Topic: Regulatory Studies

IRS Shouldn’t Force Taxpayers Into Tax-Maximizing Transactions

While tax evasion is a crime, the Supreme Court has long recognized that taxpayers have a legal right to reduce how much they owe, or avoid taxes all together, through careful tax planning. Whether that planning takes the form of an employee’s deferring income into a pension plan, a couple’s filing a joint return, a homeowner’s spreading improvement projects over several years, or a business’s spinning-off subsidiaries, so long as the actions are otherwise lawful, the fact they were motivated by a desire to lessen one’s tax burden doesn’t render them illegitimate.

The major limitation that the Court (and, since 2010, Congress) has placed on tax planning is the “sham transaction” rule (also known as the “economic substance” doctrine), which, in its simplest form, provides that transaction solely intended to lessen a commercial entity’s tax burden, with no other valid business purpose, will be held to have no effect on that entity’s income-tax assessment. The classic sham transaction is a deal where a corporation structures a series of deals between its subsidiaries, producing an income-loss on paper that is then used to lower the parent company’s profits (and thus its tax bill) without reducing the value of the assets held by the commercial entity as a whole.

We might quibble with a rule that effectively nullifies perfectly legal transactions, but a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit greatly expanded even the existing definition of “economic substance,” muddying the line between lawful tax planning and illicit tax evasion. At issue was Wells Fargo’s creation of a new non-banking subsidiary to take over certain unprofitable commercial leases. Because the new venture wasn’t a bank, it wasn’t subject to the same stringent regulations as its parent company. As a result, the holding company (WFC Holdings Corp.) was able to generate tens of millions of dollars in profits.

FBI Seizes Antiquities First, Asks Questions Later

An extraordinary and disturbing story just out from the Indianapolis Star/USA Today

WALDRON, Ind. — FBI agents Wednesday seized “thousands” of cultural artifacts, including American Indian items, from the private collection of a 91-year-old man who had acquired them over the past eight decades.

An FBI command vehicle and several tents were spotted at the property in rural Waldron, about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

The Rush County man, Don Miller, has not been arrested or charged.

So if the owner hasn’t been arrested or charged, what’s the basis of the raid? 

Robert A. Jones, special agent in charge of the Indianapolis FBI office, would not say at a news conference specifically why the investigation was initiated, but he did say the FBI had information about Miller’s collection and acted on it by deploying its art crime team.

FBI agents are working with art experts and museum curators, and neither they nor Jones would describe a single artifact involved in the investigation, but it is a massive collection. Jones added that cataloging of all of the items found will take longer than “weeks or months.”…

The aim of the investigation is to determine what each artifact is, where it came from and how Miller obtained it, Jones said, to determine whether some of the items might be illegal to possess privately.

Jones acknowledged that Miller might have acquired some of the items before the passage of U.S. laws or treaties prohibited their sale or purchase.

Might be illegal. Or might have been acquired lawfully. They’re not saying! But to satisfy its curiosity the government gets to seize everything and sort through at its leisure over longer than “weeks or months.” 

It doesn’t sound as if the artifacts were in some sort of immediate danger:

In addition to American Indian objects, the collection includes items from China, Russia, Peru, Haiti, Australia and New Guinea, he said. 

The objects were not stored to museum standards, Jones said, but it was apparent Miller had made an effort to maintain them well.

I’ve written previously, elsewhere and in this space, about 

the rise of a new “antiquities law” in which museums and private collectors have come under legal pressures to hand over (“repatriate”) ancient artifacts and archaeological finds to governments, Indian tribes and other officially constituted bodies, even when those artifacts have been in legitimate collector hands for 100 or more years with no hint of force or fraud.

Further regulatory regimes covering exotic and endangered animal and plant material make it dangerous to let the feds anywhere near your high-end guitar or other wooden artifact, and will soon make it unlawful to sell or move across state lines your family’s antique ivory-keyed piano (more here).

P.S. Coverage at broadcaster WISH-TV makes the SWAT-like federal occupation of Don and Sandra Miller’s property (an FBI “command center” and “massive tents” now surround the family’s home) seem even more appalling. Locally famous for his collecting, Miller has been anything but secretive about his holdings, which were featured in a four-part series in a local newspaper. 

Is Religious Liberty an “Exception” to Government Rule?

