Tag: Income tax

Supreme Court Strikes Another Blow against IRS

As if the IRS weren’t reeling enough already, today the unanimous Supreme Court dealt the beleaguered agency another blow, unanimously ruling that companies who paid a British “windfall tax” could get credit for that payment against their U.S. tax liabilities. This should’ve been a simple case, and the federal tax court got it right – the tax code credits foreign income taxes – but the court of appeals found a convoluted way to rule for the IRS.

As Cato’s brief explained, however, taxpayers have the right to be free from double taxation and here the IRS improperly disregarded the substance of the windfall tax. A foreign tax’s form or label can’t mask its substantive character for legal purposes. American businesses operating overseas should be able to rely on a stable, substantive application of U.S. tax law instead of arbitrary interpretations and constructions manipulated to generate payments to the IRS.

The Supreme Court had to invoke and explain complicated equations to reach its decision – I’ve never seen so much math in an opinion – but this ruling ultimately boils down to the longstanding doctrine regarding how to evaluate a tax: (1) A tax’s “predominant character,” or the normal manner in which it applies, controls what kind of tax it is for other legal purposes; and (2) foreign tax creditability depends not on the way a foreign government characterizes its tax but on is economic effect – whether the tax, if enacted in the United States, would be an income tax or something else.

That’s the big takeaway here: The specific since-repealed UK tax at issue in PPL Corp. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue isn’t likely to come up again, but the IRS is on notice that it doesn’t have discretion to err in favor of the Treasury whenever it feels like it. The tax code provides rules –albeit often overly complicated ones – that courts will enforce.

Identifying the Right “Depreciation” Tax Policy

I’m normally reluctant to write about “depreciation” because I imagine eyes glazing around the world. After all, not many people care about the tax treatment of business investment expenses.

But I was surprised by the positive response I received after writing a post about Obama’s demagoguery against “tax loopholes” for corporate jets. So with considerable trepidation let’s take another look at the issue.

First, a bit of background. Every economic theory agrees that investment is a key for long-run growth and higher living standards. Even Marxist and socialist theory agrees with this insight (though they foolishly think government somehow is competent to be in charge of investments).

Let’s look at two remarkable charts, starting with one that shows the very powerful link between total investment and wages for workers.

 

As you can see, if we want people to earn more money, it definitely helps for there to be more investment. More “capital” means that workers have higher productivity, and that’s the primary determinant of wages and salary.

Our second chart shows how the internal revenue code treats income that is consumed compared to how it penalizes income that is saved and invested. Simply stated, the current system is very biased against capital formation because of the combined impact of capital gains taxes, corporate income taxes, double taxes on dividends, and death taxes.

Indeed, one of the reasons why the right kind of tax reform will generate more prosperity is that double taxation of saving and investment is eliminated. With either a flat tax or national sales tax, economic activity is taxed only one time. No death tax, no capital gains tax, no double tax on dividends in either plan.

All of this background information helps underscore why it is especially foolish for the tax code to specifically penalize business investment. And this happens because companies have to “depreciate” rather than “expense” their investments.

The 100th Anniversary of the Income Tax…and the Lesson We Should Learn from that Mistake

What’s the worst thing about Delaware?

No, not Joe Biden. He’s just a typical feckless politician and the butt of some good jokes.

Instead, the so-called First State is actually the Worst State because almost exactly 100 years ago, on February 3, 1913, Delaware made the personal income tax possible by ratifying the 16th Amendment.

Though, to be fair, I suppose the 35 states that already had ratified the Amendment were more despicable since they were even more anxious to enable this noxious levy.

But let’s not get bogged down in details. The purpose of this post is not to re-hash history, but to instead ask what lessons we can learn from the adoption of the income tax.

The most obvious lesson is that politicians can’t be trusted with additional powers. The first income tax had a top tax rate of just 7 percent and the entire tax code was 400 pages long. Now we have a top tax rate of 39.6 percent (even higher if you include additional levies for Medicare and Obamacare) and the tax code has become a 72,000-page monstrosity.

But the main lesson I want to discuss today is that giving politicians a new source of money inevitably leads to much higher spending.

Here’s Why the Cayman Islands Is Considering Fiscal Suicide

What Do Greece, the United States, and the Cayman Islands Have in Common?

At first, this seems like a trick question. After all, the Cayman Islands are a fiscal paradise, with no personal income tax, no corporate income tax, no capital gains tax, and no death tax.

By contrast, Greece is a bankrupt, high-tax welfare state, and the United States sooner or later will suffer the same fate because of misguided entitlement programs.

But even though there are some important differences, all three of these jurisdictions share a common characteristic in that they face fiscal troubles because government spending has been growing faster than economic output.

I’ve written before that the definition of good fiscal policy is for the private sector to grow faster than the government. I’ve humbly decided to refer to this simple principle as Mitchell’s Golden Rule, and have pointed out that bad things happen when governments violate this common-sense guideline.

