Do You Really Need More Information?

By Gaute Solheim, Senior Tax Advisor, Norwegian Tax Administration

(Mr. Solheim writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Norwegian Tax Administration.)

In a previous post, I explained with reference to the Cui 2017 paper on Third Party Information Reporting (TPIR) why I expect good quality TPIR, based on a primitive analysis of the human factor in corporate filings. When I started rereading Cui’s paper, I only read a few lines before a chapter heading from the CIA textbook “The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” popped into my mind: Do you really need more information? That book contains a full chapter (starting on page 51) on how more information sometimes contributed nothing to the quality of the analysis, but was of immense help for the confidence of the analyst.

I will below make my argument for why the answer should be “yes” when it concerns the TPIR data mentioned by Cui in the paper, but it is a qualified yes. TPIR is a bit like cooking. Fantastic raw materials will not end up as gourmet meals on their own. You need a talented and skilled chef and a kitchen with the right tools, as well.

Having spent some time on capacity-building with less developed tax administrations than the Norwegian, I agree with Cui that establishing a TPIR machinery should not be the first priority in these countries. However, TPIR being the wrong starting point for some developing countries is not an argument for abstaining from it in Norway and other jurisdictions with better-resourced administrations. I will below state my case for why I find TPIR useful based on my observations working for the Norwegian Tax Administration (NTA) (which may of course differ from the opinions of the NTA itself). Continue reading “Do You Really Need More Information?”

The Human Factor in TPIR Filing

By Gaute Solheim, Senior Tax Advisor, Norwegian Tax Administration

(Mr. Solheim writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Norwegian Tax Administration.)

I happened to reread a paper by Wei Cui from 2017 on Third Party Information Reporting (TPIR) some weeks ago. Based on my own practical experience working for the Norwegian Tax Administration, I found it hard to agree with him on uselessness of TPIR. In this post, I will explain why I expect good quality in TPIR filing. I plan to write a later post on why TPIR is useful.

I will start with crediting Cui for outlining very well what I will call “the story of the corporate tax revenue collection machine.” He does a good job describing how the government has outsourced the bulk of the revenue collection to corporations. I would love to see papers adding empirical numbers to this description. My Norwegian perspective is a world of VAT, corporations withholding taxes on wages and delivering massive amounts of data used to prepopulate the personal tax filings. The way Cui describe the role of the corporations in the “tax revenue collection machine” is probably even more spot on for me than for a reader with a US perspective.

As I read Cui, he expect legal entities to cooperate sufficiently to ensure fairly good quality TPIR. He does some reasoning on why this is to be expected, but I did not find his arguments very convincing. This may be because for some years I have had a different line of reasoning ending with the same conclusion. What follows is based on material I used in a talk some ten years ago for my colleagues at the Large Taxpayer Office in Norway. The theme of that talk was why we found less evasion in our segment of taxpayers than what other tax auditors found when auditing smaller entities. I called the talk “The Human Factor in Tax Filing”. I believe the reasoning I used there also may explain high quality TPIR. Continue reading “The Human Factor in TPIR Filing”

Lead us not into temptation

By Gaute Solheim, Senior Tax Advisor, Norwegian Tax Administration

(Mr. Solheim writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Norwegian Tax Administration.)

The Norwegian Tax Administration (NTA) has succeeded in leading most of the taxpayers away from the temptation of tax evasion over the last two decades. Not all, but most. It was not by carefully guiding them down a narrow path. The NTA constructed a wide avenue built on large quantities of third-party information pushed into prepopulated tax filings. Norway tweaked details in the rules for the most used deductions, linking them to easy observable facts and standard rates instead of using actual cost. Feedback from audits were used to evaluate possible changes in rules, eliminating or reducing the temptations facing the taxpayer in the filing process.

After all this work, we still had a problem with taxpayers being formally non-compliant by not logging into the digital portal and clicking the button for submitting their prepopulated tax filing. The easy fix was to change the law. A taxpayer receiving the digital and prepopulated tax report would be deemed to accept it as his filing if he stayed passive. Presto, even more compliant taxpayers.

But, at least for internal use, the NTA retained the old division of taxpayers into those who want to comply and those who want to evade. The faithful and the sinners. What people want is hard to observe, and it is hard to design measures to influence what people want. The NTA kept it despite its actions being focused very much on making it irrelevant whether the taxpayer wanted this or that. Spending all my time auditing MNEs, I found it really hard to figure out the wants of a corporation. Continue reading “Lead us not into temptation”

TIGTA’s Report on the Growing Gig Economy

By: Joseph C. Dugan, Trial Attorney, Department of Justice, Civil Division

On February 14, 2019, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) released a Valentine’s Day treat: a comprehensive report following a TIGTA audit concerning self-employment tax compliance by taxpayers in the emerging “gig economy.”

