Archive for the ‘Taxes’ Category.

California Food Sales Tax Rules Are Madness

We have invested a fair amount of time to try to get sales tax treatment on food items in our California stores correct.  But the rules are insane.   Beyond all the crazy rules (e.g. if a customer buys a refrigerated burrito it may be non-taxable, but if he puts it in the microwave in the store to heat it up it becomes taxable for sure) is the fact that sometimes customer intent matters (e.g. will they consume it at one of the picnic tables on site, or take it back to their home or camp site)

When searching for more resources on the topic, I found this flow chart on deciding if CA sales tax applies to food

click to enlarge

Here is more, from the same article

Under California law, foods eaten on the premise of an eatery is taxed while the same item taken to go is not: "Sales of food for human consumption are generally exempt from tax unless sold in a heated condition (except hot bakery items or hot beverages, such as coffee, sold for a separate price), served as meals, consumed at or on the seller's facilities, ordinarily sold for consumption on or near the seller's parking facility, or sold for consumption where there is an admission charge." Exactly which type of foods do and do not fall under the scope of this provision is the frustrating devil in the detail.

Eskenazi notes a few of the ridiculous results of drawing an artificial distinction between hot and cold foods. "A hot sandwich to go would be taxable," for example, "While a prepackaged, cold one would not -- but a cold sandwich becomes taxable if it has hot gravy poured onto it. Cold foods to go are generally not taxable -- but hot foods that have cooled are taxable (meaning a cold sandwich slathered in "hot" gravy that has cooled to room temperature is taxable)."

 

A Proposal For Better Management of the (Soon to Be) California Climate Slush Fund

California is about to implement a new climate tax via a cap and trade system, where revenues from the tax are supposed to be dedicated to carbon reduction projects.  Forget for a moment all my concerns with climate dangers being overhyped, or the practical problems (read cronyism) inherent in a cap-and-trade system vs. a straight carbon tax.  There is one improvement California can and should make to this system.

Anyone who can remember the history of the tobacco settlement will know that the theory of that settlement was that the funds were needed to pay for additional medical expenses driven by smoking.  Well, about zero of these funds actually went to health care or even to smoking reduction programs  (smoking reduction programs turn out to be fiscally irresponsible for states, since they lead to reduced tax revenues from tobacco taxes).  These funds just became a general slush fund for legislators.   Some states (New York among them, if I remember correctly), spent the entire 20 year windfall in one year to close budget gaps.

If California is serious that these new taxes on energy should go to carbon reduction programs, then these programs need to be scored by a neutral body as to their cost per ton of CO2 reduction.  I may think the program misguided, but given that it exists, it might as well be run in a scientific manner, right?  I would really prefer that there be a legislated hurdle rate, e.g. all programs must have a cost per ton reduction of $45 of less -- or whatever.  But even publishing scores in a transparent way would help.

This would, for example, likely highlight what a terrible investment this would be in reducing CO2.

 

It is Time to End Favored Tax Treatment of Capital Gains

My new column is up at Forbes.com, and asks why we fetishize capital gains over regular income

Let's consider two investors.  Investor A buys a piece of land and builds a campground on it, intending to run the campground for decades.  Investor A gets her return on investment from the profits each year running the campground, profits that are taxed as regular income  (Full disclosure:  In my business life, I am essentially investor A).

On the other hand, Investor B buys the same piece of land and builds the same campground on it, but in about a year Investor B sells the newly developed facility, making a profit on the sale over his original investment.  Investor B likely will pay taxes on this gain at reduced capital gains tax rates.

But why?  When Investor B sold the property, the price he got was probably something like the present value of the expected cash flows from operating the campground.   Both Investor A and B created essentially the same value., but Investor B took the value as a single lump sum rather than as a stream of income over time.  Why is Investor B's approach preferred in the tax code?  Or, stated another way, why does the tax code favor asset flipping over long-term operations?

Wow, Thomas Friedman is A Total Joke

I missed this editorial from back in April, but it is a classic.  If you want one of the greatest illustrations of the phrase "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail", here is is.

UNTIL we fully understand what turned two brothers who allegedly perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings into murderers, it is hard to make any policy recommendation other than this: We need to redouble our efforts to make America stronger and healthier so it remains a vibrant counterexample to whatever bigoted ideology may have gripped these young men. With all our warts, we have built a unique society — a country where a black man, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, can run for president and first defeat a woman in his own party and then four years later a Mormon from the opposition, and no one thinks twice about it. With so many societies around the world being torn apart, especially in the Middle East, it is vital that America survives and flourishes as a beacon of pluralism....

So what to do?  We need a more “radical center” — one much more willing to suggest radically new ideas to raise revenues, not the “split-the-difference-between-the-same-old-options center.” And the best place to start is with a carbon tax.

My Corporate Tax Plan

Some folks on the Left are starting to question the corporate income tax, recognizing what economists have known for years, that a lot of the tax is paid by consumers, making it more regressive than just (say) punishing Exxon for being large and productive.

