Emily Satterthwaite, Tax Elections as Screens
, Queen’s L. J.
(forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN
The concept of “screening” taxpayers is theoretically appealing. According to optimal tax theory, our tax system should impose tax liability based on ability, which is a characteristic that reflects relative well-being. However, since ability cannot be directly observed, the tax system has to rely largely on income, a presumed surrogate of ability, as a tax base. The problem is that income is easily manipulable, making the tax system an inefficient tax on ability. Screening is a potential, partial solution to this problem. Screening involves relying on other characteristics that are more revelatory of ability. For instance, as it turns out, height is surprisingly strongly correlated with earning ability. However, as theoretically appealing as screening may be, the discussion of it is generally politically unrealistic enough, or sufficiently divorced from the realities of the actual tax system, to make it a largely academic exercise.
In Tax Elections as Screens, Emily Satterthwaite gets beyond the theoretical possibilities of screening taxpayers. She does so by examining how an existing tax election—the election to itemize deductions—can serve as a screening mechanism. By examining how screening may work in our actual tax system, Satterthwaite offers an important contribution that has few companions in what is a largely theoretical field.
Satterthwaite begins by offering a simple model of the potential value of tax elections. She then goes on to illustrate what practical information the election to itemize may offer the government. She marshals evidence from an empirical study that, for taxpayers with income below $58,000, a taxpayer’s cost of itemizing cannot be inferred from observable characteristics on the taxpayer’s return (such as gross income). As a result, Satterthwaite posits that the election to itemize may reveal otherwise unobservable information about this income group.
Specifically, Satterthwaite posits that the election to itemize can reveal information about earning ability, how responsive a taxpayer is to taxation, and a taxpayer’s compliance posture. She then makes suggestions about how each of these various possibilities might shape tax policy. First, a taxpayer who is more conscientious is likely to have higher earning ability, and is also likely to face lower costs to engage in all of the tasks required to itemize (such as collecting, saving, and using deduction records). Satterthwaite suggests that the government may use this information to target various forms of assistance to non-itemizers, who are more likely to need it. Alternatively, a taxpayer may be more likely to itemize because the taxpayer is more responsive to incentives that reduce taxation, a quality that means the taxpayer is correspondingly likely to be more tax-elastic on other dimensions (for example, being more likely to change labor, savings, and other behavior in order to reduce tax liability). Satterthwaite suggests the government may therefore want to target higher marginal tax rates to non-itemizers, based on their low elasticity. As a final possibility, taxpayers who are more likely to itemize may also be more likely to take other steps (including aggressive tax reporting positions) to reduce tax liability. The government may therefore want to target more enforcement and auditing resources toward itemizers.
However, as Satterthwaite acknowledges, the analysis of exactly what the government should do in response to a taxpayer’s decision to itemize is quite complex. A taxpayer may be itemizing for any or all of the three reasons she posits (i.e., because the taxpayer is more conscientious, has lower tax-elasticity, or has a more aggressive compliance posture). What the government should do depends on the taxpayer’s dominant motive. For instance, if the taxpayer is itemizing because the taxpayer is more conscientious, the government would theoretically want to impose a higher rate of taxation (or the equivalent through higher auditing or the like) in response to the taxpayer’s higher ability. However, if the taxpayer is itemizing because the taxpayer is more tax elastic, this would be the exact wrong result. Ferretting out why the taxpayer is itemizing, all else being equal, would be difficult. Indeed, knowing whether a taxpayer is itemizing because the taxpayer has lower costs from itemizing, or just has more deductions, would itself be a difficult task. As Satterthwaite also acknowledges, determining whether it makes sense to introduce itemizing as a screen also presents other estimating difficulties, such as estimating the compliance costs of the election.
Despite these difficulties, Satterthwaite’s insights are important. First, whether optimal or not, the tax code does provide an election to itemize deductions. As a result, Satterthwaite does not need to prove that introducing itemizing as a screen is welfare enhancing. Rather, she merely needs to show that, given that the election is already in place, the election can provide the government valuable information. And she succeeds in this task. Perhaps the most useful insight is Satterthwaite’s suggestion that the government may use the failure to itemize (and the likely higher cost of itemizing) to target other assistance to the taxpayer, such as help preparing a tax return or enhanced information about government benefits that are provided through the tax code, such as the earned income tax credit. This suggestion is particularly helpful because, even without being able to determine definitively why a taxpayer failed to itemize, the government can reasonably imagine that a non-itemizing taxpayer is likely to be less well-informed or sophisticated in preparing government forms than a taxpayer who itemizes. Targeting greater assistance to the former than the latter may create welfare improvements at a low cost. Moreover, the suggestion harnesses information that can be gleaned from tax filing behavior to help improve the administration of unrelated welfare benefits that, whether rightly or wrongly, are already being provided through the tax code. This sensible, incremental improvement arises out of Satterthwaite’s real-world tax policy approach. This approach, which has much to commend it, merits more scholarly attention.
Edward Kleinbard, The Trojan Horse of Corporate Integration
, 152 Tax Notes
957 (Aug. 15, 2016), available at SSRN
Edward Kleinbard’s The Trojan Horse of Corporate Integration critiques the U.S. Senate Finance Committee’s current proposal for corporate integration. This is an important read for those who have not yet come to grips with the forces at play in contemporary tax policy. Kleinbard refers to these forces as the “political economy agenda” behind the proposal. That agenda has as much to do with appearances relating to tax liabilities as it does with any cash actually being paid.
Most tax policy analysis has historically assumed that it is the amount of tax that is actually paid that matters most. Taxes paid are resources that are no longer available to the private sector; taxes not paid are not available to the public sector. At bottom, the tax policy challenge has usually been seen as balancing the deadweight losses that are inevitable with resources taken away from the private sector with the market failures associated with leaving deployment of all resources in private hands. This view of the impact of taxes is all well and good for economists to theorize about, but does not capture very much of the political decisions taking place in the real world about the type of taxation that should be adopted.
