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Monday, April 27, 2015

Perhaps a Reason the Rich Think They Don’t Have Enough? 

One of the forces that has shaped federal and some state tax policies during the past decade is the unflagging efforts of the ultra-rich, or at least most of them, and their fans and hired hands, to reduce their tax liabilities to zero and to benefit from as many tax breaks as possible. The desire of the wealthy for even more wealth is endless. The destruction of the middle class and the agony of the poor mean nothing when an limitless thirst for money at all costs consumes the insatiable rich. They invent whatever marketing ploy they think will grab the votes of the easily duped voters, such as the discredited trickle-down theory, alleged private sector superiority, unfounded claims they are job creators, and offensive assertions that they are makers and the poor are takers.

Why do those drowning in wealth feel compelled to acquire more? The answer might be found in a remark by New Jersey’s governor.

Chris Christie made two comments the other day, as reported in this story. He complained that the federal tax law is too complex, though he suggested that the complexity of tax returns increases as one’s wealth increases. That assertion, of course, is silly, but is harmless in the sense that everyone’s tax return is more complex than it needs to be.

Christie’s second comment is what caught my eye. Christie claimed that he and his wife “are not wealthy by current standards,” and that he does not consider himself a wealthy man. He added that he doesn’t think most people consider him to be wealthy.

By all accounts, Christie and his wife are worth roughly $4 million. The wealthiest one percent of Americans are those with net worth of $3.9 million or more. The median American household has a net worth of $71,000. By this measure, Christie is wealthy, though not ultra-wealthy. Christie and his wife reported adjusted gross income of nearly $700,000 in 2013. Adjusted gross income of more than $400,000 puts someone into the top one percent. The median American household has income of $52,000.

So how does someone with net worth of $4 million and income of $700,000 end up declaring himself not wealthy? Because as long as there is more money to acquire and more wealth to accumulate, what one has, at least for many people, is not enough. And apparently, the more one has, the more likely it is that one does not think one has enough. Money is like any addictive substance in that regard. Someone without it doesn’t feel a need to acquire more of it, but once turned on to it, the compulsion doesn’t go away. It was just two years ago when Ann Romney said, “I don’t even consider myself wealthy.” Are there any wealthy people who DO consider themselves wealthy?

After all, it is possible to compute what a person needs to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education, and other necessities for the household. So to what end is additional income and wealth desired? Perhaps to acquire fancier clothing, more comfortable shelter, a nice vacation, and richer food. But there is only so much one can spend on these sorts of consumables. What happens to the vast excess held by the wealthy? As I shared the other day in An Immoral Tax?, it permits them to “buy the Congress, own monopolies, dictate terms in the “free” market, eliminate choice, and live like the gods they are trying to be.” So long as there is someone who appears to be closer to owning everything, all of the others who are addicted to money and the power that it can purchase when owned in large quantities will feel poor. And so the pursuit of money by those addicted to it continues to destroy the nation, while those afflicted with the addiction continue to blame everyone else, calling them lazy, tagging them as takers, and holding those not as well-off in disdain even as they sucker them into voting for policies that feed the addiction.

Friday, April 24, 2015

An Failure-to-Immunize Tax? 

An economist, Mark Pauly, has presented an interesting tax proposal aimed at offsetting the costs imposed on society by parents who refuse immunizations for their children. By his own admission, it’s not a new idea. In 1905, Massachusetts imposed a $5 fine on those refusing to be immunized against smallpox, and challenges were rejected by the Supreme Court. Does it matter whether the amount that must be paid is tagged as a tax or as a fine? To me, calling something a tax means that the underlying transaction or activity is legal whereas calling something a fine means that the underlying transaction or activity is illegal. The last time I checked, refusing immunization is not a crime, though it is rather foolish. Foolishness is not a crime.

Pauly notes that rejecting immunizations is not the only thing parents do that put their children at risk. He points out that some parents permit their children to “play contact sports, race dirt bikes, and eat potato chips.” He does not propose a fine or tax on those activities. He seems to rest the distinction on the harm caused to others by the activity. Yet a child playing contact sports or racing dirt bikes can injure someone else. For that, there is a solution in tort law. Tort law, however, is inadequate to deal with the children who are infected by, for example, measles during the Disneyland outbreak, because identifying the unvaccinated children roaming the facility is not possible. The problem exists because some children cannot be immunized because of age or immune system problems. Pauly does limit his proposal to immunizations for communicable diseases, thus leaving the decision to not have tetanus shots free of the proposed fine.