There are many other reasons to hate the corporate income tax

  • It does not raise very much money
  • Its administrative costs (think corporate tax attorneys) is very high
  • It is hugely distortive.  The tax preference for debt over equity helped drive the LBO boom, for example
  • It is the font of much corporate welfare and cronyism.  A LOT of political paybacks get made within the corporate tax system

So here is my simply two-point plan

  1. Eliminate the corporate income tax.  Entirely
  2. Tax dividends and capital gains as regular income on individual tax returns

Done.  All corporate profits get taxed but only when they pass through to individuals as capital gains or dividends.  I think this would actually raise more money but rates could be adjusted (or better yet deductions eliminated) if needs to keep it neutral.

I believe the economic benefits of this would be immediate and substantial.

Of course, corporate tax attorneys are rich and powerful and would cut their throats to stop this.  It would be enormously entertaining to see them try, and in turn see what the reaction of their clients was to this.

 

Florida Audit: Total Amateur Hour

So the Flordia sales tax auditor presented her preliminary findings.  She believed that I had under-reported revenues and sales taxes by half!  Hundreds of thousands of dollars over three years.  I told her it was absolutely impossible.  No way we were off by that much.

And we were not.  It turns out that the FL sales tax report we fill out has five categories of revenue one must report in.  One is general sales.  Another is lodging.  We have revenue in both and report on both lines.  She had apparently only pulled the data from her system from the general sales line.  Total amateur hour.  Incredible.  (Several years ago there would have been a good "Bush League" pun but since the governor's office has turned over the opportunity is lost).

The other finding is that we had about 8-10 expense invoices (out of hundreds I had to pull yesterday by hand, ugghh) without any sales tax broken out on the invoice.  This may mean the vendor did not charge sales tax, or that the vendor just did not break it out.  Of course, she takes the former position, without any evidence.

This expense invoice audit is an irritating result of the "use tax" rules that states are imposing to try to make one pay tax on out of state sales.  But these were not out of state vendors, they were all Florida vendors.  I told her that if she thought they were not charging sales tax, to go audit them.  She said I had to pay.

This is absurd.  If I am found to have under-collected taxes from my customers, then I have to pay.  She is not going to go to all my campground customers and charge them back use tax.  But when I am the customer and the vendor potentially undercharges me, I have to pay as the customer?  There is no consistent rule to explain why this makes sense, except for the general rule of government that they will take money from whomever they can whenever they think they can get away with it.

 

Raise Medicare Taxes

I have made this argument before -- your lifetime Medicare taxes cover only about a third of the benefits you will receive.   Social Security taxes are set about right -- to the extent we come up short on Social Security, it is only because a feckless Congress spent all the excess money in the good years and has none left for the lean years.

But Medicare is seriously mis-priced.  I have always argued that this is dangerous, because there is nothing that screws up the economy more than messed up price signals.  In particular, I have argued that a lot of the glowy hazy love of Medicare by Americans is likely due to the fact that it is seriously mis-priced.  Let's price the thing right, and then we can have a real debate about whether it needs reform or is worth it.

A recent study confirms my fear that the mispricing of Medicare is distorting perceptions of its utility.

As debate over the national debt and the federal budget deficit begins to heat up again, an analysis of national polls conducted in 2013 shows that, compared with recent government reports prepared by experts, the public has different views about the need to reduce future Medicare spending to deal with the federal budget deficit. Many experts believe that future Medicare spending will have to be reduced in order to lower the federal budget deficit [1] but polls show little support (10% to 36%) for major reductions in Medicare spending for this purpose. In fact, many Americans feel so strongly that they say they would vote against candidates who favor such reductions. Many experts see Medicare as a major contributor to the federal budget deficit today, but only about one-third (31%) of the public agrees.

This analysis appears as a Special Report in the September 12, 2013, issue of New England Journal of Medicine.

One reason that many Americans believe Medicare does not contribute to the deficit is that the majority thinks Medicare recipients pay or have prepaid the cost of their health care. Medicare beneficiaries on average pay about $1 for every $3 in benefits they receive. [2] However, about two-thirds of the public believe that most Medicare recipients get benefits worth about the same (27%) or less (41%) than what they have paid in payroll taxes during their working lives and in premiums for their current coverage.

Update:  Kevin Drum writes on the same study.  Oddly, he seems to blame the fact that Americans have been trained to expect something for nothing from the government on Conservatives.  I am happy to throw Conservatives under the bus for a lot of things but I think the Left gets a lot of the blame if Americans have been fooled into thinking expensive government freebies aren't really costing them anything.

Thinking About Risk

Kevin Drum preahces against the evils of teen tanning, which he follows with a conclusion that obviously Republicans are evil for opposing a tanning tax

Indoor tanning, on the other hand, is just plain horrifically bad. Aaron Carroll provides the basics:indoor tanning before age 25 increases the risk of skin cancer by 50-100 percent, and melanoma risk (the worst kind of skin cancer) increases by 1.8 percent with each additional tanning session per year. Despite this, the chart on the right shows the prevalence of indoor tanning among teenagers. It's high! Aaron is appalled:

This is so, so, so, so, so, so, so bad for you. Why don’t I see rage against this in my inbox like I do for diet soda? Why can’t people differentiate risk appropriately?

And who would fight a tax on this?

I am not going to get into the argument here (much) about individual choice and Pigovian taxes (by the way, check out the comments for a great example of what I call the Health Care Trojan Horse, the justifying of micro-regulation of our behavior because it might increase government health care costs).

