Panama Papers: The One-Year Anniversary

By: Diane Ring

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Panama Papers leak. In April 2016, the ICIJ announced the leak and a few weeks later (May 9, 2016) released a database that included a subset of the leaked data. The leak itself comprised over 11 million records spanning 40 years from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. At its core, the leak revealed the true ownership of over 200,000 offshore entities, thereby raising a host of tax and political questions regarding many of the entities’ owners.

So what has happened over the past year as a result of the leak? Continue reading “Panama Papers: The One-Year Anniversary”

Did Rachel Maddow Break the Law? #TrumpTaxReturns

By Sam Brunson

Last night, Rachel Maddow dropped a bombshell: reporter David Cay Johnston had a leaked copy of Donald Trump’s 2005 tax return, and he shared it on her show.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely a bombshell; in our leakhappy environment, it was almost inevitable that we’d eventually see some of Trump’s returns. And this barely counts as a return: it’s just his Form 1040 from 2005 (that is, the first two pages of a return). When I grade voluntary presidential candidate tax disclosures, one year’s Form 1040 realistically gets you a D+; the 1040 says how much you ultimately paid in taxes, but very little more than that. (For example, you can see that Trump had itemized deductions of just over $17 million, but you can’t tell what itemized deductions he took. I mean, is it mortgage interest? state and local taxes? charitable contributions? some combination? Without the full return, we have no way of knowing.) Continue reading “Did Rachel Maddow Break the Law? #TrumpTaxReturns”

Privacy Is Dead: Crowdsourcing Tax Enforcement

Sam Brunson
Professor, Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Periodically, the IRS estimates the tax gap (that is, the difference between taxes due and taxes owed). For the years 2008 through 2010, the IRS estimates the annual tax gap was about $458 billion. After including late payments and amounts collected through IRS enforcement efforts, the annual tax gap diminished by $52 billion a year, leaving a $406 billion tax gap in each of those three years.

The $406 billion tax gap is equivalent to just over 16 percent of taxes due. And the IRS is unlikely to significantly close this gap going forward. While the has proven remarkably efficient at collecting revenue—in fiscal year 2015, it collected $3.3 trillion on a budget of just under $11 billion—Congress has been cutting the IRS budget for the last decade or more, while, at the same time, assigning the IRS more responsibilities. In spite of its efficiency, the IRS must do more with less, and its ability to find taxpayers who do not pay their taxes is thus bound to suffer.

These constraints are reflected in the data about IRS enforcement activities: in 2015, the IRS audited about 0.8 percent of individual tax returns and 1.3 percent of corporate income tax returns. Not only does the IRS audit very few returns, but the number has been falling: in 2010, the IRS audited about 1.1 percent of all individual returns.

There is no easy solution to the tax gap, or to the audit rate. Increasing IRS funding, or decreasing its non-revenue-raising responsibilities, would perhaps be the most effective fix, but that currently appears unrealistic. In a 2015 Pew survey, 48 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the IRS, up from 40 percent five years earlier. And Republicans—who will control both the Executive and the Legislative branches of the federal government—score significant political points campaigning against the IRS. So properly funding the IRS appears unlikely in the near future.

An alternative solution, then, would be to reduce the costs to the IRS of enforcement. One way to reduce those costs? Crowdsource enforcement.

A Brief History of Tax Return Disclosure

Crowdsourcing tax enforcement is an old, albeit out-of-favor, idea. In fact, it was not until 1976 that Congress definitively ended more than a century’s experimentation with deputizing the public to help enforce the tax law. Beginning in 1861, the Civil War income tax law provided for public access to tax returns. To ensure that public access (and titillate their readers), newspapers published the returns of prominent citizens. This public disclosure ended when the income tax was allowed to expire, but Congress experimented anew with it in each successive iteration of the federal income tax.

Congress had one principal goal in publicizing tax returns: ensuring that taxpayers paid their taxes. Essentially, public access to taxpayers’ returns allowed the government to crowdsource enforcement—people would notice, for example, that their neighbor had paid suspiciously little in taxes. Knowing that the Panopticon was watching their returns, taxpayers would have every incentive to pay their full tax liabilities.

