Recession-Ready: Fiscal Policies to Stabilize the American Economy
(Heather Boushey, Ryan Nunn & Jay Shambaugh eds., 2019), available at The Hamilton Project
Legal scholars, in tax and elsewhere, have increasingly recognized the need for countercyclical policy instruments. (An important example is Yair Listokin’s Law and Macroeconomics: Legal Remedies to Recessions.) Much of the tax system, of course, automatically responds to economic slowdowns, such as by generating less revenue when economic activity declines. In severe recessions, however, non-tax instruments become indispensable to delivering adequate stimulus and individual support.
In this regard, the Great Recession of 2007-2009 taught us several important things the hard way. One was that down business cycles are likely to be a recurrent feature of modern economic life. A second was that austerity makes absolutely no sense as a response to economic slowdowns. A third was that the political system cannot be trusted to respond adequately through discretionary policy changes.
The political economy concern used to be that Congress would simply act too slowly – as in the metaphor of a home heating system that has a six-month time lag, and hence that responds to a January deep freeze by turning on the boiler in July. But now there is also the threat of deliberate obstruction by Republicans whenever there is a Democratic president, alongside a rigid, non-reality-based ideology that tamps down responsiveness even when Republicans control both Congress and the White House. This creates an urgent need for the Democrats, if they win in 2020, to design automatic countercyclical fiscal policy changes that do not require any further discretionary enactment of legislative changes.
Luckily, an important recent book – Recession-Ready: Fiscal Policies to Stabilize the American Economy, edited by Heather Boushey, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh and published by the Hamilton Project – offers a wide-ranging set of suggestions. These suggestions would merit serious consideration as cornerstones of a Biden Administration legislative agenda in January 2021.
Authors may sometimes, to their distress, find that their recently published books have lost timeliness with startling rapidity, as economic or political circumstances change. Here, however, it is the other way around. When Recession-Ready was published in May 2019, the editors and authors cannot possibly have known that the United States was only months away from entering from entering a downturn that would be vastly worse, and potentially more long-lasting, than the Great Recession of just over a decade ago that helped to inspire their work. Now, however, that we are in the midst (or early stages?) of the COVID Recession, their suggestions have only become timelier than ever. Consider the six main proposals that Recession-Ready offers:
1) Claudia Sahm’s chapter, Direct Stimulus Payments to Individuals, anticipates many of the problems that arose in 2020. It therefore proposes legislating in advance that Congress provide that such payments, in amounts defined relative to GDP, are automatically issued whenever certain objective economic markers of a recession (such as a sufficient rise in unemployment) are met. The proposal would also provide for automatic follow-up payments, on an annual basis, absent the meeting of objective markers of economic recovery. Among other salient points, Sahm notes that having such a rule on the books would permit advance preparation with regard to the administrative challenges faced by reaching non-income tax filers.
2) Matthew Fiedler, Jason Furman, and Wilson Powell III’s chapter, Increasing Federal Support for State Medicaid and CHIP Programs in Response to Economic Downturns, addresses what has proven to be among Congress’s worst failures in responding to the COVID Recession: its not addressing adequately the fiscal strains faced by state governments. It would cause the federal share of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) costs to increase automatically during recessions (again, as measured by objective criteria). The rise in federal contributions would automatically be tailored to particular states’ unemployment rates, and would phase down automatically as states’ economies recovered.
3) Andrew Haughwout’s chapter, Infrastructure Investment as an Automatic Stabilizer, would give states incentives to denominate shovel-ready programs that could then be started automatically, under specified criteria, based again on objective economic markers of recession. This as well could have mitigated one of the Trump Administration’s and 2020 Congress’s egregious policy failures in response to the COVID Recession.
4) Gabriel Chodorow-Reich and John Coglianese’s chapter, Unemployment Insurance and Macroeconomic Stabilization, could have mitigated another 2020 policy failure that was spearheaded by Republicans. It would automatically provide for suitable extension, enhancement, and federal funding of unemployment insurance when severe economic downturns (again, defined objectively) make this desirable.
5) Indivar Dhutta-Gupta chapter, Improving TANF’s Counter-Cyclicality Through Increased Basic Assistance and Subsidized Jobs, proposes providing for increased cash, voucher and emergency assistance provision, along with direct and indirect employment aid (such as wraparound support services) when recessions strike.
6) Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach’s chapter, Strengthening SNAP as an Automatic Stabilizer, would both limit or eliminate work requirements for receiving Food Stamps, and automatically increase their levels by 15 percent during recessions.
The precise details of all of these proposals are reasonably debatable, as all of the authors recognize. However, the need to provide for countercyclical fiscal policy changes automatically, such as the above six, is beginning to verge on being not reasonably debatable. We cannot afford to risk more of the policy malfeasance that needlessly immiserated millions of Americans in 2009, and then again, more gravely, in 2020 – with, perhaps, worse still to follow.
Mark Gergen, A Securities Tax and the Problems of Taxing Global Capital
(June 2, 2020), available at SSRN
The federal government’s spending to try to contain the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic already approaches $3 trillion. It will cause U.S. national debt to exceed GDP for the first time since World War II. The current crisis has emphasized deep distributive justice concerns and raised calls for more public spending to help address them. Such public spending is important and necessary, but there is a question of how to pay for it. Taxing wealth and capital income can be part of the solution. These are systematically undertaxed, even though careful analysis demonstrates that wealth taxation would not create an unacceptable drag on the economy.
Within the broad wealth and capital income tax literature, Mark Gergen’s work offers a particularly clever and tidy approach to taxing capital. He proposes a securities tax to reach capital touched by the public market. This tax would be collected and remitted by market participants like public corporations. A complementary tax on imputed normal returns would reach private capital. Gergen recently posted A Securities Tax and the Problems of Taxing Global Capital, which describes international issues raised by his proposal. This paper follows on a 2016 article, How to Tax Capital, which covers the fundamentals of his idea.
Gergen’s proposal would:
- Enact a “securities tax” on all assets touched by public markets – including publicly traded equity, publicly traded debt, and securitized assets such as mortgages, car loans, and student loans. It is estimated that this tax would apply to about 80 percent of the value of income-producing wealth in the U.S., excluding owner-occupied housing.