In the case of the Cayman Islands, the “bad thing” is that the government is proposing to levy an income tax, which would be akin to committing fiscal suicide.

The Cayman Islands are one of the world’s richest jurisdictions (more prosperous than the United States according to the latest World Bank data), in part because there are no tax penalties on income and production.

So why are the local politicians considering a plan to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? For the simple reason that they have been promiscuous in spending other people’s money. This chart shows that the burden of government spending in the Cayman Islands has climbed twice as fast as economic output since 2000.

Much of this spending has been to employ and over-compensate a bloated civil service (in this respect, Cayman is sort of a Caribbean version of California).

In other words, the economic problem is that there has been too much spending, and the political problem is that politicians have been trying to buy votes by padding government payrolls (a problem that also exists in America).

The right solution to this problem is to reduce the burden of government spending back to the levels in the early part of last decade. The political class in Cayman, however, hopes it can prop up its costly bureaucracy with a new tax—which euphemistically is being called a “community enhancement fee.”

The politicians claim the tax will only be 10 percent and will only be imposed on the expat community. But it’s worth noting that the U.S. income tax began in 1913 with a top rate of only seven percent and it affected less than one percent of the population. But that supposedly benign tax has since become a monstrous internal revenue code that plagues the nation today.

Except the results will be even worse in Cayman because the thousands of foreigners who are being targeted easily can shift their operations to other zero-income tax jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, or the Bahamas. Or they can decide that to set up shop in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which have very modest income tax burdens (and the ability to out-compete Cayman in other areas).

As a long-time admirer of the Cayman Islands, I desperately hope the government will reconsider this dangerous step. The world already has lots of examples of nations that are following bad policy. We need a few places that are at least being semi-sensible.

By they way, I started this post with a rhetorical question about the similarities of Greece, the United States, and the Cayman Islands. Let’s elaborate on the answer.

Here’s a post that shows how Greece’s fiscal nightmare developed. But let’s show a separate chart for the burden of federal spending in the United States.

What’s remarkable is that the federal government and the Cayman Islands government have followed very similar paths to fiscal trouble. Indeed, Caymanian politicians have achieved the dubious distinction of increasing the burden of government spending at a faster rate than even Bush and Obama. No mean feat.

This data for the U.S. chart doesn’t include the burden of state and local government spending, so the Cayman Islands still has an advantage over the United States, but I’ll close with a prediction.

If the Cayman Islands adopts an income tax—regardless of whether they call it a community enhancement fee (to misquote Shakespeare, a rotting fish on the beach by any other name would still smell like garbage), it will be just a matter of time before the burden of government spending becomes even more onerous and Cayman loses its allure and drops from being one of the world’s 10-richest jurisdictions.

Which will be very sad since I’ll now have to find a different place to go when America suffers its Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Supreme Court Gives Taxpayers a Muddled Win

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Carl DeNigris.

Before the argument on the Arizona immigration case yesterday, the Supreme Court scored a blow for American taxpayers by rejecting the IRS’s attempt to overturn the Court’s prior interpretation of a disputed provision of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. §6501(e)(1)(A).  By avoiding the issue of whether agencies can use their regulatory powers retroactively, however, the Court didn’t go far enough.

In United States v. Home Concrete, the Court ruled that its decision in Colony v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (1956) – that a taxpayer’s overstatement of tax basis in property is not an omission of income that would otherwise trigger an extended statute of limitations period for assessment – was still controlling.  The IRS had tried to change its interpretation of the relevant regulation but the Court concluded that, despite the government’s contention that the new interpretation was due judicial deference, “there is no longer any different construction that is consistent with Colony and available for adoption by the agency.”  That is, the IRS can’t unilaterally overturn Supreme Court precedent by changing how it interprets statutory language or applies a particular regulation.

But the Court didn’t address the government’s most insidious action here: the IRS sought deference for a regulation that it promulgated in the midst of litigation and which would have been retroactively applied to the taxpayers who were parties to the Home Concrete lawsuit.

In our amicus brief, Cato argued that sanctioning this sort of ad hoc, retroactive rulemaking undermines the rule of law by altering basic assumptions “regarding fairness and reliability of the laws and their application by the courts.”  Yet, with the exception of Justice Kennedy’s one sentence dismissal in dissent, the Court showed no interest in the retroactivity issue.  Moreover, it referred to the government’s blatant attempt at retroactive rulemaking as a mere “gap-filling regulation” with “no gap to fill.”  So while taxpayers won a narrow victory today, the Court’s silence gives little assurance that it remains a bulwark against arbitrary government power.

