Thursday, August 25, 2016

What have I done wrong?

According to the latest of the rancid, spittle-encrusted emails that I get multiple times daily from the Trump campaign:

"Friend, as an identified Trump supporter from your zip code, your input is missing from our Official Campaign Trump vs, Hillary approval poll."

But at least in this one they're not trying to sell me a hat, bumper sticker, or gold-level membership card.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

An interesting new international tax policy development

Earlier today, the U.S. Treasury released a White Paper responding to the EU state aid cases, brought (or possibly to be brought in the future) by the European Commission.  These cases, while generally still pending, would require mainly US companies (although also Fiat) to disgorge tax benefits that they got from accommodating EU countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg,

This blog entry is just a placeholder to say that I am going to be commenting on this.  Indeed, EU press interest is such that I will shortly be talking to an Irish reporter and doing a BBC TV interview.  But I may also write a short piece on it - for example, to publish in a forthcoming IBDF volume concerning OECD-BEPS and the EU state aid cases, that's based on a tax conference in Amsterdam earlier this summer, at which I spoke.  Said piece would appear

My view on this may not make me a lot of US friends. In brief, while I accept that it is probably in the national self-interest of the US to make these arguments (in the hope that they will cause the EU to back off), I do not, in the main, find the arguments intellectually persuasive.

UPDATE: The interviews were fun.  Since I was feeling pretty frisky, I suspect that I will be quoted in a forthcoming Irish Times article by Simon Carswell, and perhaps on a BBC-TV news show tonight. It's easier to speak well to the press when one is particularly interested in and engaged by a topic.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

One way to explain to lawyers why income effects don't create deadweight loss

All tax law profs who read any economics know, because it says so in any Public Economics (or for that matter Price Theory) textbook, that income effects, unlike substitution effects, don't give rise to deadweight loss.  But sometimes they don't have the right intuitive handle on why this is so. I happen to have just thought of a new way of putting it (I think) crisply that I'll plan to use in the future as needed.

For a typical set-up, say I'm saving for retirement, and all of a sudden a new tax on saving is imposed.  It's a tax increase for me, not a re-jiggering of tax computation schemes, and the money is going to be spent on someone else.  So will I now save less for retirement?  (This is not yet the deadweight loss question, of course - but I'll get there momentarily.) To make things really simple and straightforward, let's assume that the pre-tax rate of return to saving stays the same, so the after-tax rate of return is reduced by the tax.

The analysis everyone knows goes as follows.  The substitution effect indicates saving less, because I am now at the margin unable to buy as much retirement consumption, per unit of reduced current period consumption, as I could have absent the tax.

However, the income effect indicates saving more.  One way to put this is that my budget line has shifted inward. The packages of current consumption plus retirement consumption that I can afford have grown smaller, since I can no longer buy as much retirement consumption per unit of forgone current consumption.  If I am optimizing by equalizing the marginal utility of the last unit of consumption in both periods, I will want to share the hit between current period consumption and retirement period consumption, rather than having the latter take the entire hit from the reduction in the after-tax rate of return.

Standard bottom line: the net effect on my current period saving is theoretically indeterminate.  But now we get to the efficiency analysis.  Let's assume here (counterfactually, I think) that there are no externalities whatsoever associated with the amount saved, so we are thinking just in terms of deadweight loss from prospective savers' decisions.

Now one gets to the point that substitution effects indicate inefficiency, whereas income effects do not.  Again, to people with legal rather than economic training this may seem like just some sort of bizarre thing they've learned that doesn't seem to make intuitive sense, even though they know it is correct based on the weight of authority.  So how can we make the intuition more salient?

Let's start with the case where net saving is exactly the same as before, since its reduction by reason of the substitution effect precisely equals its increase by reason of the income effect.  How can there be no change in total saving, yet now there is inefficiency?

To explain that, let's break apart the two sets of cases.  Forgone saving by reason of the substitution effect means there were instances where a transaction was out there, ready to be made, and the tax wedge prevented it from happening.  E.g., suppose the pretax interest rate is 5%, and that if I had saved and invested $100 in period 1, someone would have been willing to pay me up to $105 in period 2. Say I'd require at least $104 in period 2 to be willing to do this, but the tax rate on saving is 40%, so I'd have only $103 after-tax.  The deal doesn't happen, and there's lost surplus of $1 (from the excess of what they were willing to pay me over what compensation I required in order to be indifferent).  The deadweight loss from this is not affected by the fact that some other transaction might be taking place that wouldn't have otherwise, in which someone saves and invests more because the income effect induces them to want to save more.