- Require remittance of the securities tax not by individual taxpayers, but rather by public market entities, like publicly traded corporations and mutual funds.
- Impose a complementary tax on imputed normal return from privately held assets.
- Allow rebates to individuals to accomplish preferences e.g., a lower tax burden on retirement or other preferred savings accounts. Consider allowing rebates of half the securities tax to nonprofit shareholders.
- Apply a low tax rate, such as 0.8%, which would raise an estimated $350 billion or more annually assuming the rebates listed above.
- Use a credit mechanism to avoid double-counting assets such as securities held through mutual funds.
- Minimize the incentive to invest privately because private-market disadvantages of illiquidity and higher fees would often exceed burden of tax at a low rate.
- Allow rebates to refund tax to foreign shareholders not subject to U.S. tax, assuming robust proof of beneficial ownership.
The most attractive part of Gergen’s proposal is that that remittance by public corporations and other large public market participants would actually work. It is like the tax administration change that took place in the 1940s, which was the last time that national debt exceeded GDP. Then, the public finance solution included the innovation of third-party reporting and withholding. The law enlisted employers to withhold and remit payroll and income taxes. This made possible the broad “Class Tax to Mass Tax” expansion of the personal income tax. In the 21st century, employer remittance results in 99% compliance for taxes on wages.
In contrast, other capital and wealth taxation proposals imagine rich individuals filling out tax returns and sending in large checks to the government. Expected compliance with such a system is low compared to wage withholding. Indeed, underreporting could be a fatal weakness for some wealth tax proposals. One paper suggests that a tax on the “ultra-wealthy” would resemble the estate tax and “approac[h] a voluntary tax.”
Gergen’s design attends to efficiency as well. Since the proposed securities tax is determined by reference to the value of outstanding securities, its incidence should fall directly on those securities and reduce their value directly. It would be a tax on capital in fact as well as in law. This contrasts with the perennial uncertainty over how much of the corporate income tax burdens capital as opposed to workers or consumers. Also, an innovative credit mechanism would ensure that publicly held capital is taxed just once. For instance, a public company would pay tax on the publicly traded equity and publicly traded debt issued by that company. If the company in turn owned public securities in another issuer, the company would receive a credit for the securities tax remitted by that issuer.
The proposed securities tax remitted by public market entities would not reach privately held assets, such as rent-producing real estate, interests in investment partnerships, and physical commodities. Gergen’s solution to this problem is a tax on an imputed normal return to capital that is an element of a proposal developed by Edward Kleinbard. (We are mourning Ed now, after his passing on June 28.) As Gergen acknowledges, planning opportunities result from the difference between the imputed income tax on privately held capital versus the securities tax on publicly intermediated capital. But he argues that it is still better than a wealth tax that requires taxpayers to report asset values.
Gergen writes that his proposal raises concerns about the global taxation of multinational corporations. If the U.S. repealed its corporate income tax in connection with adopting the securities tax, then the change would encourage companies to shift taxable income and economic activity into the U.S. However, this distortion could be mitigated by continuing to impose corporate income tax on foreign multinationals’ U.S. income.
A final issue is constitutionality. Although the Sixteenth Amendment permits taxation of income, the Constitution elsewhere requires the apportionment of “direct” taxes. Would Gergen’s securities tax risk violating the requirement of apportionment? Gergen does not spill much ink on this issue. But the risk would be reduced if the structure avoided explicit connections between a corporation’s obligation to remit securities tax and an individual’s obligation to pay tax on wealth held through public markets. The Supreme Court has treated corporate taxes as excise taxes, not direct taxes. Congress might also enact “fallback” provisions that would apply in the event of a successful apportionment challenge.
Gergen’s proposal for taxing capital is ambitious. It would be a big change and raises political economy and transition questions. But it is also a clever and above all administratively practical way to tax capital broadly and effectively. It should be on the table as we consider our pressing and increasing need for public revenue.
Victoria J. Haneman, Tax Incentives for Green Burial
, __ Nev. L.J.
__ (forthcoming, 2020), available at SSRN
Dealing with the death of a loved one is one of the most stressful and debilitating experiences in most people’s lives. As Victoria J. Haneman summarizes some key empirical insights:
“After a major loss, such as the death of a spouse or child, a third of survivors will suffer detrimental physical or mental health issues. One-quarter of surviving spouses will suffer clinical depression or anxiety within the first year of loss. Grief is frequently accompanied by weight loss, anxiety, despair, hypnagogic hallucinations, temporarily impaired immune response, disorganization, and/or disorientation.” (P. 41.)
Setting aside the emotional turmoil, how do Americans deal with the practical side of these inevitable events? Not well at all. Vulnerable people are always the target of unscrupulous grifters – such as Ryan O’Neal’s character in the classic film “Paper Moon,” who exploits grieving widows in the Depression-era Midwest – but the bigger problem is that the nominally legitimate “death industry” (in Haneman’s preferred turn of phrase) has at best a mixed record, often overcharging and upselling stunned family members who have much more important matters on their minds.
This article by Haneman on “green burial” will soon be joined by a companion article on “funeral poverty.” She is doing important work on an underexplored area in which tax policy might have a surprisingly important role to play in protecting families from predators. I highly recommend her engaging and well written work.
In 1963, the muckraking journalist Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, which she revised and updated prior to her death, with The American Way of Death Revisited being published posthumously in 2000. Mitford’s searing expose of the relentless and merciless emotional manipulation of devastated people in the pursuit of profit is unfortunately not of merely historical interest, despite a round of consumer protection regulations issued by the Federal Trade Commission in 1982. As Haneman notes, this manipulation continues to be a severe problem to this day.
This is a problem with a surprisingly simple economic explanation. To be clear, even though I am an economist, I am in no way saying that all social problems have simple economic explanations. People with training in economics (from a single college course up through a Ph.D.) almost cannot help but start to believe in the reductive view that human behavior can ultimately be explained by a simple textbook model of economics. That is emphatically not true.
