Tag: IRS

The IRS: Even Worse Than You Think

Since it is tax-filing season and we all want to honor our wonderful tax system, let’s go into the archives and show this video from last year about the onerous compliance costs of the internal revenue code.

Narrated by Hiwa Alaghebandian of the American Enterprise Institute, the mini-documentary explains how needless complexity creates an added burden - sort of like a hidden tax that we pay for the supposed privilege of paying taxes.

Two things from the video are worth highlighting.

First, we should make sure to put most of the blame on Congress. As Ms. Alaghebandian notes, the IRS is in the unenviable position of trying to enforce Byzantine tax laws. Yes, there are examples of grotesque IRS abuse, but even the most angelic group of bureaucrats would have a hard time overseeing 70,000-plus pages of laws and regulations (by contrast, the Hong Kong flat tax, which has been in place for more than 60 years, requires less than 200 pages).

Second, we should remember that compliance costs are just the tip of the iceberg. The video also briefly mentions three other costs.

  1. The money we send to Washington, which is a direct cost to our pocketbooks and also an indirect cost since the money often is used to finance counterproductive programs that further damage the economy.
  2. The budgetary burden of the IRS, which is a staggering $12.5 billion. This is the money we spend to employ an army of tax bureaucrats that is larger than the CIA and FBI combined.
  3. The economic burden of the tax system, which measures the lost economic output from a tax system that penalizes productive behavior.
  4. The way to fix this mess, needless to say, is to junk the entire tax code and start all over.

    I’ve been a big proponent of the flat tax, which would mean one low tax rate, no double taxation of savings, and no corrupt loopholes. But I’m also a big fan of national sales tax proposals such as the Fair Tax, assuming we can amend the Constitution so that greedy politicians don’t pull a bait and switch and impose both an income tax and a sales tax.

    But the most important thing we need to understand is that bloated government is our main problem. If we had a limited federal government, as our Founding Fathers envisioned, it would be almost impossible to have a bad tax system. But if we continue to move in the direction of becoming a European-style welfare state, it will be impossible to have a good tax system.

Reckless IRS Regulation Would Put Foreign Tax Law over American Tax Law and Drive Investment out of the United States

I’m not a big fan of the IRS, but usually I blame politicians for America’s corrupt, unfair, and punitive tax system. Sometimes, though, the tax bureaucrats run amok and earn their reputation as America’s most despised bureaucracy.

Here’s an example. Earlier this year, the Internal Revenue Service proposed a regulation that would force American banks to become deputy tax collectors for foreign governments. Specifically, they would be required to report any interest they pay to accounts held by nonresident aliens (a term used for foreigners who live abroad).

The IRS issued this proposal, even though Congress repeatedly has voted not to tax this income because of an understandable desire to attract job-creating capital to the U.S. economy. In other words, the IRS is acting like a rogue bureaucracy, seeking to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The IRS’s interest-reporting regulation also threatens the stability of the American banking system, makes America less attractive for foreign investors, and weakens the human rights of people who live under corrupt and tyrannical governments.

This video outlines five specific reasons why the IRS regulation is bad news and should be withdrawn.

I’m not sure what upsets me most. As a believer in honest and lawful government, it is outrageous that the IRS is abusing the regulatory process to pursue an ideological agenda that is contrary to 90 years of congressional law. But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see this kind of policy from the IRS with Obama in the White House. After all, this Administration already is using the EPA in a dubious scheme to impose costly global warming rules even though Congress decided not to approve Obama’s misguided legislation.

As an economist, however, I worry about the impact on the U.S. banking sector and the risks for the overall economy. Foreigners invest lots of money in the American economy, more than $10 trillion according to Commerce Department data. This money boosts our financial markets and creates untold numbers of jobs. We don’t know how much of the capital will leave if the regulation is implemented, but even the loss of a couple of hundred billion dollars would be bad news considering the weak recovery and shaky financial sector.

