Archive for the ‘Taxes’ Category.

The Income Tax Bait and Switch -- Tennessee

Tennessee is one of those states that prides itself on not having an income tax.  And I will say that in general, Tennessee has been a very good place for us to do business.

However, for entrepreneurs whose income is mostly derived from a self-owned company, the whole "no income tax" thing in Tennessee is misleading.   In fact, I just had to prepare and pay 10 different quasi income tax submissions in TN -- the state Excise tax on businesses, the state Franchise tax on businesses, and county business tax in 8 counties.  Some of these are not actually income taxes but are taxes as a percentage of revenue, but in some sense these are even worse than income taxes as they must be paid even if the company is losing money.  Only California with its $800 minimum tax just for existing do we see a worse setup for a startup or money-losing entity.

In most states I pay state income tax based on my company's earning in that state (as an S-corp the corporate earnings pass through to my personal income taxes).  But in TN, despite the fact it is not our largest state and supposedly has no income tax, I am going to end up with one of our highest state tax bills.

The Left Justifies New Taxes Based on Reducing (Presumed) Negative Externalities, But Actually Just Wants The Money

Here is the Wikipedia definition of  a Pigovian tax:

A Pigovian tax (also spelled Pigouvian tax) is a tax levied on any market activity that generates negative externalities (costs not internalized in the market price). The tax is intended to correct an inefficient market outcome, and does so by being set equal to the social cost of the negative externalities. In the presence of negative externalities, the social cost of a market activity is not covered by the private cost of the activity. In such a case, the market outcome is not efficient and may lead to over-consumption of the product.[1] An often-cited example of such an externality is environmental pollution.

The Left often tries to justify new taxes based on their being Pigovian taxes.  The classic example is a carbon tax -- it is claimed there is a social cost to carbon-based fuel combustion (e.g. CO2 production and resulting global warming) that is not taken into account by market prices.  By adding the tax, these other costs can be taken into account, likely raising the price of these fuels and thus both reducing their use and providing a higher price umbrella for alternatives.

For years, I accepted these arguments at face value.  I might argue with them (for example, I think that the Left has tended to spot 10 of the last 2 true negative externalities), but I accepted that they really believed in the logic of the Pigovian tax.  I am now becoming convinced that I was wrong, that the Left's support of Pigovian taxes is frequently a front, a way of putting a more palatable face on what is really a naked grab for more taxpayer money by public officials.  To support this emerging hypothesis, I cite two examples.

 1.  Proposed Carbon Tax in Washington State

This last November, a carbon tax was placed on the ballot in Washington State.  In many ways, it partially mirrored my own proposal (here) by making the tax revenue neutral, ie the new carbon tax was offset by a reduction in other regressive taxes, particularly other consumption taxes.  If the Left and environmental groups truly embraced the Pigovian logic of a carbon tax, they should have jumped at supporting this initiative.  I discuss what happened in depth here but Vox has a good summary:

The measure, called Initiative 732, isn’t just any carbon tax, either. It’s a big one. It would be the first carbon tax in the US, the biggest in North America, and one of the most ambitious in the world.

And yet the left opposes it. The Democratic Party, community-of-color groups, organized labor, big liberal donors, and even most big environmental groups have come out against it.

Why on Earth would the left oppose the first and biggest carbon tax in the country? How has the climate community in Washington ended up in what one participant calls a "train wreck"? (Others have described it in more, er, colorful terms.)....

the alliance’s core objection to I-732 is that it is revenue-neutral — it surrenders all that precious revenue, which is so hard to come by in Washington. That, more than anything else, explains why alliance groups are not supporting it.

Opponents say they wanted to use the revenue for climate-related investments, but even if true there are two things wrong with this.  First, it shows ignorance of the economic theory of the Pigovian tax -- the whole point is that by raising the price of carbon-based fuels, markets will find the most efficient way to reduce this fuel use.  The whole point is that it is way more efficient to reduce CO2 production through this simple pricing mechanism than it is through government cronyist winner-picking "investments".  The second problem is that such promises of funds dedication never last.  Supposedly the tobacco settlement was all supposed to go to health care and tobacco-related education, but there is not a single state where even a double digit percentage went to these things (the American Lung Association estimates just 2% of the funds go to the original purpose).  In New York, the entire tobacco settlement stream was securitized and used to plug a single year's general budget hole.  You can be assured the same thing would happen with carbon tax revenue.

2.  Soda Tax in Philadelphia

Last year, Philadelphia passed a large soda tax.  The justification for such a tax is that such drinks cause obesity and other health issues.  Either for people's own good or to reduce the future burden on government health care programs, the whole point of such a tax is to reduce soda consumption.  Or so it was justified.

But now, once the tax took effect, the city government that passed the tax seems to be shocked and surprised that soda consumption is way down.  You would think that they would be declaring victory, ... that is, if the point was ever to reduce soda consumption and not just to raise some extra revenue.  Via Reason:

For now, Kenney and other city officials seem unfazed—dismissive, even—of the problems caused by the new tax. A city spokesman told Philly.com that no one knows whether low sales figures and predicted job losses are anything more than "fear-mongering to prevent this from happening in other cities."