Even so, there are some situations in which a basic economics-based insight goes a long way. And when a standard assumption of textbook economics is not met, there is often something important to be learned. Indeed, the entire field of health economics arguably cannot be understood by anyone who does not know that textbook economics assumes “perfect information” by consumers but that real-world consumers are severely lacking in the necessary information to make savvy decisions about medical care and insurance purchases.
In the standard economic model – an approach that in its basic set of assumptions mirrors the rigid approach of formalist contract theory in law – potential buyers protect their own interests by informing themselves about the goods that they might buy (quality, price, alternatives, and so on). Crucially, walking away from the deal is assumed to be an option.
When is that assumption that buyers protect themselves least likely to be true? One example is when a person has fallen ill and is in an ambulance, when the last thing in the world they might be capable of doing is to negotiate and threaten to go to a different seller. Even a basic question like, “Which hospital do you want to go to?” – a question that could significantly change the costs to the consumer of the care that she receives – might be met with a blank stare (if, indeed, the patient is conscious at all). Because of this, good health care economists understand that the usual appeals to “market discipline” from other areas of economic analysis ring especially hollow when it comes to people supposedly engaged in bargaining for their medical treatment. Such patients are, to be blunt, sitting ducks.
If “When you might be dying” is the answer to the question, “What is the time when you are least likely to make a smart economic decision?” perhaps the next-worst time would be, “Right after someone you love has died.” This is what explains so much of what goes into Mitford’s books, which exposed high-pressure techniques that we generally associate with used-car salespeople being brought to bear on emotionally raw survivors. “Surely, you wouldn’t want to put your dad into a cheap casket. Here’s our most comfortable version. He would have liked that, wouldn’t he?”
Much of Haneman’s article focuses on how those decisions push people into making terrible decisions about the disposal of human bodies, where the harm is not just to the finances of the surviving family but to the environment. As she shows, the overwhelmingly most popular options of burial and cremation are surprisingly damaging to the planet:
“Annually, in the 22,500 cemeteries in the United States, it is estimated that the following will be buried within the earth: 14,000 tons of steel vaults; 90,272 tons of steel caskets, 2,700 tons of bronze and copper caskets, 1,636,000 tons of concrete vaults, 30 million board feet of hardwood caskets, and, 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid. These statistics do not include the mercury from dental fillings and medical devices such as pacemakers, which may potentially leach into groundwater after human remains have decomposed.” (Pp. 22-23.)
A central argument of Haneman’s article is that this kind of environmental damage could be mitigated by a “green tax credit,” which she describes and defends well. My interest here, however, is not in the direct impact of the credit in generating environmental benefits – although that is surely a worthy goal – but in the point that she makes about how the creation of a credit could have an important ancillary effect of reducing people’s vulnerability to exploitation at the time of a loved one’s death.
Haneman ends the article by arguing that a green tax credit “is likely to generate consumer interest and investment into the creation of more accessible financial products to facilitate prepayment” of funeral expenses (P. 42), which ties back to her description of “the importance of pre-need or pre-death planning and prepayment to protect the grieving consumer.” (P. 4.)
In short, the idea is that creating a tax credit for “green burial” will give people an additional reason to think in advance about funeral planning, which people are understandably not eager to think about. That is, no matter whether the tax credit has any environmental benefits at all, some people will hear that there is a tax boon available to those who set up a funeral plan in advance. That might not convince everyone to stop living in denial, but even if it encourages a few more people to take what amount to defensive measures against emotional exploitation, that would be a very good thing indeed.
Ruth Mason, The Transformation of International Tax
, 114 Am. J. Int'l L.
__ (forthcoming, 2020), available at SSRN
International tax law has been in the news a good deal lately, and one of the key developments widely discussed among international tax experts is the “OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework on BEPS,” which aims to take on base erosion and profit shifting (i.e., “BEPS”) behaviors of multinational enterprises (“MNEs”). Ruth Mason offers a broad new view of these developments in her article, The Transformation of International Tax.
Here’s the backstory: Before the 2008 financial crisis, world leaders largely tolerated cross-border corporate tax avoidance and minimization by MNEs. The 2008 crisis, together with data leaks, hacks, and resulting parliamentary and congressional hearings, brought heightened public attention to these tax avoidance strategies. This jolted world leaders out of their longstanding inaction. In 2013, leaders of the G20 countries tasked the OECD—an international organization that in recent years has played a key role in international tax policy—with coordinating multilateral efforts to ensure that MNEs paid their fair share of taxes. The OECD accordingly created its now-famous “BEPS Action Plan” in 2013 and delivered final action recommendations in October 2015. These recommendations consisted of 15 action items that countries should undertake to confront MNE base erosion and profit shifting behaviors. In 2016, recognizing that the success of the BEPS project required the engagement of developing countries, the OECD established the OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework. Through this new structure, the OECD and G20 invited developing countries to participate on an equal footing in the creation of standards to combat base erosion and profit-shifting behaviors and in the review and monitoring of OECD BEPS implementation.
The OECD/BEPS project is often discussed in highly technical terms, with tax experts focusing on the specific doctrinal and policy mechanisms by which it intends to close tax loopholes. In her new paper, Ruth Mason argues, by contrast, that these changes aren’t merely technical. Instead, she writes that the international tax regime has undergone nothing short of a transformation since 2008.
Specifically, according to Mason, the BEPS project effectuated transformation along five dimensions: (1) by increasing the number of participants in international tax policymaking to include G20 and developing countries, (2) by expanding the agenda of international tax policymaking to include more multilateralism, thereby contributing to the growing importance of the OECD in international tax policymaking, (3) by moving towards a new “full taxation” norm (as opposed to merely focusing on avoidance of double taxation and the elimination of harmful tax competition), (4) by advancing novel forms of multilateral law (such as the new “Multilateral Instrument” and fiscal fail-safes); and (5) by bringing distributional issues to the forefront of the international tax agenda. Any one of these developments would be a major shift on its own, but Mason uses her masterful expertise in international tax—both from a U.S. and EU perspective—to tie all the threads together and explain how, in combination, they represent a fundamental transformation.