As a decent human being, I’m also angry that Obama’s IRS is undermining the human rights of foreigners who use the American financial system as a safe haven. Countless people protect their assets in America because of corruption, expropriation, instability, persecution, discrimination, and crime in their home countries. The only silver lining is that these people will simply move their money to safer jurisdictions, such as Panama, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, or Switzerland, if the regulation is implemented. That’s great news for them, but bad news for the U.S. economy.

In pushing this regulation, the IRS even disregarded rule-making procedures adopted during the Clinton Administration. But all this is explained in the video, so let’s close this post with a link to a somewhat naughty - but very appropriate - joke about the IRS.

Another Day in the Life of the IRS

A previous post of mine at International Liberty addressed the debate over whether Republicans should trim the IRS’s budget. The following case study should convince everyone that the answer is a resounding yes.

First, some background from a Joe Nocera column in the New York Times. The federal government made a rather troubling decision a few years ago to investigate, prosecute, and ultimately imprison a random home-loan borrower named Charlie Engle for the crime of mortgage fraud.

Mr. Engle is far from blameless in this saga, but I noted in another post that it was rather odd that the government would target a nobody while letting all the big fish swim away. This episode certainly paints a picture of a government that has one set of rules for ordinary people, but an entirely different set of rules for the political elite and those who make big campaign contributions to that ruling class.

But I also noted that I’m not a lawyer or legal expert and was unsure about the degree to which the big players actually broke laws, or whether they simply made stupid business decisions (often encouraged by bad government policy).

The most upsetting part of the story, though, is how the government wound up targeting Mr. Engle. It turns out that an IRS agent, Robert Norlander, must have been competing for the IRS’s Bully-of-the-Year Award because here are some of the things he did:

  • Norlander decided to snoop into Engle’s affairs because he saw a film about him training for a marathon. In other words, there was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, nothing. Just the perverse decision of an IRS bully to go after someone.
  • Norlander admitted a pattern of thuggish behavior, stating that he will snoop into someone’s private life simply because that person drives an expensive car.
  • Norlander continued to investigate and persecute Engle, subjecting him to undercover surveillance, even though his tax returns showed no wrongdoing.
  • Norlander even engaged in “dumpster dives” to look for evidence of wrongdoing in Mr. Engle’s garbage. Keep in mind that there is no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, and Engle’s tax returns were legit.
  • Norlander used a sleazy KGB tactic by sending an attractive woman to flirt with Mr. Engle in hopes of getting him to somehow admit to a crime.
  • Norlander failed to find any evidence of a tax crime. He couldn’t even hit Engle with a money-laundering offense. But the undercover agent who was part of the “honey trap” was wearing a wire and supposedly got Engle to admit to mortgage fraud and Norlander used that extremely flimsy evidence to justify a Justice Department case against Engle.

In other words, this whole thing has a terrible stench. Assuming the details in the story are accurate, we have an IRS agent engaging in a random vendetta against someone, and then apparently justifying his jihad by figuring out how to nail the guy on a very weak charge of mortgage fraud. I would describe Norlander as a “rogue agent,” but apparently this behavior is business-as-usual at the IRS.

Here are the relevant passages from Nocera’s column:

Mr. Engle received $30,000 for his participation. The film, “Running the Sahara,” was released in the fall of 2008. Eventually, it caught the attention of Robert W. Nordlander, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service. As Mr. Nordlander later told the grand jury, “Being the special agent that I am, I was wondering, how does a guy train for this because most people have to work from nine to five and it’s very difficult to train for this part-time.” (He also told the grand jurors that sometimes, when he sees somebody driving a Ferrari, he’ll check to see if they make enough money to afford it. When I called Mr. Nordlander and others at the I.R.S. to ask whether this was an appropriate way to choose subjects for criminal tax investigations, my questions were met with a stone wall of silence.) Mr. Engle’s tax records showed that while his actual income was substantial, his taxable income was quite small, in part because he had a large tax-loss carry forward, due to a business deal he’d been involved in several years earlier. (Mr. Nordlander would later inform the grand jury only of his much lower taxable income, which made it seem more suspicious.) Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly. In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments. …Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire. …No tax charges were ever brought, even though that was Mr. Nordlander’s original rationale. Money laundering, the suspicion of which was needed to justify the undercover sting, was a nonissue as well. As for that “confession” to Ms. Burrows, take a closer look. It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.