Not everybody appreciated this mandatory disclosure of tax returns, of course. From the start, public disclosure faced significant opposition. Every time Congress reintroduced public disclosure of tax returns, opponents of disclosure argued that such forced disclosure was both un-American and intrusive. According to critics, the publicity not only violated taxpayers’ privacy, but it might actually endanger taxpayers, exposing their wealth and addresses to criminals and kidnappers. Even without danger, the benefits, according to critics, were limited to individuals’ indulging their idle curiosity.

Moving to Privacy

By 1976, the public disclosure of tax returns had been severely curtailed. In spite of being “public records,” they were no longer generally available to newspapers or the public at large; rather, they were open to inspection by the general public under regulations approved by the president or pursuant to presidential order.

Federal agencies had more access to tax returns than the general public, but even federal agencies could only see them on a case-by-case basis, after providing a written request. In the 1970s, though, in the wake of Watergate and fears about the “proliferation of computerized data banks,” the government began to strengthen citizens’ privacy rights. The 1976 Tax Reform Act cemented those privacy rights, broadly forbidding government employees from disclosing taxpayers’ returns or return information.

Over the next two decades, privacy became such a central principle of American society that, in 1993, Professor Richard Pomp wrote that it was “unthinkable for proposals” for public disclosure of tax returns to be “taken seriously.” Less than a decade later, though, in the wake of Enron’s collapse, legislators, academics, policymakers, and the media were seriously discussing the implications of making corporate tax returns public.

A Post-Privacy World?

A decade and a half after Enron’s collapse, the table appears perfectly set for returning to public disclosure of tax returns. Earlier privacy concerns seem irrelevant, if not quaint, in today’s world. For many individuals, the public already has access to information about their salaries. At least half of the states maintain public databases of state employee salaries.[fn1] Securities and Exchange Commission rules require publicly-traded corporations to disclose the compensation of its five most highly-paid employees. And Forbes lists the income of the most highly-paid musicians, actors, and athletes, as well as its estimates of the net worth of the world’s wealthiest individuals.

Beyond this broad array of information already available, today’s privacy situation is almost the polar opposite of the post-Watergate world. While exponentially more personal information is stored on computer servers today than 40 years ago, Americans have largely put that information online voluntarily. Technology entrepreneurs argue that social norms have moved away from privacy. And while the entrepreneurs may have financial motivations for arguing that the norms have changed, they are not alone in that view. Many experts believe that within another decade, much of what we consider private today will no longer be considered private.

It may not even require movement with social norms to arrive at a post-privacy world with respect to tax returns. The IRS, tax, and accounting firms have, until now, done an admirable job keeping returns private. In contravention of decades of precedent, president-elect Donald Trump refused to release his tax returns. In spite of the pressure, only three pages of (state) tax returns were ever leaked. But the fact that he faced no leaked returns does not mean that they will not, in the future, be leaked: the extensive Panama Papers leaks suggest that no data—even private law firm data—is necessarily safe from public scrutiny. In fact, hackers may have accessed information on more than 700,000 taxpayers in an IRS data breach.

Of course, the fact that taxpayer information could be compromised, and that notions of privacy may change significantly in the future, do not present an affirmative case for requiring all taxpayers to disclose their tax returns.

Consequences of Crowdsourcing Enforcement

Requiring the public disclosure of tax returns has at least two beneficial results, from a tax compliance perspective. At the ex ante level, it forces taxpayers to think about how aggressive they want to be. When tax returns are private, only the taxpayer, her advisors, and maybe the IRS (if hers is one of the 0.8 percent of returns it audits) will know how she structured her tax life. She can thus maintain a public image as a tax-compliant citizen, even while pushing the boundaries. If, however, she knows that her tax returns will be available to the public, she is forced to internalize the non-monetary costs of her tax planning. Perhaps saving money by paying less in taxes is more important to her than being seen by her peers as complying with the tax law, in which case she may continue to take aggressive positions. To the extent there is a social norm of tax compliance, however, knowing that her peers will have access to her tax returns may cause a taxpayer to be more conservative.