As Forbes noted last year, over one-third of American workers participate in the gig economy, doing freelance or part-time work to supplement their regular incomes or stringing together a series of “gigs” to displace traditional employment.  Popular gig services include ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft; arts-and-crafts hub Etsy; food delivery services GrubHub and Postmates; and domestic support networks Care.com and TaskRabbit.  Even Amazon.com, the second-largest retailer in the world and a traditional employer to many thousands of workers in Seattle and at Amazon distribution centers worldwide, has gotten in on the gig economy with its Amazon Flex service.  And for those interested in more professional work experience to pad their resumes, Fiverr connects businesses with freelance copywriters, marketers, and graphic designers.  The power of smartphones and social media, coupled with flat wage growth in recent years, makes the digital side hustle appealing and, for many households, necessary.

From a tax revenue perspective, the gig economy is great:  it is creating billions of dollars of additional wealth and helping to replenish government coffers that the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has left a little emptier than usual.  From a tax compliance perspective, however, the gig economy presents new challenges.  Gig payers generally treat their workers as independent contractors, which means that the payers do not withhold income tax and do not pay the employer portion of FICA.  Instead, the contractor is required to remit quarterly estimated income tax payments to the IRS and to pay the regressive self-employment tax, which works out to 15.3% on the first $128,400 in net earnings during TY2018, and 2.9% to 3.8% on additional net earnings.  That self-employment tax applies even for low-income freelancers (i.e., it cannot be canceled out by the standard deduction or nonrefundable credits). Continue reading “TIGTA’s Report on the Growing Gig Economy”

New Paper on Tax Enforcement and Corporate Malfeasance

By: Leandra Lederman

I just finished drafting a paper that got me reading a lot about corporate fraud. I find fraud fascinating, so this was a bit of a treat! The new paper is Information Matters in Tax Enforcement, and it’s co-authored with my former student Joe Dugan (JD ’15), who is an attorney at DOJ (but did not write in his official capacity). We recently posted the article on SSRN (here), and will soon be looking for a home for it.

This article was prompted by Professor Wei Cui’s publication of Taxation Without Information: The Institutional Foundations of Modern Tax Collection, 20 U. Pa. J. Bus. L. 93 (2018). Cui sets forth the contrarian thesis that “modern governments can practice ‘taxation without information.’” His argument rests on two premises: (1) “giving governments effective access to taxpayer information through third parties does not explain the success of modern tax administration”; and (2) modern tax administration succeeds because business firms are pro-social, fostering compliance. Professor Daniel Hemel favorably reviewed Cui’s article on TaxProf blog.

Cui particularly takes issue with Henrik J. Kleven et al., Why Can Modern Governments Tax So Much? An Agency Model of Firms as Fiscal Intermediaries, 83 Economica 219 (2016), and Dina Pomeranz, No Taxation Without Information: Deterrence and Self-Enforcement in the Value Added Tax, 105 Am. Econ. Rev. 2539 (2015), both of which show the importance of third-party information reporting to tax enforcement. Cui’s article also criticizes Leandra Lederman, Reducing Information Gaps to Reduce the Tax Gap: When Is Information Reporting Warranted?, 78 Fordham L. Rev. 1733 (2010), which argued that information reporting is useful but not a panacea, and set forth six factors to evaluate the likely effectiveness of proposed information-reporting requirements.

Information Matters in Tax Enforcement takes on both of Cui’s arguments, as well as his subsidiary claim that the value-added tax (VAT) does not involve third-party reporting or reporting of individual transactions. Joe and I marshal a lot of evidence to show (1) third-party information reporting is generally very effective, and (2) firms are not inherently pro-social. Rather, the literature supports Kleven et al.’s argument that numerosity increases compliance. That is, where more people would have to collude, cheating is less likely due to the increased risk of defection. The fact that large firms generally are more tax compliant than small ones—a point Cui concedes—is consistent with that. Large firms are also subject to more regulation and oversight, which produce reliable information flows from the firm to the government. Joe and I also show that VATs do involve third-party reporting, with the modern trend being digital real-time reporting. Continue reading “New Paper on Tax Enforcement and Corporate Malfeasance”

The Fyre Festival: Intro to Ja Rule’s Tax Troubles

By Sam Brunson

Photo by Eduardo Santos. CC BY 2.0

Like much of America, I watched a Fyre Festival documentary last week. I chose Hulu’s Fyre Fraud over Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened because I only had time for one, and Fire Fraud had an interview with Billy McFarland. (I’ve since heard great things about Netflix’s documentary, too, so I’ll probably watch it eventually.)

About nineteen and a half minutes into the documentary, we’re introduced to Ja Rule; we see him in an interview (with Wendy, apparently), who says to him, “So you spent two years in prison.”

He responds, “Yeah, I went in on my state charge for the gun charge, and they ran it concurrent with my tax stuff.”