So finally to the point, why don't income effects indicate inefficiency?  E.g., isn't there a "change" if I save more because the new tax has knocked me down a peg?  Answer, yes is there is a change relative to the counterfactual scenario where the tax hadn't been imposed, but change relative to some alternative scenario isn't the point.  Changes in behavior by reason of income effects are an example of get the best result you can under your new circumstances.

Here's another example.  My uninsured home is destroyed by a hurricane, so I decide to work more due to the income effect.  Or, I win $10 million in the lottery, so I decide to work less due to the income effect.  Each of these is a "change" in behavior, relative to the scenario where the trigger event didn't occur, but neither is "inefficient."  (Of course, I'm better off than previously if I win the lottery, and worse off than previously if the hurricane strikes, but that's a separate point.)  Rather than there being inefficiency from the "change," it means that I'm re-optimizing.  I would be failing to make the best choices for myself, as between work and leisure, if I couldn't re-jigger my choices to reflect the new information and/or my new circumstances.

Substitution, of course, also involves reoptimizing, but in light of an externality (disregarding taxes paid because at the margin they benefit others, not oneself).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Endful summer

Yesterday while working out on the elliptical machine at the health club, I played the Beach Boys 60s hit collection, Endless Summer, in tribute to my increasingly painful awareness of how endful (so to speak) rather than endless this summer actually feels at this point.  I will be teaching my first class in 10 days, and just have SO much to do both before and after that date.  I also played Endless Summer because it's mostly such a great collection.

It has a few relatively obscure, yet great, classics (e.g., "Let Him Run Wild"). Among the more numerous extremely well-known tracks, I've always been struck by the gap between the gorgeous beauty of the production of "California Girls," and the aggressive triteness of the lyrics - somehow this heightens the song's power.  There's something moving about the sheer waste of it.

Also, "Fun, Fun, Fun" is feminist without meaning to be - it shows how the young woman gets exploited (one presumes, sexually) once her father is stupid enough to disempower her, whereas, until then, she can run circles around all the young men who are pursuing her for their own purposes.

Tomorrow, I anticipate playing Ultimate Painting's Green Lanes, a charming recent alt-rock acoustic album (maybe slightly echoing the Velvet Underground's eponymous third album, along with just a touch of the Grateful Dead) by a London duo. I like this album, but inadvertently dropped it a few months ago from my active playlist, before having played it enough to retire it deliberately.  (Not literally dropped from my Spotify roster - but I have so many things there that I forget what all of them are.)

So, about my all-too-endful summer - in addition to teaching International Tax starting on September 1, I will be co-teaching the high-end inequality seminar (with Bob Frank) that I have blogged about, during the second half of the semester (October 24 - December 5).  So during that period I will be teaching for 7 hours a week, which is a lot what with prep and everything else.

Plus, I have committed to writing too many tenure, etc. reviews, basically because, while I don't like doing them, I aim to be a good sport.

And I'm in the middle or I hope late stages, with three good friends (Joe Bankman, Kirk Stark, and our new co-author, Ed Kleinbard) of writing a really substantial revision - and I think improvement - to our "Federal Income Taxation" casebook.  Having 3 colleagues on the project saves lots of time on balance, since one only has to do 25% of the primary work.  But it also leads to spending a lot of time on coordinating efforts, commenting on each other's chapters, etc.  We anticipate that it will be available for the spring semester.

I also have a bunch of talks scheduled for the fall semester.  On September 9, at St. Francis College in Pennsylvania, I'll be giving 2 talks, one on deficits and fiscal gaps, and the other on corporate inversions.  It will be fun to talk to undergraduates and non-law university academics.

On September 19, at the Ohio State University Law School, I'll be presenting a version of my forthcoming U of Miami Law Review article (adapted from chapter two of my book in progress on literature and high-end inequality), entitled "The Mapmaker's Dilemma in Evaluating High-End Inequality."  I've presented this piece before, but not often or recently.

On September 23 at NYU, I'll be giving a talk (based on the dialogue-style paper that I've blogged about previously) at the Human Rights and Tax conference that the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice has organized here.

On October 7, I'll be a commentator at the 6th annual NYU-UCLA conference on tax policy, to be held at UCLA and concerning tax policy and upward mobility.

On November 10, I'll be giving my somewhat long-in-the-tooth (by now) paper on citizenship and taxation, at the NTA Annual Meeting, plus probably commenting or moderating on some other panel or panels.

