner presented his draft essay titled “International Tax Competition—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
States of course compete for tax base. Werner’s essay explains that “States’ general freedom to act (which we may call sovereignty) and taxpayer’s freedom to choose (which we may call liberty) – although neither is without limits – inescapably lead to competitive pressures and reactions.” (p.4) And some of this competition has been labelled as “harmful” by the OECD, the European Commission, and others. Yet, the essay points out, there is no accepted definition of the phrase “harmful tax competition.” The essay briefly reviews the literature and points out differences in approach to defining this concept. This part of the essay draws in part on Lily Faulhaber’s compelling article, The Trouble with Tax Competition: From Practice to Theory, 71 Tax L. Rev. 311 (2018), which pointed out the lack of definitional consensus and offered a typology of tax competition.
Werner’s essay further argues that, as commonly understood, there is no economic standard that supports a distinction between “harmful” and other types of tax competition. The essay thus proposes to replace the phrase “harmful tax competition” with “unfair tax competition.” (p.13) The essay specifically proposes “to refer as a basis for such a constraint to one of the most salient principles of moral philosophy: Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. According to this norm’s first formulation, one is to ‘act only in accordance with that maxim through which one can at the same time will that it become a universal law’.” (p.16). The essay provides two examples of behaviors that would be considered “unfair” under this standard: (1) ring-fencing (the provision of a tax benefit only to foreigners, not domestic taxpayers) and (2) secrecy (which, in response to a question I posed, Werner clarified refers to “secrecy as a service”—assisting foreign taxpayers in tax evasion). Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Haslehner, “International Tax Competition—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly””→
On January 23, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed our first Tax Policy Colloquium guest of the year: Prof. Michelle Layser from the University of Illinois College of Law. She presented her draft paper on the design of place-based tax incentives, then called “When, Where, And How To Design Community-Oriented Place-Based Tax Incentives,” and since retitled “How Place-Based Tax Incentives Can Reduce Geographic Inequality.” An updated draft is available on SSRN.
Shelly explained that this draft is the second paper in a multi-part project she is conducting on place-based tax incentives. Last year, she published the first piece in the series, “A Typology of Place-Based Investment Tax Incentives,” 25 Wash. & Lee J. Civ. Rights & Soc. Just. 403 (2019). Place-based tax incentives are geography-based incentives that generally are intended to help low-income areas by fostering investment in those areas. The 2019 article distinguished among place-based tax incentives on two dimensions: direct and indirect tax subsidies and spatially-oriented versus community-oriented incentives. “Direct tax subsidies provide tax breaks directly to businesses that invest in low-income communities.” (p. 415) Indirect tax subsidies are instead provided to investors in such business (pp. 417-18). She cites as examples the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) of IRC § 45D and the Opportunity Zones (OZ) provisions in IRC § 1400Z-1 et seq. (The OZ provisions are the most oddly numbered Internal Revenue Code sections I’ve ever seen!). Spatially-oriented tax incentives focus on specific geographically-defined Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Layser, “When, Where, And How To Design Community-Oriented Place-Based Tax Incentives””→