I want to write about risk.  Drum and Carroll are taking the high ground here, claiming they are truly the ones who understand risk and all use poor benighted folks do not.  But Drum and Carroll repeat the mistake in this post which is the main reason no one can parse risk.

A key reason people don't understand risk is that the media talks about large percent changes to a small risk, without ever telling us the underlying unadjusted base risk.   A 100% increase in a risk may be trivial, or it might be bad.  A 100% increase in risk of death in a car accident would be very bad.  A 100% increase in the risk of getting hit by lightning would be trivial.

In this case, it's probably somewhere in between.  The overall lifetime risk of melanoma is about 2%.  This presumably includes those with bad behavior so the non-tanning number is likely lower, but we will use 2% as our base risk understanding that it is likely high.  The 5-year survival rate from these cancers (which by the way tend to show up after the age 60) is 90+% if you are white -- if you are black it is much lower (I don't know if that is a socio-economic problem or some aspect of the biology of darker skin).

So a teenager has a lifetime chance of dying early from melanoma of about 0.2%.  A 50% increase to this would raise this to 0.3%.  An extra one in one thousand chance of dying early from something likely to show up in old age -- is that "so, so, so, so, so, so, so bad"?  For some yes, for some no.  That is what individual choice is all about.

But note the different impacts on perception.

  • Statement 1:  "Teen tanning increases dangerous melanoma skin cancer risk by 50".
  • Statement 2:  "Teen tanning adds an additional 1 in 1000 chance of dying of skin cancer in old age."

Both are true.  Both should likely be in any article on the topic.  Only the first ever is included, though.

She Had Just the Resume They Were Looking For

Via ABC

The Internal Revenue Service official in charge of the tax-exempt organizations at the time when the unit targeted tea party groups now runs the IRS office responsible for the health care legislation.

Sarah Hall Ingram served as commissioner of the office responsible for tax-exempt organizations between 2009 and 2012. But Ingram has since left that part of the IRS and is now the director of the IRS’ Affordable Care Act office, the IRS confirmed to ABC News today.

What Obama most needed in the IRS ACA office was someone willing to ignore the clear language of the PPACA legislation and ram through IRS tax subsidies for insurance policies in the Federal (vs. state) exchanges -- subsidies that were purposefully and explicitly denied in the plain language of the law.

Obama Didn't Need to Order IRS Crackdown on the Tea Party

There won't be any direct order found telling the IRS to go hassle Conservative groups.  That's not the way it works.  Obama's style is to "other" groups he does not like, to impugn their motives, and to cast them as pariahs beyond the bounds of civil society.  Such and such group, he will say, opposes me not because they have reasonable differences of opinion but because they have nefarious motives.  Once a group is labelled and accepted (at least by your political followers) as such, you don't have to order people to harass them. They just do it, because they see it as the right thing to do to harass evil people.  When Joe Nocera writes this in support of Obama in no less a platform as the NY Times, orders are superfluous

You know what they say: Never negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages them.

These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people. Their intransigent demands for deep spending cuts, coupled with their almost gleeful willingness to destroy one of America’s most invaluable assets, its full faith and credit, were incredibly irresponsible. But they didn’t care. Their goal, they believed, was worth blowing up the country for, if that’s what it took...

He concludes by saying

For now, the Tea Party Republicans can put aside their suicide vests. But rest assured: They’ll have them on again soon enough. After all, they’ve gotten so much encouragement.

There are probably some deeply confused people in the IRS right now -- after all they were denying tax exempt status to terrorists, to enemies of America.  They should be treated like heroes, and now they are getting all this criticism.  So unfair.

Postscript:  And they are racists.  Racist terrorists.

But Obama, in his most candid moments, acknowledged that race was still a problem. In May 2010, he told guests at a private White House dinner that race was probably a key component in the rising opposition to his presidency from conservatives, especially right-wing activists in the anti-incumbent "Tea Party" movement that was then surging across the country.

This is totally the Obama way of fighting a political battle.  He is saying, "forget their stated reasons for opposing me, such as opposition to the health care law, to Wall Street bailouts, and to rising government debt.  They really oppose me because they are racists and I am black."  Obama's opposition are absolutely never, ever people of good will who simply disagree.

PS#2:  It's pretty hilarious the NY Times published Nocera's "Tea Partiers are Terrorists" editorial just 6 months after they editorialized against incivility in the context of the Giffords shooting, which by the way had as much to do with civility in public discourse as the Benghazi attacks had to do with a YouTube video.  In fact, it sure seems like this administration has a history of falsely blaming tragedies on their political opposition's speech.

A Note on 501(c)4 Corporations

This whole notion that  501(c)4 groups are receiving some kind of huge implicit tax subsidy whose use needs to be policed is simply absurd.  I am a board member of several 501(c)6 trade associations, which have roughly the same taxation rules as 501(c)4.

The largest tax subsidy, by far, available to some non-profits is the deductibility of donations to the group.  This is available to 501(c)3 groups (traditional charitable organizations) but NOT to  501(c)4 or  501(c)6 groups.  Whether the Tea Party of Cincinnati is a  501(c)4 or not, you cannot deduct your donations to them.