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s now unclear how courts are to apply an important precedent called Brand X, a 2005 case standing for the proposition that administrative agencies (like the IRS) can adopt regulations contrary to a judicial decision only when the relevant statute’s silence or ambiguity represents a congressional delegation of authority to fill that “gap” to the agency.  In other words, here the IRS acted contrary to clear statutory language as interpreted by Colony Cove, but what about future cases?  We’re no tax or even administrative law specialists, but it does seem that the Court has made a big mess out of Brand X:  When can an agency overturn decisions of the Court?  When can it not?  We’ll have to wait for the next ridiculous agency action to make its way to the Supreme Court to find out.

For more on the case, see here; for more technical administrative/tax law analysis, see here.  One other curious thing about this decision is that it ended up 5-4 but the majority opinion was written by Justice Breyer (who styles himself as the Court’s administrative law expert) and joined by the “conservative” justices – though Justice Scalia concurs only in part – with Justice Kennedy writing the dissent, joined by the remaining three “liberal” justices.

$1 Trillion in Phony Spending Cuts?

In the Washington Post Friday, Ezra Klein partly confirmed what I fear the Republican strategy is for the debt-limit bill—get to the $2 trillion in cuts promised through accounting gimmicks. As I have also noted, Klein says that there is about $1 trillion in budget “savings” ($1.4 trillion with interest) to be found simply in the inflated Congressional Budget Office baseline for Iraq and Afghanistan. Klein says, “I’m told that a big chunk of these savings were included in the debt-ceiling deal” that Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Sen. Jon Kyl (D-AZ) are negotiating with the Democrats.

Republican leaders have promised that spending cuts in the debt-limit deal must be at least as large as the debt-limit increase, which means $2 trillion if the debt-limit is extended to reach the end of 2012. In a Daily Caller op-ed, I noted that you can find $1 trillion in “savings” from this phony war accounting and another $1 trillion by simply pretending that non-security discretionary will stay flat over the next decade.

There is more evidence that few, if any, real spending cuts are being discussed. One clue is that the media keeps quoting Joe Biden essentially saying that it was easy to reach agreement on the first $1 trillion in cuts.

The other suspicious thing is that the media keeps floating trial balloons for specific tax hikes, but I’ve seen very few trial balloons for specific spending cuts. Friday, the Washington Post story on the debt discussions mentions all kinds of ideas for raising taxes on high earners. A few days ago, news stories revealed that negotiators were talking about changing tax bracket indexing to create annual stealth increases in income taxes. The only item I’ve seen being discussed on the spending side is trimming farm subsidies.

If Republican and Democratic lawmakers were really discussing major spending cuts, then the media would be full of stories mentioning particular changes to entitlement laws to reduce benefits and stories about abolishing programs widely regarded as wasteful, such as community development grants.

I hope I’m wrong, but this is starting to look a lot like the phony $100 billion spending cut deal from earlier this year.

Sean, Rush, Greta, Glenn, Bill: When you get Republican leaders on your shows, get them to promise that they won’t use phony baseline accounting like war costs to reach the $2 trillion in cuts. The budget and the nation desperately need real cuts and real government downsizing.

The President’s Fiscal Commission: It’s a Start

Today POLITICO Arena asks

Will implementing President Obama’s Fiscal Commission recommendations require that everyone take a hit?

My response (with tax insights from Jagadeesh Gokhale):

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission Report offers a useful start in reducing our budget deficits and national debt, but it hardly goes far enough. As several of my Cato colleagues have just noted here, here, here, and here, the report recognizes, to its credit, that our corporate income tax structure puts U.S. corporations at a considerable competitive disadvantage against their foreign competitors. And the report keeps military spending cuts on the table, even if there is much more to be cut. Yet by proposing a reduction in government spending from 24.3 percent of GDP today to 21.8 percent over the next 15 years – total federal spending as recently as 2000 was just 18.4 percent of GDP – it plays the old Washington game of calling a slower increase than previously projected a “cut.”

As for taxes, this report should be read in the context of a powerful argument in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal to the effect that over the past six decades, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have averaged just under 19 percent, regardless of the top marginal personal income tax rate or whether taxes were cut or raised. What this suggests is that low tax rates spur income growth to leave the government’s revenues undiminished over the long-term. High tax rates do the opposite. It doesn’t take a large leap of faith to believe that this effect would be stronger for those who earn more and pay more in taxes. Indeed, among high earners are the nation’s business leaders – innovators who create new products and jobs – who would respond positively to the growth opportunity provided by a stable, low-tax-rate environment.  So those who believe that we help ourselves by more heavily taxing the rich need to ask themselves whether it might not be better to cut rates and keep them stable instead. Wouldn’t that promote a robust economy and lift all boats – with the government continuing to generate 19 percent in revenues?

None of this has anything to do, of course, with whether our current out-of-control federal government is constitutionally authorized to do all it is doing. But it’s a start toward returning the government to within its constitutional limits. Had those limits been respected – as the Framers understood, unlike New Deal progressives – we wouldn’t be in this mess.

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