Pauly addresses the question of how to compute the appropriate amount of a fine. The concept is simple. Divide the economic cost of the harm done by failure to immunize by the number of children who could be, but have not been, immunized. Using the Disneyland outbreak as an example, Pauly computes the cost as follows. First, he puts a dollar amount of roughly $3,000 for each case of the 300 measles cases that happened to cover public and private health care costs, for a total of $1,000,000. Second, he puts a value of $4,000,000 to $8,000,000 on the projected one death per 300 cases. Third, he divides the $5,000,000 to $9,000,000 total by the estimated 40,000 children in California who could be, but have not been, immunized, thus generating a fine of roughly $125 to $225 per unimmunized child.

Pauly argues that this approach removes the need to inquire why the parent refuses to have the child immunized. He suggests that the tax or fine – he calls it both at different points – would persuade some parents who are on the fence about the issue to have the child immunized. The cost of the immunization is covered by health insurance, so there is no competing economic disadvantage. On the other hand, Pauly notes that a fine or tax of $125 or $225 might not persuade adamant opponents of vaccination to change their minds. So he suggests increasing the tax if experience demonstrates it is not having the desired effect.

Pauly suggests that the proceeds of what he calls a tax “be used for any good public purpose,” though he suggests it would make sense to devote the proceeds to help those who contract measles. Presumably, that assistance would be taken into account in the event a tort claim succeeded.

One of the rough edges in his example is that it assumes the measles outbreak at Disneyland was caused by an unvaccinated child from California. That probably is what happened, but it’s also quite possible that a child from some other place brought the disease to California while on vacation. But even taking the computation to a national level faces the reality of international travel. If left to states to implement, one can imagine border guards demanding travelers show proof of immunization and paying the fee if failing to do so. There are nations that refuse entry to individuals who appear to be carrying a disease or who don’t prove vaccination against specified diseases, though the number of unvaccinated people crossing national borders is far from a handful.

Though this proposal probably won’t advance, it does spark conversation. And even if that is all it does, it serves a good purpose. But let’s face it. Action on this issue won’t happen until there is a measles or other pandemic, and public demands for protection of society gets far more vocal than presently encountered.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An Immoral Tax? 

Let’s talk about taxes and immorality. Usually, that connection arises when debates are underway with respect to taxes on alcohol or tobacco. But it has now been extended to include debate over the federal estate tax. Though opponents of the estate tax usually reserve their immorality objections to matters of who is sleeping with who, who’s watching what, and who’s visiting where, this time around they have outdone themselves. Or at least one of them has stepped up to speak for estate tax opponents.

According to Republican Representative Kevin Brady, the federal estate tax “is, at its heart, an immoral tax.” Is it?

If the discussion is going to focus on tax morality, it ought to include examination of stepped-up basis at death. This provision is of much more value to the ultra-rich than it is to the typical American taxpayer who doesn’t own much of anything that benefits from the step-up in basis. And if the typical American taxpayer does benefit from a stepped-up basis, the amount that it permits to escape income taxation is rather small.

On the other hand, stepped-up basis at death is a substantial tax loophole for the ultra-rich. For those taxpayers, it permits billions and tens of billions of dollars of income to go untaxed, forever. The effect is a spiral, by which wealth accumulates at the very top and everyone else treads water or sinks. And somehow that’s the moral alternative?

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a repeal of the estate tax. The tax, designed to prevent the income and wealth inequality that threatens democracy, has been eroded over the years. Its existence has been used to justify letting the gains in appreciated property go untaxed, while passing to heirs who are treated as though they purchased the property for its fair market value at the time the decedent died.

The repeal is touted as something to “make it possible for the wealthiest Americans to do what the other 99.8 percent already can do – pass their assets to their children without a federal estate tax.” Let’s be serious. A huge portion of the 99.8 percent don’t own anything to pass to their children. And those who do, don’t have very much, and if things continue as they have been going there will be even more of the 99.8 percent who will have much of anything to pass to their children.

As I’ve advocated in the past, in Capital Gains, Dividends, and Taxes, As I Expected, Tax Deform(ity), and The Rich Get Richer: The Tax Law’s Role?, repeal of the estate tax makes sense and has its advantages provided unrealized appreciation does not escape taxation at death.

Here is an example to show how repeal of the estate tax without appreciation creates a difference in how the .2 percent and the 99.8 percent are treated. Rather than making their treatment equivalent, as the “make it possible” sound bite seems to suggest, it pours more fertilizer into growth of income and wealth inequality. Taxpayer A has a job paying modest wages, and over a 50-year career manages to invest $100,000 in stocks that grows to $500,000 by the time A retires at age 70. Pressed for cash, A must sell the stock, and pays tax on $400,000 of capital gains. In the meantime, taxpayer B, who lives off the income from trust fund, receiving $5,000,000 annually, stashes excess cash – after all, spending $5,000,000 a year isn’t as easy as most people think – and over a 50-year period manages to put $50,000,000 into stocks, which grows to $250,000,000 by the time B reaches age 70. B never sells the stocks because B has no need for cash beyond what the trust fund spits out. Both A and B die. What can A pass to A’s heirs? Certainly not the entire $500,000 portfolio, because A had to sell it and send some of the proceeds to the Treasury. What can B pass to B’s heirs? The entire $250,000,000 of stocks, which B’s heirs take with a basis of $250,000,000. So if for some reason they sell those stocks, they are not takes on the $200,000,000 of gain in the stocks. Nor was B taxed on that $200,000,000. In other words, it’s far easier for a wealthy person to escape tax than it is for a person of modest means. The estate tax paid by B under current law makes up for part of this shortfall. Now the devotees of the ultra rich want to eliminate the estate tax. By doing so, they would remove the only thing that reduces to some extent the disparity in the tax treatment of A and B. And somehow that is more moral than the current system?

If anything is immoral, it is the persistent attempt by the ultra rich or at least most of them, through their puppets, to become even wealthier. Why? The answer is simple. So that they can run everything. They can buy the Congress, own monopolies, dictate terms in the “free” market, eliminate choice, and live like the gods they are trying to be. THAT is what deserves to be called immoral. There was a time when this sort of behavior would outrage the overwhelming majority of Americans. Now, not only does it bring very little outrage, all sorts of poor people and people of modest means cheer on the immorality of these pernicious tax policies. And, that, in a sound bite, is what is wrong with America.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Another Tax Simplification Idea 

According to this recent article, Philadelphia’s City Controller has determined that many real estate agents doing business in Philadelphia do not have a city business license or a city tax account. The controller estimates almost $400,00 in taxes were not paid between 2010 and 2014. According to a random sampling of real estate agents, almost half did not know they needed those accounts, and many said they did not know where or how to get them. Some of the noncompliance consists of failure to collect wage and business privilege taxes.

Perhaps one reason compliance with city taxes is low, and enforcement ineffective, is the confusing array of taxes faced by businesses in the city. Why not simply require businesses to pay income tax on their activities in the city? It would be easy to piggy-back on the state income tax returns filed by those businesses. In effect, that tax would compensate the city for the benefits that the businesses receive from the city. Repeal the business privilege tax, the business license fee, and the assortment of other nuisance taxes. As for paying the wage tax, simply piggy-back on the withholding that the businesses do for federal income tax purposes.

Both of these piggy-back proposals would require a business to determine the percentage of income earned in the city, and the percentage of wages its employees earn in the city. The former is no different from the need to determine the percentage of income earned in Pennsylvania and earned in other states for state income tax computation and credit purposes. The latter presents a challenge only with respect to employees who work both in and outside the city. Tracking where an employee is working is part of the process of running a business, so it ought not be as difficult as hunting down a variety of city tax and license forms and returns and figuring out how to comply with an assortment of miscellaneous taxes.

The bottom line is obvious. The simpler the tax, the higher the compliance. Too often legislators make things more difficult than they need to be, often with the goal of assisting a supporter in finding a murkiness in which to hide tax avoidance, and often because they’re clueless about looking at the big picture. Few, if any, legislators do their own tax compliance. That needs to change.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Here’s A Tax Reform Idea . . . That Probably Won’t Fly 

As described in a recent article, Congressional tax writers are looking for a way to give to partners and S corporation shareholders the benefit of the reduced tax rates that are planned for C corporations. They do not want to lower the individual rates, which are the rates that apply to partners and S corporation shareholders who are individuals.

The problem exists because partnerships and S corporations, with a few exceptions for some S corporation income, are not subject to the federal income tax. Instead, the owners of these enterprises are taxed on the partnership’s or S corporation’s income. They also can deduct their share of losses, provided a variety of conditions are satisfied, the net effect of which is that a good chunk of those losses aren’t deducted.

The answer, to me, is simple. The answer is to require partnerships and S corporations to pay federal income tax, at corporate rates, on their income. The response, of course, is that this would subject the income to the same “double taxation” that afflicts C corporations and their shareholders. After all, S corporations were designed to give to small corporations the benefits already afforded partnerships of having the income taxed only once.

The solution to that obstacle, to me, also is simple. Permit partners and S corporation shareholders to withdraw income from those enterprises free of federal income tax. That eliminates any concern about double taxation.

These solutions, however, pose two huge challenges. The first is the need to deal with a transition period. Conceptually, the solution is easy. Permit the partners and shareholders to withdraw the income on which they were taxed but that remains in the enterprise. The details of that approach would be a bit more complicated. The second is the reaction of state and local governments. If they did not conform their approach to the taxation of partners and S corporation shareholders to the federal approach, we would find ourselves back in the even-more-complicated-than-now days when most states did not recognize the S corporation election. Adjustments to reflect the difference in approach were, are, and would be, complicated. However, the fact that state tax laws would need to be amended or otherwise afflict state taxpayers ought not be the driving force behind federal income tax reform.

How likely is it that this approach would be adopted? I’m not holding my breath. I’d be glad to describe it and defend it if Congress asks. Will it? I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Free Houses, Free Land: Gross Income? 

For those seeking free houses and free land, The Penny Hoarder has a list of cities that are giving away houses that need fixing up, cash rewards to people renting living space in the city, and cash rewards to people who live and work in the city. In some instances the cash rewards can be as high as $20,000. One city is offering almost 3 acres of land, worth $175,000, to any business that creates 24 new jobs in the city. In some instances, the recipient must be employed by a company that is a partner with the city in operating the program. In other instances, a person receiving an empty building lot for free must promise to build a house and live in it for a specified period of time. Among the cities and towns engaged in this sort of rehabilitation effort are Detroit, Michigan, Lincoln, Kansas, any city in Saskatchewan, Canada, Camden, Maine, and Curtis, Nebraska.

So, of course, when I read this article, my first thought was a tax one. If a person accepts the offer, and receives free land or cash rewards, does the person have gross income for federal income tax purposes? It’s possible that there is a state income tax exclusion for these programs, and I don’t address that question because I haven’t researched it.

The answer is yes. There is no federal income tax exclusion that applies to this transaction. The notion that it is a gift, and thus excluded from gross income, fails because the recipient must do something or several things in order to receive the benefit. Not only does that fact block the gift exclusion, it also strengthens the gross income argument because it gives the transaction a compensation flavor. The amount is being received in exchange for doing something that benefits the city or town paying for it.

As unfair as it might seem to some people who think this sort of transaction ought not be taxed, that result is not unjustified. A person who wins a lottery is taxed, even though the same folks also tag that outcome as unfair. If the compensation earned by someone harvesting vegetables or fixing flat tires is taxed, then the compensation earned by someone building a home in a city also ought to be taxed.

I don’t know if anyone has taken up any of these cities or towns on the offer. Not too many people are anxious to relocate to Detroit, Michigan, Lincoln, Kansas, Camden, Maine, or Curtis, Nebraska. That’s one of the reasons these programs exist. But if someone does accept the offer, I wonder what their reaction will be when they receive a Form 1099. Worse, when they realize that they face a serious liquidity problem if the compensation is in the form of land or a house, I don’t think their reaction is going to be all smiles and handclaps.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Another “Tax the Poor More Than the Rich” Plan 

Alaska, like most other states, is facing education funding shortfalls. So a Republican state senator, Click Bishop, has proposed a new tax. According to this story, the tax would work as follows. Anyone who earns $10,000 or more per year would pay $100. Anyone who earns $50,000 or more per year would pay $200. Anyone who earns $500,000 or more per year would pay $500.

So, a person who earns $10,000 would pay $100, which is the equivalent of a one percent tax. A person who earns $50,000 would pay $200, which is the equivalent of a four-tenths of one percent tax. A person who earns $500,000 would pay $500, which is the equivalent of a one-tenth of one percent tax. And a person who earns $10,000,000 would pay $500, which is the equivalent of a five-one-thousandth of one percent tax. Put another way, the rate on the $10,000 worker would be two and a half times the rate on the middle-class worker, ten times the rate on an upper-middle-class worker, and two hundred times the rate on the multi-millionaire. And, to rub salt into the wound, the tax would be withheld from workers’ first two paychecks of the year. Apparently Bishop’s flawed theory wasn’t introduced to practical reality.

Taxes imposed at a flat rate are regressive because they take a bigger percentage of a lower-income worker’s income than they take of a millionaire’s income. Calling this idiotic proposal regressive is misleading, because it is far worse than regressive. Perhaps it could be called what it is, that is, evil.

Perhaps we should be glad that we are being given an insight into what the so-called anti-tax crowd really wants. Flat tax advocates who support this nonsensical idea surely are caught by the inconsistency between their stated position and this absurdity. Those who oppose taxes but who support this plan are exposed for what they truly advocate, which is the oppressive destruction of the poor and the impoverishment of the middle class, all for the benefit of the oligarchy. It’s easy to understand why those members of the oligarchy who support this approach to destroying the nation do so, but I remain baffled by those who continue to support ideas that are self-destructive. Perhaps it’s time for science to research the brains of those who engage in this sort of economic masochism.

Whether or not Bishop’s plan succeeds, the nation should be very troubled that someone like him, and there are far too many with his outlook on life, gets elected to a legislature. Legislators owe their allegiance to the common weal, but too many of them are selling out to the puppet masters who finance their acquisition of a legislative seat that, for them, is more a position of power than a position of service. I doubt they understand the concept of servant-leadership which at one time inspired this nation’s legislators. And if they understood it, I doubt they’d want to subscribe to it. It gets in the way of their self-centeredness and the selfishness of the oligarchy which they serve.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Success for the Anti-Tax Crowd: Closing Down Education 

The anti-tax crowd dislikes taxes, dislikes government, dislikes government services other than those provided to themselves, and delights in the dismantlement of America’s foundations while claiming to be patriots and fans of America. Though they have not yet succeeded on a wide scale throughout the nation, there are several states where they have managed to grab enough control to put their policies into full force. One such state is Kansas, which has become the tax policy and public expenditure poster child for what is wrong with the narrow mindedness and short sightedness of the “me first” culture that is eroding the well being of the nation. In two previous posts, A New Play in the Make-the-Rich-Richer Game Plan and A Tax Policy Turn-Around?, I have explained how the anti-tax crowd cut state income taxes in Kansas, only to see the state’s infrastructure and economy go down the tubes, which triggered an attempt to reverse the trend. That attempt, however, ran into a dead end when somehow, a Republican governor running for re-election and who was trailing badly in the polls managed to pull off an election night comeback that fueled memories of the national election in 2000.

Now comes news that because of the revenue shortfall generated by tax breaks for the state’s wealthy individuals, some Kansas school districts must shut down before the school year ends. This means that the children in those school districts will suffer, their education will be diminished, their chances of getting into and doing well in college, trade school, or life generally have been harmed, and the chances of this nation’s students measuring up to those in other nations have been decreased even more. Of course, educating the middle and lower classes is not a concern of the rich, because an educated citizenry finds it easier to see through the con game that has created an economy rigged for the destruction of all but the oligarchy.

The schools are shutting down because the state cut funding in the middle of the school year. The state cut funding because its revenues declined. The revenues declined because income tax cuts were enacted for the rich. Of course, the claim was that cutting taxes on the rich would generate additional revenue, but as usual, that did not happen. The theory of trickle-down, which was crushed when it met something called practical reality, continues to generate cult-like admiration among those who look for any excuse to enrich the rich while impoverishing the poor and destroying the middle class.

When per-pupil funding is cut by $950 over a six-year period, as has happened in Kansas, it is difficult to imagine that the education system will be turning out better educated students. That reduction, third highest among states, amounts to a 16 percent cut in funds available for education. It can be cheered only by the oligarchy, and its twisted fans, who cheer for the dumbing-down of America. The notion that ignorance is bliss is itself ignorant.

And how is this anti-tax effort working out for Kansas? Its economy is stagnant, and its poverty rate is increasing. Though here and there some members of the oligarchy and some of its puppets claim to be distressed by these developments, their actions say otherwise. Actions, we know, at least if we’ve had a decent education, speak more loudly than do words. It’s not that the majority of people in Kansas want this outcome. It’s that the oligarchy has learned how to impose its will on the majority, and is now engaged in an effort to render the majority incapable of out-voting the minority. Stay tuned. It is going to get much worse, and quickly.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Retirement and Taxes 

It is no secret that there exist provisions in the tax law designed to encourage saving for retirement. The exclusion of employer and employee contributions to qualified retirement plans, within limits, the deduction of contributions to IRAs, again within limits, and the deferral of taxation on earnings accumulated by qualified retirement plans and IRAs are but three examples of these sort of provisions. One might think that with this encouragement, Americans are in a good position, financially, when it comes to retirement.

Surprisingly, at least to some, and no surprisingly to others, a recent retirement statistics reveals that America’s financial retirement health is in bad shape. Yes, there are a handful of people comfortably in or set for retirement. But consider some of the statistics:

The average worker has less than $100,00 saved for retirement. Even those earning $250,000 or more each year have accumulated less than $500,000. To put that in perspective, finance experts consider $1 million to be the minimum nest egg required by age 65.

The report reveals that 36 percent of Americans have not yet started saving for retirement, and 41 percent admit to having less than $500 set aside for emergencies. But, for all of those who worship at the altar of trickle down, isn’t this simply a symptom of what happens when the rich get richer and the not-rich get poorer? Telling a child to skip meals so that mom and dad can set aside retirement savings isn’t the way people in the supposedly greatest nation on earth should be living.

The same folks who brought us the failed trickle-down economic con game also want either to eliminate social security or turn it over to their investment banker friends. Both of these approaches are recipes for catastrophe. For almost half of retirees who are single or widowed, social security represents 90 percent or more of their income. The percentage is about half of that for married retirees.

So why do those tax law incentives not work? The answer is simple. Giving people a tax break for putting money into a retirement plan is of no use if the person doesn’t have any money to put into the retirement plan. Why don’t they have the money? Because for the last 30 years, the inflation-adjusted real wages of Americans, aside from the oligarchy, have stagnated, and in some segments of the economy, declined. But some people, I suppose, insist on continuing to believe in the Easter Bunny.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Tax Advice for Millennials Isn’t Just for Millenials 

Recently, Refinery29 published “The Millennial’s Guide to Doing Taxes – In 5 Easy Steps. Each of the five steps, and the guidance provided with each, are no less applicable to people in their 20s and 30s than they are to teens or older adults. For example, the first step is to “Get That Paperwork Together.” Everyone should be doing that. The third step advises, “Doublecheck Your Work,” and points out that taxpayers should not assume tax software is foolproof. That’s good advice for all taxpayers. Step four, “Settle Up with the IRS,” is accompanied by advice that has been given to taxpayers for decades, though some don’t take the advice. Simply put, even if a taxpayer owes money but cannot pay, the taxpayer should file the return, because it’s much easier, and less expensive in terms of penalties, to deal with paying an underpayment than it is to deal with the consequences of not filing a return.

What’s sad is that people need to be given this advice. As I’ve pointed out in posts such as Getting It Right: Questions and a Proposal and as I wrote to Congress eight years ago, described in Congress Invites My Ideas for Improving Tax Compliance and Of Course I Respond, “Making tax education a part of high school curricula throughout the nation would go a long way in reducing noncompliance.” But until that day arrives, goo advice for all taxpayers about basic tax compliance remains a basic necessity of life.

Friday, April 03, 2015

When Those Who Hate Takers Take Tax Revenue  

One of the arguments put forth by the anti-government-spending folks is that it is bad morally, socially, and politically to collect taxes from one group and to disburse the receipts to another group. These folks like to brand the first group as “makers” and the second group as “takers.” Yet when the takers are their friends and allies in the movement to feudalize America, not a peep is heard from them.

New Jersey, governed by a member of the political party that is trying to consolidate its power by demonizing “takers,” provides an excellent example of the hypocrisy entrenched in this modern reverse Robin Hood philosophy. In When the Poor Need Help, Give Tax Dollars to the Rich, I criticized the decision by New Jersey’s Governor Christie to dish out tax credits to the Philadelphia 76ers in return for the team moving its practice facility to Camden. The attempt by New Jersey to justify giving away $82 million in tax revenue by arguing that it would get back $77 million over a longer period of time rests either on arithmetic ignorance or blatant deception. The claim that putting tax revenue into the hands of multi-millionaires would create jobs overlooked the simple fact that, at best, jobs were being moved from one place to another.

Not long thereafter, in Fighting Over Pie or Baking Pie?, I criticized another New Jersey giveaway to the wealthy. This time, more than $100 million in tax revenue was pledged to Lockheed Martin, and $260 million was pledged to Holtec International. Despite the claims of new jobs, once again the arrangement promises nothing more than a zero-sum game.

Two months later, in Why Do Those Who Dislike Government Spending Continue to Support Government Spenders?, I criticized yet another handout to the wealthy. This time it was Subaru, to which New Jersey plans to fork over $118 million. This supposedly wonderful economic development consists of nothing more than Subaru employees moving from one building to another.

And now, after three months have passed, we get news that yet another business is being financed with taxpayer dollars. This time, it is Berry & Homer, an advertisement printer, though it’s only getting $3.14 million. The news story notes, “So many companies have gotten state aid to move to Camden that the former factory city is running out of suitable sites.” So now they’re putting these companies in Pennsauken, a nearby town.

Though this tax revenue giveaway game has been underway for several years, there is no sign that the economic condition of Camden’s residents have improved. The folks in Trenton who rail against government spending cut education spending, job training spending, social welfare assistance, and a variety of other expenditures denounced as enabling “takers” to feed at the public trough. Yet in the meantime, a state that faces deficits in its transportation infrastructure budget continues to funnel taxpayer dollars into the hands of companies with sufficient political connections to snag some funds for themselves.

As I wrote in Why Do Those Who Dislike Government Spending Continue to Support Government Spenders?:
There’s something not quite right in the collective psyche of the anti-government-spending crowd. Enraged by high taxes, they manage to put into office, and keep in office, people who dish out tax revenues as though there were no limits on taxation. Of course, the tax breaks go to those who are in least need of economic assistance. Their excuse, that they will use the tax breaks to help those in need, is hilarious, because the best way to help those in need is to direct assistance directly to them so that they can infuse those dollars into the economy. That makes the economy grow. Handing tax dollars to those who don’t need financial assistance is nothing more than helping some people grow their Swiss bank stash.
At what point will enough voters see through the con game and send packing the takers who took over political control by demonizing takers? When will political hypocrisy disappear? At what point will people realize that economic growth consists of creating something of economic value and not simply moving jobs from one place to another?

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Taking Without Giving: A Tax Con Reawakened 

They’re at it again. The folks who are skilled at making themselves appear financially oppressed even though they are swimming in wealth have persuaded some of their “employees” to introduce the Death Tax Repeal Act of 2015. Designed to repeal the federal estate tax, the legislation reflects the dubious claim that the estate tax is crushing small businesses and farms. Yet, fewer than 30, or perhaps as fewer than 20 owners of farms or small businesses pay a federal estate tax in a given year.