Stories like this explain why I’m a libertarian.

As George Washington supposedly said, ”Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Unfortunately, thanks to bad laws and thuggish bureaucrats, government is definitely now our master and no longer just a servant. The IRS is a grim example of this phenomenon. President Obama, not surprisingly, wants to increase their budget.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • On getting out of Afghanistan.
  • $61 billion in spending cuts amounts to less than a third of what taxpayers will pay in interest on the debt alone this year.
  • The political stakes in the latest debt ceiling game are high. The consequences of failing to use it as an opportunity to start reining in the federal government are even higher.
  • The IRS is handing out “free” candy.
  • New data from the Federal Aviation Administration shows that reported air traffic control errors have increased by 81 percent since 2007.

Tax Lawyers, Tax Complexity, and the Broader Problem of a Self-Serving Legal Profession

The Internal Revenue Code is nightmarishly complex, as illustrated by this video. Americans spend more than 7 billion hours each year in a hopeless effort to figure out how to deal with more than 7 million words of tax law and regulation.

Why does this mess exist? The simple answer is that politicians benefit from the current mess, using their power over tax laws to raise campaign cash, reward friends, punish enemies, and play politics. This argument certainly has merit, and it definitely helps explain why the political class is so hostile to a simple and fair flat tax.

But a big part of the problem is that tax lawyers dominate the tax-lawmaking process. Almost all the decision-making professionals at the tax-writing committees (Ways & Means Committee in the House and Finance Committee in the Senate) are lawyers, as are the vast majority of tax policy people at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, some lawyers are needed if for no other reason than to figure out how new loopholes, deductions, credits, and other provisions can be integrated into Rube-Goldberg monstrosity of existing law.

But part of me has always wondered whether lawyers deliberately or subconsciously make the system complex because it serves their interests. I know many tax lawyers who are now getting rich in private practice by helping their clients navigate the complicated laws and regulations that they helped implement. For these people, the time they spent on Capitol Hill, in the Treasury, or at the IRS was an investment that enables today’s lucrative fees.

I freely admit that this is a sour perspective on how Washington operates, but it certainly is consistent with the “public choice” theory that people in government behave in ways that maximize their self interest.

There’s now an interesting book that takes a broader look at this issue, analyzing the extent to which the legal profession looks out for its own self interest. Written by Benjamin H. Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, The Lawyer-Judge Bias in the American Legal System explains that the legal profession has self-serving tendencies.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, interviews Professor Barton about his new book.

I freely confess that I’m looking at this issue solely through my narrow prism of tax policy. But since Barton’s thesis meshes with my observations that tax lawyers benefit from a corrupt tax system, I’m sympathetic to the notion that the problem is much broader.

One of the most qoted lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” But rather than making lawyer jokes, it would be a better idea to figure out how to limit the negative impact of self-serving behavior - whether by lawyers or any other profession that might misuse the coercive power of government.

This is one of many reasons why decentralization is a good idea. If people and businesses have the freedom to choose the legal system with the best features, that restrains the ability of an interest group - including lawyers - to manipulate any one system for their private advantage. This new study by Professors Henry Butler and Larry Ribstein is a good explanation of why allowing “choice of law” yields superior results.

The IRS Run Amok

I’m not a big fan of the Internal Revenue Service, but I try not to demonize the bureaucrats because politicians actually deserve most of the blame for America’s complex, unfair, and corrupt tax system. The IRS generally is in the unenviable position of simply trying to enforce very bad laws.

But sometimes the IRS runs amok and the agency deserves to be held in contempt by the American people

Let’s look at a grotesque example of IRS misbehavior. It deals with a seemingly arcane issue, but it has big implications for the US economy, the rule of law, and human rights.