The one tax break that  501(c)4 corporations get is that they do not pay taxes on any surplus they accumulate in a year.  In general, non profit groups like this collect donations and spend them.  So in general, their outlays match their revenues, such that they tend to show very little income anyway, even if it were taxable.  The only thing the non-profit status brings to  501(c)4 organizations is that they don't have to spend a lot of time and effort trying to make sure, at the end of the fiscal year, that expenditures and revenues exactly match.  Basically, the one benefit granted is that these groups can collect money in November for expenditure in January without paying taxes on this money.  This is hardly much of a subsidy, just a common sense provision.  (By the way, at least in a  501(c)6, there is no break from the paperwork.  We will have to pay an accountant to file a tax return for the Feds and the state of California.

This actually comes up from time to time in my industry.  A couple of my competitors are actually non-profits.  My for profit competitors always complain that these non-profits have an advantage, arguing that they are really for-profit, but just paying their "owners" large salaries rather than dividends.  My general answer is, so what?  My company is a subchapter S corporation, and it does not pay taxes either -- I pay taxes on the profits as regular income in my personal tax return, exactly as if I had paid out all the profits as salary.  Sure, it would be nice to accumulate profits in the company tax free, but seeing the shoe-string way my non-profits competitors run, I don't think that is what they are doing.  It used to be that as non-profits, they considered themselves immune to certain laws, like the Fair Labor Standards Act and minimum wage, but the courts have disabused them of that notion.  So it is hard to see what advantage they enjoy, but folks love to complain none-the-less.

The only real business advantage I have ever found these non-profits have is in perception among leftish politicians -- they are considered "clean" while as a for-profit company I am considered "dirty".  Which is why in California, early laws allowing outside companies to operate public parks allowed non-profits but not for-profits, and almost every state who goes this route tries non-profits first for the same reason.  This no longer bothers me -- anyone who had ever been part of a non-profit can probably guess the reason.  They really are not set up to operate a 24/7/265 service business, and within a year typically fall short, and I, with a bit of patience, then get my chance.

Social Security Worse Than Even the Most Corrupt Private Funds

Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias think that 401-K's are a total ripoff.

After the new fee disclosure statements went out, roughly the same percentage—half!—of participants said that they still do not know how much they pay in plan annual fees and expenses, according to a recent survey by LIMRA, an association of insurance and financial services organizations.

....For those 401(k) participants who said they thought they knew how much they paid in fees, most of them were way off base. One out of four participants thought they paid 25% or more in fees, 16% thought they paid between 10% to 24% in fees, and 30% thought they paid between 2% and 9% in fees. Only 28% of participants thought their fees were less than 2%.

That group is the closest to reality. On average fees and expenses range between 1 to 2 percent, depending on the size of the plan (how many employees are covered) and the employees’ allocation choices (index funds versus actively managed funds), says LIMRA.

First, this is bizarre, as the indictment here of private fund management seems to be that people are *gasp* paying fees that are much lower than they think they are.   Also, it may well be that these people are not mistaken, but just using a different mental definition for fee percentage.  After all, why is total assets necessarily the best denominator for this calculation?  Obviously the fund industry likes it that way because it gives the lowest number, but it could be that people are thinking about annual fees as a percentage of the annual income.  Thus a fee of 1-2% of assets could well be 25% of annual income.  Hell, since I invest for income growth, I could argue that this is a MORE rational way to think about fees.  Obviously Drum and Yglesias are just captive mouthpieces of big Mutual Fund.

Second, and perhaps more importantly -- do you know what retirement fund has higher implicit fees and a lower lifetime total return than nearly any private fund in existence?   Social Security.  Read your statement you get and do the math.  You will find that the total you will likely get out will be less than you put in, even BEFORE present value effects, even if you have put money in for 30 years.  In other words, the internal rate of return on your and your employer's taxes is less than zero.

Ahh, but you say, that is because your Social Security taxes are going to subsidize people who don't work.  Fine, but then don't be surprised if there is strong support for a retirement system that does not pass the money through government hands.  Even getting a crappy rate of return from some hack investment manager is likely still better than putting your money in a government system where cash is skimmed off to feed whatever political constituency has the clout to grab it.

Postscript -- by the way, I leave aside the issue of whether it is a productive thing to tax-subsidize.  I am generally against tax preference for selected behaviors, even relatively popular  ones like savings.  But Yglesias wants to replace 401-K's with some kind of coerced government system (the note about fees above is to make the case that the average person cannot be trusted and that our masters need to do the savings for us).  Image one giant Calpers.  Ugh.

Why Is Apple Planning a Huge Bond Issue?

Apple has tens of billions of dollars of cash.  So why is it considering a $10 billion bond issue?

Despite its huge cash stockpile, Apple plans to issue debt to help fund dividend payments and stock buybacks in part because much of its cash is overseas. Raising money in the debt market would help Apple avoid the big tax bill that would come from bringing the cash back to the U.S

The US is the only major company I know of that double taxes foreign income of its corporations.  Outside the US, the general principle is that a company pays taxes locally in the country in which income is earned, and then can repatriate that money freely.  Apple has already paid taxes on this money locally (granted, at relatively low rates, but country's corporate tax rates are lower than ours).  But it must pay something like 35% to repatriate that money to the US.  This is sort of a negative stimulus, a multi-billion dollar incentive for Apple to find some way to spend this money overseas rather than in the US.

I will reiterate my tax plan.  Eliminate the hugely distortive corporate income tax altogether.  Instead, tax all individual capital gains and dividends at regular income rates - no special low rates.  Corporate earnings are thus taxed when they flow through to individuals either as higher equity prices or as dividends.

The savings and benefits would be huge --

  • an order of magnitude less room for special interst lobbying
  • the elimination of crony tax breaks for favored industries
  • the elimination of the tax preference for debt  (this is the other game Apple is playing - take on tax-favored debt to boost your stock price)
  • the elimination of all sorts of bizarre and unnatural corporate tax schemes and vehicles
  • the elimination of all that corporate legal tax expense
  • the elimination of two sets of books for every company (every major corporation has two sets of books, one for investors and one for the IRS, differing in many ways including depreciation methodology)

2460 Days or So Early

A few days ago I wrote:

I would be willing to bet him that within the decade, it will become a mainstream idea in the progressive community to fund shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare with a full or partial seizure of 401K's.

This is not quite there, but it sure shows that they are thinking in this direction

The senior administration official said that wealthy taxpayers can currently “accumulate many millions of dollars in these accounts, substantially more than is needed to fund reasonable levels of retirement saving.”

Under the plan, a taxpayer’s tax-preferred retirement account, like an IRA, could not finance more than $205,000 per year of retirement – or right around $3 million this year.

Wealth taxes on large pools of savings are not far behind

I Have A Better Idea: Let's Just Kill It

Kevin Drum thinks the mortgage interest deduction is unfair because people with bigger mortgages get bigger deductions.  In particular, he is concerned that people with smaller deductions get no incremental benefit because these deductions are seldom larger than their default personal exemption.

But tax deductions are always going to be like this in a progressive system -- the rates are progressive and the fixed personal exemption is extremely progressive, so the combination of the two mean that tax deductions are going to preferentially help the rich more.  This reminds me of the arguments in Colorado when tax law required a tax reduction and Democrats in the state legislature complained that people who don't pay taxes would be getting no benefits from this.

He tries to posit some silly alternative tax credit system, but why bother?  Haven't we had enough of distortive tax breaks that favor a single industry and/or shift investment alarmingly into a particular pool of assets (thus increasing the risk of bubbles).  Isn't the whole notion of tax-subsidizing home ownership but not rentals inherently regressive, no matter how the deduction or credit is calculated?  Doesn't the labor market rigidity of home ownership most penalize lower income workers who get trapped in a certain geography by their home and cannot migrate for better wages, as blue collar workers have done in past recessions and recoveries?

Why wouldn't a good progressive like Drum be advocating for an elimination of the deduction altogether?  Is this one of those coke-pepsi party things, where the Republicans have taken over the issue of limiting deductions so Democrats have to reflexively defend them, even if ideologically it would make more sense for them to promote their elimination?

How To Win An Argument With Those Who Already Agree, and Lose With Everyone Else

I think that I am just going to post this line from Kevin Drum largely without comment:

In particular—and please excuse the wild guess here—I imagine that most people who have a serious jones for cutting federal spending are really only interested in cutting spending on poor people. Cutting other services just isn't what they signed up for. It's the Obamaphones and the food stamps that are wasteful, not the Yellowstone snowplows and small town air traffic controllers.

One of the things I tell folks in the climate debate -- don't try to learn about the other side of the argument from yours by listening to your own folks' characterization of it, go actually listen to the other side.  This is what comes of  trying to understand people only by listening to their intellectual enemies.  It is also why I read a lot of blogs (like Drum's) with which I disagree.

Has Drum seriously not ever heard the concentrated benefits, dispersed cost argument?

My Retirement Rant

First, I will say that I am perfectly happy for folks who are either good earners or good savers or both and who choose to use their accumulated wealth to stop working at some age.

However, I am completely lost as to how we have somehow decided that multi-decade end-of-life paid vacations, starting as early as age 50, is somehow an inalienable right that must be guaranteed by government.  I suppose I can see a safety net for folks who, though age and disability, simply get too old to be productive (but remember that I have nearly 500 people mostly over 65 who work for me, mostly doing manual trades, so don't tell me older people can't be productive).  And that was what Social Security initially was -- the age 65 was chosen as a retirement age not because it guaranteed 10-15 years of senior leisure but because it matched the life expectancy at the time.  The equivalent age would be well into the 70's today.

Of course, others think differently.  A group is now proposing an expanded Social Security program that would guarantee nearly 100% of earnings to low-income retirees (there are smaller increases for higher income workers but most all the change is for low-income folks).

While they are proposing higher taxes to support this, my guess is that it will not be long before a wealth tax is suggested.  After all, they are hoping to replace 401K's as a savings vehicle.  If so, why not seize those funds to help pay for the plan.  The other day, Kevin Drum mocked those who fear a government seizure of 401K's as the tinfoil hat brigade.  I would be willing to bet him that within the decade, it will become a mainstream idea in the progressive community to fund shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare with a full or partial seizure of 401K's.

Forbidden History of Taxes

Pretty entertaining video from down under. Sent by a reader:

California Invents New Way To Raise Revenues

Retroactive tax increases

Under the California Franchise Tax Board’s interpretation of a 2012 state Court of Appeals ruling, which found part of the tax law to be unconstitutional, anyone who acted in good faith to claim the now-deceased QSB incentive on their2011 California return owes the state back taxes on the excluded or deferred income.

And the same goes for 2010. And 2009. And 2008.

And, what’s more, these taxpayers will also be hit with back interest and possible penalties.

The penalties part is particularly hilarious.  We are going to penalize you for doing what we told you to do.

By the way, I likely would have opposed the QSB incentive had I known about it as just another crony giveaway.  So I have no problem ending it.  But retroactive tax increases are a bad, bad precedent.

Kevin Drum Says Arizona's Fiscal Discipline Allows Obama to Spend Like A Drunken Sailor

Kevin Drum, looking at this chart...

.... concludes

Republicans like to say we have a spending problem, not a taxing problem, but the evidence doesn't back that up. Total government spending didn't go up much during the Clinton era, and it's actually declined during the Obama era. In the last two decades, it's only gone up significantly during the Bush era, the same era in which taxes were cut dramatically.

I have several comments about this craziness, but I need to preface it with an observation, an observation that I presume my readers have already figured out, unlike the willfully blind of the reality-based community.  This is the total of all government spending at all levels, not just Federal.  In fact, had he shown Federal spending (likely more appropriate given he is trying to draw conclusions about Presidents), the numbers would have continued up over the last few years.  Only a substantial decline in state and local spending has offset the increase in Federal per capital spending.  Which leads us to a few conclusions, starting with the most obvious:

  • Under our Constitution, last I checked, the President had exactly zero to do with local spending.  Obama actually was a sort of exception to this, attempting to prop up local spending, or at least to prop up union civil service payrolls, in the 2009 stimulus.  However, this is well behind us and all this did was put off the financial reckoning in state and local governments.
  • It is odd that Drum should claim this proves that all is well, since if it is so, it is due to a lot of governments, many of them majority Republican, following exactly the opposite strategy than the one he advocates.  In other words, they showed fiscal restraint, which somehow allows Drum to argue that Obama should therefore show lack of restraint.  I am not sure how improving state and local financial position by doing the opposite of what Drum advocates is a logical justification for the Feds doing what Drum advocates.
  • This shift in the spending mix from state and local to Federal is actually a fiscal disaster in waiting.  Local spending has far more accountability, where spending stays close to voters so that those who pay taxes can assess the spending's merits and effectiveness.   Further, most state and local governments must operate with a balanced budget and are banned from deficit spending.  The Feds have no such restraints.
  • The fact that many state and local governments live within their means does not somehow make the federal government's debauchery justified.  Seriously, this is like saying that Greece does not have a spending problem because overall EU spending has declined.
  • Even state and local spending is declining only because the government is on cash rather than accrual accounting.  If states do not fund their pension obligations in a year, realistically they are still incurring the liability, but cash accounting would show that spending is declining.  In this sense, cash spending is a poor gauge of the real health of state and local governments.
  • Everyone always shows these spending charts by red / blue President.  It would be interesting instead to see them by red / blue Congress.

Update:  Drum responds to others making similar arguments here.  He modifies the chart to include just federal per capital spending, and unsurprisingly, it is up steeply in the first year of Obama's Presidency but flatish (not down) after that.  Drum draws the conclusion that Obama's spending is OK because Bush's was worse.  Huh?  This is the bizarre tu quoque team politics game that drives me insane.  Bush sucked on spending.  Bush with a Democratic Congress in his last years sucked worse.  Obama has sucked.   None of this somehow proves spending is not a problem.

His chart says this:  Real (meaning adjusted for inflation) per capita (meaning adjusted for population growth) Federal spending is up something like 47% in the last 10 years.  Anyone feel like they are getting 47% more value?

New Tax Money From the Rich Will Run Out in 3 Days

The recent tax increase on the 2% of the wealthiest Americans will be completely used up by this Sunday.  In exchange for decreasing the incentives to work and invest of the most productive and successful Americans, we got enough money to operate the government for just over five and a half days, or until some time January 6.  It is entirely possible that Obama will not even be back from his Hawaii retreat before the new taxes, which were the first priority for his second term, have already been spent.

(Calculation:  Assumes $60 billion first year take from the new taxes on rich, and spending this year of $3.8 trillion, or about $10.4 billion a day.

My Tax Proposal

1.  Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code

2.  Eliminate the corporate income tax.

3.  Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.

4.  Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

 

I don't have any idea if this revenue positive or negative (I suspect it would be short-term positive, and long-term very positive), but I don't care.  This would:

  1. Substantially reduce the government's ability to play preference games and give crony special help in the tax code.
  2. Completely eliminate the huge unproductive drag of corporate tax law expenses and substantially reduce the cost of individual tax preparation.
  3. Eliminate the enormous unproductive drag of estate tax planning
  4. Eliminate forced sales of family farms and businesses at death in order to pay the taxes (taxes are paid instead on capital gains when sold).
  5. Substantially reduce government-induced distortions on flows of capital  (e.g. current promotion of home ownership over renting, of corporate debt over equity financing, of capital gains over income, etc).
  6. Eliminate most double taxations in the code, since there is now only the individual income tax.