Kenney put an even finer point on it.

"I didn't think it was possible for the soda industry to be any greedier," Kenney said in an emailed statement to Philly.com reporter Julia Terruso. "They are so committed to stopping this tax from spreading to other cities, that they are not only passing the tax they should be paying onto their customer, they are actually willing to threaten working men and women's jobs rather than marginally reduce their seven figure bonuses."

It's not the first time Kenney has tried to ignore basic economics when it comes to the soda tax. A few weeks ago, he blamed grocery stores and restaurants for "price gouging" when they increased prices for sugary drinks to make consumers pay for the cost of the tax (the tax is technically applied on the transaction between distributors and retailers, but, like all other taxes, it gets passed along).

Its clear that this tax justified as a pigovian tax is really no such thing.   City officials seem to be honestly surprised that consumption is down as the result of a Pigovian tax whose purpose is to... reduce consumption.  And if they really did not expect the tax to get passed on to consumers, then how does it work?   In fact, city officials are actually worried that reductions in soda consumption is going to cause the tax to yield less money than they expected, creating a hole in their budgets.

*    *    *

Going forward, I plan to apply an order of magnitude more skepticism to any future calls for Pigovian taxes.  I think the first thing I will ask of each new suggestion is "do you still support this tax if I were to make it revenue neutral, say by offsetting it with reductions in another regressive taxes?"

The Power of Taxes To Bend Behavior, Often in Unexpected Ways

Taxes are incredibly powerful things.  Tax something and you will get less of it.  But you might also get more of something you did not expect.  Taxes are the king of generating unintended consequences.  A huge part of human ingenuity (unfortunately) seems to be constantly geared towards evading taxes.  This is one reason I favor completely eliminating the corporate income tax -- way too many otherwise productive resources are marshaled towards managing the consequences of these taxes.

Last weekend I was in Cabo visiting a few friends and practicing my Spanish.  Many of the buildings in town (at least away from the resort areas) look like this:

This is a small retail commercial building with going concerns on the first floor (actually finished pretty nicely) but rebar and stuff sticking up from what looks like an unfinished second floor.   This is just one of many, many buildings that look like this.  My friend, who has run a resort in Cabo for decades, asked me what I thought was going on.  I said I assumed it was some sort of third world thing, perhaps a lack of financing that meant the first floor has to operate to generate cash flow for the second floor.

He answered that yes, there was very little financing for small business and real estate development so that sort of thing did happen.  But what was really going on here is tax management.  Until construction is completed, this structure is taxed as raw land rather than as a valuable commercial building.  It was typical practice to get approved for a two story building in the original plans, then stop construction after completing the first floor (which was all that was wanted anyway) and act like the building is still under construction.  Wala Voila (ed: lol, oops) -- ugly building but hefty tax reduction.

For those of you who want to write this off as a third world phenomenon, I will offer a similar example from personal experience.  Some years ago, because I did not have enough value-destroying investments in my life, I bought some raw land in Hawaii.  It is actually in a gated community, about half-built-out, but if you drive past my land you will likely see a cow on it.  What is a cow doing in a gated community on residential land?  Well, that is the point.  Without the cow, the land gets taxed as residential land.  With the cow, the land gets taxed as ranch land at perhaps a tenth the rate.  The homeowners association helps those of us with raw land to split the cost of the cows.

Update:  Here are the Hawaiian cows, next to one of my neighbor's front gate.  While they are more attractive than the exposed rebar on the building in Cabo, they serve the same purpose.

Yes, Let's Make Entrepreneurship and Business Formation Even Harder

I am on the road this week in Alabama and Tennessee, but I felt the need to comment on one issue of the day.  These thoughts will be a bit rushed:

Well, it looks like the awesome team of Trump and Clinton may manage to take yet another shot at reducing entrepreneurship.  It's all a result of the report that the Donald had a nearly billion dollar tax loss decades ago, and that - gasp - this tax loss might have shielded his income from taxes for years.  Hillary's supporters are already demanding changes to the tax code and Trump, as usual, cannot muster an intelligent defense on even a moderately technical topic.

As someone who built a business over 10 years, I can't think of anything that would do more to screw up the already languishing rate of new business formation than to somehow limit the deductability of business losses on future years' taxes.

I lost money for years in my business -- trying to get it going, trying to grow it, engaging in more than a few failed experiments of new services.   I would have been much less likely to do so had I known that I couldn't offset future profits on my taxes with current losses.

I will add that making changes to the deductability of losses will only lead to some screwed up accounting behavior.  For example, had I known that the losses would not have been deductible, I probably would have found excuses to capitalize a lot of my expenses, reducing paper losses early and getting tax deductions later in the form of depreciation.  I probably could have saved some of the deductions but only with a lot of extra bookkeeping and accounting effort.  Is this really the way we want to revive the economy, by shifting sucking up more of entrepreneurs' time on useless paperwork games with the IRS/

Life in California -- A Tax on a Tax

I just got a bill for some extra property tax I owe to a county in California.  The story behind it is sad and sort of hilarious.

