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”


Early in the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour, my wife pointed out one of the pictures in D-Block: right next to people imprisoned for narcotics offenses, conspiracy to kidnap, and murder was Mickey Cohen, in Alcatraz for tax evasion. IMG_4029

Tax evasion! Alcatraz was a pretty harsh punishment for not paying your taxes. Unless, of course, you weren’t really sent to Alcatraz for not paying taxes, Which, of course, Cohen wasn’t. Neither was the inmate at the other side of the picture: Al Capone.   Continue reading “Alcatraz!”

The new Tax Gap Map: not much has changed

On Thursday, the IRS released new federal tax gap estimates, including a new Tax Gap Map (on page 3 here). It’s been a while; the previous estimates were calculated in December 2011, for tax year 2006. The principal new addition to the Tax Gap Map is that the estimate of the net tax gap (the gross tax gap reduced by enforced and late payments) is now broken down by type of tax. Also, the new release is different in that it doesn’t focus on a single tax year but rather averages for tax years 2008-2010.

The new estimates show an estimated gross tax gap of $458 billion—compared to $450 billion for 2006—and an overall “voluntary compliance rate” of 81.7% of tax liability, compared to 83.1% for 2006. At first glance, these figures suggest that voluntary compliance is declining and that the tax gap is growing. However, the IRS explains on page 2 of its report that these differences “are driven by improvements in the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the estimates through updates in methods and the inclusion of new tax gap components.” In particular, the IRS explained that “[h]ad the improvements not been made, the TY 2008–2010 tax gap estimates would have been slightly lower than the previous TY 2006 estimates.” (Emphasis added.) And although only about half of the decline from the estimated 83.1% rate to the new estimate of 81.7% is due to changes in methodology, the IRS explains the many factors that may change over time, the remaining 0.7% percentage point difference can’t be relied upon to indicate a real decline in voluntary compliance. Jim Alm & Jay Soled have argued that the tax gap may decline over time, for a variety of reasons, including the increasing use of electronic-payment mechanisms, which result in much more visible transactions than cash does, although they acknowledge that there are countervailing trends, as well, including the underfunding gap the IRS has been struggling with.

The single biggest contributor to the federal tax gap, in terms of dollars, according to the IRS’s estimates, remains underreporting by individuals of business income, at $125 billion (very similar to the $122 billion figure for 2006). Think cash transactions. It remains clear that third-party information reporting makes a huge difference. Page 5 of the IRS release shows that in a nice bar graph. While the IRS estimated that wages and salaries, which are subject to both information reporting and withholding, experienced the lowest net misreporting rate, at 1%, income subject to substantial information reporting experiences a fairly low 7% misreporting rate. By contrast, income subject to little or no information reporting has a 63% misreporting rate. That last category includes such things Continue reading “The new Tax Gap Map: not much has changed”