I would be happy to make this revenue neutral (even if it required an individual income tax rate hike) and sell this to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike as a plan to reduce waste, corporatism, and crony meddling.  The OWS might be upset about 2 & 4, but corporate profits eventually show up as either capital gains or dividends, so they will eventually get taxed on the individual income tax return.  Ditto death taxes - currently they are largely offset by the ability to write-up asset basis at death and aggressive tax planning.  And anyway, the death tax is a trivial sources of government revenues.

 

Postscript:  I know there is all sorts of literature that supposedly promotes a lower capital gains tax as an economic positive.  Frankly, I don't trust it any more than any other literature genned up to promote special tax breaks to any group because that group is supposedly economically more important.  In my mind, a lower capital gains tax rate (which means a higher regular income tax rate) is just another way of government expressing an artificial preference for one economic activity over another.  Specifically, a lower capital gains rate creates a preference for real estate and stock investors over business owners.   Currently, I invest in a second home and flip it for a profit and I get a tax break on the capital gains.  But if I invest in a business instead that pays off with regular income, I get no tax break.  Why?  Why is one type of investing better than another?  The answer is that it is not, but the people who buy and sell equities and real estate in large quantities have more political clout than small business owners.

Postscript #2:  And Medicare taxes have to go up, at least until the program is restructured. 

Postscript #3:  This is a great example of what I want to make go away.  I consider it far more destructive in the long run than a percentage point rate change.  In case it is behind a paywall, here is a bit of it (these giveaways to the rich were in the very same bill that was supposed to be to soak the rich):

Thus Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow was able to retain an accelerated tax write-off for owners of Nascar tracks (cost: $78 million) to benefit the paupers who control the Michigan International Speedway. New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman saved a tax credit for companies operating in American Samoa ($62 million), including a StarKist factory.

Distillers are able to drink to a $222 million rum tax rebate. Perhaps this will help to finance more of those fabulous Bacardi TV ads with all those beautiful rich people. Businesses located on Indian reservations will receive $222 million in accelerated depreciation. And there are breaks for railroads, "New York Liberty Zone" bonds and so much more.

But a special award goes to Chris Dodd, the former Senator who now roams Gucci Gulch lobbying for Hollywood's movie studios. The Senate summary of his tax victory is worth quoting in full: "The bill extends for two years, through 2013, the provision that allows film and television producers to expense the first $15 million of production costs incurred in the United States ($20 million if the costs are incurred in economically depressed areas in the United States)."

You gotta love that "depressed areas" bit. The impoverished impresarios of Brentwood get an extra writeoff if they take their film crews into, say, deepest Flatbush. Is that because they have to pay extra to the caterers from Dean & DeLuca to make the trip? It sure can't be because they hire the jobless locals for the production crew. Those are union jobs, mate, and don't you forget it.

The Joint Tax Committee says this Hollywood special will cost the Treasury a mere $248 million over 10 years, but over fiscal years 2013 and 2014 the cost is really $430 million because it is supposed to expire at the end of this year. In reality Mr. Dodd will wrangle another extension next year, and the year after that, and . . . . Investing a couple million in Mr. Dodd in return for $430 million in tax breaks sure beats trying to make better movies.

Then there are the green-energy giveaways that are also quickly becoming entitlements. The wind production tax credit got another one-year reprieve, thanks to Mr. Obama and GOP Senators John Thune (South Dakota) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa). This freebie for the likes of the neediest at General Electric GE -0.82% andSiemens SIE.XE +0.20% —which benefit indirectly by making wind turbine gear—is now 20 years old. Cost to taxpayers: $12 billion.

Cellulosic biofuels—the great white whale of renewable energy—also had their tax credit continued, and the definition of what qualifies was expanded to include producers of "algae-based fuel" ($59 million.) Speaking of sludge, biodiesel and "renewable diesel" will continue receiving their $1 per gallon tax credit ($2.2 billion). The U.S. is experiencing a natural gas and oil drilling boom, but Congress still thinks algae and wind will power the future.

Meanwhile, consumers will get tax credits for buying plug-in motorcycles ($7 million), while the manufacturers of energy-efficient appliances ($650 million) and builders of energy-efficient homes ($154 million) also retain tax credits. Manufacturers like Whirlpool love these subsidies, and they are one reason that company paid no net taxes in recent years.

Counting Coup

The fiscal settlement passed last night did absolutely nothing to improve the deficit or the financial sanity of government.  Its only purpose, as far as I can tell, was to let Democrats count coup on rich people as a reward for winning the last election.  It's like telling your kids that on their birthday, you will take them to do absolutely anything they like, and Democrats chose to display their disdain for rich people as their one act of celebration.    A few other observations:

  • I had expected that they would gen up a bunch of fake savings and accounting tricks to pretend there were spending cuts in proportion to tax increases, but apparently they did not feel the need to bother.  Essentially only trivial spending cuts were included.
  • At what point can we officially declare that the reduction in doctor reimbursement rates that supposedly paid for much of Obamacare is a great lie and will never happen?  Congress once again extended the "doc fix" another year, eliminating the single largest source of savings that was to fund Obamacare.  Congress has been playing this same game  -- using elimination of the doc fix to supposedly fund programs and then quietly renewing the doc fix later -- for over a decade
  • The restoration of the FICA tax is probably a good thing.  Though I think the reality is something else, people still think of these as premiums that pay for future benefits, so in the spirit of good pricing, the premiums should reflect the true costs.  And FICA premiums have always been set about at the right level (it is only the fact that past Congresses spent all the money supposedly banked for future generations that Social Security has a financial problem).  In fact, we should raise Medicare premiums as well.
  • Apparently, though I have not seen the list, this last minute deal was chock full of corporate cronyism, with a raft of special interst tax preferences thrown into the mix.

