Tag: IRS

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.

New Orwellian Tax Scheme in England Would Require All Paychecks Go Directly to the Tax Authority

Our tax system in America is an absurd nightmare, but at least we have some ability to monitor what is happening. We can’t get too aggressive (nobody wants the ogres at the IRS breathing down their necks), but at least we can adjust our withholding levels and control what gets put on our annual tax returns. The serfs in the United Kingdom are in much worse shape. To a large degree, the tax authority (Inland Revenue) decides everyone’s tax liability, and taxpayers have no role other than to meekly acquiesce. But now the statists over in London have decided to go one step farther and have proposed to require employers to send all paychecks directly to the government. The politicians and bureaucrats that comprise the ruling class then would decide how much to pass along to the people actually earning the money. Here’s a CNBC report on the issue.

The UK’s tax collection agency is putting forth a proposal that all employers send employee paychecks to the government, after which the government would deduct what it deems as the appropriate tax and pay the employees by bank transfer. The proposal by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) stresses the need for employers to provide real-time information to the government so that it can monitor all payments and make a better assessment of whether the correct tax is being paid. …George Bull, head of Tax at Baker Tilly, told CNBC.com. “If HMRC has direct access to employees’ bank accounts and makes a mistake, people are going to feel very exposed and vulnerable,” Bull said. And the chance of widespread mistakes could be high, according to Bull. HMRC does not have a good track record of handling large computer systems and has suffered high-profile errors with data, he said. …the cost of implementing the new system would be “phenomenal,” Bull pointed out.  …The Institute of Directors (IoD), a UK organization created to promote the business agenda of directors and entreprenuers, said in a press release it had major concerns about the proposal to allow employees’ pay to be paid directly to HMRC.

This is withholding on steroids. Politicians love pay-as-you-earn (as it’s called on the other side of the ocean), largely because it disguises the burden of government. Many workers never realize how much of their paychecks are confiscated by politicians. Indeed, they probably think greedy companies are to blame when higher tax burdens result in less take-home pay. This new system could have an even more corrosive effect. It presumably would become more difficult for taxpayers to know how much government is costing them, and some people might even begin to think that their pay is the result of political kindness. After all, zoo animals often feel gratitude to the keepers that feed (and enslave) them.

Overpaid and Undertaxed

I sympathize with almost all taxpayers, but it’s difficult to feel sorry for government workers who get in trouble with the IRS. Compensation packages for federal bureaucrats are twice as lucrative as those for workers in the productive sector of the economy and their pensions are similarly extravagant. Yet they often can’t be bothered to fully pay their taxes, owing billions of dollars to the IRS according to a Washington Post report.

Among the biggest scofflaws are the folks at the Postal Service, who have accumulated more than $283 million of unpaid taxes. Retired bureaucrats, meanwhile, have amassed nearly $455 million of back taxes. Even tax collectors sometimes fall behind. Treasury Department bureaucrats owe $7.7 million. How hard can it be for them to walk down the hallway and cough up? Or do they think they’re exempt since their boss barely got a slap on the wrist after “forgetting” to declare $80,000?

The most startling part of the story, though, is the degree of tax dodging on Capitol Hill. Here’s an excerpt from the story:

Capitol Hill employees owed $9.3 million in overdue taxes at the end of last year…. The debt among Hill employees has risen at a faster rate than the overall tax debt on the government’s books, according to Internal Revenue Service data. …The IRS data… shows 638 employees, or about 4 percent, of the 18,000 Hill workers owe money, a slightly higher percentage than the 3 percent delinquency rate among all returns filed nationwide. …”If you’re on the federal payroll and you’re not paying your taxes, you should be fired,” [Congressman] Chaffetz said in an interview. He said the policy should apply across the board and “there should be no special exemptions.”

The shocking part about this blurb, at least to me, is not the 638 staffers who owe money to the IRS. It’s the fact that there are 18,000 bureaucrats working for Congress. Do 100 Senators and 435 Representatives really need that many attendants? How I long for the good ol’ days, when each politician had about two staffers. I suspect it’s no coincidence that the federal government was a much smaller burden back when there were far fewer staff.

Government Essentially Concedes Commerce Clause Challenge to Obamacare, Calls Individual Mandate a Tax

This Sunday’s New York Times had a fascinating story about how the defense of the individual mandate has shifted from the Commerce Clause – even though the law itself is replete with boilerplate about “economic activity” – to Congress’s taxing power.  Here’s the first paragraph (h/t Jonathan Adler):

When Congress required most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, Democrats denied that they were creating a new tax. But in court, the Obama administration and its allies now defend the requirement as an exercise of the government’s “power to lay and collect taxes.”

This is huge.  After months of arguing that cases like Wickard v. Filburn (Congress can regulate the wheat farmers grow for personal consumption) and Gonzales v. Raich (Congress can regulate personal growth of state-allowed medicinal marijuana) justify the requirement that every man, woman, and child buy a health insurance policy, government lawyers (and spokesmen) now say the mandate is just a regulation accompanying a lawful tax (the penalty you pay for not buying insurance).  After I spent most of April and May criss-crossing the country debating the constitutionality of Obamacare, it turns out that my opponents were barking up the wrong tree!

But don’t just take it from me.  Here’s Georgetown law professor and Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett’s dissection of the Times story and its significance.  An excerpt:

Now there are cases that say (1) when Congress does not invoke a specific power for a claim of power, the Supreme Court will look for a basis on which to sustain the measure; (2) when Congress does invoke its Tax power, such a claim is not defeated by showing the measure would be outside its commerce power if enacted as a regulation (though there are some older, never-reversed precedents pointing the other way), and (3) the Courts will not look behind a claim by Congress that a measure is a tax with a revenue raising purpose. 