As Kleinbard points out, a significant portion of the “political economy agenda” behind the Senate Finance Committee proposal is simply to allow corporations to report paying lower taxes for financial accounting purposes, without lowering the overall taxes paid on corporate investment. The Senate Finance Committee proposal would do this by allowing a corporation to deduct from its tax base dividends paid from corporate income. But even as it allows the corporation this “dividends paid deduction” (DPD), the proposal would require the corporation to withhold tax from the dividends actually distributed to the shareholder. This withholding tax would not be treated as a liability of the corporation, and therefore would not be included in the corporation’s financial accounting reports reflecting the taxes it pays. Thus, the taxes imposed at the corporate level would be reduced, even though the total taxes on corporate earnings (taking into account both the tax on corporate income and the withholding tax) may not be.
The equivalence between the collection of taxes paid by a corporation on its own behalf and the taxes paid by the corporation as unrefunded withholding taxes remains uncertain. It will depend on many features relating to the design of the tax (including the preservation of tax exemption for certain domestic taxpayers and any mechanism available for credits for foreign taxpayers).
As Kleinbard also points out, the DPD often produces a similar result as the imputation credit approach to corporate integration, since in both approaches a payment made by the corporation is credited against the shareholder’s tax liability. In fact, the DPD approach may often produce greater tax liabilities if the withholding scheme does a poorer job than the credit imputation scheme of taking into account the particular characteristics of shareholders, including tax exempt or foreign status. (Incidentally, Kleinbard’s piece is a good place for those having lost track of the complexities of integration design to get back up to speed.)
But the DPD, unlike the imputation credit approach, would also have the salutary effect, from a political economy point of view, of making the burden of taxes on investments in US corporations appear to be less because the withholding tax would not be treated as a corporate tax for financial accounting purposes. Kleinbard intimates that no one should consider this as an actually accomplishing anything different. After all, he asks, “how stupid are we?”
The relevant research is still in progress, but at least some of it suggests that many groups of suppliers of capital may actually be that stupid, at least in the sense that the way that taxes are reported for financial purposes is important independently of the amounts ultimately paid. This may be true if the focus is on management incentives and perhaps even if the focus is on investor behavior. Kleinbard’s explication of this phenomenon is a good first step in helping the rest of us see the implications.
Kleinbard is especially dismayed at the possibility that the DPD would allow, more cleanly than other forms of integration, repatriation and distribution of the foreign income of US multinationals that has only been lightly taxed, if taxed at all, in any foreign jurisdiction without any additional corporate tax. This possibility is the not-so-very-well-hidden secret in the DPD approach to integration. Kleinbard does seem to acknowledge that this change could break the log jam that has previously blocked progress in corporation tax reform. But he decries the breaking of the log jam as wasting a chance to do something more significant.
We probably are not so stupid as to not see the political economy behind the DPD. But the best part of the Kleinbard contribution is its capacity for pointing out that we could really be that stupid when it comes to more generally neglecting the importance of the appearance of tax burdens rather than the burdens themselves. There is a real possibility that analysts and the investors they serve may respond favorably to the reporting of lower corporate taxes, even though investors’ overall burdens will not be reduced. Although Kleinbard takes no view on whether and when such responses dominate over actual tax payments, he reminds us well that we cannot ignore such possibilities when implementing corporate tax reform.
Lisa Philipps, Registered Savings Plans and the Making of Middle Class Canada: Toward a Performative Theory of Tax Policy
, 84 Fordham L. Rev.
(forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN
Analyses of tax policy are typically based on a familiar cost-benefit framework. There are important debates about which costs and benefits should be included (and which are measurable), but the standard formula is simple: (1) Describe the policy goal; (2) Present the costs and benefits of a policy that is meant to achieve that goal; and (3) Conclude that the policy is good or bad, depending on whether benefits exceed costs or vice versa.
In her important new article, Professor Lisa Philipps uses a Canadian tax policy debate to show that this approach is fundamentally misleading. Standard cost-benefit analysis—even if it is focused on inequality or other social outcomes— ignores the effect that adopting policies has on, as Philipps puts it, “the range of policy options considered thinkable.” (P. 102.) Tax policies can become embedded in the social system in a way that cannot be explained by standard cost-benefit analysis, and the resulting changes in social expectations can lead to self-defeating policy inertia.
Philipps’s article, which is part of a symposium in the Fordham Law Review entitled “We Are What We Tax,” adapts Judith Butler’s important work in feminist theory to analyze a seemingly technocratic question about tax incentives for saving. To some readers, this might seem a jarring combination, but the intersection of feminist theory and tax policy has become a growing and vibrant area of scholarly inquiry over the past few decades. This line of research is providing important theoretical and practical insights into tax policy debates that helpfully move the conversation past the usual neoliberal framework.
As noted, Philipps focuses on the social impact of tax incentives for saving in Canada. Philipps looks at changes in Canada’s tax policies over recent decades, showing how the government has increasingly relied on the tax system to encourage people to save for their retirements, through what are called “registered savings plans.” This approach is, however, only one possible response to the broader policy question, which is how a society can allow people to spend the latter years of their lives living a dignified retirement rather than either working themselves to death or being reduced to poverty when they can no longer work.
Another possible answer to that question is known in the United States as the Social Security system. Although that system is often understood as a system in which people pay taxes while working and then “get their money back” when they retire, Social Security is in fact financed on a pay-as-you-go basis, and there are no “accounts” into which payroll taxes are deposited. Although it is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the issue in detail here, the fact is that pay-as-you-go systems and systems of personal deposit accounts are analytically identical in the aggregate. In one way or another, workers at any given time are reducing their consumption in order to allow former workers to stay alive, and in turn those current workers will be allowed to live without working at some point in the future. The means by which that system is financed cannot change that fundamental tradeoff.
Being analytically equivalent, however, does not mean that the two systems are socially or politically interchangeable. As Philipps points out, Canada made the choice to have its workers build nest eggs for their retirement years, and Parliament has experimented with various methods by which to use tax incentives to encourage people to save sufficient funds to live in some comfort during retirement. In that sense, much of the political discussion followed the standard pattern: (1) We need to get people to save more money, (2) The policies that we are adopting have succeeded in various ways and failed in various ways, and therefore (3) The policies need to be tweaked, enhanced, abandoned, and so on.
