Posts tagged ‘tax law’

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?

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.

Bizarre Alternate Reality

Kevin Drum is claiming that the government has already done much fine work on deficit reduction, reducing spending by $1.8 trillion and increasing taxes by $600 billion.

This is fantasy, pure and simple, and perhaps why the term "reality-based community" has fallen out of favor among Progressives.   There has been and will likely be no reduction in spending -- these "spending cuts" are merely reductions in spending growth rates from the Administration's initial wet dream spending proposals. I am sure the tax increases are probably real, but Obama and the Congress were already proposing to spend most of those in new stimulus and other boondoggles right in the end of year tax legislation.

The tax numbers are characteristic of the stupid budget games played by both parties.   For example, the recent tax law represents a tax increase over law in place on 12/31/2012, but represents a massive tax cut vs. law set to be in place on 1/1/2013.  This gives the administration cover to call it both!  When it wants to portray itself as a deficit hawk, as in this case, it was a tax increase.  When it wants to portray itself as being populist, it was a tax cut.

Charts like this are absolutely worthless.  We will likely get deficit reduction over the next few years, but it will be entirely due to rising tax revenues from an improving economy.

And here we are back to my constant theme -- if you want to posit a trend, then show the trend.

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.

Horrible New Paperwork Requirement Slipped into Health Care Bill

This is lifted from an email I got from America Outdoors

A little noticed provision in the recently passed health care reform bill will require every payment to corporations over $600 to be reported on a Form 1099 to the IRS, including payments for the purchase of merchandise and services. This provision takes effect in 2012.

The current law requires a Form 1099 to be submitted to the IRS when your business pays more than $600 for rent, interest, dividends, and non-employee services if the payments are made to entities other than corporations. Currently, payments made to a corporation and payments for merchandise are not required to be reported.

To file the required 1099, a business will have to obtain and keep track of a Taxpayer Information Number (TIN) from every vendor before submitting the 1099 to that business and the IRS. Under current tax law, one copy of the form is sent to the IRS, and another copy is sent to the person to whom the business made the payments.

Rep. Dan Lungren (CA-3) introduced "The Small Business Paperwork Mandate Elimination Act" (H.R. 5141). The legislation would repeal the expanded 1099 reporting requirement.  Lungren correctly asserts that the burdens placed on small businesses by this reporting requirement would be overwhelming.

Call your U.S. Representative today and ask them to cosponsor H.R. 5141. The House switchboard number is 202-225-3121.  Ask to be connected to your Representative's office.

My small business has over a thousand vendors.  I would have to hire someone full time for a month to do this.  And it would be to zero purpose.  The IRS would be so flooded with forms that there would be no way they could pull any useful information from the blizzard.  This is yet another example of legislators operating with absolutely no idea how commerce actually works.  We have coined a name for it within our firm -- we call it arrogant ignorance.

Chris Edwards at Cato had more on this a while back.

I'm stunned that there wasn't a broader debate before such a costly mandate was enacted. If it goes into effect, it will waste vast quantities of human effort in filling out forms, reworking computer systems, collecting and organizing data, and fighting the IRS. The struggling American economy can't afford anymore suffocating tax regulations. This mandate is a giant deadweight loss. It should be repealed.

But What Happens if People Actually Change Their Behavior?

The Senate health care bill relies for much of its funding on a tax on so-called "Cadillac" health care plans.  But what happens when employees and employers inevitably change their behavior in the face of different incentives?

History teaches us that tax policy has a huge effect on behavior.  Witness the fact in health care the non-nonsensical fact so many people rely on their employer for health care.  As we see today, this is a really bad idea, but it was hatched because tax law provided incentives for paying compensation in the form of health insurance premiums, since these are not subject to either income or payroll taxes.

Already, employers are offering employees what are effectively buy-outs of health care -- higher pay in return for reduced health care benefits.  For employers, the upside risk on health care costs now outweigh the tax advantages of health insurance as a compensation tool.  Given this trend, what do you think will happen when employees suddenly have the same incentive, to roll back health care coverage to get under whatever bar is set for an insurance package Congress thinks is too rich (hint:  wherever the bar is set, it will be below the health insurance Congress provides itself).  Employers and employees are now going to have a shared incentive to back off on health care benefits in exchange for more cash.  Think of the sharp minds on both sides of a UAW contract negotiation - does anyone really think that these guys won't figure out a win-win to avoid paying the surtax?

Three to five years from now, even before the system goes bankrupt from inevitably expanding costs  (you didn't really buy that stuff about the operator of Amtrak and the Post Office improving the industry's efficiency, did you?), we are going to be talking about the gross shortfall in tax revenues to support these programs, all because people change their behavior in the face of changing incentives.