In a free society, employers would be at liberty to offer their employees group health insurance, if they wished, and to offer whatever coverage they wished to offer. In the Supreme Court today, however, so basic a premise barely surfaced during oral argument in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, the Obamacare “contraceptive mandate” case. Rather, Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Ginsburg, clearly supporting the mandate, pressed Hobby Lobby’s attorney Paul Clement as to whether an “exception” should be provided for religious employers who are otherwise required by regulation to offer contraceptive coverage, and whether such an exception could be limited or instead would have no principled bounds. By contrast, Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Kennedy, and even Justice Breyer were at pains to show how such a religious “accommodation” could in fact be limited.

Thus have we come to a point at which religious liberty is recognized, if it is, as an exception to the general rule that government may require us to act as it dictates—and we have to be careful not to extend that accommodation too far lest it gobble up the rule.

That’s a remarkable inversion of First Principles: government first, liberty second, as a limited exception. True, we don’t allow the religious, in the name of religious liberty, to proselytize by the sword. And we don’t because that “exception” is perfectly consistent with a general rule in favor of liberty and against forced association—as in murder. Here, however, religious employers are asking simply to be free from a rule that would otherwise restrict their liberty or require forced association, a rule that would force them to choose between not offering their employees insurance, and paying the Obamacare penalty for so choosing, and offering their employees coverage that offends the employers’ religious beliefs. And it’s no answer to say that, absent the mandate, the employees’ liberty is restricted. They’re at perfect liberty to obtain contraceptives, but not free to force their employer to provide them.

In other words, if you start with freedom of association, then it’s association that must be justified, by mutual consent, not individual liberty. But if “we’re all in this together”—as President Obama so often says and as Obamacare so clearly manifests—then liberty has to be treated as an “exception,” an “accommodation,” carved out from that general rule. For more on this see here and here.

The Wall Street Journal on Halbig v. Sebelius

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear oral arguments in Halbig v. Sebelius, one of four cases that Jonathan Adler and I helped spur with our 2013 Health Matrix article, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.” Critics call Halbig the most significant existential threat to the Affordable Care Act.” In anticipation of the hearing, the Wall Street Journal wrote a lengthy editorial explaining the issues. Excerpts:

Halbig v. Sebelius involves no great questions of constitutional interpretation. The plaintiffs are merely asking the judges to tell the Administration to faithfully execute the plain language of the statute that Congress passed and President Obama signed.

The Affordable Care Act—at least the version that passed in 2010—instructed the states to establish insurance exchanges, and if they didn’t the Health and Human Services Department was authorized to build federal exchanges. The law says that subsidies will be available only to people who enroll “through an Exchange established by the State.” The question in Halbig is whether these taxpayer subsidies can be distributed through the federal exchanges, as the Administration insists…

In 2012, HHS and the Internal Revenue Service arrogated to themselves the power to rewrite the law and published a regulation simply decreeing that subsidies would be available through the federal exchanges too. The IRS devoted only a single paragraph to its deviation from the statute, even though the “established by a State” language appears nine times in the law’s text. The rule claims that an exchange established on behalf of a state is a “federally established state-established exchange,” as if HHS is the 51st state.

Careful spadework into ObamaCare’s legislative history by Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan Adler and Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute has demonstrated that this jackalope rule-making was contrary to Congress’s intent…

Mr. Obama has conceded that “obviously we didn’t do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law.” The right and only lawful way to repair ObamaCare is through another act of Congress. In Halbig, the judiciary can remind the Obama Administration of this basic constitutional truth.

Jonathan Adler critiques the Halbig district court’s ruling in favor of the IRS here.

Find lots of commentary by me on the Halbig cases at DarwinsFool.com.

This reference guide contains all the information you could want about these cases – and more.

Privatizing the Royal Mail

Britain privatized its Royal Mail in 2013, proceeding with an initial public offering of shares that raised about $2.7 billion. The government pursued the reform because the company faced falling mail volume, and it needed to reduce costs and increase innovation. Similar issues face the U.S. Postal Service.

The Financial Times has named the reformer leading the privatized Royal Mail its “Person of the Year.” Below is an excerpt about Moya Greene from FT’s story. I have two questions: i) Why don’t we get reforms or reformers like this in Washington? ii) Why are American leaders so comparatively timid in embracing market-based reforms?