The Canadian policy of relying on private decisions to save was justified by the neoliberal gloss of “promoting individual self-reliance and familial responsibility to address human welfare needs” (P. 109). Even when supplemented by various tax incentives, however, the Canadian system has had a (completely predictable) negative distributional impact. Philipps’s insight, however, is not merely that private savings accounts have exacerbated inequality. She argues that the policy conversation is not merely a matter of saying, “Well, our current set of policies is not serving Canadians well in their retirement, so let’s put all possible ideas on the table to see what would work better.” Instead, the justifications for the private-saving approach to retirement became self-reinforcing, such that even the Canadians who are harmed by the system are now psychologically committed to its perpetuation.
How could that be? The idea behind the Canadian retirement system was not just a matter of telling middle class people that they had a personal responsibility to save for their retirement, but also of making retirement saving part of the very essence of middle class identity. Philipps writes: “To be an adult without a registered savings plan now threatens to place one on the margins of the social order” (P. 121). In other words, anyone who wishes to think of herself as a middle-class Canadian now automatically thinks that part of middle-class life will involve building retirement savings through registered plans.
This constructed social identity, however, has a surprisingly important impact on the policy debate. Because people aspire to be part of the middle class, and middle class identity includes being a rugged individual who saves for oneself and one’s kin, middle class Canadians (and those who hope to achieve that status) are now highly unlikely to approve of any plan to move away from a savings-based system to a macroeconomically equivalent pay-as-you-go system that looks like a Social Security plan. That is, people have learned that “being middle class” means sinking or swimming on one’s own, and because of that deeply embedded social expectation, any move to more explicitly acknowledge through policy that everyone is mutually dependent now somehow feels wrong.
This phenomenon is hardly limited to retirement savings. For example, basic financial principles make clear that the difference between owning and renting one’s residence is ultimately a matter of form and not substance, because the legal category of property ownership can be replicated through contractual agreements. Nonetheless, in the U.S. and Canada part of “the dream” is to be a homeowner. It does not seem to matter that the particulars of home ownership can be devastating for people when their houses lose value (as in the housing bust of 2008-10), or that good financial management should discourage putting all of one’s proverbial eggs in a single basket, because such cost-benefit considerations end up being overwhelmed by people’s psychological commitment to home ownership. A politician who suggests that home ownership is not a meaningful or appropriate goal will discover quickly that citizens strongly disagree.
And so it is now in Canada with respect to individually oriented retirement savings. As Philipps concludes: “Registered savings plans will endure not because they actually deliver the benefits they promise to most people but rather because they have been assimilated into Canadian middle-class identity” (P. 122). What would be viewed as a flawed and counterproductive policy that harms middle-class Canadians thus stumbles onward, because people have been taught to believe that there is a “right” middle-class way to save for retirement. The existing policy regime becomes its own justification.
In his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty did us the great service of bringing the problems of wealth and income inequality to the fore. In the process, however, he also may have performed a bit of a disservice – making those problems seem simple, a mere function of the inequality r > g, where r is the rate of return to capital and g is the rate of economic growth. The solution, he suggested, was equally simple: a tax on wealth.
Bariş Kaymak and Markus Poschke, in The Evolution of Wealth Inequality over Half a Century: The Role of Taxes, Transfers and Technology, offer a more complex picture. They construct a general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy over the past half-century, incorporating (1) reduced income taxes on top earners (from a 45% effective rate for the top 1% in 1960 to a 33% effective rate in 2004, and from a 71% effective rate for the top 0.1% in 1960 to a 34% effective rate in 2004), (2) expansion of government transfers from 4.1% to 11.9% of GDP over the same period, and (3) higher pre-tax wage inequalities, which they attribute to technological change. (For these purposes, effective rate is defined as income taxes paid as a percentage of taxable income.) The question they ask and attempt to answer is: To what extent were the observed increases in wealth and income inequality over that period attributable to each of these changes or trends?
Income: Their answer with respect to income inequality is unequivocal: After taking into account standard general equilibrium adjustments, cuts in top rates had almost no effect on after-tax income distribution. Instead, the authors find that during the period studied, after-tax income inequality increased almost entirely because pre-tax income inequality increased.
Wealth: Their answer with respect to wealth inequality might strike some as counterintuitive. They find that an increasingly robust safety net (principally Social Security and Medicare) appears to have reduced incentives to save for the bottom 90%, resulting in increased wealth concentration at the top. Taken together, changes in U.S. tax and transfer systems explained nearly half of the observed rise in wealth concentration over the past half-century; the remainder was explained by increases in pre-tax income inequality.
Interactions: In addition, the two inequalities interacted in complex ways, intermediated by interest rates and prices:
Accumulation of additional wealth in response to tax cuts leads to a decline in the interest rate and an increase in the wage rate. The fall in the equilibrium interest rate discourages savings by lower wealth groups and exacerbates the direct effect of tax cuts on wealth inequality. As for income, the lower interest rate mitigates the rise in top incomes, while a higher wage rate benefits lower income groups as they live mainly off labor income.
By email to this reviewer, Prof. Kaymak explains the relationship between wealth inequality and wage rate increases as follows:
[T]he link from capital accumulation to the wage rate is an equilibrium effect …. As new wealth is channeled to production through investment, it generates a demand for additional labor since labor and capital are complements in production. Higher demand for labor then raises both employment (job creation effect) and wages. Of course, tax cuts could also change the labor supply behavior …. But we find this [latter effect] to be much weaker ….
Bottom line: greater inequality in wealth reduced income inequality by reducing the return to capital and increasing wages.
Finally, because general equilibrium adjustments take time, the authors predict that two or three more decades of increasing wealth concentration will result from policy and economic changes that have already occurred, at which point the top 1% will own about half of all U.S. wealth, up ten percentage points from their current share.
What should we make of all this?