On January 7, the tax-collection bureaucracy proposed a regulation that, if implemented, would force American financial institutions to put foreign tax law above US tax law. Banks would be required to report to the IRS any interest they pay to foreigners, but not so the US government can collect tax, but in order to let foreign governments tax this US-source income.

This isn’t the first time the IRS has tried to pull this stunt. At the very end of the Clinton years, the agency proposed a rule to do the same thing. But the bureaucrats were thwarted because of overwhelming opposition from Capitol Hill, the financial services industry, and public policy experts. There was near-unanimous agreement that it would be crazy to drive job-creating capital out of the US economy and there was also near-unanimous agreement that the IRS had no authority to impose a regulation that was completely inconsistent with the laws enacted by Congress.

But like a zombie, this IRS regulation has risen from the grave.

I’m not sure what is most upsetting about this proposed rule, but there are five serious flaws in the IRS’s back-door scheme to turn American banks into deputy tax collectors for foreign governments.

1. The IRS is flouting the law, using regulatory dictates to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.

Ever since 1921, and most recently reconfirmed by legislation in 1976 and 1986, Congress specifically has chosen not to tax interest paid to non-resident foreigners. Lawmakers wanted to attract money to the U.S. economy.

Yet rogue IRS bureaucrats want to impose a regulation to overturn the outcome of the democratic process. Heck, if they really think they have that sort of power, why don’t they do us a favor and unilaterally junk the entire internal revenue code and give us a flat tax?

2. The IRS has failed to perform a cost-benefit analysis, as required by executive order 12866.

Issued by the Clinton Administration, this executive order requires that regulations be accompanied by “An assessment of the potential costs and benefits of the regulatory action” for any regulation that will, “Have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, or State, local, or tribal governments or communities.”

Yet the IRS blithely asserts that this interest-reporting proposal is “not a significant regulatory action.” Amazing, we have trillions of dollars of foreign capital invested in our economy, perhaps $1 trillion of which is deposited in banks, and we know some of which definitely will be withdrawn if this regulation is implemented, but the bureaucrats unilaterally decided the regulation doesn’t require a cost-benefit analysis.

During a previous incarnation of this regulation, the IRS’s failure to comply with the rules led the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration to denounce the tax-collection bureaucracy, stating that “…there is ample evidence that the impact of the regulation is significant and that a substantial number of small businesses will be impacted.”

3. The IRS is imposing a regulation that puts America’s economy at risk.

According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have invested more than $10 trillion in the U.S. economy.

And according to the Treasury Department, foreigners have more than $4 trillion in American banks and brokerage accounts.

We don’t know how much money will leave America if this regulation is implemented, but there are many financial centers – such as London, Hong Kong, Cayman, Singapore, Tokyo, Zurch, Luxembourg, Bermuda, and Panama – that would gladly welcome the additional investment if the IRS makes the American financial services sector less attractive.

4. The IRS is destabilizing America’s already shaky financial system.

Five years ago, when the banking industry was strong, the IRS regulation would have been bad news. Now, with many banks still weakened by the financial crisis, the regulation could be a death knell. Not only would it drive capital to banks in other nations, it also would impose a heavy regulatory burden.

How bad would it be? Commenting on an earlier version of the regulation, which only would have applied to deposits from 15 countries, the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation warned that, “[a] shift of even a modest portion of these [nonresident alien] funds out of the U.S. banking system would certainly be termed a significant economic impact.” He also noted that potentially $1 trillion of deposits might be involved. And a study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that $87 billion would leave the American economy. And remember, that estimate was based on a regulation that would have applied to just 15 nations, not the entire world.

So what happens if more banks fail? I guess the bureaucrats at the IRS would probably just shrug their shoulders and suggest another bailout.

5. The IRS is endangering the lives of foreigners who deposit funds in America because of persecution, discrimination, abuse, crime, and instability in their home countries.

If you’re from Mexico you don’t want to put money in local banks or declare it to the tax authorities. Corruption is rampant and that information might be sold to criminal gangs who then kidnap one of your children. If you’re from Venezuela, you have the same desire to have your money in the United States, but perhaps you’re more worried about persecution or expropriation by a brutal dictatorship.

