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.)
Boston College Law School held its first Tax Policy Workshop of the semester last Thursday and the speaker was Surly Blogger Leandra Lederman. Leandra presented a draft paper entitled “To What Extent Does Enforcement Crowd Out Voluntary Tax Compliance?” The draft isn’t publicly available yet, but you can email Leandra for a copy.
So, what’s the paper about? The standard economic model tells us that a taxpayer will weigh the magnitude of the penalty and the likelihood of audit to reach an “expected” cost of punishment for tax evasion. Allingham & Sandmo (1972). So, if the audit rate is low (which it is), the expected cost of evasion also remains low, absent draconian penalties. Yet, we see relatively high voluntary compliance rates in the U.S. Some scholars claim that this is a “puzzle” and theorize that there is some sort of “intrinsic motivation” to comply with tax obligations, regardless of the low expected costs of punishment. Leandra has pointed out in several articles that this simple comparison presents a false puzzle because it ignores information reporting (and withholding), which IRS voluntary compliance statistics show is highly effective. She argues that information reporting is akin to an invisible audit. Nonetheless, some scholars suggest that enforcement and deterrence action are “extrinsic motivators” that might actually reduce compliance by displacing (i.e., “crowding out”) preexisting internal motivations to comply.
Leandra’s paper synthesizes the empirical literature on the effects of audit threats and fines as well as the growing tax and non-tax literature on contexts in which enforcement can lead to reduced compliance. In brief, the paper finds: