Friday, February 29, 2008

Medical Expense Deductions for Embryo and Cord Blood Storage 

Every once in a while, a tax question comes along that isn't easily answered. Nothing in the Internal Revenue Code, the Treasury Regulations, the case law, or the administrative rulings deals directly with the question. Though these situations are welcome as yet more proof tax practice isn't simply "just numbers" or "not really law," they can be frustrating to the client, who must be told that there is no definitive authority. The practitioner's fee increases because more time is required to analyze the matter and provide an opinion.

Recently, a practitioner on the ABA-TAX listserve asked about the deductibility, as medical expenses, of the costs for storing "cord blood" from a newborn baby and the costs of embryo storage. The practitioner correctly noted that there was nothing directly on point. To reach an opinion with respect to the two questions, a tax practitioner must engage in legal analysis that includes comparative analogy and policy considerations.

Embryo storage is one aspect of medical science's attempts to solve problems of infertility. In Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses, the IRS explains that medical expenses include the costs of "Procedures such as in vitro fertilization (including temporary storage of eggs or sperm)." Embryos are not mentioned. Comparative analogy instructs us that the cost of storing embryos should be treated in the same manner, because they, too, are no less a part of fertility treatment than are eggs and sperm. Logic tells us that because embryos are the product of combining eggs and sperm, the cost of storing them should be treated in the same manner as the cost of storing eggs and sperm. Policy dictates that whatever considerations bring the cost of storing eggs and sperm within the definition of medical expenses should also bring in the cost of storing embryos. Though not specifically addressing the cost of storing embryos, in The Implications of Using the Medical Expense Deduction of IRC 213 to Subsidize Assisted Reproductive Technology, 79 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1117 (2004), Anna L. Benjamin explains, "Both the language of the statute [section 213 of the Internal Revenue Code] and Publication 502 support the claim that a taxpayer may deduct medical expenses for fertility enhancement, and this deduction appears to include all methods of assisted reproductive technology." It seems reasonable to treat the cost of storing embryos as a method of assisted reproductive technology.

The storing of cord blood is a more difficult expense to characterize. Cord blood is stored with the expectation that it could be used at a later date to ameliorate a disease or adverse medical condition. The Wikipedia article on cord blood is a good place to start, and perhaps finish, a self-study on the topic. Cord blood could be considered a medicine or drug because it is a substance that will be injected into the body when necessary. Is cord blood more like a prescription drug, the cost of which is deductible? Or is it more like an over-the-counter drug, the cost of which is not deductible (aside from insulin), because no prescription is issued for use of the cord blood? Is the cost of storing cord blood a cost of medical care to be provided substantially after the end of the year, in which case it is not deductible? Or is the cost of storing cord blood a current expense? Comparative analogy doesn't tell us much other than that good arguments exist for both outcomes. Policy considerations, though, seem to support allowance of the deduction, because the cost of storing cord blood isn't unlike the cost of providing stand-by electrical power generation for a refrigerator used to store medicines that require refrigeration.

Though back in 2005 some predicted imminent release of an IRS ruling on the deductibility of cord blood, no such ruling has been issued. No empirical or other research appears to exist that discloses whether taxpayers who have paid for cord blood storage are deducting the cost. Clients, like law students, don't want to hear the tax practitioner or professor say, "There is no definitive answer" but sometimes that is all we have. It is then time to explain the arguments for and against claiming the deduction, to describe the benefits and risks, and to let the client decide how adventurous the client wants to be.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Artificiality of Mandatory Grading Curves 

Last fall, in Yet More Reasons to Dislike Grading Curves, I explained why I do not think grading curves are appropriate. The discussion arose in the context of litigation brought by a student who objected to a teaching assistant assigning grades on a basis other than what had been explained to the students. In defense, the teaching assistant claimed that he had applied a grading curve to determine the student's grade.

The menace posed by grading curves has surfaced again, this time in connection with the demand by law students at Hastings that the law school's grading curve be adjusted so that their grades match those earned or assigned to law students at UCLA and Boalt Hall. According the Hastings Law Students Look to Stay Ahead of the Grading Curve, students are unhappy with a curve that restricts the A grade to 20% of the class, the B grade to 60% of the class, and the C grade to 20% of the class. Students claim that they are at a disadvantage when seeking jobs, because they perceive that even a single C grade severely harms their employment prospects.

Administrators at Hastings, who suggest changes will be made, don't think that the problem is one of employment opportunities. Instead, they express concern that there is an "overall competitive tension" on campus which harms student morale. They point out that employers are capable of figuring out that someone is in the bottom or top half or quarter or whatever of the class, no matter the grade point average. Lawyers who were interviewed for the story explain that they understand that each school has a different grading system, that they take those differences into account, and that they remind their recruiters to avoid "comparing apples and oranges."

Other schools that impose grading curves have started to eliminate them, relax them, or narrow their scope. One school reduced the number of mandatory C grades. In some instances, there is no mandatory C grade for upper-year courses. Some schools have no curves, and others have curves for first-year courses but not upper-year courses.

One administrator at Hastings suggested that the curve should be "relaxed" because it is "the right thing to do" and because "students become stressed about grades." An administrator at another school explained that a reason for relaxing the curve was to respond to faculty concerns that they felt "they were having to arbitrarily push people down to a grade they didn't deserve."

Justifications for having curves include the need to avoid inequity in grading and the desire to encourage faculty to develop a "collective sense" of what constitutes work deserving an A or B grade. Advocates also claim that curves protect students from faculty who are "too harsh" in their grading. Others claim that rigorous grading curves identify students less likely to pass the bar exam and bring their dismissal from school.

Some of the comments made in support of grading curves cannot go unanswered. Nor should the reasons for changing them be accepted without a closer analysis.

The existence of mandatory grading curves does nothing to give faculty a collective sense of what constitutes work deserving a particular grade. Mandatory grading curves simply tell faculty that the students whose exam or other scores are among the top x% earn an A, the next y% earn a B+, and so on. There is nothing to ensure that the various evaluative devices, including examinations and other graded work, are of comparable quality, are well designed to measure achievement, or are structured in ways to generate natural performance curves. The top students in one section of a course might not do so well on the exam for another section of the course, perhaps in part because they weren't pushed as hard, introduced to as much material, or faced with as difficult a set of questions. Grading cannot begin with curves. It needs to begin with a definition of course goals, the design of a syllabus, and a conscious determination of coverage both in terms of breadth and depth, it needs to continue with the design of evaluative devices that include relatively easy, moderate, and difficult questions or problems, and it needs to conclude with a measurement of a student's performance against the standards required for the practice of law. This ensures not only some fairly good consistency between sections of a course but also consistency from year-to-year offerings of that course.

The existence of mandatory grading curves does discourage the awarding of excessive numbers of low grades, but that accomplishment presupposes that it is always wrong to have more than a certain number of low grades. If students earn low grades, then they have earned low grades. If many students earn low grades, the answer isn't to pretend they earned higher grades, but to explore why they earned low grades. Was the course poorly taught? Did the course attract a disproportionate number of slackers and burned-out or discouraged upper year students? Were the students suffering from the effects of inadequate preparation in prerequisite and precursor courses? Was the course badly designed? The solution should be to identify and fix the problem, and not to mask it with some grade shuffling maneuvers.

The existence of mandatory grading curves has very little correlation with the identification of bar exam pass rates. Quite to the contrary, grading against a standard is much more likely to identify the student whose chances of passing the bar exam are rather low. There is a minimum level of competence that must be demonstrated to earn a passing grade, and that standard should apply both to bar examinations and law school courses. Sadly, law school concern with bar exam pass rates is more a matter of the rankings game than it is anything else. Some mandatory grading curves would prevent faculty from entering on a student transcript a low grade earned by the student if doing so would cause the number of low grades to exceed the limit. Recall that grading curve advocates also express a concern about "too many" low grades. Well, what is it? Avoid too many low grades or make certain that those who aren't succeeding don't earn high grades? It is troubling, but not surprising, that two of the arguments in support of mandatory grading curves conflict with each other.

When it comes to a solution, my preference, of course, is to abolish grading curves. Instead, I would require law faculty to take courses in a school of education to learn about course design, feedback strategies, evaluative device design, grading theory, and other teaching skills rarely found among law faculty. Is it any wonder that I'm not a law school dean?

Instead, most schools with mandatory grading curves have tinkered with them, as though fiddling with a buggy whip is going to do much to reduce air pollution. Worse, the reasons given for doing so are quite suspect.

It's the right thing to do? Who says that the right thing to do is to relax, rather than abolish, a mandatory grading curve?

It should be done because students are stressed about grades? Students will always be stressed about grades, no matter the process for earning them. The best way to reduce student grade stress is to give each student a fair opportunity to do well. Tell the students what they are expected to learn. Explain how their work product will be evaluated. Disclose how performance relates to specific grades. Be consistent, and don't change the rules in the middle of the game. Grade students against the array of requirements demanded of them by law practice. Then they can worry about what they are doing, and push aside concerns that some other students will perform so much more capably that they are precluded from demonstrating that they, too, are quite capable. A football player who runs a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds isn't quite as good as one who runs it in 4.2 seconds, but they're both high quality athletes in this regard. Putting an "A" label on one and a "B" label on the other because there are insufficient "A" labels is silly. Similarly, if in a particular year the best performance is 5.1 seconds, labeling it an "A" because it is the best that year is no less silly.

Relaxing the grading curve should be done because faculty feel they are being required "to arbitrarily push people down to a grade they didn't deserve"? Is it no less harmful to push people arbitrarily to push people up to grades they don't deserve? Does it make sense to have curves that require most grades to be "B" or higher? Are practitioners jumping for joy that almost everyone they hire out of law school is performing at an "A" or "B" level in practice? Rarely do I hear a practitioner tell me that a student with C and C- grades suddenly emerged as a top-notch lawyer. But far too often I hear practitioners wonder how students with high GPAs reflecting mostly A and B grades got through law school with those grades, when they demonstrate deficiencies in core competencies such as spelling, research, grammar, and analytical thinking. On the other hand, I'm more than willing to assign mostly "A" and "B" grades, and thus I give students every opportunity to earn them, but in the process I push the students to a level close to what one finds in practice. It is intense, it is demanding, it is broad in scope, and deep in specific topics, and it is realistic. It is troubling that students figure they can earn high grades much more easily in some other course. It dilutes the value of the hard-earned high grade. Ultimately, and fortunately, it does get sorted out in practice. I know, because I get those phone calls. But that's another post for another day.

In sum, law schools need to become more imaginative and demanding of themselves when it comes to grading. Mandatory grading curves are quick and easy masks for a much deeper set of problems. Law schools, working with practitioners, need to set standards, in terms of course coverage, demonstrated achievement, identified skill sets, and quality. Then law schools need to test their students against those standards. Perhaps law schools should examine each other's students. Perhaps faculty ought to examine the performance of students in other sections of the courses that they teach. There needs to be something more than simply some general consensus that a mandatory grading curve, whatever its specific numbers, adequately tells anyone how they have performed and how well they have learned.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Another Public Official Convicted of Failure to File Tax Returns 

Late Friday evening, a federal jury returned a verdict convicting Milton Street, brother of Philadelphia's former mayor, John Street, of failure to file income tax returns for 2002 through 2004. The jury could not reach a verdict on charges Street assisted in the filing of false income tax returns for 2000 and 2001, and acquitted him of a variety of fraud charges brought in connection with sales of contracts that Street knew did not exist.

Street formerly served in the Pennsylvania State Senate. His explanation for the failure to file returns, that the federal income tax is unconstitutional, did not persuade the jury. Nor does it persuade me, or anyone who understands the tax law. During the trial, Street challenged the prosecutor to show him the statutes requiring him to file federal income tax returns. The judge admonished Street to answer questions and not give tasks to the prosecutor.

Street expressed relief that he had been acquitted of the corruption and fraud charges. He claimed that despite being convicted of crimes that could bring up to three years in prison, he was "happy" that he had been acquitted of the other charges. According to this Philadelphia Inquirer story, Street admitted trading on the family name after his brother was elected mayor of Philadelphia. The attorney for Street's co-defendant argued, ""It's not illegal. It may be unsavory, but that is the way business is done." Indeed, in Philadelphia, it is, and has been for a long time. That's too bad.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Tax and Other Courses Ought Not Be Easy 

When I read Paul Caron's post on the publication of Attractiveness, Easiness and Other Issues: Student Evaluations of Professors on Ratemyprofessors.com, 33 Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, No. 1, pp. 45-61 (Feb. 2008), in his nicely titled Students Prefer Easy Courses and "Hot" Professors, I laughed. This is news? Actually, the three authors took their inquiry further, going to a larger and improved database. What did they discover? Quoting their abstract, "Results indicate even stronger relationships than previously reported. In addition, this study demonstrates significant cultural differences by institution and discipline in the relationships between Quality, Easiness, and 'Hotness' in web-based SET."

Humans prefer all sorts of things. Sometimes, what is preferred isn't what gets the job done. Many people would prefer to sleep than exercise, to vacation rather than work, and to be served rather than serve. So it's no surprise that students prefer easy courses. But are easy courses going to provide what needs to be accomplished in an educational program?

For what sorts of things do easy courses prepare students? Do they prepare students for careers that are demanding in terms of intellectual challenge? Do they prepare students for the realities of the jobs that they will obtain? In the law school context, do they prepare students for the difficult cases that clients will bring to the attorney? Though it once annoyed me, it now mostly amuses me that students complain that my courses are "too hard." I've even been told by other faculty that my courses are "too hard." Are they? No. How do I know that? My friends in law practice tell me my courses are too easy, that I'm not tough enough on the students, and that I really should bring even more of the practice world into my courses. The disconnect between student expectations and preferences, and the realities of the employment world, is huge, and it's getting bigger by the day.

Student preference for easy courses, standing alone, is informative but has no more impact than a four-year-old child's preference for a fifth candy bar. Simply because someone expresses a preference is no reason to cater to it. Would it be so easy. Oops, sorry. Too many faculty, across the nation and throughout most institutions and academic departments, respond to the student demand for easy courses by watering down coverage, reducing reading load, lowering performance expectations, tolerating low quality writing, giving credit for flimsy thinking, and reducing the difficulty of examinations. Those who hold students to standards matching the demands of the employment and practice worlds are appreciated by some students, but castigated by many others when it comes to sharing course selection advice or filling out course evaluations. The other day I read a comment on an evaluation that drives home the unreasonableness of some, perhaps many, students' perspectives. The evaluation was for a course that requires intense study because the material is difficult, and for which I recommend at least 6, and preferably 8, hours of work outside the classroom each week to prepare for, or assimilate, what is covered in the 2-hour weekly class session. My approach was criticized because by requiring more than two hours outside of class, I was ignoring the impact of the requirement on students who have full-time jobs and who have families. I simply don't get it. Whether someone has a full-time job or a family doesn't reduce the number of Code provisions enacted by the Congress and that are relevant to preventing and solving the problems brought by clients, doesn't change the complexity of the regulations, and doesn't reduce the intellectual difficulty of the material that must be understood by tax professionals.

The temptation to "dumb down" courses, one to which more than a few professors have succumbed, is strong. What happens when courses are made "easier" by leaving out material, covering issues superficially, and ignoring important exceptions? When the students enter the next course, they struggle because they are not up to speed for what the next course requires. And when they enter their employment position, they do not perform at the level required by the needs of the employer and the employer's clients and customers. Most employers no longer can afford to invest in remedial education, because there is too much economic competition and pressure from clients and customers to keep fees and prices down.

Who would advocate that someone training to run a marathon not prepare by running long distances before the marathon? Who would advocate that someone intending to give a piano recital not take time before the recital to practice the difficult pieces that are to be performed? Yet caving in to preferences and demands for easy courses is akin to telling a piano student that learning how to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is sufficient preparation for a concert in which the student will be playing Chopin. I understand how students come to think in these terms. They watch television shows where people perform in all sorts of contests and shows, making it look easy, but they don't get to see all of the hard work that goes into hitting .320, getting to the quarterback, reaching the high G sharp, or bench-pressing 350 pounds. What I don't understand is how faculty can think there's legitimacy to softening courses to the point they are characterized as "easy" by the students.

Though the preference for easy courses can be attributed to that nemesis of progress, entropy, the preference for "hot" professors is nothing more than proof that many students are in class for some reason other than learning the material. A preference for a teacher who knows and understands the material makes sense, and says much about the student's goal. Similarly, a preference for a teacher who is willing to take questions outside of class, who responds within a reasonable period of time, who tries several ways of explaining something in an effort to get the point across to the student, and who is willing to review an examination to help a student understand what the student did correctly and incorrectly also makes sense, and also says much about the student's goal.

One role of the educational institution is to prepare students for the profession, career, or employment field into which the students will go when they graduate. Another role of the educational institution is to refrain from certifying as accomplished those students who are not adequately prepared for that profession, career, or employment field. Though educational institutions can't do much about the "hotness" of their instructors without running into legal difficulties, they certainly can ensure that there are no "easy" courses available to students. Whether faculty and administrators are willing to take that step remains to be seen.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Do the Tax Rebates Cheer You Up? 

Last week, in Can Tax Rebates Help Prove Malthus Wrong?, I responded to Joe Kristan's reaction, in GOOD MORNING! WE'RE ALL DOOMED!, to my inquiry, Can a Tax Rebate Band-Aid Stop the Economic Bleeding?, in which I note that the economic problem at which the tax rebate is directed is only going to worsen because of increasing world population and diminishing supplies of essential materials. Now, in CHEER UP, PROFESSOR MAULE!, Joe tries to get me out of what he calls a funk by directing my, and our, attention to several websites that paint a rosy picture of the future because the past didn't turn out to be as bad as predicted by the so-called doomsayers.

Let me assure Joe, and others, that I am not in a funk. I would be in a funk if I thought there was no alternative outcome. As I wrote, I worry and I wonder. I continue to urge the use of tax revenues to solve the deeper problems rather than to mask symptoms and buy votes. If the government is going to spend money, even money that it doesn't have, then it ought to spend it productively. There are serious problems that are going to get worse unless something is done quickly, effectively, and sensibly. I don't see signs of that happening. That's not to say it won't happen, but it surely isn't going to happen so long as apologists for the present system try to minimize the threats that the world faces.

My argument that the so-called stimulus payments, formerly known as rebates, are a temporary palliative that distracts voters until after the election reflects a view that does not require a dismal view of future trends. Those future trends only exacerbate the lack of wisdom in tossing around money borrowed from foreign nations. The recent upsurge in oil and commodity prices are consistent with a future trend of inadequate resource supply. If, however, there is no underlying long-term resource problem, then the advocates of stimulus payments would argue that those payments solve the temporary "glitch" in the economy. So it comes down to whether the problems in the economy are temporary glitches or symptoms of an intrinsic resource sufficiency flaw.

The projections made by the optimists to whose pages Joe links make claims that sound good but that side-step the question. For example, Ronald Bailey claims that "In addition, fossil fuels will not run out in the 21st century." That suggests we need not worry. Though the statement is true, what matters is that fossil fuel quantities will decline to the point where there is insufficient fuel to meet the needs of the world's population. Thinking that there always will be a miracle cure because most things have worked out in the past ignores the reality of tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions dying from influenza shortly after the First World War because no one had yet to step up and provide a cure or vaccination. If there were a way to use tax revenues and tax policy to focus attention on the problem, it arguably would make some sense to borrow money from foreign countries. Why not use the stimulus payments to stimulate the manufacture of artificial oil that burns without polluting the atmosphere?

Bailey notes that over-fishing is a problem, and then suggests that privatization and expansion of aquaculture will solve the problem. Privatization? Is that so a few huge corporations can own all of the world's sea life resources? Expansion of aquaculture? Where will that industry obtain the requisite water, fuel, and transportation resources?

Bailey also puts much faith in the growth of food produced per acre during the past few decades. Much of that increase can be attributed to heavy use of fertilizers, which are manufactured using natural gas, and the use of mechanized farming techniques, which consumes fuel. One study suggests that of the $22 billion increase in food costs incurred by Americans from 2005 through 2007, $15 billion has been caused by the increase in cropland and crops dedicated to biofuel production. Biofuel production is just beginning to ramp up. Perhaps people will use their stimulus payments to pay their food bills. But then who writes the checks to pay the creditors who are lending the federal government the money to make those payments? And what happens next year? Will there be more stimulus payments to assist people to purchase food? Should we not consider the ecological impact of the farming methods that are touted for increasing per-acreage yield? How much more fertilizer run-off can the world's fresh water systems absorb? I doubt the folks facing the sort of food price increases described in The Growing Pain of the Middle Class, serendipitously published on the same day Joe posted his latest comments, will find much solace in the arguments Bailey makes.

Bailey reports that "Americans are using less water per capita too." The question, though, is a global one. Yet, even looking at the United States, ought there not be concerned about the serious drop in fresh water levels in the Colorado River system? What happens when the levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, currently at their lowest levels in more than 100 years, go even lower? What happens if the hydroelectric dams cannot function? Or if, in order to keep them functioning, no water for domestic or industrial uses can be drawn from the system. An official with the Department of the Interior predicts "tough times ... ahead."

It would take pages to go through the claims that Bailey makes. His assertion that "There is no likely future shortage of construction materials" must come as good news to those who watched the cost of lumber, steel, and concrete jump as demand in China and other nations soared. Bailey admits that "As the poor in the developing world become wealthier, they will want better housing, transport, and modern energy supplies." Somehow he thinks that all of these things will be produced from what remains on the planet. Bailey thinks that "China's notoriously bad air pollution may be decreasing" but recent reports from Beijing aren't all that promising as that nation goes through all sorts of gymnastics to prevent athletes and visitors from suffering ill effects of the perpetual brown haze in that city. This report uses the delicate word "struggles" to explain the challenge.

Joe answers one of my questions by explaining, "Yes, the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity have prevented the death by starvation of millions in developing nations." Yet somehow those who died in the 1970-1985 famine in Africa, which caused more than a million deaths, didn't get much help from the economists. Some scientists think that the drought can be attributed to pollution. Whether or not that is the case, the supply and demand curve did not end the drought. Far more people have died in famines caused by wars and civil unrest, most of which arise, at least in part, as people vie for power and control of resources.

Joe also suggested that the supply and demand curve and human ingenuity "have prevented 'the riots that have broken out in various places when supplies of drinking water, gasoline, food, or other essential items become exhausted,' because I'm not aware of any such riots actually occurring outside of a failed state, war zone or disaster location." By definition, when there are shortages or a total lack of essential items, people sometimes get out of control. Yes, it happens in failed states and war zones, but it civil unrest and violence have also appeared when gasoline shortages cropped up. I don't live far from the riots noted in this report from the late 1970s. In Indonesia, Mexico, Italy, and Senegal, hardly countries that can be called failed states, disaster locations, or war zones, tens of thousands have taken to the street to protest steep food price increases, as reported in The Growing Pain of the Middle Class.

Joe didn't try to answer my other question:
Have the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity eased the spread of new and dangerous diseases throughout the planet? Have the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity lengthened life expectancy in the former Soviet Union? .... Did the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity prevent the massive death and destruction of a world war fought principally over access to land, oil, rubber, and other supplies?
That's ok. I wasn't expecting answers. Not to those questions. The question I'd like to have answered is this one: So what do these tax rebates, excuse me, stimulus payments, do to refill Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to clean the air, to restore fish populations in the ocean, to clean the Mississippi River, and to stave off the next pandemic?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Mileage-Based Road Fees, Yet Again 

It appears that America is beginning to pay attention to the dangers posed by highway, bridge, and tunnel degradation that has become increasingly a problem as maintenance costs soar, heavy truck use continues, and age takes its, sorry, toll on our roads and overpasses. The interstate bridge collapse in Minnesota was yet another ringing of the alarm clock, bringing into the spotlight many of the issues I discussed in Funding the Infrastructure: When Free Isn't Free. Suggestions for raising the required funds to repair our highways and put them into better shape to withstand the wear and tear of future use are easy to find. Some advocate increasing tolls on existing toll roads and adding tolls to highways that are presently toll-free, a suggestion I examined in Raising Revenue Through Tolls Isn't Simple, and in User Fees and Costs, to name two of several of my posts on the issue. Others prefer increasing the federal gasoline tax, an idea which I support for reasons discussed in The Return of the Federal Gasoline Tax Increase Proposal and the numerous other posts of mine that are cited therein. Another group has rallied behind the quick-fix tactic of selling state highways to private investors, a proposal that poses a variety of dangers, as I described in Selling Off Government Revenue Streams: Good Idea or Bad? and in Selling Government Revenue Streams: A Bad Idea That Won't Go Away. Now another solution, the mileage-based road fee, first discussed more than three years ago in Tax Meets Technology on the Road, and again revisited a few months ago in Mileage-Based Road Fees, Again, has moved back onto center stage.

Last week, in a Philadelphia Inquirer Commentary, Charles E. Greenawalt, senior fellow at the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy, shared his thoughts in a version of Pennsylvania Must Look Beyond Gas Tax To Fund Transportation Needs. Greenawalt makes some good points, though I must confess that I think some of his points are good because they echo my commentary from three and a half years ago.

Greenawalt points out that as vehicle mileage standards increase and as more and more Americans shift to using vehicles that do not consume gasoline, or consume much less gasoline, the revenues generated by the gasoline tax will tumble if the per-gallon rates are left unchanged. No one can disagree with this conclusion. Unlike me, Greenawalt doesn't tilt at windmills and urge an increase in the gasoline tax. He acknowledges that legislatures just won't bring themselves to voting for such an increase. He's probably right, though I do wonder if legislatures will act differently when the funding system breaks down, as it will unless something is done. On that latter point, the need to do something, Greenawalt and I agree.

Spurred by the Center's dislike of the turnpike lease proposal, another point on which Greenawalt and I agree, he turns our attention to the mileage-based road fee. Known in some circle as the Road User Charge, the fee is computed by tracking mileage through the vehicle's GPS. Greenawalt mentions the experiment underway in six states that I referenced in Mileage-Based Road Fees, Again. Greenawalt notes that state road use fees won't go down each time someone purchases a more fuel efficient vehicle, a point I shared in Tax Meets Technology on the Road. Of course, as total miles driven by Americans decrease, even road user fee revenues will decrease unless the per-mile fee is increased. Though most of us, mired in congestion, probably doubt total miles driven by Americans would decrease, that happened in 2007.

If the road user fee is going to get serious attention, and it should, it makes sense to examine some of its advantages and disadvantages to determine if they matter or if they can be alleviated. Here are a few considerations.

The road use fee can be adjusted so that it is higher for peak use times than for other times. This adjustment would encourage driving patterns that reduce congestion. It is not unlike the off-peak rates charged by electric utilities to encourage the use of hot water heaters and clothes dryers at times other than the peak demand period.

The road user fee, in its present form, does not distinguish among types of vehicles. It makes sense to impose different per-mile fees based on the weight of the vehicle and perhaps other characteristics that measure the costs that the vehicle imposes on the transportation system.

Unless the road user fee is enacted on a national level, there will be issues when someone with a vehicle from a state not imposing the fee drives it into a state that relies on the fee. Technology, I am sure, has the answer, but the implementation could be cumbersome. Would an out-of-state vehicle need to stop at the border and have a temporary unit installed, and then logged onto the state tracking system? Such an approach probably would resemble what happens when someone drives into Switzerland and must stop to purchase the road use sticker for the windshield.

Likewise, would a state that imposes the fee collect for miles driven by residents when they are out of the state? Would that raise constitutional concerns if the other state also imposed a road use fee on all vehicles, including out-of-state vehicles, using its roads? Probably not. But it might require a system to provide a credit for road use fees paid to other states, not unlike the current credit for income taxes paid to other states. Hopefully, states would enter into agreements to prevent the multiple taxation in the same instance.

A tax that relies on information gathered from the GPS in a person's vehicle causes many people to recoil in fear. Some simply don't understand technology. Others dislike change, especially when it involves technology. Still others worry about a government having access to information about driving habits, such as speed limit compliance, and destination identities. Similar concerns were raised when EZ-Pass and similar systems were put into place, and yet those technologies have caught on big-time.

The fun might begin when it is time to identify vehicles exempt from the user fee. It might make sense to impose the fee on fire engines and let fire companies shift the incidence of the fee to those using fire services, but it makes just as much sense to forgo taxing government vehicles. Of course, the fun could be avoided simply by creating exceptions that match those applicable to the gasoline tax, but that presupposes that the gasoline tax exceptions are neither over-inclusive nor under-inclusive.

The road mileage fee is regressive, imposed without regard to income. But, so too, is the gasoline tax, the highway toll, the bridge toll, and the excise tax on various automobile parts. If the fee varied by vehicle weight, it would cause the tax paid by owners of smaller vehicles to be proportionately less, and if lower income individuals tend to purchase smaller vehicles, that would mitigate at least some of the regressivity of the fee.

So, I join Charles E. Greenawalt in concluding that the road user charge, by whatever name known, is something whose time has come. States should establish commissions to explore its implementation, and should do so sooner rather than later, before the current highway infrastructure funding crisis becomes an unmitigated disaster.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Getting Those Tax Rebates Might Not Be So Easy 

Across the nation, large numbers of citizens are looking forward to receiving a rebate check from the federal government. I doubt very many of them are giving much thought to the question of whether tax rebates solve the problems they supposedly address or to the concerns I expressed in Can a Tax Rebate Band-Aid Stop the Economic Bleeding?. Most of them probably think that at some point later this year a check will arrive. But it's not going to be so easy.

On Wednesday, the IRS released Stimulus Payments: Instructions for Low-Income Workers and Recipients of Social Security and Certain Veterans’ Benefits, in which it explains what people must do in order to obtain their rebates. According to the IRS, "most" taxpayers need not do anything because they will have filed their 2007 income tax returns by the time the Treasury is ready to process the checks. The IRS computer systems will "know" that these taxpayers exist.

What happens, though, to people who do not file tax returns because their gross income is below the filing threshold? The IRS advises that these people should file a 2007 federal income tax return so that can receive a rebate. To qualify, a person must have at least $3,000 of qualifying income. Qualifying income includes not only gross income such as wages and interest, but also income that is not taxed, such as certain social security benefits, certain railroad retirement benefits, and certain veterans' benefits. In order for the IRS to know that an individual has sufficient qualifying income, the individual must report these non-taxable benefits on the return that the individual would not otherwise be filing. Surely, that is going to confuse people. Individuals who do not receive a Form 1099-SSA for some reason need to estimate their 2007 social security payments, but must be careful not to include supplemental security income because it is not qualifying income. Recipients of veterans' benefits must go through some computations to estimate the amount they received in 2007 unless they have some better record.

What happens if someone receiving non-taxable income that counts as qualifying income already filed a return for 2007 without disclosing these amounts? If those returns do not show $3,000 or more of qualifying income, these folks must file amended returns. Their tax liabilities will not change, because they will be adding to the return amounts that are not taxable. If that seems oxymoronic, so it is.

In a news release, IRS Will Send Stimulus Payments Automatically Starting in May; Eligible Taxpayers Must File a 2007 Tax Return to Receive Rebate, the IRS further explained that no rebate will be sent to taxpayers who lack valid social security numbers, nor will they be sent to married couples who filed joint returns if either spouse lacks a valid social security number. Rebates will not be sent to taxpayers who use an individual taxpayer identification number issued by the IRS or any other number issued by the IRS, such as an adoption taxpayer identification number. Nor will rebates be sent to taxpayers who file forms 1040-NR, 1040-PR, or 1040-SS. The IRS also announced that to accommodate taxpayers who file their returns later in the year, rebate checks will be issued until December 31, 2008.

What about taxpayers who move after filing their returns? The IRS recommends filing a change of address with the Postal Service.

The IRS also alerted taxpayers to be on the watch for scams. This is one time no reasonable person can disagree with the IRS. The IRS will not call or email taxpayers with respect to rebates. Unfortunately, the scammers will continue to work the room, so to speak, because they know there are people who will fall victim to whatever con game these thieves cobble together.

What about taxpayers who owe back taxes? According to Facts about the 2008 Stimulus Payments, another issuance by the IRS, the rebates will be diverted to payment of those liabilities. In that issuance and in the others, the IRS disclosed it will be sending two notices, by regular mail, to taxpayers in order to explain the rebate program and to confirm eligibility.

If it weren't for the fact this is presumably a one-time event, I would propose to the faculty that we add a course to the curriculum called "Income Tax Rebates." Considering the fact this is not the first time that the Congress has used the rebate maneuver to fiddle with the economy, perhaps I should design such a course so that it's ready to be taken "off the shelf" at a moment's notice. No, that's a bad idea. Each rebate is different, and each time one is enacted, it is more complicated.

Although I continue to doubt that the rebate will have much of an effect on the economy or the underlying economic problems facing the nation, I must admit it surely will stimulate the tax return preparation industry. As some wrote to me today put it, it's not difficult finding tax return clients. Perhaps it's because there are fewer and fewer people choosing to do tax returns for a living. It's getting more difficult to get it right, it's getting more aggravating, and it's getting too complicated even for many of those who are fairly bright and experienced with tax.

They have changed the name from rebate to stimulus payment. Technically, I suppose that is because a person who has not paid income tax cannot get a rebate of something that has not been paid. But if the payment is stimulating anything, it is stimulating confusion for some, and extra work for many. The number of taxpayers who are getting rebates, sorry, stimulus payments on account of qualifying income that is not taxable is estimated to include 20 million senior citizens and 250,000 disabled veterans. So to those 20 million plus, let's say, "Welcome to the tax system. Enjoy your filing experience."

And I suppose the Congress added to the IRS appropriations bill money to be used to mail the notices. I suppose the Congress has made funds available to the Treasury Department to process and mail the checks. Or, as often happens, will some other program, such as enforcement or taxpayer assistance, be cut in order to fund this election-year "I voted for a rebate" ploy?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Can Tax Rebates Help Prove Malthus Wrong? 

Joe Kristan, who writes the Roth & Company, P.C. Tax Update Blog, has reacted to my most recent tax rebate post, Can a Tax Rebate Band-Aid Stop the Economic Bleeding?, in which I note that the economic problem at which the tax rebate is directed is only going to worsen because of increasing world population and diminishing supplies of essential materials. In a post the headline of which must have startled his many readers, GOOD MORNING! WE'RE ALL DOOMED!, Joe notes that he is an optimist and is putting his money on human ingenuity and the supply-demand curve.

Once upon a time, I was an optimist. Then I became a guarded optimist. Then I began to worry. And now, I am beginning to wonder. I would like to agree with Joe, as I once would have. Let me see if I can.

We begin with the supply-demand curve. That curve works well for some things, but it becomes very inelastic when dealing with life's basic necessities. The supply-demand curve can bring some sort of economic equilibrium if we're talking about a nonessential good. As supply shrinks, prices rise, which in turn cuts demand, which brings the supply and demand back into balance. In contrast, when it comes to the things I mentioned in Can a Tax Rebate Band-Aid Stop the Economic Bleeding?, oil, clean water, concrete, steel, natural gas, health care, copper, agricultural products, and similar life-essential ingredients, demand will continue to rise even as supplies shrink. People can choose to refrain from purchasing a nonessential item, but people need clean water, energy, food, and items requiring concrete, steel, oil-based materials, copper, and similar items, such as homes and vehicles. In theory, people can choose not to purchase water or heat, but that's pretty much tantamount to people choosing self-destruction. When the price of scarce items reaches near-infinity, people will be compelled to forgo essentials. What happens?

Some claim that demand cannot exceed supply, but that assertion rests on a definition of demand as a measure of the quantity of the item in question being purchased. What truly matters, especially with respect to essential items, is the quantity of the item that is required. Though there may not be such a thing as "supply shortfall," as some claim, there are such things as shortages. There also are items that aren't available at any price.

Turning to the human ingenuity factor, one can only hope, not predict with certainty, that some genius will discover the ideal vehicle fuel, abundant, clean, and technologically useful. Perhaps some other genius will discover a way to prevent water pollution and clean up existing fresh water supplies. Yet, with world population records being broken every day, the need for a parade of genius inventors becomes extremely pressing, and the likelihood is low that substitutes or work-arounds for all of the impending shortages will be forthcoming in time, if at all. Do tax rebates somehow encourage bright people to focus on these problems instead of applying their skills elsewhere? Does the tax system reward the sort of activities and endeavors that would generate the products of human ingenuity that are so desperately required?

I wish I could agree with Joe. I wish that it was as rosy as he describes. I might be so inclined if it had worked out that way in the past. Even though the world's population, as a whole, is wealthier than ever, as Joe explains, the distribution of that wealth, and the distribution of resource ownership, is out of balance. Systems in disequilibrium are not foundations for stability. Malthus was wrong in terms of his time scale. Much of what he predicted has come to pass on a smaller scale, but yet on an increasingly more frequent and deeper cycle.

Have the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity prevented the death by starvation of millions in developing nations? Have the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity eased the spread of new and dangerous diseases throughout the planet? Have the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity lengthened life expectancy in the former Soviet Union? Have the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity prevented the riots that have broken out in various places when supplies of drinking water, gasoline, food, or other essential items become exhausted? Did the supply-demand curve and human ingenuity prevent the massive death and destruction of a world war fought principally over access to land, oil, rubber, and other supplies?

Over what essential commodity will the next global war be fought? Oil, as many predict? Food? Or perhaps fresh water? Or will it erupt when the teeming masses of the planet's overcrowded cities, afflicted by disease, shortages of food and water, and lacking the optimism Joe exhibits, decide that there is no other recourse but to strike out in fear, anger, desperation, and hate?

If the Treasury is going to borrow money to fix things, I'd rather the money be used to solve the underlying problems rather than encourage the outcomes I described in Can a Tax Rebate Band-Aid Stop the Economic Bleeding?. It is no surprise that what happens in some remote corner of the world today boomerangs throughout the American economy tomorrow. Will the predicted use of the tax rebates change what happens in that remote corner, with sufficient speed and sufficient impact?

I would like to be wrong. I would like Joe to be right. And he well could be, if people and governments mobilize to deal with these issues while there still is time. Dishing out tax rebates isn't going to get the job done.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Can a Tax Rebate Band-Aid Stop the Economic Bleeding? 

So the economy-saving tax rebate is about to become law. According to this CNN story, the President is expected to sign the legislation this week.

Even though inWho Should Get a Tax Rebate?, I focused on questions regarding the selection of rebate recipients, I also pointed out that I'm not convinced a tax rebate will work to solve the economic problems faced by the nation. And even though, as I pointed out in Improved Rebate Deal Better But Still Falls Short, the tweaking that the proposal received was an improvement, I continue to think that Len Burman's proposal, which I critiqued in Something Better Than a Tax Rebate?, makes much more sense.

According to the CNN story, the Treasury Department reports that it will begin sending rebate checks in May. That's three months from now. A lot of things can happen in three months. Apparently the rebate distribution will not be finished until the end of summer. That's September. September is seven months away. So not only must the rebate advocates persuade me that tax rebates are the solution, they must persuade me that tax rebates issued in the future are the solution.

Why do I conclude that tax rebates are not the answer? They do not address the underlying economic problems. They are mere band-aids on an out-of-control hemorrhage. As I wrote in Who Should Get a Tax Rebate?:
The issuance of tax rebates will enlarge the federal deficit. At some point, that deficit will haunt the economy in ways that no tax rebate, even an abolition of taxes, will cure. So long as consumption exceeds production, so long as more wealth, particularly dollars, flow out of the country than flow into the country, so long as certain items remain in short supply and project to remain that way, the nation's economic and financial health will worsen. Tax rebates will not increase the supply of clean water, oil, natural gas, or any of the other resources mismatched to the demands of the world population. In some ways, it makes the question about who should get a tax rebate seem trivial, almost like fighting over a deck chair on a sinking ship.
The principal argument for tax rebates is that they will permit recipients to infuse the money into the economy by making retail purchases, thus propping up consumer spending levels. Is that what will happen? The CNN story reports that a survey indicated that recipients planned to use the rebate as follows: 25% plan to spend the money, 28% plan to save the money, and 46% plan to pay off debt with the money. So 75% percent of the money ends up in banks and other financial institutions. The goal of the tax rebate advocates isn't going to be achieved.

What will the banks do with the money? Perhaps they will lend it to people who will spend it. What does that accomplish? It generates a momentary boost in retail spending. It increases the number of people in debt and increases the nation's consumer debt load. Note that it also increases interest charges flowing from consumers to banks. Ultimately, where are most of the tax rebate dollars? Think about it.

Considering that one of the glaring imbalances in the national economy is consumer debt, reported by the Federal Reserve as $2.5 trillion, why enact legislation that makes things worse? I think the answer is that anyone who stood up and spoke common sense was run over by the tax rebate bandwagon that in some ways looks not unlike the transmission of money to people who, 6 to 18 weeks later, will be voting in a national election in which all 435 seats in the House and one-third of the Senate is up for grabs.

It gets better. To finance the tax rebates, the Treasury will need to borrow money, because it doesn't have spare cash sitting around. From whom will it borrow? Someone with dollars to unload. Who might that be? Could it be the People's Republic of China? Saudi Arabia? The United Arab Emirates? Some international bank? Whoever it turns out to be, they will be looking for two things. They will want interest, because they're not going to lend the money for nothing. And ultimately they will want the debt repaid. Who pays the interest? Who repays the debt? It will be the taxpayers of the third, fourth, and subsequent decades of this century. These taxpayers, already burdened with individual debt, will discover that they lack sufficient funds to buy the things they need and the luxuries they desire without going into more debt. From whom will they borrow? At what point do the creditors say, literally, "We own you."

This nation has been living beyond its means for far too long. Most people, though not all people, in this nation have been living beyond their means. Some people need to live beyond their means simply to survive. A family of four trying to live on income of $25,000 will be racking up some of that credit card debt that has reached a total of almost one trillion dollars. Some people live beyond their means because they simply must have what they want. A very small slice of the population does not live beyond its means because its means are so huge that the limits of time and space prohibit a person from spending that much money. So these folks join the creditor nations in making most Americans their economic vassals. And to think we concluded the middle ages ended a few centuries ago. What a surprise!

The impending shortages of critical goods and materials, including oil, clean water concrete, steel, natural gas, health care, copper, agricultural products, and similar life-essential ingredients, will only worsen the problem. An ever-increasing world population, seeking more and more quantities of these and other items, coupled with the emergence of a small creditor group and massive hordes of debtors, is a recipe for disaster. Somewhere along the way, these conditions will trigger armed conflict, pestilence and pandemics, civil disorder, and breakdowns in societal structures. No one ever promised that the Dark Ages were a one-time event.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A User Fee That Makes Sense 

A recent New York Times story, Motivated by a Tax, Irish Spurn Plastic Bags explores a user fee that accomplishes what user fees should be designed to do. In this instance, the user fee is in the form of a 33-cent tax imposed by Ireland on plastic bags. The justification for the tax, or fee, is that plastic bags are not biodegradable, end up in landfills where they remain forever, clog sewage systems, and create all other sorts of environmental damage. In theory, residents of Ireland could choose to pay the fee and let the government follow the more difficult path of cleaning up the mess. Instead, within weeks of the fee's imposition in 2002, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Shoppers are bringing cloth bags to hold their purchases.

The Irish government did not make the use of plastic bags illegal. What has happened is that the widespread success of the user fee has nurtured a social norm disfavoring the use of plastic bags. Other governments have tried other approaches. New York City requires stores that put customers' purchases in plastic bags to accept a return of the plastic bags. China plans to prohibit giving customers free plastic bags. Other nations are studying ways to eliminate plastic bags and their use.

The Irish user fee is difficult to evade. Because most retailers' cash registers already were programmed to collect the national sales tax, it was relatively inexpensive to add the bag fee to retail pricing systems. One attribute of an efficient user fee is that it is inexpensive to administer. Another is that it is difficult to evade. The plastic bag user fee scores well on both counts.

Interestingly, there wasn't a shift from plastic bags to paper bags. The Irish Minister of Environment has disclosed that if paper bag use increased, he would seek to impose a tax on the user of paper bags. Although paper is recyclable and biodegradable, the manufacture of paper bags generates more greenhouse gases than does the manufacture of plastic bags. Plastic bags are made in part from oil, which is nonrenewable, whereas paper bags are made mostly from trees, but that difference fades in comparison to the adverse environment impact both types of bags create.

Not surprisingly, manufacturers of plastic bags and retail merchants oppose the user fee. They claim it is "bad for business." In some places, proposed taxes or user fees on plastic bags have met so much resistance that the legislative body in question failed to enact the fee or tax. Yet Irish retailers, after a few years of experience with the tax, support it. Their attempts to persuade their counterparts in the rest of Europe to support similar fees have gone for naught.

The success of the user fee has inspired people in Ireland to propose user fees or taxes on two more items that cause environmental damage. One item is chewing gum. Apparently sidewalks in Ireland are home to thousands of chewing gum wads. The other item is the ATM receipt. People drop them on the ground, the wind picks them up, they're all over the place. The challenge with user fees imposed on these items is that the fee would be paid by people who do not litter the streets with gum and receipts. The fees would not be limited to the litterbugs. Unlike plastic bags, which are environmentally harmful per se, both in terms of manufacture and ultimate disposition, chewing gum and small slips of paper need not be environmentally damaging if people dispose of them properly. Yet in terms of administration, it is very difficult to impose a fee only on the litterbug, because to do so a government would need to station litter monitors on every corner.

So when the person in the store asks, "Plastic or paper?" the response could be, "The tax law encourages me to request cloth." Don't mind the bewildered look. Direct them to this blog post.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Not the Sort of Tax Loss Taxpayers Prefer 

During the past few years, I've commented from time to time on the disarray afflicting the Philadelphia real property tax assessment process (see An Unconstitutional Tax Assessment System; Property Tax Assessments: Really That Difficult?; Real Property Tax Assessment System: Broken and Begging for Repair; and Philadelphia Real Property Taxes: Pay Up or Lose It). In the most recent post, How to Fix a Broken Tax System: Speed It Up?, I noted that there had been four previous posts and that perhaps five was the magic number. It isn't.

In one of the earlier posts, Real Property Tax Assessment System: Broken and Begging for Repair, I commented on a Philadelphia Inquirer story that described the 4-3 decision by the Philadelphia Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT) to refrain from reassessing the 27-room mansion owned by state senator Vincent Fumo. The property, which Fumo put on the market with an asking price of $7,000,000, is assessed at a value of $250,000. The ensuing fallout from this news brought a promise from the BRT to explain how a multimillion dollar property is assessed for only $250,000.

According to this Philadelphia Inquirer story, released Monday, the BRT says that it cannot find the file for the Fumo property. A consultant claims that the BRT "moved heaven and earth to try to find it." Members of Hallwatch, a public interest group, have requested the file but have not been provided copies. The BRT consultant thinks the file disappeared when the BRT moved its offices. His explanation: ""They have thousands and thousands and thousands of files. They couldn't find it, and that was where it was left."

The BRT consultant did reveal that when the BRT proposed raising the assessment on the property from $200,000 to "more than $436,400," Fumo appealed and the BRT set the assessment at $250,000. Until and unless the file is located, there is no way of knowing what Fumo argued in his appeal. The head of the BRT in 2003 said there was a general policy at that time to cut proposed assessment increases when taxpayers appealed. The BRT consultant explained that the BRT encountered an obstacle when it focused on the valuation of Fumo's property, namely, a 1995 court order making Fumo's building and renovation permits secret. Fumo obtained the order after alleging that his pro-choice views threatened his safety. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that no other property owner has obtained an order making a building permit or renovation permit secret. The BRT apparently ignored public records showing that the property was used to secure a second mortgage of $750,000 and a third mortgage of $1,100,000.

Fumo put the property on the market to raise funds for his defense in a corruption trial, which is scheduled to begin later this year. He recently dropped the asking price to $6,000,000. He claims he received no special treatment from the BRT, and the BRT claims it treated Fumo as it would any other taxpayer. One of the allegations in the corruption indictment is that one of his senate aides worked on the renovations of the property while drawing a public salary.

There are several troubling aspects to this story.

First, it is not reassuring to realize that government agencies lose important public documents. It makes one wonder about custodial control, file integrity, and competence.

Second, it is very puzzling why the information is not in digital form, with off-site backup. In that instance, moving offices ought not cause the loss of the information.

Third, it is disturbing to learn that the BRT automatically reduced assessments in 2003 when property owners appealed. I wonder how many people who did not have sufficient time or money to pursue an appeal would have found a way to do so had they known of the automatic reduction policy.

Fourth, it is bewildering that the BRT continues to undervalue Philadelphia properties for tax purposes. One analysis cited by the Philadelphia Inquirer concluded that assessments in the city average 60 percent of value. In Fumo's situation, the assessment is at roughly 4 percent of value.

Fifth, it is troubling to learn that the BRT does not cross-check property assessment records with public mortgage loan records.

When people complain about taxes, as they often do, it is helpful to ask whether the complaint is about the tax, the implementation and administration of the tax, or the use to which the tax revenues are put. In this instance, the implementation and administration of the real property tax in Philadelphia (and elsewhere in the commonwealth) leaves very much to be desired. If this is the best government can do, government's best isn't good enough.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Another Sip of the Drink Tax 

Last week, in No One Drinks to This Tax, I questioned the wisdom of limiting such a tax to center city establishments rather than all establishments. I noted that such a distinction was inconsistent with the presumed justification for the tax, namely, the costs imposed on society by the drinking of alcohol.

A reader, who lives and works near Pittsburgh, wrote to tell me something I did not know, but probably should have known. I would have known it had I done some research. I would have discovered, for example, articles such as this one. The purpose of the drink tax in Allegheny County is to bail out the Port Authority Transit system, which is having financial difficulties. Now that I'm aware of this, I cannot resist criticizing the tax, regardless of whether it is imposed uniformly, as proposed, or without uniformity, as the Governor has suggested ought to be done.

As I pointed out not too long ago in User Fees and Costs, my view of user fees is that they should pay for the costs tied to the use on which they are imposed, including costs that arise from the impact of the use on related activities. Thus, as I pointed out, it makes sense to use tolls from use of a particular highway not only to maintain that highway, but also to alleviate the costs incurred by neighboring towns on account of the traffic using the toll highway. It does not make sense, I pointed out, to set the user fee high enough so that the revenue can also be used for some unrelated function in some distant place. As I explained in When User Fees Exceed Costs: What to Do?," user fees ought not be diverted to unrelated disconnected activities." Many people in Allegheny county aren't happy, and they're even singing about the drink tax. One restaurant owner wants to make the continuation of the tax contingent on the outcome of a boxing match he proposes between himself and the principal advocate of the tax. Who said tax isn't exciting?

So the question in the context of the drink tax is this: How do people buying alcoholic beverages in Allegheny County impose on the Port Authority Transit system costs that are more than those imposed on the system by people not buying drinks? And why should the financial relief of the Port Transit Authority be limited to people drinking alcoholic beverages? What about people imbibing soft drinks and fruit juices? What about people eating junk food? Or smoking? Or going to the movies? My guess is that it is easier to "target" drinkers of alcoholic beverages for a tax than it is to "target" movie-goers or people frequenting fast food outlets whose fare contributes to bad health.

The net take from the drink tax is less than its gross revenue, because the county must hire people to administer the tax, collect the tax, and provide legal guidance with respect to imposition of the tax. No tax exists that can be administered without cost. Proprietors of establishments that sell alcoholic drinks have been left with little time to reprogram their cash registers. But their attempt to obtain a stay of enforcement was denied.

If there is any logic, the tax should be levied on those using the system, and if their economic position precludes imposing enough user fee (in the form of fares), then it could be argued that a fee should be imposed on the system's competition, namely, the private vehicle. However, most users of private vehicles who are in town during the evening use their vehicles because they find public transit to be inconvenient, sometimes unsafe, and inefficient. It's not just drinkers who drive into town. So, too, do movie-goers, for example. A sufficiently high user fee on private vehicles would bring more riders, and thus more revenue, to public transit. However, would it bring enough of a ridership increase so that the public transit could add more trips to the schedule, shorten the length of trips, or take people from where they are to where they want to be?

Logic also suggests that it would make sense to encourage drinkers to use public transit rather than drive because it would keep them from driving while impaired. Would a decrease in the public transit fee increase ridership? Perhaps. Would it be enough to offset the revenue loss arising from the decreased fare? Only if a substantial number of new riders are added.

The drink tax may have the effect of discouraging people from going into town to have a drink. If, somehow, an exception is carved out for establishments not in center city, as the Governor prefers, even more people would remain closer to home. The drink tax would not bring in the anticipated revenue. What then? Increase the drink tax and discourage still more people to stay home?

Whether the drink tax, and its related car rental user fee, will solve the Port Transit Authority's financial woes is questionable. According to this analysis, the problems of efficiencies, or lack thereof, account for a significant portion of the annual operating deficit.

But who ends up paying? According to this story, the higher drink prices means less change when payment is made, causing reductions in tips. So bartenders and wait staff are paying for the transit system.

Ideally, public transit should be priced at actual, corruption-free, efficient cost. If the resulting fares are too high for people in lower income brackets, then the question of subsidizing them should be addressed directly. To then conclude that people drinking alcoholic beverages, or people drinking downtown, should foot the bill through a drink tax so that the fare increases can be avoided defies logic. But who ever promised that tax and user fee policy would be logical? And if it had been so promised, who would believe?

Friday, February 01, 2008

What's In a Tax Label? 

In remarks at a press conference covered by BNA, Senator Charles Grassley described the provision in H.R. 2419 codifying an economic substance doctrine to be a "loophole-closer" and not a "tax-raiser." The issue arose because the President, in his State of the Union address, warned that he would veto any bill sent to him that "raises taxes." When describing the proposal, counsel to the Senate Finance Committee explained, "This isn't raising revenue." The Administration opposes the codification of the economic substance doctrine on the grounds it is unnecessary and should be left to the courts to refine.

The nation's addiction to sound bites, and dislike of thorough analysis, gives us this most recent bickering about the use of language. I would call it silly but for the fact it involves a serious issue.

When a provision has the effect of making people pay taxes that they should have been paying but were not paying, that provision raises revenue. It increases the amount of money flowing into the Treasury. If it didn't have that effect, why waste time enacting it? Clearly the provision is expected to raise revenue.

Similarly, a provision that has the effect of making people pay taxes that they should have been paying but were not paying does not increase the taxes paid by taxpayers who are complying with the tax law. In this respect, the provision could be described as "not raising tax rates" or "not a tax-rate-raiser." Does the Administration truly believe that the provision raises taxes and thus should be the object of a veto, as Senator Grassley seems to think the Administration believes?

Why is it so necessary to find and use two-word phrases that are inaccurate? Do politicians think Americans cannot handle a sentence that tells them that "this provision does not increase tax bills for taxpayers who comply, but collects taxes not being paid by people who owe them."? Has the typical human brain become incapable of concentrating for more than 2 seconds or unable to process 22-word sentences?

Fortunately, "loophole-closer" is an accurate label for the provision. Unfortunately, too few people understand what a genuine loophole is. So we're back to a longer description: "this provision closes a loophole, which means tax bills don't increase for taxpayers who comply, but taxes that should be collected but aren't being collected will be collected."

Considering how crucial tax policy is to the economic survival of the nation, is it asking too much for citizens to pay attention for more than two seconds, for politicians to wean themselves from sound-bite mentality, and for educators to insist that students learn how to handle the reading and writing of compound sentences?

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