First, general equilibrium analysis, although absolutely essential, is notoriously difficult and sensitive to assumptions. The authors note that their conclusions are inconsistent with those reached by some (Atkinson (2011) and Mertens (2013)), but consistent with those reached by others (Saez (2012)). Nonpartisans may want to take all such conclusions with at least a small grain of salt.
The authors might have distinguished between taxes on income from labor and taxes on income from capital, although these are difficult to tease apart. A priori, at least, we would expect different kinds of taxes to have different effects on savings and interest rates. Optimal tax theory, for example, conventionally assumes that taxes on income from capital depress savings, but that taxes on income from labor do not.
One wonders also whether some aspects of the U.S. tax system might have offset the results the authors describe through depressed demand for lower-wage labor. Accelerated and bonus depreciation may have encouraged the automation of less skilled jobs, for instance, and/or a largely territorial multi-national corporate tax system may have encouraged the offshoring of those same jobs as tariffs and other trade barriers were lifted.
With respect to the effect of offshoring, Prof. Kaymak observes, again by email:
For wages to rise through the equilibrium effect…, investment has to stay at home. We had run some simulations allowing for capital flight in early versions of our paper. What that does essentially is to mute the effect of top tax cuts on wealth inequality (interest rate does not fall in this case, so the bottom wealth groups do not curb savings as much). Income inequality in turn increases somewhat, because part of additional investment goes abroad, hence no wage gains for labor.
In other words, capital flight reduces wealth inequality but increases income inequality.
In any event, the paper makes an important contribution; its thoughtful analysis should persuade the reader that problems of wealth and income inequality are more complex than Piketty claims. Increases in the safety net that reduce disparities in consumption may exacerbate disparities in wealth. Ed Kleinbard, in his book We Are Better Than This, has urged that we worry less about progressivity in taxation and more about progressivity in spending. Doing so, the current paper suggests, may actually result in further concentrations of wealth in the already wealthy.
This, in turn, raises fundamental normative questions: Do we really care about disparities in wealth? Why? Do we care more about disparities in income? Or is our ostensible concern about inequality really a concern about poverty? If Kaymak and Poschke are even partly right, it may not be enough to say: “Equality good. Inequality bad.” We may actually have to do some hard normative work.
The age of inequality has prompted an age of writing about inequality. Now writing about inequality has started to come of age. An important example is Branko Milanovic’s new book, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization.
Milanovic, an economist and Senior Scholar at CUNY’s Luxembourg Income Study Center who has been studying global data regarding economic inequality for more than twenty years, discusses three main topics in this book: inequality within a given country, that between or among countries, and what might be the path of global inequality in the future. While the book’s contributions on all three topics contain numerous points of interest, the first has especial theoretical relevance. Milanovic suggests that inequality may decrease in the coming decades in some rich countries, but probably not in the United States.
In the 1950s, economist Simon Kuznets famously posited that, as an economy develops, market forces lead first to increasing and then to declining economic inequality. However, while this was the story seemingly told by the data available to him at the time, it has subsequently been contradicted by evidence of generally rising inequality in developed countries since the 1970s. Thomas Piketty, in his noted 2013 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, argued that rising inequality is the norm, and that the mid-twentieth century’s “Great Easing” from which Kuznets generalized was merely a blip, created mainly by the early-to-mid-century disasters of war, revolution, the Great Depression, and then more war. Piketty attributed the dominant trend that he discerned to “r > g” – a general tendency for returns to capital to exceed overall economic growth rates, causing wealth-holders’ share of the pie to keep on growing. This view did not, however, permit him to explain why, in U.S. data, rising wage inequality, rather than returns to capital, has played the largest role.
While Kuznets’ problem, in retrospect, was his projecting from just two main types of data points – Western countries during the Industrial Revolution and then during the mid-twentieth century – Piketty, for the most part, adds just one more: the same societies over the last several decades. Milanovic, by contrast, draws on data and studies from many more countries and over a far longer period. (He even has inequality estimates for the Roman Empire and its successor states, over the period from 14 to 700 A.D.) All this information permits him to develop a broader understanding of the multiple forces that historically have pushed towards either rising or falling inequality.
Against this background, Milanovic posits what he calls Kuznets cycles or waves – successive periods of rising, and then falling, inequality in a given country. He argues that these may tend (all else equal) to track periods in which the annual growth rate of the economy first rises and then falls, as new technological revolutions emerge and are then assimilated. However, he recognizes that one cannot overgeneralize, given that “[t]he future often likes to throw curve balls” (P. 117). In particular, various factors that are at least partly exogenous to technical change as such – pertaining, for example, to trends in a country’s politics, infrastructure, and educational system – may also affect inequality trends.
This could suggest a somewhat different view of Kuznets waves as being, in effect, an ex post observation that merely reflects how things happened to play out. By analogy, if you keep on tossing coins, you will periodically get several heads in a row at some points in the sequence, and tails at other points, leading to an observation of successive heads-dominated and tails-dominated cycles or waves.
Looking forward, Milanovic sees several ways in which “benign forces [i.e., not just disasters like those of the mid-twentieth century] could hypothetically push rich countries onto the downward portion of the second Kutznets wave” (P. 113). These include rising education, dissipation of the economic rents that have recently created so many high-tech mega-fortunes, income convergence between countries (especially if Asia’s recent rise extends to other continents), and a shift from high-skill-biased to low-skill-biased technological change (although it is not clear why this should be expected to happen).
For the United States, however, Milanovic sees the possibility for a “perfect storm” of rising inequality (P. 180), partly for internal political reasons. “Concentration of income will reinforce the political power of the rich and make pro-poor policy changes in taxation, funding for public education, and infrastructure spending even less likely than before.” (P. 181.) If he is right about this, as well as in his more optimistic forecast for other rich countries, then American exceptionalism may continually increase over the next few decades, but not in a good way.
Diane Lourdes Dick, U.S. Tax Imperialism in Puerto Rico
, 65 Am. U. L. Rev.
(forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN
Puerto Rico faces a host of public finance woes. It owes over $70 billion in public sector debt. On May 2, 2016, it missed a major debt payment to its Government Development Bank bondholders. Congress is currently considering legislation that will allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debts. Without debt restructuring, further defaults seem inevitable. Puerto Rico has attempted to use its tax laws to ease its public finance problems. However, in March, the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico ruled in Wal-Mart Puerto Rico v. Zaragoza-Gomez that an increased tax imposed by Puerto Rico on certain cross-border, related-party property transactions violated the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Relations Act. The court acknowledged that the tax was implemented to quickly raise revenue to ameliorate Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges, but it struck down the tax nonetheless. As of this writing, Puerto Rico’s fiscal future remains uncertain.
Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal condition and its tax policy are, of course, related, and the United States has played an important role in both. But what exactly is the United States’ economic relationship with Puerto Rico? What do U.S. tax and fiscal policies with respect to Puerto Rico tell us about that relationship? And how have these policies influenced the economic trajectory of the island? Tax aficionados may be broadly familiar with tax incentives for investment in Puerto Rico, but what deeper story lies beneath?
Diane Lourdes Dick takes up these questions in her article entitled U.S. Tax Imperialism in Puerto Rico. The article develops a theory of U.S. tax imperialism, which I understand to be a subset of economic imperialism, by detailing the ways in which U.S. tax policy has been used to control the economic trajectory of the territory for the benefit of the mainland.
Professor Dick describes three historical stages of such tax imperialism:
In the first stage, beginning after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and continuing through 1919, the United States revamped Puerto Rico’s tax laws, which had developed under Spanish rule. In essence, U.S. interventions during this period decreased reliance on indirect taxes (for example, by replacing older consumption-type excise taxes with more narrowly defined excises) and increased Puerto Rico’s reliance on direct taxes on personal and corporate income. An existing tax on income from property was also replaced with one based on property valuations. Professor Dick discusses the impact of this property tax in pressuring Puerto Rican landowners to either sell or productively utilize their property; the effects of the tax on land ownership; and the tax’s role in the formation of a single-crop sugar economy, which benefitted large U.S. sugar corporations.
In the second stage, spanning 1920 through 1974, Professor Dick characterizes the United States as pursuing tax and economic policies designed to utilize Puerto Rico as a low-cost provider of manufacturing inputs for U.S. corporations, thereby reducing dependence on foreign sources for these inputs. For example, a federal tax exemption for the foreign-source income of certain U.S. corporations that derived income from U.S. possessions was enacted. This exemption was converted into the Section 936 possessions tax credit by the Tax Reform Act of 1976. When paired with changes in Puerto Rico’s tax laws exempting U.S. corporations from Puerto Rico’s income, property, and other taxes, this exemption effectively provided U.S. companies with a blanket tax holiday in Puerto Rico.
In the third stage, from 1975 to the present, by contrast, concerns about capital flight from the United States mainland to Puerto Rico and other locations led to a shift in U.S. tax policies, with a new emphasis on incentivizing capital to flow out of Puerto Rico and back to the U.S. mainland. Professor Dick notes that the U.S. now allowed U.S. parent corporations to claim a full dividend-received deduction for income earned in U.S possessions. However, Puerto Rico’s counter-move—extension of Puerto Rico’s withholding tax to repatriated dividends—worked to offset the incentive to repatriate earnings to the U.S. mainland. U.S. legislators eventually responded by repealing the Section 936 possessions tax credit in 1996 (subject to a ten-year phaseout), with complete elimination for tax years beginning after December 31, 2005. But the repeal led many corporations operating in Puerto Rico to convert their subsidiaries to controlled foreign corporations, effectively keeping capital offshore and preventing the U.S. Treasury from taxing it, thus thwarting the U.S. goal of encouraging repatriation of earnings back to the United States.
In setting out a three-stage theory of tax imperialism and by situating U.S. tax and fiscal policy against the broader backdrop of U.S. economic policy in Puerto Rico, U.S. Tax Imperialism in Puerto Rico challenges the dominant narrative surrounding U.S.-Puerto Rico economic relations and Puerto Rico’s current fiscal condition. This narrative tends to portray the U.S. as a benevolent patron and to blame Puerto Rico for its continuing fiscal difficulties. Professor Dick’s article illuminates the tax and economic imperialism underlying the evolution of U.S. tax policy with respect to Puerto Rico, presenting a wide-ranging analytical history of the economic relationship between the U.S. and its territory and discussing how U.S. tax policies have contributed to Puerto Rico’s current fiscal problems. As I read it, the main takeaway is not so much that any one policy is necessarily bad in and of itself, but that as a matter of motivation, the U.S. has been using Puerto Rico for its economic advantage for over a hundred years and has designed Puerto Rico’s tax policies to U.S. ends.
U.S. Tax Imperialism in Puerto Rico is a careful, interesting, and timely account of how the U.S. has designed tax policies with respect to Puerto Rico since 1898, but its contribution does not end there. The article also raises broader questions. For example, one wonders whether similar dynamics have been in play with respect to the other U.S. territories. Another important question concerns Puerto Rico’s relatively unnoticed place in the history of capital flight from the United States. According to Professor Dick’s account, capital flew from the U.S. to Puerto Rico as a result of tax incentives. But then it fled further and more permanently abroad due to the increasing use of controlled foreign corporations by U.S. corporations. The growth in controlled foreign corporations occurred in response to the repeal of the possessions tax credit and the broader shift in U.S. tax policy in Puerto Rico after 1975. This account potentially muddies the usual story about capital lockout and capital flight: it suggests that contrary to the usual narrative, offshoring of U.S. capital cannot be entirely attributed to direct comparisons between the U.S. and other sovereign competitors. Rather, at least some capital may have moved from the U.S. to U.S. possessions such as Puerto Rico, and then to more distant shores as a result of U.S. tax policy with respect to the possessions. This is a topic that merits further investigation.
James R. Hines Jr. & Kyle D. Logue, Delegating Tax
, 114 Mich. L. Review
In modern regulatory states, the theoretically firm lines dividing the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government are increasingly blurred. Teasing out how to design and enforce effective regulation has become a major preoccupation of scholars and policymakers in every area of law.