Advocates of repeal offer one good argument. The estate tax is complicated, and doesn’t generate enough revenue to justify the aggravation of compliance. Yes, the estate tax is complicated. Why does it exist? It exists in order to prevent oligarchy-based capitalism from entering into a societal death spiral that impoverishes all but a handful of economic elites.

When I read facebook posts that characterize the estate tax as an illegal “double tax,” I laugh. When I read the proffered reasoning, “we worked for this money, were taxed, and now are going to be taxed again,” I laugh again. For one thing, much of what is being taxed under the federal estate tax is not the product of any sort of work. For another, only a handful of “workers,” at best, squirrel away enough of their after-tax earnings to generate a nest egg big enough to be subject to the estate tax.

But there’s another reason that the “double tax” claim is misleading. A huge chunk of what is subject to the estate tax represents the UNTAXED portion of the value of assets. Specifically, people who must sell items in order to survive and who sell for more than they paid are subject to an income tax on the gain. But those who can escape selling assets in order to live can pass those assets on, to the next generation, with the gains built into those assets forever escaping income taxation. Thus, the idea that the estate tax imposes a double tax is a myth, brewed up by the folks who benefit from income and wealth inequality.

The solution is simple. Couple estate tax repeal with income taxation of assets at death. Yes, that, too, has been opposed on the silly allegation that it is not possible to determine the amount of untaxed gain in an asset. Yet the two items required for that determination – fair market value and adjusted basis – are already being determined, the former for estate and inheritance tax purposes and the latter for those instances when assets are sold during lifetime.

Estate tax repeal, standing alone, is nothing more than another giveaway to the oligarchy. It’s a taking without giving, which apparently is acceptable behavior for the wealthy but not for anyone else. Its cost? More Americans living in poverty, suffering from insufficient healthcare, driving on deteriorating roads, and watching their homes go into foreclosure. It continues to amaze me how a few hundred people have managed to cast enough votes to take over the Congress. A friend asked me the other day why people vote for legislators who enact laws that are bad for the country and bad for the people voting in these legislators. My response? “Why do some women keep going back to the men who beat the living daylights out of them?”

Monday, March 30, 2015

Battle Over Highway Infrastructure Taxation Heats Up in Alabama 

The highway funding situation in Alabama isn’t all that different from what exists in most other states. Roads are falling apart, funding is insufficient because increases in vehicle fuel economy means less gasoline and diesel is sold, and the anti-tax crowd continues to bray the “no tax increases” mantra. The governor has proposed raising taxes to fund, among other things, deficits in the transportation budget. Part of the deficit, as revealed in this story was caused by the shift of $63 million from the highway fund to the general fund.

But, according to this report, Republican state senator Bill Holtzclaw rented a billboard on which he proclaimed, “Governor Bentley wants to raise your taxes. I will not let that happen. Semper Fi - Senator Bill Holtzclaw." In response, the state Department of Transportation suspended funding for highway projects in Holtzclaw’s district. The governor confirmed that the suspension continues.

My suggestion is that the governor acquire billboard space to post this message: “Senator Holtzclaw doesn’t mind those potholes. I want to spare you the expense of fixing your car when you hit them. Governor Bentley.” People need to understand, as I have pointed out time and again, that it makes more sense to pay a small tax increase than to pay ten times that amount in repair bills, and infinitely times that amount to cope with death and injury caused by deteriorating transportation infrastructure. My explanation can be found in previous posts, such as Liquid Fuels Tax Increases on the Table, You Get What You Vote For, Zap the Tax Zappers, Potholes: Poster Children for Why Tax Increases Save Money, When Tax and User Fee Increases are Cheaper, Yet Another Reason Taxes and User Fee Increases Are Cheaper, When Potholes Meet Privatization, When Tax Cuts Matter More Than Pothole Repair, and Back to Taxes and Potholes.

When asked about the suspension tactic, the governor gave a marvelous response. “You know, I don't want to embarrass any of our legislators by bringing tax dollars into their district when they really don't like taxes.” On a national level, that approach would unclog the D.C. logjam rather quickly, considering that “red states,” which provide strong support for the anti-tax movement, pull down more tax dollars from the federal government than they pay in, as reported in numerous studies, including this recent one.