Mason then pushes the analysis further. She undertakes a normative evaluation of the new transformed international tax order, noting the uncertain effects for revenue and inclusivity, possible accountability problems, and potential difficulties with the new “full taxation” norm. Most notably, Mason is concerned about potentially controversial distributive issues that may arise among nations in deciding how to allocate worldwide tax revenues. She notes the conflicting and changing interests of the U.S. and EU, the emerging role of the BRICS, and the roles being played by the OECD and EU in the diffusion of norms and outcomes as important factors that will affect the ultimate worldwide allocation of tax revenues. Ultimately, she warns that distributive considerations cannot be indefinitely postponed or swept under the rug without risking chaos, failure of the new “full taxation” norm, or derailment of the entire BEPS project.
Mason’s paper gives the tax field its most recent “big picture” work, a wide-ranging conceptualization of the state of the international tax field. Her paper should spark reams of subsequent research in light of the numerous important questions it raises. For example, obvious follow-up lines of inquiry include investigation into the role and participation of developing countries in the new international tax order, further examination of the role played by the OECD, the EU, and the G20 in the diffusion of tax norms and standards and the impacts of this on policy outcomes, and, of course, empirical research about the success or failure of the BEPS project and the ultimate distribution of worldwide tax revenues that will result. The answers to these questions are important. They not only affect the ability of revenue-strapped nations to fund welfare states and social safety nets but also carry fundamental implications for the future positions and roles of nation states in our world order.
Shu-Yi Oei, The New World of International Tax, JOTWELL (May 22, 2020) (reviewing Ruth Mason, The Transformation of International Tax, American Journal of International Law (forthcoming, 2020), https://tax.jotwell.com/the-new-world-of-international-tax/.
In Leveling the Playing Field between Inherited Income and Income from Work through an Inheritance Tax, Lily Batchelder proposes that our current estate and gift transfer taxes be abolished and that gifts, inheritances, and bequests in excess of a lifetime exemption and various annual exclusions instead be includible for both income and payroll tax purposes. She would require constructive realization of large accrued gains on gifts and bequests and repeal of carryover basis and stepped-up basis for such gains as well. To avoid forcing the sale of family farms and businesses, she would allow heirs to defer indefinitely the resulting taxes to the extent they exceed the heirs’ liquid assets, minus a cushion of $500,000. She would also permit taxable inheritances to be spread over five years to minimize bracket shift problems. Finally, to address the avoidance problems that currently plague our transfer tax system, she proposes a series of reforms to rules governing the timing and valuation of transfers through trusts and similar devices. The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center estimates that if the lifetime exemption were $2.5 million, Batchelder’s proposal would raise $34 billion per year; if the lifetime exemption were $1 million, $92 billion per year; and if the lifetime exemption were $500,000, $140 billion per year. By comparison, our current transfer tax system raises about $16 billion per year.
Batchelder’s thorough exploration of the problem includes: extensive empirical background; critical examination of the technical, economic, and ethical issues raised; and comprehensive proposed transition and reporting rules. It is essential reading for both tax specialists interested in the relationship between income and wealth taxation and lay readers concerned about addressing increasing wealth, income, and political disparities in the United States in a manner consistent with American political values.
Over the past decade, the twin problems of income and wealth inequality have become increasingly salient (Piketty 2014). Increasing economic inequality has produced increasing political inequality. And we have recently learned that in the face of a pandemic, it may also produce significantly different health and mortality outcomes. Addressing these problems is not easy. Equality of opportunity, not of results, is most consistent with mainstream American political traditions. If someone works hard, earns a lot, and thereby becomes wealthy, Americans have been reluctant to take what she has earned as undeserved. This reluctance, together with the perceived constraints of optimal tax theory, has led to severe limits on the use of income taxation to reduce economic inequality (Kleinbard 2014).
Batchelder’s solution is to tax accessions that have not been earned—gifts, bequests, and inheritances—at the same or higher rates as income from labor. This almost completely eliminates deadweight losses from the taxation of such accessions, because the only disincentive to earning would stem from the earner’s remote concern about her heirs’ inheritance tax bill. More importantly, however, it reframes taxes on wealth transfers as taxes on recipients, not taxes on donors. In the inimitable language of the American right, heirs are “takers” not “makers.”
At its core, therefore, Batchelder’s paper is a paper on political economy. Her most important argument is that including gifts, inheritances, and bequests in income rather than subjecting them to separate “death taxes” will be more saleable. Whether this is so, only time will tell. In the meantime, however, she has given us a comprehensive, technically sound path forward.
Cite as: Theodore P. Seto, Taxing “Takers”
(April 29, 2020) (reviewing Lily Batchelder, Leveling the Playing Field between Inherited Income and Income from Work through an Inheritance Tax
in Tackling the Tax Code
48 (Jay Shambaugh & Ryan Nunn eds, 2020)), https://tax.jotwell.com/taxing-takers/
Meredith Conway’s article draws titular inspiration from the 1980s Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime.” It’s hard to have been alive in the 1980s and not hear the song echoing in your head while you read her article. The song opens with the lyrics, “And you might find yourself/Living in a shotgun shack.”
What is a shotgun shack?
Shotgun cottages are characteristic New Orleans structures, although the architectural design crops up in other cities (and countries, too). There is some debate about how the houses got the name “shotgun cottages.” Conway isn’t seeking to resolve that debate, so she recounts what is probably the most common narrative. The houses are narrow, usually only one room wide, and when the doors through all the rooms are opened, you can shoot a shot gun and the bullet will travel through the front door, the interior of the house, and straight out the back door.
But why do they exist at all? Here, Conway diverges from the dominant narrative (that they were designed to accommodate narrow urban lots) and offers a tax story instead: perhaps the houses were designed this way as a tax avoidance strategy. According to Conway, many jurisdictions, including the Netherlands, Charleston, Japan, and Vietnam (alongside New Orleans) imposed taxes on elements of house design that inspired architects to build “skinny houses.” She reviews these skinny house-inspiring tax policies in Part IV of the article.
But let’s back up. What’s Conway’s aim in this relatively short (for an American law review) and approachable piece? Her claim is that at least some of the architectural features we see around us are explained by tax policy.
The article proceeds in ten parts. The primary sections are designed around documenting and recording taxes that influenced building (primarily housing) design. In addition to taxes that resulted in the construction of skinny houses, Conway details efforts to tax chimneys, windows, bricks, wallpaper, and number of floors. These taxation efforts cross jurisdictions and time periods, and the taxation ideas migrate. In each case, the primary motivation of tax collectors seems to have been to find administrable proxies for wealth. Each tax policy seems to yield avoidance strategies by homeowners and builders. Many have consequences for the development (or failure) of industries. Sometimes those strategies result in architectural designs that stick even after the tax is repealed.
Conway’s work in this piece feels like an introduction to what I hope will be more work by her, or others, in this area. She’s offered us a documentary resource on tax policies that were focused explicitly on housing design (e.g. impose a tax on the number of windows). There are undoubtedly more taxes that result less directly in architectural changes.
Many of the illustrations are historic, but the article concludes by exploring the use of tax policy to encourage eco-friendly building. This also seems like an avenue for further exploration. What can we learn from early efforts by tax policy-makers to tax elements of building construction that can be carried over and improved in the contemporary context, where eco-friendly building solutions are so desperately needed? Given the challenges she identifies with earlier interactions between tax policy and architectural and industrial developments, I hope Conway writes more to help us with new approaches to the interaction of tax policy and architecture, so that we don’t have to keep singing “same as it ever was” in our heads.
A recently published empirical study by Diana Onu, Lynne Oats, Erich Kirchler, and Andre Julian Hartmann compares taxpayer attitudes towards acceptable tax planning, aggressive (yet legal) tax avoidance, and illegal tax evasion. While the study itself examines small business owners subject to income tax in the U.K., its implications should be of great interest to policymakers concerned about legal avoidance strategies with respect to any tax base. For example, aggressive but legal tax avoidance might be an important concern under recent wealth tax proposals in the United States.
As noted by the study’s authors, tax compliance literature has traditionally focused on the binary choice between compliance and evasion. That literature explores the various underpinnings of the decision to evade, from deterrence theory, to social norms, to attitudes that evasion is a victimless crime. But largely absent from this literature on individual taxpayers are studies of the motivations underlying aggressive, yet legal, tax avoidance strategies. In thinking about the U.S. tax system, this makes sense. Aggressive avoidance strategies are typically attributed to firms, where individual attitudes and other psychological factors are arguably less relevant. Evasion, on the other hand, is typically attributed to individual taxpayers (most often, sole proprietors), who often lack the resources to employ aggressive yet legal avoidance strategies. But if the U.S. were to adopt a wealth tax like the one proposed by Elizabeth Warren, the stakes or potential payoffs from avoidance might grow. If so, individual level avoidance strategies would presumably become much more commonplace.
So what do we know about the psychological factors that motivate legal tax avoidance, as distinct from evasion? It turns out, not much, but the study by Onu, Oats, Kirchler, and Hartmann sheds some light on this question.
In the study, 330 small business owners in the U.K. were surveyed using a 7-point Likert scale to gauge how they would respond to hypothetical scenarios involving tax minimization strategies. For example, participants were asked how likely they would be to participate in a tax scheme that uses an offshore intermediary if an accountant endorsed it as a legal method to generate significant tax savings. The responses reveal that participants differentiate three types of behavior ranging from least compliant to most compliant. The behavior types include what the authors describe as: (1) “tax planning” (saving tax in a manner intended by the law); (2) “tax avoidance” (complying with the letter of the law but not its spirit, solely for the purpose of saving tax); and (3) “tax evasion” (illegal practices like concealing income).
The study also surveyed participants on various attitudes towards taxes, including personal norms, social norms, fairness, perceptions of audits and penalties, knowledge of the tax system, and the seriousness of evasion. This allowed the authors to use a linear regression analysis to link particular attitudes to tax planning, tax avoidance, and evasion.
The study revealed some interesting distinctions. The likelihood of engaging in tax planning was linked to “the belief that the tax system is flexible and …[may] be used for tax efficiencies,” as well as having high levels of confidence in one’s knowledge about taxes.
The likelihood of engaging in tax avoidance was similarly associated with a belief that the tax system is flexible. However, tax avoidance was also linked to beliefs that the tax system is unfair and that it can be exploited for profit, and to “low personal norms of public good contribution” (i.e., low tax morale).
Tax evasion was not associated with beliefs about the tax system at all. Rather, people who indicated willingness to engage in tax evasion were those who did not perceive tax evasion to be a serious crime, and who had low tax morale.
In sum, both tax avoidance and tax evasion are associated with low tax morale but tax planning is not. Importantly, the predictors of tax avoidance and tax evasion also differ. While avoidance is associated with a belief that one is treated unfairly by the tax system, evasion is associated with a view that it’s a trivial crime.
These findings have enormous implications for tax compliance scholars and policymakers. If we extend the traditional focus of the tax compliance literature beyond evasion to include legal avoidance strategies, the importance of taxpayer beliefs becomes much more important. While perceptions of fairness, for example, appear to be relatively unimportant to the decision to over-claim business deductions (evasion), they appear to be highly relevant to the decision to adopt legal yet aggressive avoidance strategies like moving assets offshore.
This brings us back to wealth taxes. As many commentators have pointed out, a major downside of a wealth tax is the administrative cost and efficiency loss resulting from sophisticated and highly resourced individuals attempting to avoid it. Although not aimed at wealth tax compliance, the study by Onu, Oats, Kirchler, and Hartmann sheds some light on the factors that would predict such avoidance. If we think perceptions of unfairness or other negative beliefs are particularly high in the U.S., we have reason to think wealth tax avoidance may be more prevalent than income tax evasion.
Perhaps most illuminating about linking tax avoidance to taxpayer attitudes is the following point made by the authors: “Of course, capturing what is moral at any given time is difficult….[T]he definition of what is acceptable practice is socially-situated and will shift in different historical periods or social groups.” In other words, attitudes about what constitutes unacceptable tax avoidance versus appropriate tax planning are context-specific and likely to shift over time. This point is highly relevant to the current debate over wealth taxation in the U.S. Some commentators have argued that wealth taxes are feasible because, in the past century, the U.S. has taxed rich people at much higher rates than it does now, which shows that collecting more taxes from the rich is possible (i.e., won’t necessarily trigger total avoidance). While this point has merit, there is also reason to be cautious about whether our historical experience can be relied upon.
It may be that the high marginal rates throughout much of the 20th century were possible because beliefs about the tax system were much different than they are today. For example, if today’s taxpayers have low tax morale and perceive that they are being treated unfairly by the tax system, we may in fact see more legal avoidance than in years past. The study by Onu, Oats, Kirchler, and Hartmann suggests that taxpayer beliefs may be one of the most important drivers of avoidance behavior. Policymakers would be well advised, therefore, to take such beliefs into account in designing taxes and take steps to combat low tax morale and perceptions of unfairness.
Cite as: Kathleen DeLaney Thomas, How Should We Think About Wealth Tax Avoidance?
(February 10, 2020) (reviewing Diana Onu, Lynne Oats, Erich Kirchler, & Andre Julian Hartmann, Gaming the System: An Investigation of Small Business Owners' Attitudes to Tax Avoidance, Tax Planning, and Tax Evasion
, 10 Games
46 (2019)), https://tax.jotwell.com/how-should-we-think-about-wealth-tax-avoidance/
Why write a book rather than journal articles? Insofar as we write for ourselves, it’s a function of the project. Some ideas for projects may best lend themselves to articles, but others may need to be book-length in terms of their scope. But we also write for other people, and one great thing about being an academic is that you have wide entrepreneurial choice regarding which audiences you wish to reach—be it in general, or project-by-project. There’s no right or wrong about it (well, maybe there are better and worse choices sometimes), any more than novels should all fit in a particular genre, or scientific research should restrict itself to a particular subject area or methodology. There’s also no right answer as between the aims of advancing knowledge, engaging in art for art’s sake, and attempting to improve the world—all of these enterprises have value, and of course they often overlap.
Two outstanding recent books by prominent tax economists—Kim Clausing and William Gale—show how attempting to improve the world can overlap with advancing the other goals noted above through clear, lucid, convincing explanation and analysis. For the most part, Clausing and Gale explain things that some people already know, in addition to passionately advancing viewpoints to which I am generally sympathetic, although of course not everything they say is wholly beyond debate. Both books reflect admirable project choices by scholars who have done important original research to focus on amalgamation and explanation this time around, in response to the bad place where our country is right now across multiple dimensions (not limited to current political headlines). Clausing and Gale successfully communicate an urgency that even hardcore art-for-art’s-sake devotees will respect and admire as showing the authors’ commitment to valuable public service. But the books are also very different, in ways that help to show the lack of any single formula for making signal contributions to our society and discourse as a public intellectual.
Kim Clausing’s Open combines the case for embracing free trade, immigration, and global capital flows with that for vigorously addressing inequality and protecting the vulnerable. It explains not only why protectionism is such a wrong turn—although we should keep in mind the losers from wrenching economic change—but also how markets, properly bounded, can contribute to important social goals that go beyond those associated (to some, pejoratively) merely with neoliberalism. The book ends with a sensible package of proposals (including proposals for real international tax policy reform), which, in a saner political system than we have, we would surely be evaluating.
William Gale’s Fiscal Therapy examines America’s pervasive fiscal myopia. This is not just a matter of budget deficits—or, more broadly, the long-term fiscal gap between projected outlays and revenues—or even of that plus adverse global climate change. It extends also to that sometimes overused, but always under-implemented, phrase, investing in the future, such as through better education, healthcare, and infrastructure improvement. Gale not only explores one complex problem after another with clarity and balance, but offers comprehensive solutions that ought to attract widespread sympathy and dialogue from people of good faith with a broad range of ideological preferences.
Even experts who are unusually polymathic will learn a lot from these two books. But we also owe it to our public calling to help disseminate the issues, ideas, and analyses that Clausing and Gale so skillfully analyze and elucidate. They are each to be thanked both for performing a great public service, and for doing it so engagingly and well.
Cite as: Daniel Shaviro, Writing Books Versus Journal Articles
(January 23, 2020) (reviewing
Kimberly Clausing, Open: The Progressive Case for Free Trade, Immigration, and Global Capital
William G. Gale, Fiscal Therapy: Curing America’s Debt Addiction and Investing in the Future
Christine Hurt’s Partnership Lost uses the developmental history and law of corporations and “uncorporations” to examine whether a principled justification exists for the differing tax regimes for subchapter C corporations as compared to subchapter K partnerships. As her Milton-evoking title suggests, Hurt describes an early, prelapsarian partnership state, dating to the creation of the income tax. The early partnership form did not spare its owners from personal liability, did not grant them dominion over an entity with perpetual life, did not provide them with the ability to transfer ownership freely, did not permit them to rely passively on the managerial efforts of others, and did not allow them to circumvent fiduciary obligations to each other and to the partnership.
Hurt describes the modern “hybrid” partnership in comparison to this early partnership model. She sets out the developments in the uniform acts and state laws, particularly those of Delaware, that have since allowed partnership hybrids to acquire desirable corporate characteristics, such as limited liability, passive investors, and centralized management, while remaining partnerships for tax purposes. The hybrid partnership, as an “uncorporation,” can avoid certain governance and other requirements. “The backstops against managerial opportunities” applicable to corporations often do not apply. The result is that “[t]he hybrid entity is more corporation-like than the corporation.”
These developments did not occur in a void. As Hurt explains, tax partnerships have generally enjoyed an overall tax rate lower than the aggregate tax rate faced by corporations and their owners. Those steeped in entity taxation will recognize that the characteristics missing from the posited early partnership form are essentially the Kintner factors from tax law, which prior to 1997 were used to evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether a state law entity would be taxed as a subchapter K partnership or as a C corporation. Current tax law’s check-the-box regulations, which replaced the Kintner entity classification regulations, now allow virtually any unincorporated, multi-owner, domestic business to be taxed under subchapter K.