Ask anyone who knows Moya Greene, the Canadian chief executive who last year steered Royal Mail, the UK’s 500-year-old postal service, into the private sector, and the same phrases come up. “She’s relentless, a force of nature, a tough lady,” says one admirer.

It took a determined personality to get this behemoth, with £9bn of revenues and 150,000 staff, into a healthy enough state to be floated on the London Stock Exchange, where it went straight into the FTSE 100 index. The goal of privatising Royal Mail had defeated governments for 40 years.

Greene, 59, has been Royal Mail’s chief executive for almost four years, the first woman and first non-Briton to run it since Henry VIII established a “master of the posts” in 1512. Her previous role heading Canada’s postal service – and as a civil servant overseeing the privatisation of that country’s railway and deregulation of its airline and ports systems – gave her the necessary blend of industrial and political experience.

With this British privatization—and past ones—people have quibbled with some of the details. But, all in all, privatization in Britain has been hugely successful. Prime Minister Cameron should be applauded for having the guts to build on the privatization reform legacy of Thatcher, Major, and Blair.

Meanwhile on this side of the pond, Republican Darrell Issa is having trouble getting his own nominally conservative party to accept even small changes to the broken government postal system. Perhaps he could kick-start reforms by inviting Moya Greene to give testimony to his high-profile committee.

For more on postal privatization, see here.   

Toyota Stumbles Into a Dark Legal Alley…

…and the U.S. Department of Justice emerges whistling with $1.2 billion. I explain how it happened in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece today (more: Overlawyered). Toyota’s cars are very safe indeed, and “sudden acceleration” was a concoction of media-fueled panic, as the government’s own safety engineers have confirmed. But now the company is being punished not just for alleged data-reporting and compliance infractions unlikely to have caused any genuine material risk to the public, but also for defending itself and its products at Congressional hearings and in the arena of public opinion. DoJ’s demagogic press release cites, among the instances of supposed fraud for which Toyota is now being punished by the gigantic forfeiture, such standard exercises in bland crisis communication as, “The safety of our owners and the public is our utmost concern and Toyota has and will continue to thoroughly investigate and take appropriate measures to address any defect trends that are identified.” 

A couple of other points I didn’t have room for in the WSJ piece: Toyota is settling the government’s trumped-up single charge of mail fraud by way of a so-called Deferred Prosecution Agreement, or DPA, and its terms really must be seen to be believed. “Toyota understands and agrees that the exercise of the Office’s discretion under this Agreement is unreviewable by any court,” appears on clause 14 on page 6, with “Office” referring to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, currently Preet Bharara. And if you are expecting even the tiniest squeak from anyone at Toyota in contradiction to the government line, even around the coffee machine at the local dealership, consider clause 13, which states: that Toyota “agrees that it shall not, through its attorneys, agents, or employees, make any statement, in litigation or otherwise, contradicting the Statement of Facts or its representations in this Agreement.” If DoJ catches wind of any such statement it can revoke the agreement not to prosecute, without of course having to give back the billion dollars. “The decision as to whether any such contradictory statement shall be imputed to Toyota for the purpose of determining whether Toyota has violated this agreement shall be within the sole discretion of the Office.” 

When people talk about federal prosecutors having become a law unto themselves, this is the sort of thing they mean.

The Administration’s Plan to Kill Elephants and Treat Americans as Criminals

Today the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking is meeting near the nation’s capital to plot the administration’s impending ban on ivory sales. The plan is typical for counterproductive government regulation.

The panel’s proposals would accelerate the slaughter of African elephants and turn millions of law-abiding Americans into criminals. The Council also would destroy hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property legally acquired by everyone from antique dealers and restorers to tourists and retirees.

Elephants are magnificent creatures—intelligent, social, and expressive—and threatened by widespread poaching. Unfortunately, international activists sometimes appear more interested in feeling virtuous than in deterring poaching. In 1989 an international convention outlawed the sale of new ivory.

Unfortunately, the ban increased the price of ivory, which remains in high demand, especially in Asia. Daniel Stiles of the IUCN/SSC African Elephant Specialist Group explained: “The inconvenient truth is that the CITES ivory trade ban and [subsequent CITES] votes to cut off legal raw ivory supplies are the real causes of the recent elephant holocaust.”

Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans what it calls “a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory” trade.