Now, Ja Rule’s tax troubles are probably the least interesting part of the documentary (and are over, iirc, as soon as he laughs after saying “tax stuff”). But I always find celebrity tax evasion interesting, so I thought I’d run it down a little. Continue reading “The Fyre Festival: Intro to Ja Rule’s Tax Troubles”

Tax Evasion and the Fraud Diamond

By: Leandra LedermanFraud Diamond image

There is an extensive set of literatures on tax compliance and evasion, often discussing the traditional economic model (the deterrence model) and/or behavioral theories such as social norms or tax morale. (For recent examples summarizing the theories, see this article by Kathleen Delaney Thomas, this one by Adam Thimmesch, or this one by yours truly.) There is also a separate accounting literature on fraud.

A key concept in this accounting literature is the “Fraud Triangle.” Yet despite the important role this theory plays within the accounting literature, the Fraud Triangle does not seem to have permeated the tax compliance literature, particularly the relevant legal literature.

For example, a search in “Secondary Materials” in Lexis for “‘fraud triangle’ w/50 tax!” turns up only one article, which is not a tax article but does cite a 2006 Tax Notes article authored by three CPAs. That article is James A. Tackett et al., “A Criminological Perspective of Tax Evasion” (paywalled). Yet, the Fraud Triangle should not be overlooked by scholars outside of accounting. It provides a powerful tool with which to conceptualize tax evasion. And, as discussed below, it helps provide a framework that both supports the deterrence model and allows other factors to coexist with deterrence.

The Fraud Triangle and the Fraud Diamond

The Fraud Triangle derives from three factors that criminologist Donald R. Cressey originally identified in a 1951 article in the Journal of Accountancy, “Why Do Trusted Persons Commit Fraud?: A Social-Psychological Study of Defalcators.” As discussed in his 1951 article and his 1953 book, “Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement,” Cressey developed the factors that became the Fraud Triangle out of in-depth interviews with inmates who had been convicted of trust violations such as embezzlement. The three factors were labelled the “fraud triangle” by Steve Albrecht in the early 1990s. The elements of the Fraud Triangle, as discussed by Albrecht and others, are “perceived pressure” (usually financial), “perceived opportunity” to commit the fraud, and “rationalization” that the actions are justifiable or appropriate in the context of the situation. Albrecht and his coauthors of a 1979 KPMG study of convicted perpetrators of fraud “found that the decision to commit fraud is determined by the interaction of all three forces.” Continue reading “Tax Evasion and the Fraud Diamond”

The Manafort Indictment

By Sam Brunson

After a late night watching baseball, I woke up this morning to news of Paul Manafort’s indictment.[fn1] And the 31-page indictment is filled with tax evasion. But, after laying out the fact of and ways in which Manafort evaded taxes, none of the counts seem to charge him with tax evasion. (I find that puzzling, though I’ve never been a litigator, much less involved in criminal tax cases, so I don’t really have any experience with which to judge the strangeness or not of not charging him with tax evasion.)

Even without charges, though, there’s a fascinating romp through tax haven-aided tax evasion here. Continue reading “The Manafort Indictment”

Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes

Copyright Missouri History Museum, Some Rights Reserved

By Sam Brunson

In the aftermath of Chuck Berry’s death on March 18, I learned that I’m way more familiar with his music than I had realized. I’ll confess that I never spent a lot of time thinking about Chuck Berry, but his songs (it turns out) were an accidental soundtrack to my growing up. My dad had two or three oldies stations programmed into the radio, and Berry’s music was ubiquitous on their playlists. And many songs I’m partial to have turned out to be his. (I’m thinking particularly of Nina Simone’s cover of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”)

Still, I’m not a big enough fan to try to write about Berry on a tax blog. Or, rather, I wasn’t until last night, at the gym. As I listened to Sound Opinions, I learned that, like so many musicians, Berry had a run-in with the IRS. Continue reading “Chuck Berry, Cash, and Taxes”

Every Old Scam is New Again

Michael Schvo's "Sheep Station." Photo by Inhabitat. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.
“Sheep Station.” Photo by Inhabitat. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

When I was in law school, I took a class in state and local taxation from Professor Richard Pomp. Although I don’t spend much of my professional life thinking about state taxes, I clearly remember one of the stories he told us.

A fur store in Manhattan, he told us, would ship empty boxes (or boxes filled with rocks or magazines) to an empty lot in New Jersey for customers. Why? Because nonresident purchasers didn’t have to pay New York sales tax if the purchase was shipped out of state.[fn1]

The New York Times provides more detail on the scheme: the furrier in question, Ben Thylan Furs Corporation, would allow customers to take the furs home without paying sales tax (and, with an average fur price of $8,700, the evasion of an 8.25% sales tax saved customers an average of $717.75 per fur). It would then ship a box filled with something else (or with nothing) to create a false record to back the out-of-state purchase. And, in 1985, Ben Thylan was indicted.  Continue reading “Every Old Scam is New Again”