Holtzclaw included the ridiculous “won’t raise taxes” pledge in his campaign. The governor’s advice? "It's OK to change your mind when you see the real issue out there. It's OK. In fact it takes more courage to do that than it does to say no." Indeed. Courage. Something lacking among the politicians who defer to the oligarchs whose self-interest blinds them to the well-being of everyone else.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Yes, Tax Uncertainty Hurts 

In a recent commentary, Tom Giovanetti of The Institute for Policy Innovation explains that tax uncertainty causes economic harm. Tax uncertainty exists when taxpayers don’t know what the tax law applicable to a particular year will be because the Congress waits until near the end of the year to extend or not extend provisions that expired as of the end of the previous year. In the commentary, Giovanetti focuses on the ever-changing specifics of the section 179 deduction.

Giovanetti is correct. Tax uncertainty causes economic harm. It also cause other problems, not the least of which is taxpayer anxiety and the opportunity for politicians to grandstand on the issues and to use taxpayer fear as leverage for gathering up campaign contributions.

Of course I agree with Giovanetti. Four years ago, in Tax Rates or Tax Uncertainty, I wrote, “It is my position that the constant tinkering with the tax law, such as the on-again, off-again bonus depreciation deduction, makes it even more challenging, if not impossible, for businesses, particularly small businesses, to do the long-term planning necessary for a viable business plan,” and I explained why tax certainty matters. A year earlier, in Tax Politics and Economic Uncertainty, I had pointed out that “Decisions by businesses to purchase or to refrain from purchasing new equipment have been turned into a gambling game.”

Tax uncertainty exists even though it threatens the short-term and long-term economic health of the nation and even the nation’s viability. Why, then, does it exist? As I explained in Tax Politics and Economic Uncertainty:
Why is the Congress unwilling to provide America with a sufficiently certain tax law for the future? Notice that I did not ask why it is unable. Congress is capable of doing so, but chooses not to do so. The answer is that uncertainty provides members of Congress with the opportunity to use the promise or threat future tax law changes as bargaining chips in their continued pursuit of political power for the sake of power. Greed, it should be noted, isn’t restricted to the desire for money per se, although one significant consequence of holding political power is, as has too often been demonstrated, access to money. Perhaps, once business leaders realize that the very conditions of which they complain that are making business decisions so impossible to make are generated by a Congress grown addicted to campaign contributions and lobbying efforts with respect to specific tax provisions, they will turn their attention to fighting for more certainty, even at the expense of those who profit by pushing for continual changes in the tax rules.
What needs to be done? I concluded that post with these words: “It ought to be crystal clear to the business leaders of America where the problem lies, and it ought to be crystal clear to them what needs to be done. Will they rise to meet the challenge? Or will they remain mired in the woeful world of tax politics, caught up in a spiral of economic degeneration?” Today I add the simple observation that during the five years since I made that point, the Congress has sunk even deeper into the swamp of politics. Soon the nation will run out of time to clean house.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

When Social Security Benefits Aren’t Social Security Benefits: When They Meet Tax 

A recent case, McCarthy v. Comr., T.C. Memo 2015-50, illustrates why it is easy to become confused when retirement plan benefits, social security benefits, and tax law meet up at a three-way intersection.

The taxpayers are a married couple. The wife was a participant in a state retirement plan for teachers. Her employment was not covered employment for social security purposes. Accordingly, her social security benefits were reduced on account of the retirement payments from the state retirement plan. The husband’s employment was covered employment, and he received social security benefits of $19,132.

When the taxpayers filed their joint federal income tax return, they reported as pension income only $9,233.72 of the $27,412.68 retirement payments. The $27,412.68 was the amount shown on the Form 1099-R provided to the wife. They reported total social security income of $37,600.24, with a taxable amount of zero. In other words, what the taxpayers did was to treat a portion of the pension payment as social security benefits.

The Tax Court held that the taxpayers were required to report $27,412.68 of gross income on account of the retirement payments, and $3,868 of the social security benefits because the adjusted gross income increased by one-half of the total social security benefits put the taxpayers’ adjusted gross income at a level that required inclusion of a portion of social security benefits in gross income.

In their answering brief, the taxpayers stated that they sought “judicial redress” of the “financial inequity created by two different Arms of Government (SSA and IRS) defining the same monies (2/3 of the STRS Pension) in two completely opposite ways each to the detriment of the taxpayer.” They suggested that the solution “could be to allow 50% of what the SSA claims is SS included in the STRS Pension (Employer share) to be treated as SS on our Tax Returns.” The Tax Court held that it did not have the authority to do what the taxpayers wanted it to do.

The taxpayers make a good point. By reducing social security benefits on account of the state retirement system benefit payments, the Congress causes the portion of the taxpayer’s overall retirement receipts that is treated as taxable pension payments to increase, which in turn not only increases gross income on its own account but generates gross income from a portion of the social security benefits. This is a creature of Congressional action, and any remedy requires Congressional action. Unfortunately for the taxpayers and others in the same position, Congressional action is not something to be expected in this day and age, particularly Congressional action to deal with a tax glitch that no one in the Congress understands and which Congress has no interest in fixing.

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