Delegating Tax, an article by the talented James R. Hines Jr. and Kyle D. Logue, is wonderful reading in that light. The article contrasts the reluctance of Congress to delegate the lawmaking authority of the IRS and Treasury in the tax area with Congress’ increasing willingness to delegate that authority to other federal administrative agencies. The authors make the case for great delegation in the tax area, noting the potential for the executive branch to draw on greater expertise and to respond more quickly.
Hines and Logue create a taxonomy of delegations that they urge Congress to consider: delegation of parameters for tax subsidies to the Treasury Department, delegation to set some income tax rates to an independent agency like the Federal Reserve, and delegation of tax reform to an independent commission. Hines and Logue would reserve the ability for Congress to fix the distribution of tax liabilities to ensure “fair distribution.”
I enjoyed reading the whole article, although my favourite part was the authors’ efforts to answer the question, “Why should the regulatory approach to tax policy differ from regulatory approaches to other areas of federal policy?” (P. 259). They examine historical accident and path dependence and the value of retaining the ability to set rates with Congress as a key tool in facilitating bargaining in the legislative process. They find each possible justification to be wanting.
The piece concludes with an exploration of the constitutional constraints on expanded tax delegation. Ultimately, the authors conclude that their proposed delegations should “pass constitutional muster” (P. 271).
The article takes on the broad areas where more delegation might appropriately be considered as a mechanism for accessing some of the benefits of the executive branch. The authors acknowledge at the outset of their piece that Congress could replace the Internal Revenue Code with a single sentence, “The Department of Treasury shall promulgate all tax rules necessary to raise revenue sufficient to balance the federal budget and shall do so in a manner that is fair and efficient” (P. 238), although they do not recommend that approach. The Hines and Logue article provides the platform from which readers can ask additional questions about delegation among the branches of government in the drafting of every provision in the Internal Revenue Code (or any piece of legislation, for that matter).
The question of the appropriate balance among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches in tax lawmaking is not unique, of course, to the United States, although the balance struck in the United States has unique features. Hines and Logue’s article contributes to the conversation highlighted in comparative work on this same topic advanced by Chris Evans, Judith Freedman, and Richard Krever in The Delicate Balance: Tax, Discretion, and the Rule of Law (IBFD, 2011). It’s a pleasure to see that the dialogue continues.
The world of international tax avoidance is a colorful one. There are the legal structures, with names like the “Double Irish Dutch Sandwich,” the exotic locales, like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, and the identity crises presented by “hybrid” entities and financial instruments. But rarely does international tax avoidance have a human face and one could be forgiven for getting the impression that falling effective corporate tax rates are as inevitable as water flowing downhill. Corporations, acting in the interests of their shareholders, maximize their after-tax profits. States, acting in the best interests of their residents, set tax policies that are incongruous with the policies of other states. The “bad actors,” if there are any in this story, are corporate aggregates of one sort or another, multinational corporations and tax haven countries.
But the LuxLeaks scandal has given us one human face that stands out from the crowd of aggregates. This is the face of Marius Kohl or “Monsieur Ruling,” the former head of the Luxembourg agency, who gave rulings to taxpayers on the tax treatments of their proposed transactions. In The State Administration of International Tax Avoidance, Omri Marian does a wonderful job of explaining how this one bureaucrat acted to facilitate massive tax avoidance by engaging in “arbitrage manufacturing.” Marian argues that rogue individuals pose an ongoing threat to international tax cooperation. His paper clearly explains how arbitrage can be manufactured, documents how it was done in Luxembourg, and draws from the LuxLeaks episode an important lesson about the need to integrate micro reforms of tax administration into the macro project of international tax harmonization efforts.
This emphasis on individual actors, including not only Kohl but also the relatively small number of accountants and tax advisors working in on behalf of US and UK clients in Luxembourg, is one of the significant contributions of the paper. States and their regulatory agencies do not make decisions, individuals do. Those individual decisions are the results of their own private calculi, and shifting attention to individual incentives and constraints is an important analytical step. We cannot assume that tax administrators’ preferences necessarily align with best interests of their own country. Shifting attention to the incentives and constraints of the decision-makers themselves will force us to confront the monitoring, supervision, and optimal incentive structure problems for tax administrators that we do in other settings. The problem with Kohl was, in some sense, another example of regulatory capture, but one that has received little attention in the international tax compliance context where, as Marian notes, the focus has been on the harmonization of substantive tax laws.
Marian grounds his argument in an original data set. By thoroughly reviewing 172 tax rulings, Marian is able to provide a broad account of Kohl’s ruling practices as tax administrator. He reports descriptive statistics about the kinds of taxpayers who sought rulings, the time that was spent reviewing the applications, the legal issues on which rulings were sought, and the names of the tax advisors who submitted the rulings. Marian is generally persuasive in arguing that it is implausible that Kohl could have given the applications more than a cursory review, given the time that he spent with them; however, he cannot completely rule out the possibility that the ruling applications merely reflected agreements negotiated in advance between Kohl and the taxpayers. But this is a minor point in light of all of the other evidence Marian presents to suggest that Kohl was fully pliant. Although Marian does not compare the merits of the positions taken in the ruling applications with the particulars of Luxembourg law, the indirect case he makes for Kohl rubber-stamping the applications is compelling. Most damning is that Kohl afforded the same financial instrument different treatment in order to comply with different taxpayer requests.
Marian has done a service by compiling a dataset from these rulings, but in addition to the effort involved in hand-coding this new dataset, there is much to admire about the restraint and care that he demonstrates interpreting it. He is forthright about the limitations about what can be generalized about tax administration from this one episode, and fastidious about noting potential issues. When evaluating any empirical study, the reader must be able to assume that the author has done the analysis with integrity and has carefully considered and set forth the key assumptions of the approach. This paper gives every indication that Marian is a trustworthy guide.