Also at least three other panels, talks, etc., in the NYC area.

I'm also trying to push forward my book on literature and high-end inequality.  The books on which I have written chapters so far are Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir, Balzac's Pere Goriot, Dickens's Christmas Carol, and Trollope's The Way We Live Now.  Currently I'm in the middle of writing about Forster's Howards End, which was going well but I unfortunately will have to shelve it for a while, and return to it when I can.  After that, a trio or quartet of post-Civil War U.S. novels, two of which will be Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick and Dreiser's The Financier and/or The Titan.  A third will probably be Wharton's House of Mirth.  But I might conceivably also add (or sub in), say, Howells's Rise of Silas Lapham or Twain's Gilded Age - although I am finding that three novels in a given time period / geographical slice seems to work well.

So yes, my endful summer is ending all too soon, with all due respect to the returning (and new) students who can energize me, and who make professors' professional lives less solitary than they would otherwise be (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that).

Plus, I love summer and hate winter from a climate standpoint.  Lovely though the fall often is in New York, it's often ruined for me to a degree by the fact that I know what's coming next.

Friday, August 12, 2016

No blue background for me

As I prepared to head out to the beach this morning, I got a couple of emails from TV shows that wanted a talking head (or presumably several) to address, in taped studio interviews, Hillary Clinton's (and Tim Kaine's) tax return release today, and/or the recent discussion in the NYT of Trump's refusal to release his tax returns.  But luckily I don't agree with Gore Vidal, from the phrase of his that I believe I have quoted here before, re. how important it is to be on TV whenever possible.  (Although I would have done the sessions had I been in NYC today.)

The main thing I gleaned from looking quickly at the Clintons' 2015 tax return, which I know others (such as folks at the Tax Policy Center) discerned as well, was that Trump's new tax "plan" would have enabled her and Bill to cut their effective tax rate by more than 50%, and thus to save more than $1 million in taxes.  They made almost all their income via speeches and books, which they put (because that is where it goes) on Schedule C, business income.  Since Trump plans a 15% rate for non-employee business income that apparently includes that from sole proprietorships, this would seem to mean that they would get a massive rate cut (and tax cut) from his proposal.

One could restate Trump's proposal, I suppose, as equivalent, for the most part, to a flat 15% income tax plus fines of up to 18% for the crime of being an employee rather than a business-owner.

This week's beach reading

Penelope Mortimer's 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater, JK Galbraith's 1990 novel (!) The Tenured Professor, Eleanor Perenyi's 1946 memoir More Was Lost, Ian McEwan's 1998 novel Amsterdam, most of Bill Bryson's 1996 comic travelogue Notes From a Small Island, and part of an old favorite, E.F. Benson's farcical (from 1920) Queen Lucia.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Nice view alongside that train wreck

It's really not worth commenting in general on Trump's foolish and frivolous new tax "plan," but here are two quick takeaways about the issues associated with two features.

First, he appears to have adopted a version of one of the stupidest ideas to emerge in tax policy for many decades - the idea, from Sam Brownback's calamitous Kansas tax "reform," that a low business tax rate should extend to all business income, such as partnerships, even with no second level of tax a la the current corporate income tax. The Kansas plan, which exempts such income from the state income tax, means that, say, in a law firm the secretaries, paralegals, and associates are taxed on their labor income, but the partners are not taxed on their labor income. At the time, even some people far more sanguine than I am about the Ryan-style tax cut playbook pointed out that this was idiotic, and events have confirmed this. It's not only upside down taxation, like the pre-French Revolution system of exempting nobles from general taxation, but distorts real activity and encourages pointless tax planning games. Trump would adopt this thoroughly discredited idea, albeit with a 15% (in lieu of 33%) rate and extending it to sole proprietors. So now the idea is: At all costs, don't ever be an employee! Makes a lot of sense.

Second, on a more favorable note, there is something or other about people who work getting to deduct childcare costs, perhaps based on an average measure of some kind rather than based on actual costs incurred. While this can be validly criticized on some grounds - e.g., no effect if you're too low-income to owe tax, and should the benefit be tied to your marginal tax rate - there are also arguments in favor - e.g., in some settings childcare expense really is a marginal cost of deciding to work. So the issue merits further discussion and debate, albeit perhaps not in the context of the current U.S. Presidential campaign (where there are bigger fish to fry, such as whether the rule of law will survive).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in

Reminders of income tax law, amid my one-week beach vacation in New Jersey.