And so ends, I suppose, the 12-year saga of the Bush tax cuts, with tax cuts for the rich revoked and the rest made permanent.   The establishment media decided early on that it was going to run with the story line that these cuts were "for the rich."  The irony, that will never get any play, is that now, at the end, it is all too clear that this was far from the case.  Reversing the tax cuts to the rich only reversed a small percentage of the original tax cuts.  In fact, if the Bush tax cuts had been mainly for the rich, then the Democrats would not have even bothered addressing the fiscal cliff.

Some Predictions I Made in 2007

Blogging has been light during the holidays, but here are some predictions I made back in 2007 I feel pretty good about (note these were made a year before Obama was elected)

What I will say is that folks who have enthusiastically supported the war should understand that the war is going to have the following consequences:

  1. In 2009 we will have a Democratic Congress and President for the first time since 1994.
  2. The next President will use the deficits from the $1.3 trillion in Iraq war spending to justify a lot of new taxes
  3. These new taxes, once the war spending is over, will not be used for deficit reduction but for new programs that, once established, will be nearly impossible to eliminate
  4. No matter what the next president promises to the electorate, they are not going to reverse precedents for presidential power and secrecy that GWB has established.  Politicians never give up power voluntarily.  [if the next president is Hillary, she is likely to push the envelope even further].  Republicans are not going to like these things as much when someone of the other party is using them.

1.  The prediction was 100% correct, and in fact even went further as the donkeys gained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, at least for a year.  Though the war likely had little to do with the outcome, which was driven more by the economy

2.  Dead-on.  Five years later Obama still blames the deficit on Bush.  This is no longer true -- Obama has contributed far, far more than Bush to the deficit -- but the Republicans' fiscal irresponsibility during their tenure have robbed them of any credibility in criticizing Obama

3.  Mostly true (and usually a safe bet with government).   Tax increases were deferred for four years due to an economy I had not foreseen would be so bad, but they are coming.  At the time, it seemed logical to blame a lot of the deficit issues on war spending.  Today, though, 1.3 trillion is barely 8% of the debt and is almost trivial to more recent money wasting activities.

4.  Absolutely true.  In spades.  The only thing I missed was I thought Obama might be less likely to go overboard with the whole executive authority and secrecy thing than Hillary, but boy was I wrong.  Obama has absolutely embraced the imperial presidency in a way that might have made Dick Cheney blush.  Accelerated drone war, constant ducking of FOIA and transparency, increased use of treason laws to prosecute whistle blowers, claiming of power to assassinate Americans on the President's say-so, accelerated warrant-less wiretapping, using executive orders to end-run Congress, etc. etc.  And I never guessed how much the media which so frequently criticized  Bush for any expansions in these areas would roll over and accept such activity from a President of their party.

Romney and Republican Messaging Fail

I got a lot of email that Republicans aren't libertarians and to stop complaining that they are not.  OK.  But let's look at their campaign messaging in the context of their own values.

Republicans had a golden opportunity to use the results of a natural experiment over the last four years between red and blue states.  Obama constantly harped on the fact that 3.5 million new jobs had been created on his watch.  Rather than play dueling statistics or end points in this analysis, the Republicans should have taken advantage of existing red/blue data:

Yes.  And the vast majority of these jobs were created in states like Texas which have been successful precisely because they have labor and tax policies which you, Mr. Obama, oppose.  And they have been created in industries like Oil and Gas production that you, Mr. Obama, have done your best to hinder.  All the jobs you claim to have helped to create were actually facilitated by a philosophy of government you oppose, by regulatory policy you would overturn if you could, and in industries you would prefer did not exist.   States like Texas -- with organic growth driven by private capital -- stand in stark contrast to your investments of our taxpayer money in bankrupt companies like Solyndra.   If you had had your way, Mr. Obama, few of these jobs would have been created.  Yes, this country saw some job creation, but it occurred despite your efforts, not because of them.

Instead of this clear kind of message, we get a bunch of wonky stuff about tax deductions vs. tax rate changes.  Heck, even if you told me I had to run my campaign on the single plank of eliminating tax deductions, I could have done a better job.  I saw this part of the debate that Romney supposedly won.  His explanation was lame.  What about this instead:

This country over the past several decades has increasingly become plagued by cronyism.  Whether it be Wall Street bankers or public employees unions or casket sellers in Louisiana, everyone wants to try to convert influence with the government into taxpayer money for themselves.  We have to end this.  And a good place to start is with the tax code.  Every special deduction and tax credit in the tax code is a giveaway to some special interest.  At best it is a misguided attempt, like the money we wasted in Solyndra, of politicians to try to pick winners and losers, to say that one kind of spending is somehow better than another.  At worst, these deductions are a crony giveaway.  Sure, it's  eliminating these deductions will help reduce the deficit.  But even more importantly, eliminating them would be an opening shot in the war to take cronyism and corporatism out of Washington.