The OECD’s project on base erosion and profit shifting includes a proposal that would address the particular debt/equity arbitrage that was most common among the transactions approved by Messr. Ruling. This proposal would require matching, so that a payment that was not includible in income in the payee country could not be deductible in the payor country. This is a good rule. But Professor Marian’s point, ably illustrated by the case of Marius Kohl, is that it is insufficient to harmonize substantive tax laws. Certainly this needs to be done, and harmonization must cover as many countries as possible. But in the final analysis it will be individuals who make enforcement decisions and rule on ambiguous cases.
In this realm, like so many others, we need to think about how to police the police. Doing this effectively requires understanding what motivates bureaucrats and regulators but, unfortunately, investigations into the LuxLeaks scandal have provided few answers to this question. Neither Marian nor the journalists who have covered the story have been able to explain why Kohl acted as he did. Was he compensated? Did he relish the power to give people what they wanted? Was he merely indifferent to the performance of his duties? Marian provides a valuable contribution in drawing attention to the powers of individual actors. Further work should focus on what motivates those actors, so policymakers can design the proper incentives and monitoring regimes to regulate them.
Shannon Weeks McCormack, Over-Taxing the Working Family: Uncle Sam and the Childcare Squeeze
, 114 Mich. L. Rev.
___ (2015), available at SSRN
Childcare costs have soared in recent years while wages remain stagnant. To make matters worse, relief by provided by the tax code is extremely limited. Parents may be able to claim a tax credit for a portion of their childcare costs and may be able to divert limited funds to a pretax flexible spending account. But in many cases, these tax benefits capture only a minor portion of parents’ costs. It is no surprise, then, that with an election year upon us, a number of proposals to expand the current childcare tax credit have resurfaced in recent months. These proposals echo years of debate over whether the tax system discourages work by secondary earners and treats working parents unfairly vis-à-vis their non-parent counterparts.
But current proposals to modestly expand the childcare credit will make only a small dent in working parents’ childcare costs. Recognizing the inadequacy of such an approach, Shannon Weeks McCormack proposes a more fundamental reform in her forthcoming article, Over-Taxing the Working Family: Uncle Sam and the Childcare Squeeze. The childcare tax credit, she argues, should be replaced with an above-the-line deduction for childcare expenses that is not subject to phase-outs or dollar limitations. In essence, Weeks McCormack calls for according childcare expenses the same treatment as deductible trade or business expenses.
The debate over whether childcare expenses represent personal consumption or the cost of earning income has been well documented by scholars. On the one hand, having children generally represents a personal choice and childcare expenses are not incurred by all workers. On the other hand, childcare expenses are often a “but for” cost of earning income, much like deductible business expenses. This debate began, however, in a time when secondary wages (generally earned by women) were often discretionary. In years past, a mother who “chose” to work and hire a caretaker for her children was, arguably, making an elective decision. What Weeks McCormack’s article adds to this debate is a fresh and much-needed modern perspective.
As Weeks McCormack states, “Today, most two-parent families consist of two earners and require at least two incomes to meet their needs. The pressure to find work is even greater for single parents. . . .” Indeed, the reality today is that many (if not most) parents purchase childcare services because they must work outside the home to make ends meet. And, Weeks McCormack notes, childcare options are often limited. Daycares may have waitlists and working parents may purchase more expensive in-home childcare services because they cannot afford to take off of work if their child gets sick. These facts not only cut against the presumption that childcare costs are elective, but they also undermine the presumption that parents pay caregivers only the perceived consumption value of their services. When viewed in this light, childcare expenses look less like personal consumption today than they might have fifty years ago. To be sure, some taxpayers still receive significant consumptive benefits from childcare arrangements and would perhaps incur those expenses independent of the decision to work, a fact that Weeks McCormack acknowledges. However, because this group likely makes up a small and decreasing segment of working parents, policies that assume this potential consumptive benefit do not make sense. In other words, child care expenses in today’s world are a necessary cost of earning income for most parents, which makes them more akin to deductible business expenses.
Weeks McCormack also has an insightful take on why expanding section 21’s childcare tax credit is an unsatisfactory solution. Not only are tax credits prone to phase-outs, caps, and other limitations, but credits are often considered to be tax expenditures. This is relevant because under the Haig-Simons definition of income, deductions that represent the cost of earning income (e.g., business expenses) must be taken into account to calculate net income and therefore are not considered to be tax expenditures. If childcare expenses are also considered to be a cost of earning income, a deduction or credit for these expenses should not be considered a tax expenditure either.
Interestingly, the original version of section 21 was a (somewhat limited) tax deduction for childcare costs, which Congress converted to a credit in 1976 in order to eliminate the upside-down subsidy effect of deductions. But, Weeks McCormack notes, the legislative history to that amendment specifically described childcare expenses as a cost of earning income, and Congress accordingly rejected the notion of an income-based phase-out of the credit. However, that message was lost over time, as the credit subsequently has been pared down and subjected to both income phase-outs and dollar limits. The Joint Committee on Taxation also included the working childcare tax provisions on its list of tax expenditures, which contradicts the notion that childcare expenses are a cost of earning income.
The result, Weeks McCormack observes, is likely confusion on the part of lawmakers, who view the working childcare tax provisions as legislative “giveaways” rather than a means of properly measuring income. When considered in this light, it’s not surprising that the current regime provides insubstantial support for many working parents. Thus, Weeks McCormack argues, meaningful tax reform requires not just expanding the scope of tax relief for working parents, but reframing that relief in a manner that reflects its purpose, i.e., removing it from the list of tax expenditures and converting it to a deduction that is necessary to accurately measure net income.
Weeks McCormack also offers some interesting practical suggestions for implementing her proposal. One possibility is to enact a deduction that looks something like section 274(n)’s 50 percent limitation on the deductibility of business meals. While Weeks McCormack thinks 50 percent deductibility is too low, I think this approach could offer an attractive political compromise that would still put many working parents ahead of the current regime. And while I don’t believe that a deduction would realistically encourage parents to go out and incur lavish childcare expenses, Weeks McCormack argues that such concerns could be assuaged by enacting limitations on lavish and extravagant expenses similar to those imposed on business entertainment and meal expenses.