It's Time To Discuss Subchapter S, In Relation to Obama's Income Tax Proposals

Once upon a time, most entrepreneurs organized their business as what is called a C-Corporation.  Most of the publicly traded corporations you can think of, from Avon to Zenith, are essentially C-Corporations.   Such corporations had any number of advantages, but they had (and still have) one big, big disadvantage.  C-Corporations paid federal income taxes at the corporate tax rates.  And then, if after-tax profits were dividended to owners, those dividends would be taxed again.  This double taxation of earnings is something Congress talks about all the time, but never does much about.  And the implicit government tax subsidy for debt over equity does a lot to explain various waves of merger and LBO activity we have seen since the 1980's.

Now, entrepreneurs were not stupid.  No one wants their hard-earned income taxed twice.   So, entrepreneurs who owned C-corps would do one of two things.  One approach was to have the owner pay himself a large salary, thus reducing corporate income and converting the dividends to more tax-advantaged wages.  The other approach was to have the company issue the owner loans rather than dividends.  I have seen many closely-held C-corps with huge accumulated corporate loans to their owners, which may only be unwound years or decades later when the company is sold or liquidated and profits can be taken out a lower capital gains rates.

Over the last 20 years or so, a new corporate vehicle called the sub-chapter S or S-corp has become popular.  With a few limitations, the S-corp offers all the same liability protections as a C-corp, with a big tax advantage:  S-corps are not subject to corporate taxes -- corporate profits of the owners flow straight through the corporation to the owners' 1040 personal returns, eliminating any double taxation  (Limited Liability Corps or LLC's operate roughly the same, but with slightly different rules).  For this reason they are also sometimes called pass-through entities.

It is interesting to note something I never hear mentioned when discussing aggregate personal income data, which is that the switch over time from entrepreneurs using the C-corp to the S-corp creates something of a discontinuity in the income data.  Thirty years ago, much of the annual corporate earnings, and all of the retained earnings, of business owners would not show up in the IRS personal income data  -- it shows up as corporate income, but not personal income.  Today, nearly all of that corporate income of small business owners shows up as regular income on personal tax returns.  Absent any other changes in income trends, business owners as a group will appear to have large increases in taxable income, when in fact economically nothing may have changed save the corporate structures of their businesses.

But the real point I want to make is that all of the retained income and potential investment capital of a small business using S-corps or LLCs (which is nearly everyone nowadays)  shows up on the owner's personal income tax returns.  Let's hypothesize an entrepreneur whose S-corp earns $250,000 in profits after-tax.  Let's say he typically puts $150,000 of that to savings and living expenses, and the other $100,000 is reinvested in the growth and/or productivity of the business.  Now let's look at proposed increases in upper income tax brackets.  With these higher proposed rates, the business owner will have less than $250,000 in after tax income.  Let's say it goes down to $220,000.  Odds are that the owner will retain his lifestyle (he will as a minimum still have the same size mortgage and school and other payments).  The slack, then, comes out of the retained earnings.  Essentially, higher taxes result in less investment capital.  In fact, we can see an increased tax rate on wealthier entrepreneurs and business owners could easily result in a dollar for dollar reduction in business investment among small businesses, acknowledged to be the place where most all new jobs are created.

I think readers know that I don't fully accept the Obama administration's analysis of this recession.  However, let's take them at face value for a moment.  They are concerned that savings of average people won't currently translate into more business investment, as they fear the credit crisis causes banks to hold the savings rather than re-lend it.  If this were the case, then it would mean that as a policy, we would want to preferentially route tax savings to entrepreneurs and business owners who invest their own money directly, because their is no intermediary of a bank to interfere with the process.  But in fact, this is exactly opposite of what the Obama administration is doing through tax policy, instead taking away the investment capital and retained earnings of entrepreneurs through higher taxes.

This is the European-style corporate state in a nutshell.  In Europe, entrepreneurship is made extraordinarily difficult.  This is part of the deal that the political elite have with the largest companies in their countries -- we will protect you from potential new competitors, we will bail you out when times get tough, and you in turn will support us politicians.  One only has to look at the turnover of the top 30 companies in the US since 1970 vs. the top 30 in Germany or France to see this at work.  Political turnover is even slower, as an elite group of ministers run the country, almost no matter the party voted in office.  The economy as a whole suffers, but for the top 1000 or so men in power, the system works to protect their position, be it in government or in the largest industries.

And now we bring this system to the US.  Small business owners and entrepreneurs are punished with higher taxes in order to bail out politically powerful but failing companies like GM or Citicorp.  Welcome to America, the new corporate state.

Postscript: A lot of folks erroneously associate corporate states with right-wing governments, and certainly that was the case in Mussolini's Italy.  But the closest brush the US has ever had with such a system (prior to today) was implemented by leftish FDR via the National Industrial Recovery Act, and governments of both left and right have supported the corporate state approach of France and Germany.  In Britain, it was the left that built the corporate state and the right, under Thatcher, who tore it down.