The tax arbitrage possibilities opened up by the advent of check-the-box have been written about widely, but Hurt highlights that the impact of Kintner factor repeal was not limited to the tax sphere. Hurt explains that the general partnership constrained “agency problems more effectively than the corporate structure,” and “[a]rguably, the presence of those partnership characteristics served as necessary backstops to managerial opportunism, and made other agency safeguards present in corporations unnecessary for investor-partners.” Loss of the Kintner factors meant loss of their “attempt to isolate the fundamental tension in corporate law: the separation of ownership and control.” Hurt thus provides a critique of the check-the-box regulations grounded in governance considerations that complements critiques grounded in tax policy. By gathering into one article the major developments in the tax and non-tax law of uncorporations, Hurt makes starkly clear the fig-leaf dimensions of the justifications for the check-the-box regulations.
Hurt argues that modern partnership hybrids have fallen from the early partnership form state of grace and should not enjoy the fruits of pass-through taxation. Hurt does not rule out that an integrated tax for business entities may be the better approach. But, assuming a continued division between pass-through and corporate taxation, she suggests three substantive characteristics that could provide support for offering some entities pass-through taxation. These three characteristics are (1) smaller size, including consideration of “income, revenues, or assets” and not simply the number of owners; (2) active involvement of owners, including use of the Howey test from securities law to distinguish owners who are like sole proprietors from passive investors who intend to profit “solely from the efforts of others”; and (3) the absence of owners’ ability to demand payment of investment returns through buybacks or distributions. Application of these characteristics would support allowing “active owners of small, livelihood businesses” to remain tax partnerships, but would prevent other entities and owners from accessing pass-through taxation. Elsewhere in the article, Hurt discusses differences in the contracting abilities and fiduciary obligations among entities, but stops short of discussing whether this could change which entities should be eligible for pass-through taxation.
Hurt contends that now is an opportune time to banish hybrid partnerships from pass-through taxation. Because of the reduction to the dividend tax rate (added in 2003) and to the overall corporate tax rate (added for 2018), the statutory rate differential between tax partnerships and C corporations is smaller than it has been for some time. As a result, the expulsion may be less painful. Hurt also notes that given the current similarity in tax rates among business entities, the C corporation might even be a preferred form. Hurt notes, “The ultimate question is this: If there is no tax advantage to being either a corporation or a partnership, then which form emerges the victor?” Hurt speculates that, in spite of the contractarian flexibility available to hybrid partnerships, state law corporations would be preferred because of the various transaction costs associated with subchapter K.
Hurt’s article provides an engaging overview of the co-development of subchapter K access and uncorporation law. To be sure, the breadth of coverage means that the impact on that co-development of tax-focused nuances—such as the differences between the pass-through regimes of subchapter K and subchapter S—does not receive elaboration. But the article is not aimed at critiquing the details of pass-through taxation; rather, it makes an argument grounded in business entities law. Hurt writes that in a system where “entities classified as partnerships can bear more corporate characteristics than partnership characteristics, providing those entities with tax advantages originally reserved for small, livelihood businesses seems perverse.” Hurt is persuasive in demonstrating that, having clothed themselves with the characteristics of corporations, hybrid entities should not continue to have access to pass-through taxation by mere avoidance of formal incorporation.
Margherita Borella, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Fang Yang, Are Marriage-Related Taxes and Social Security Benefits Holding Back Female Labor Supply?
, NBER Working Paper No. 26097 (July 23, 2019), available at SSRN
There has been a surge in empirical literature examining gendered patterns of behavior and outcomes across numerous economic contexts, especially choices within and across families. Relatively little of it has focused explicitly on how the basic structure of our tax laws interacts with and influences such choices. Encouragingly, a recent working paper by Margherita Borella, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Fang Yang does exactly that.
Borella, De Nardi, and Yang (BD&Y) study two key policies within the U.S. tax-transfer system: joint income tax filing for married couples and access to Social Security benefits for spouses. The joint income tax filing rule means that a married secondary earner will owe income tax at the marginal rate established by “stacking” her income on her spouse’s income, which generally is a higher rate than would apply if the secondary earner was single. Social Security benefits also increase to account for an earner’s spouse, but do not increase to account for an earner’s unmarried partner.
Both of these policies are gender-neutral on face; however, the background conditions under which they operate are not. Lower average female wages, hours, participation rates, and overall weaker attachments to the formal labor force as compared to males imply that, for the average heterosexual married couple, secondary earners are female. Conceptually, joint tax filing’s income-stacking effect penalizes married women in the same way that its income-splitting effect benefits married men. These same factors plus longer female lifespans set up Social Security’s spousal benefit rules as additional potential deterrents to formal market work for women. In light of these patterns, BD&Y pose their research question: “to what extent does the fact that taxes and old age Social Security survivor benefits depend on one’s marital status discourage female labor supply and affect welfare?” (P. 2.)
This is a terrific question that has been difficult to answer without a natural experiment or an elaborate decades-long field trial. BD&Y address it with an original modeling and computationally intensive empirical approach that proceeds from rich survey data (see the discussion below the line for a brief summary). Their model considers a series of factors that have not been part of prior models, such as the possibility of non-discrete changes to male labor force participation as a result of women’s participation choices, the non-childcare costs of working for non-parents as well as parents, and the relationship between market wages and shadow non-market wages. Like all structural models of economic behavior, BD&Y’s model begins from some strong assumptions. But the additional factors BD&Y take into account arguably aren’t just bells and whistles: marriage-based rules are likely to affect, and interact with, many dimensions of behavior. Thus, BD&Y’s model helps broaden researchers’ scrutiny to new mechanisms that may be at play.