As working parents continue to struggle financially, Weeks McCormack’s article is vitally important and timely. Politicians and other policymakers would be well-advised to pay attention.
Lily Kahng, The Not-So-Merry Wives of
Windsor: The Taxation of Women in Same-Sex Marriages
, 101 Cornell L. Rev.
(forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN
The road to same-sex marriage was paved with a tax decision. In United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), the United States Supreme Court recognized that same-sex spouses, like different-sex spouses, have the right to pass assets to each other tax-free at death. In arriving at that decision, the Court invalidated the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that provided that the word “marriage,” for federal purposes, meant only a legal union between a man and a woman. With Windsor, a same-sex marriage that was valid for purposes of state law would be recognized for purposes of federal law. In a tax sense, Windsor put same-sex couples and different-sex couples on equal footing for federal purposes. Many commentators accurately predicted that the Windsor case laid the foundation for the Court’s recognition two years later of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).
In the wake of the Windsor and Obergefell decisions, some tax scholars have drawn important attention to legal issues created in the period between Windsor and Obergefell for same-sex couples whose states did not recognize their marriages, as well as challenges faced by those who choose civil unions over marriage. Other tax scholars are wary of Obergefell’s glorification of marriage as the highest form of human fulfillment, and are skeptical that marriage is the correct foundation for a variety of procedural and substantive rules.
Enter into this conversation Lily Kahng’s thoughtful examination at how women in same-sex couples might fare from a tax perspective in a post-Windsor, post-Obergefell world. For almost twenty years, Kahng has been a leading and consistent voice in critiquing the fiction of marital unity in the tax law. In The Not-So-Merry Wives of Windsor: The Taxation of Women in Same-Sex Marriages, Kahng turns on its head the assumption that same-sex marriage is a salutary shift in the legal landscape for same-sex couples. Kahng argues that under federal law, women in same-sex couples will be taxed unfavorably compared to women in different-sex couples.
Kahng builds her argument through studied examination of three areas of tax law: the joint income tax return, the estate and gift tax marital deduction, and the earned income tax credit. By showing how these laws impact hypothetical female same-sex couples, Kahng exposes the tax law’s improper channeling of benefits based on marital status. Through specific numerical illustrations involving hypothetical two-earner and single-earner couples, Kahng shows in a practical way how the marriage penalty and marriage bonus operate. She illustrates how middle-income couples and high-income couples are the most likely to receive a marriage bonus, and how two-earner upper income couples are the most likely to experience a marriage penalty. (For anyone who has ever struggled to understand precisely how the “marriage bonus” or “marriage penalty” operate, Kahng’s elegant numerical illustrations will quell any confusion.) Kahng then takes the important step of using census data regarding labor force participation of women in same-sex couples to show that they are more likely than women in different-sex couples to experience a marriage penalty and they are less likely to receive a marriage bonus. This is because women in same-sex couples tend to have both partners engaged in market labor and more equal incomes than different-sex couples. Although the reasons for these earning patterns are beyond the scope of Kahng’s article, the next step might be to understand why same-sex female couples are more likely than different-sex couples to have two working spouses, and why that income is more likely to be more equal. One suspects it has to do as much (or more) to do with the fact that women earn less for market labor than their male counterparts than any personal preference or traits unique to women in same-sex relationships.
Building on her understanding of earning patterns, Kahng turns to the QTIP trust, gift splitting and estate tax portability to ask what couples are likely be benefit from wealth transfer tax laws that accord preferences to married couples. Kahng’s examples illustrate that all three of these techniques—QTIP trusts, gift splitting and portability—are applicable only to taxpayers who have wealth in excess of the wealth transfer tax exemption amount, or $5.43 million in 2015 ($5.45 million in 2016). And within that group of wealthy taxpayers, the control that QTIP trusts in particular afford will be especially appealing mostly to those who have less-wealthy spouses. Although Kahng acknowledges limitations in the data regarding the wealth of women in same-sex marriages, the spouses’ relatively equal levels of labor force participation and income levels suggest that their wealth levels also are likely to be equal or close to equal as well, which means that they will be less likely than different-sex couples to benefit from gift and estate tax marital preferences. To the extent that women in same-sex couples might want to take advantage of QTIP trusts and the ability to direct the disposition of trust property upon the death of the surviving spouse, it may be to protect children from prior relationships.
Kahng uses census data to convey the stark reality that female same-sex couples are more likely than different-sex couples to be living in or near poverty and the spouses are more likely to have relatively equal incomes. The reasons for this are not well understood, but Kahng explains the tax context. Again through numerical illustrations, Kahng shows that a low-income unmarried couple comprised of two individuals with relatively equal earnings will receive a greater earned income tax credit than a similarly-situated married couple. That EITC marriage penalty might discourage some taxpayers—in both same-sex and different-sex couples—from marrying. To the extent that they are more likely than people in different-sex couples to have relatively equal earnings, women in same-sex couples will be more likely to either incur a marriage penalty or be deterred from marriage in greater numbers than women in different-sex couples.
For anyone interested in understanding the tax implications of the Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex marriage, Kahng’s article is a must-read. Writing squarely within the critical tax tradition, Kahng looks at the tax system to ask important questions about advantage and disadvantage. For years, critical tax theorists have taken up the challenge of identifying ways in which the tax system privileged different-sex couples over same-sex couples. With this article, Kahng widens the critical tax lens further, inviting readers to consider the ways that women in same-sex couples might experience the tax law differently than men in same-sex couples or men and women in different-sex couples. The quest for fairness in taxation must be a nuanced one, as Lily Kahng’s careful work demonstrates.
Cite as: Bridget J. Crawford, Widening the Critical Tax Lens
(March 23, 2016) (reviewing Lily Kahng, The Not-So-Merry Wives of
Windsor: The Taxation of Women in Same-Sex Marriages
, 101 Cornell L. Rev.
(forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN), https://tax.jotwell.com/widening-the-critical-tax-lens/