But I have so far seen no case that says (4) when a measure is expressly justified in the statute itself as a regulation of commerce (as the NYT accurately reports), the courts will look look behind that characterization during litigation to ask if it could have been justified as a tax, or (5) when Congress fails to include a penalty among all the “revenue producing” measures in a bill, the Court will nevertheless impute a revenue purpose to the measure. 

Now, of course, the Supreme Court can always adopt these two additional doctrines. It could decide that any measure passed and justified expressly as a regulation of commerce is constitutional if it could have been enacted as a tax. But if it upholds this act, it would also have to say that Congress can assert any power it wills over individuals so long as it delegates enforcement of the penalty to the IRS. Put another way since every “fine” collects money, the Tax Power gives Congress unlimited power to fine any activity or, as here, inactivity it wishes! (Do you doubt this will be a major line of questioning in oral argument?) 

Well, at least they’re not (yet) relying on Rep. John Conyers’s “Good and Welfare Clause.”  (Conyers, remember, is a lawyer and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee).

For a concise legal argument against the use of the taxing power to justify the individual mandate, see Cato’s amicus brief supporting Virginia’s challenge to the health care reform.  And for a great resource on all the state lawsuits against the new law, see this new blog/website run by Santa Clara law professor Brad Joondeph.

Americans Voting with their Feet

The Financial Times reports that the number of Americans giving up their citizenship to protect their families from America’s onerous worldwide tax system has jumped rapidly. Even relatively high-tax nations such as the United Kingdom are attractive compared to the class-warfare system that President Obama is creating in the United States.

I run into people like this quite often as part of my travels. They are intensely patriotic to America as a nation, but they have lots of scorn for the federal government.

Statists are perfectly willing to forgive terrorists like William Ayres, but they heap scorn on these “Benedict Arnold” taxpayers. But the tax exiles get the last laugh since the bureaucrats and politicians now get zero percent of their foreign-source income. You would think that, sooner or later, the left would realize they can get more tax revenue with reasonable tax rates. But that assumes that collectivists are motivated by revenue maximization rather than spite and envy.

From the FT article:

The number of wealthy Americans living in the UK who are renouncing their US citizenship is rising rapidly as more expatriates seek to escape paying tax to the US on their worldwide income and gains and shed their “non-dom” status, accountants say. As many as 743 American expatriates made the irreversible decision to discard their passports last year, according to the US government – three times as many as in 2008. …There is a waiting list at the embassy in London for people looking to give up citizenship, with the earliest appointments in February, lawyers and accountants say. …“The big disadvantage with American citizens is they catch you on tax wherever you are in the world. If you are taxed only in the UK, you have the opportunity of keeping your money offshore tax free.”

To grasp the extent of this problem, here are blurbs from two other recent stories. Time magazine discusses the unfriendly rules that make life a hassle for overseas Americans:

For U.S. citizens, cutting ties with their native land is a drastic and irrevocable step. …[I]t’s one that an increasing number of American expats are willing to take. According to government records, 502 expatriates renounced U.S. citizenship or permanent residency in the fourth quarter of 2009 — more than double the number of expatriations in all of 2008. And these figures don’t include the hundreds — some experts say thousands — of applications languishing in various U.S. consulates and embassies around the world, waiting to be processed. …[T]he new surge in permanent expatriations is mainly because of taxes. …[E]xpatriate organizations say the recent increase reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the way the U.S. government treats its expats and their money: the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that taxes its overseas citizens, subjecting them to taxation in both their country of citizenship and country of residence. …Additionally, the U.S. government has implemented tougher rules requiring expatriates to report any foreign bank accounts exceeding $10,000, with stiff financial penalties for noncompliance. “This system is widely perceived as overly complex with multiple opportunities for accidental mistakes, and life-altering penalties for inadvertent failures,” Hodgen says. These stringent measures were put into place to prevent Americans from stashing undeclared assets in offshore banks, but they also make life increasingly difficult for millions of law-abiding expatriates. “The U.S. government creates conflict and abuses me,” says business owner John. “I feel under duress to understand and comply with laws that have nothing to do with me and are constantly changing — almost never in my favor.” …Many U.S. expats report being turned away by banks and other institutions in their countries of residence only because they are American, according to American Citizens Abroad (ACA), a Geneva-based worldwide advocacy group for expatriate U.S. citizens. “We have become toxic citizens,” says ACA founder Andy Sundberg. Paradoxically, by relinquishing their U.S. citizenship, expats can not only escape the financial burden of double taxation, but also strengthen the U.S. economy, he says, adding, “It will become much easier for these people to get a job abroad, and to set up, own and operate private companies that can promote American exports.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, delves into the misguided policies that are driving Americans to renounce their citizenship.

Amid mounting frustration over taxation and banking problems, small but growing numbers of overseas Americans are taking the weighty step of renouncing their citizenship. …[F]rustrations over tax and banking questions, not political considerations, appear to be the main drivers of the surge. Expat advocates say that as it becomes more difficult for Americans to live and work abroad, it will become harder for American companies to compete. American expats have long complained that the United States is the only industrialized country to tax citizens on income earned abroad, even when they are taxed in their country of residence, though they are allowed to exclude their first $91,400 in foreign-earned income. One Swiss-based business executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitive family issues, said she weighed the decision for 10 years. She had lived abroad for years but had pleasant memories of service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Yet the notion of double taxation — and of future tax obligations for her children, who will receive few U.S. services — finally pushed her to renounce, she said. …Stringent new banking regulations — aimed both at curbing tax evasion and, under the Patriot Act, preventing money from flowing to terrorist groups — have inadvertently made it harder for some expats to keep bank accounts in the United States and in some cases abroad. Some U.S.-based banks have closed expats’ accounts because of difficulty in certifying that the holders still maintain U.S. addresses, as required by a Patriot Act provision.