BD&Y rely on two sources of data to answer their question: the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and the Health and Retirement Survey (HRS). Within this data, the authors focus on two distinct cohorts of individuals. They study the cohort born 1941-1945 because “their entire adult life is covered by the PSID…and then by the HRS…we have excellent data over their entire life cycle.” (Pp. 3, 9.) They also study the cohort that was born ten years later (1951-55) because its data also spans a good part of their lifecycle and, importantly, the labor force participation patterns of the 1955 cohort are higher than the 1945 cohort and broadly similar to that of later cohorts. (Pp. 4, 57.) BD&Y use data on about 5000 individuals that were born in the relevant years. (P. 57.) They then use computational methods to “simulate a representative population of people as they age and die” (P. 24) and choose the parameters of their model so that nearly 450 different “fit” criteria (such as averages and other statistical measures) that the data generates looks like those in the observed data. These parameters are crucial determinants of individuals’ decisions about whether and how much to work, consume, and save over the full course of their working lives and into retirement. Then, they are able to change one of the “structural” features of their model—how married individuals file taxes—and observe how people would behave under this different scenario.
The result is pretty staggering. When BD&Y estimate their model for the 1945 cohort under the assumption that married persons file taxes as single individuals rather than jointly, they predict that the single-filing system would increase married women’s labor participation by more than 20 percentage points from age 25 through age 35 as compared to the status quo.(P. 39.) From ages 35 to 60, married women’s participation would be 10 percentage points higher. Single women’s participation also would increase slightly until age 60. The mechanism here appears to be that many women expect to get married and, once joint tax filing is removed, they adjust their participation accordingly. (P. 39.) According to Figure 10 in the paper, the participation of single men holds steady; after age 60, married men’s participation falls slightly. (P. 38.)
What is the effect of removing joint tax filing on workers’ incomes from labor? The authors discuss only their estimates of the effects of eliminating both joint tax filing and Social Security’s marriage-based rules. When both policies are changed, there are strong responses. BD&Y find that increased female labor market experience pushes up married women’s wages by about 5% and that this, together with the drastic rise in participation and a moderate increase in hours worked for each woman working, drive significant female labor income effects for both the 1945 and 1955 cohorts. (P. 41.) For the 1955 cohort, Figure 13 charts labor income increases for married women as being about $5,000 to $6,000 higher annually (in 2016 dollars) for nearly all pre-retirement years. Average annual labor income for single women also increases significantly. Male labor income remains stable until about age 50, at which point it falls moderately (about $1,000 per year) until age 65. (P. 41.)
These results underscore the centrality of policies that narrow the gap between females’ and males’ labor supply choices, particularly earlier in their careers. For men and women alike, BD&Y’s results echo other studies in finding that accumulated human capital from work experience has a greater influence on wages than other factors like education. (Pp. 25-26.) Robust female participation, particularly during lifecycle years when their children are likely to be small, lays the groundwork for greater wage and income equality later in the lifecycle. BD&Y’s paper provides evidence that joint filing discourages this outcome.
In going to great lengths to estimate rigorously the impact of a core structural element of the U.S. income tax (joint filing), BD&Y have done valuable work. Their findings are not presented as a rallying cry for revisiting longstanding normative questions about gender (in)equality’s role in the design of tax policy. But the larger context invites such a read. At bottom, this paper provides new empirical support for the premise that gender belongs at the center of tax policy debates about inequality.
Situating BD&Y’s Model and Empirical Approach
The authors address their research question in four steps.
First, they model the structure of individuals’ preferences about whether and how much to work, consume, and save each year across their adult lives. The model features three distinct lifecycle periods: working years, early retirement years, and retirement years. It posits a set of constraints that varies across each stage; each of these constraints takes into account gender, year, and marital status. The model includes wages (more on this), shocks to wages, fixed non-childcare costs of working such as commuting, costs of raising children, purchasing childcare, accumulated earnings, assets, Social Security benefits, Medicaid, SSI, medical expenses, and death, among other variables. The tax environment experienced by each individual varies by cohort, year, and marital status as reflected in the PSID data and the National Bureau of Economic Research’s TAXSIM simulation program, which allows for negative tax rates including the EITC. (Pp. 16, 73-75.)
Second, BD&Y use data for the cohorts born in 1945 and 1955 to simulate larger representative datasets for each cohort. Specifically, they “use the model to simulate a representative population of people as they age and die, and we find the parameter values that allow simulated life-cycle decision profiles to best match…the data profiles for that cohort.” The mechanics of this involve matching 448 different “moments” (population averages) for each of the two cohorts. (P. 24.)
Third, they generate estimates of their structural model to learn how labor supply responds to taxes and Social Security for each cohort. The authors explain that “to have reliable solutions, we compute them brute force [using numerical methods] on a [discretized asset] grid.” (Pp. 24, 76.) Buried in one of the many appendices is the statement that “[e]stimating the model for one cohort implies solving it thousands of times, which thus requires at least 3 or 4 weeks each time…to check for local minima, robustness, and so on.” (P. 77.) Kudos to them for not giving up.
Last, BD&Y investigate the counterfactual of removing the marriage-based tax filing and Social Security policies. In particular, the revised model subjects married individuals to the tax and Social Security functions that would be applied in a given year to similarly situated unmarried individuals. Methodologically, this is the main payoff to using a model like BD&Y’s: “[t]he basic gain from using the structural models is that they allow a better understanding of the mechanisms and analysis of counterfactuals.” (Pp. 42, 44.) In addition, it allows BD&Y to say something about how policies affect welfare. Would eliminating the marriage-based policies result in an increase or decrease in overall “value” to different groups of individuals in each cohort? BD&Y use a series of value functions, which are akin to dollar-denominated translation of utilities (P. 17), for nine different groups. The groups correspond to the model’s three lifecycle stages for each of three marriage/gender statuses (single male, single female, and married male-female couple from which individuals’ value functions are derived). (Pp. 17-23.)
Cite as: Emily Satterthwaite, A Do-Over for the Tax Unit
(November 22, 2019) (reviewing Margherita Borella, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Fang Yang, Are Marriage-Related Taxes and Social Security Benefits Holding Back Female Labor Supply?
, NBER Working Paper No. 26097 (July 23, 2019), available at SSRN), https://tax.jotwell.com/a-do-over-for-the-tax-unit/