A year or two ago I got billed in an audit for some "California use tax" on some golf carts we moved to California from Arizona.  I hadn't thought I owed use tax on them because I paid sales tax in Arizona where I bought them.  But California sales tax is higher than that in Arizona (naturally) so I apparently owed use tax on the difference.  OK, I paid it.

Then, just recently, I was informed by one county in California that my property tax reports were wrong.  I reported the value of the gold carts based on what I bought them for but I did not include the California use tax in the value.  That had to be added to their value (even though in actuality the use tax made them less valuable).  Anyway, I got a tax bill for the property tax I owe on the value of the use tax I paid for carts, which in turn was based on the higher rate  of sales taxes charged in California than Arizona.   All because I actually moved business assets into California.

Won't make that mistake again!  Over the last 5 years I have pulled nearly a half million dollars in business assets out of California, terminated 5 contracts, and laid off nearly 100 employees there -- all mostly due to the hostile business environment there.

Perhaps My Most Hated Tax

This may surprise you, because it is one that is seldom discussed, but perhaps my most hated tax is local (usually county level) business personal property tax.

Why?  The actual tax bill itself is trivial.  The problem is that the paperwork is incredibly irritating.  Essentially, by each location, we have to keep track of every computer, printer, vehicle, fax machine, filing cabinet, microwave, store shelf, refrigerator, trailer, lawn mower, leaf blower (etc. etc. etc.) we own and report the value of every asset by class of equipment and year of acquisition.  And then we have to report additions and deletions to these assets.  When you consider we operate in over 30 counties, this becomes a big pain in the butt.

The net effect is that it is an enormous hassle that results in very few tax collections.  Kudos to states like Florida, that have recently initiated exemptions for companies with asset totals under a certain number.  In a lot of states I would happily pay a slightly higher fixed amount of money in lieu of all the tracking and reporting.

Connecticut Taxing Corporations on their Worldwide Income

This is absolute madness.  

The last time we visited the formerly great state of Connecticut, Democrats were preparing to raise taxes again after promising not to when they ran for re-election in 2014. This week they did the deed, and the politicians seem shocked that the business community is in revolt.

The blue-state paragon’s two-year budget of $40.3 billion includes a $1.5 billion net increase in taxes and fees. The top marginal individual tax rate rises to 6.99% from 6.7%. But the biggest blow is making permanent a 20% surtax on a company’s annual tax liability—a tax on a tax—and for the first time taxing Connecticut companies on their world-wide income, rather than what they earn in the state.

The high marginal rates are bad enough, but it is an astonishing overreach to tax corporations headquartered in your state based on their worldwide income.  This leads to a huge double taxation problem for any company dumb enough to stay.   Paraphrasing Keith Richards, that is the equivalent of being told to leave the state.

Government Of, By, and For State Employees

I am not a legal expert, so I can't say if the court ruling in Illinois that struck down (modest) pension reforms is a good one or not.  The author at the link seems pretty angry at the judges, but I am not sure their decision was unreasonable given the language of the state Constitution.  The root-cause problem seems to be this provision of the state Constitution

“Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

This is government of, by, and for state employees.  Pension benefits can never be lower than they are right now, so there is always a ratchet effect.  One mayor caves to a stupid contract, and we are all stuck with it for life.  I am pretty dang certain their constitution has no similar provision protecting, say, taxpayers.  Can you imagine a ratchet in the constitution that says that tax rates can never be higher than they are today?

We actually need this disaster to drag out for a while until after Obama is out of office.  A federal bailout request is coming soon (you don't think any of the participants expect to pay for this mess themselves, do you?) and Obama is incredibly likely to shovel them as much cash as they ask for.

A Bad Sign for the Economy

I don't think readers will be surprised to learn that I don't have any particular moral problem with tax inversions, reverse acquisitions that allow companies to take advantage of lower foreign tax rates.  The US has perhaps the most costly and unwieldy tax code in the world, made worse by our unique insistence on double taxation of foreign earnings that prevents companies like Apple from repatriating billions of dollars.  My tax plan begins with the elimination of corporate income taxes altogether, not only as an efficiency and growth step but as a huge step in fighting cronyism.

So I certainly don't share all this creepy Leftist desire for loyalty oaths and such from corporations.  But I do have a concern about the economy.  Over the past couple of years, it appears that a lot of corporate borrowing has been to:

  1. Buy back their own stock
  2. Reduce their tax rate, in part through inversions (apparently over 2/3 of 2014 M&A volume is inversions)

When the two best investments a company can find are in its own stock and in reducing tax rates, then there appears to be a problem with the underlying universe of investment opportunities.

Actually, the best investment our company has found this year is in closing operations in California and escaping that regulatory and litigation mess.

 

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?