There are people all over the world who have good reasons to protect their private financial information. Yet this regulation would put them and their families at risk. The only silver lining is that these people presumably will move their money to other nations. Good for them, bad for America.

Let’s wrap this up. Under current law, America is a safe haven for international investors. This is good news for foreigners, and good news for the American economy. That’s why it is so outrageous that the IRS, unilaterally and without legal justification, is trying to reverse 90 years of law for no other reason than to help foreign governments.

By the way, you can add your two cents by clicking on this link which will take you to the public comment page for this regulation. Don’t be bashful.

One last point. The Obama Administration says this regulation is part of a global effort to improve tax compliance. But unless Congress changes the law, the IRS is not responsible for helping foreign tax collectors squeeze more money out foreign taxpayers. Moreover, the White House has been grossly misleading about U.S. compliance issues (as this video illustrates), so their assertions lack credibility.

Is the FAIR Tax a Political Liability?

In the past 15 years, I’ve debated in favor of a national sales tax, testified before Congress on the merits of a national sales tax, gone on TV to advocate for a national sales tax, and spoken with dozens of reporters to explain why a national sales tax is a good idea. Even though I prefer a flat tax, I’ve been an ardent defender of sales tax proposals such as the FAIR tax because it would be a great idea to replace the current system with any low-rate system that gets rid of the tax bias against saving and investment. I even narrated this video explaining that a national sales tax and flat tax are different sides of the same coin — and therefore either tax reform proposal would significantly improve prosperity and competitiveness.

I will continue to defend the FAIR tax and other national sales tax proposals that replace the income tax, but I wonder whether this is a losing battle. Every election cycle, candidates that endorse (or even say nice things about) the FAIR tax wind up getting attacked and put on the defensive. Their opponents are being dishonest, and their TV ads are grossly misleading, but they are using this approach because the anti-FAIR tax message is politically effective. Many pro-tax-reform candidates have lost elections in favorable states and districts, largely because their opponents were able to successfully demagogue against a national sales tax.

The Wall Street Journal reaches the same conclusion, opining this morning about the false — but effective — campaign against candidates who support a national sales tax.

In 16 House and three Senate races so far, Democrats have blasted GOP candidates for at one point or another voicing an interest in the FAIR tax. …FAIR tax proponents are right to say these Democratic attacks are unfair and don’t mention the tax-cutting side of the proposal, but the attacks do seem to work. Mr. Paul’s lead in Kentucky fell after the assault, and the issue has hurt GOP candidate Ken Buck in a close Colorado Senate race. In a special House election earlier this year in Pennsylvania, Democrat Mark Critz used the FAIR tax cudgel on Republican opponent Tim Burns. In a district that John McCain carried in 2008, Mr. Critz beat the Republican by eight points and is using the issue again in their rematch. This is a political reality that FAIR taxers need to face. …[I]n theory a consumption tax like the FAIR tax is preferable to an income tax because it doesn’t punish the savings and investment that drive economic growth. If we were designing a tax code from scratch, the FAIR tax would be one consumption tax option worth debating. But … voters rightly suspect that any new sales tax scheme will merely be piled on the current code.

We won’t know until next Tuesday what is going to happen in Kentucky and Colorado, and we won’t know until then what will happen in the other campaigns where the FAIR tax is an issue. But if there are two tax reform plans that achieve the same objective, why pick the approach that faces greater political obstacles?

FAIR tax proponents presumably could defuse some of the attacks by refocusing their efforts so that repealing the income tax is the top priority. This would not require any heavy lifting since all honest proponents of a national sales tax want to get rid of the 16th Amendment and replace it with something that unambiguously prohibits any direct tax on income. So why not lead with that initiative, and have the national sales tax as a secondary proposal? This is what I propose in the video, and I think it would be much harder for demagogues to imply that a FAIR tax would mean a new tax on top of the corrupt system that already exists.