At the ex post level, requiring taxpayers to publicly disclose their tax returns reduces the IRS’s search costs as it enforces the tax law. It would, of course, continue to use its matching system and other techniques for determining which returns to audit, but it would also have hundreds or thousands of additional eyes scrutinizing tax returns. Friends, neighbors, competitors, and former spouses may all have some interest in seeing tax returns, and potentially in reporting bad behavior.

This ex post crowdsourced auditing does have potential problems, of course. It would increase the noise, as presumably some percentage of tips would be false positives. And if it turns out that significant numbers of taxpayers are taking aggressive tax positions, it may encourage other similarly-situated taxpayers to take similarly aggressive positions.  In both cases, though, the sheer quantity of data may correct for the problem. The IRS may not want to act on every tip, but if it sees a pattern of behavior from a number of taxpayers, it may decide to look closely at returns that engage in that behavior. And if the IRS were to strategically target aggressive positions taken by a number of taxpayers, that could discourage other taxpayers from following suit.

Two Final Thoughts

Administratively, requiring disclosure would be tremendously easy. In 2015, almost 88 percent of individual returns were filed electronically. With electronically-filed returns, the IRS could automatically redact certain sensitive information (for example, social security numbers and, perhaps, names of dependents) and instantly make the returns available online. The 12 percent of returns filed on paper would take more work to redact, but the IRS could require taxpayers who filed on paper to file an unredacted and a redacted version of their returns.

But culturally, it would be hard. Although we may be approaching a post-privacy world, we are not there yet. Although people freely post all kinds of personal information to the internet, few people voluntarily publicize their tax returns, and mandatory disclosure could still face significant pushback.

As an intermediate step toward full publicity, then, perhaps the tax law should make such disclosure option, but offer a carrot to those who opt in. For example, such a program could provide that those who disclose their tax returns will be protected from penalties for a certain number of years.


[fn] I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but even a quick Google search found me databases for these states: Arkansas; California; Connecticut; Florida; Illinois; Indiana; Iowa; Kentucky; Maryland; Massachusetts; Minnesota; Missouri; Montana; New York; North Carolina; Ohio; Oklahoma; Pennsylvania; South Carolina; Tennessee; Texas; Utah; Virginia; Washington; Wisconsin.

Leak-Driven Lawmaking

Shu-Yi Oei
Hoffman F. Fuller Professor of Law, Tulane Law School

Over the past decade, a steady drip of tax leaks has begun to exert an extraordinary influence on how international tax laws and policies are made. The Panama Papers and Bahamas leaks are the most recent examples, but they are only the tip of the leaky iceberg. Other leaks include (in roughly chronological order) the UBS and LGT leaks; the Julius Baer leak; HSBC “SwissLeaks”; the British Havens leaks; and the LuxLeaks scandal.

These tax leaks have revealed the offshore financial holdings and tax evasion and avoidance practices of various taxpayers, financial institutions, and tax havens. In so doing, they have been valuable in correcting long-standing informational asymmetries between taxing authorities and taxpayers with respect to these activities. Spurred by leaked data, governments and taxing authorities around the world have gone about punishing taxpayers and their advisers, recouping revenues from offshore tax evasion, enacting new domestic laws, and signing multilateral agreements that create greater transparency and exchange of financial information between countries.

Thus, it is clear that leaked data has started to be a significant driver in how countries conduct cross-border tax enforcement and make international tax law and policy. But using leaks to direct and formulate tax policy responses comes with some potentially serious pitfalls.

In a new paper—coming soon to an SSRN near you[fn.1]Diane Ring and I explore the social welfare effects of leak-driven lawmaking. Our argument, very generally, is that while data leaks can be socially beneficial by virtue of the behavioral responses they trigger and the enforcement-related laws and policies generated in their wake, there are under-appreciated downside hazards and costs to relying on leaked data in deterring tax evasion and making tax policy.

Continue reading “Leak-Driven Lawmaking”