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Category: Tax

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The U.S. Supreme Court Should Reverse Wynne – Narrowly

Maryland State Comptroller of the Treasury v. Brian Wynne requires the Supreme Court to decide whether the U.S. Constitution compels a state to grant an income tax credit to its residents for the out-of-state income taxes those residents pay on out-of-state income.

Brian and Karen Wynne live in Howard County, Maryland. As Maryland residents, the Wynnes pay state and county income taxes on their worldwide income. Maryland law provides that its residents who pay income taxes to states in which they do not live may credit those payments against their Maryland state income tax liability. However, Maryland grants no equivalent credit under the county income tax for out-of-state taxes owed by Maryland residents on income earned outside of Maryland.

When the Wynnes complained about the absence of a credit against their Howard County income tax for the out-of-state income taxes they paid, Maryland’s Court of Appeals agreed, holding that such credits are required by the nondiscrimination principle of the Constitution’s dormant Commerce Clause. The absence of a credit against the county income tax induces Maryland residents like the Wynnes to invest and work in-state rather than out-of-state. This incentive, the Maryland court held, may impermissibly “affect the interstate market for capital and business investment.”

For two reasons, the U.S. Supreme Court should reverse. First, Wynne highlights the fundamental incoherence of the dormant Commerce Clause test of tax nondiscrimination: Any tax provision can be transformed into an economically equivalent direct expenditure. No principled line can be drawn between those tax provisions which are deemed to discriminate against interstate commerce and those which do not. All taxes and government programs can incent residents to invest at home rather than invest out-of-state. It is arbitrary to label only some taxes and public programs as discriminating against interstate commerce.

Suppose, for example, that Howard County seeks to improve its public schools, its police services, or its roads. No court or commentator suggests that this kind of routine public improvement violates the dormant Commerce Clause principle of nondiscrimination. However, such direct public expenditures, if successful, have precisely the effect on residents and interstate commerce for which the Court of Appeals condemned the Maryland county income tax as discriminating against interstate commerce: Better public services also “may affect the interstate market for capital and business investment” by encouraging current residents and businesses to stay and by attracting new residents and businesses to come.

There is no principled basis for labeling as discriminatory under the dormant Commerce Clause equivalent tax policies because they affect “the interstate market” of households and businesses. Direct government outlays have the same effects as do taxes on the choice between in-state and out-of-state activity. If taxes discriminate against interstate commerce because they encourage in-state enterprise, so do direct government expenditures which make the state more attractive and thereby stimulate in-state activity.

Second, the political process concerns advanced both by the Wynne dissenters in Maryland’s Court of Appeals and by the U.S. Solicitor General are persuasive. Mr. and Mrs. Wynne are Maryland residents who, as voters, have a voice in Maryland’s political process. This contrasts with nonresidents and so-called “statutory residents,” individuals who are deemed for state income tax purposes to be residents of a second state in which they do not vote. As nonvoters, nonresidents and statutory residents lack political voice when they are taxed by states in which they do not vote.

Nonresidents and statutory residents require protection under the dormant Commerce Clause since politicians find it irresistible to export tax obligations onto nonvoters. The Wynnes, on the other hand, are residents of a single state and vote for those who impose Maryland’s state and local taxes on them.

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Blair-Stanek on Intellectual Property Law Solutions to Tax Avoidance

My colleague Andrew Blair-Stanek has a creative and interesting new article Intellectual Property Law Solutions to Tax Avoidance, forthcoming UCLA Law Review. Check out the abstract:

Multinational corporations use intellectual property (IP) to avoid taxes on a massive scale, by transferring their IP offshore for artificially low prices. Economists estimate that this abuse costs the U.S. Treasury as much as $90 billion each year. Yet tax policymakers and scholars have been unable to devise feasible tax-law solutions to this problem. This Article introduces an entirely new solution: change IP law rather than tax law. Multinationals’ tax-avoidance strategies rely on undervaluing their IP. This Article proposes extending existing IP law so that these low valuations make it harder for multinationals subsequently to litigate or to license the IP. For example, transferring a patent for a low price to a tax-haven subsidiary should make it harder for the multinational to demonstrate the patent’s validity, a competitor’s infringement, or entitlement to any injunctions. The low transfer price should also weigh toward lower patent damages and potentially even a finding of patent misuse. Extending IP law in such ways would deter multinationals from using IP to avoid taxes. Both case law and IP’s theoretical justifications support this approach, which also has the counterintuitive benefit of encouraging the flourishing of creative professionals such as inventors and authors.

Industrial Policy for Big Data

If you are childless, shop for clothing online, spend a lot on cable TV, and drive a minivan, data brokers are probably going to assume you’re heavier than average. We know that drug companies may use that data to recruit research subjects.  Marketers could utilize the data to target ads for diet aids, or for types of food that research reveals to be particularly favored by people who are childless, shop for clothing online, spend a lot on cable TV, and drive a minivan.

We may also reasonably assume that the data can be put to darker purposes: for example, to offer credit on worse terms to the obese (stereotype-driven assessment of looks and abilities reigns from Silicon Valley to experimental labs).  And perhaps some day it will be put to higher purposes: for example, identifying “obesity clusters” that might be linked to overexposure to some contaminant

To summarize: let’s roughly rank these biosurveillance goals as: 

1) Curing illness or precursors to illness (identifying the obesity cluster; clinical trial recruitment)

2) Helping match those offering products to those wanting them (food marketing)

3) Promoting the classification and de facto punishment of certain groups (identifying a certain class as worse credit risks)

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Andrew Blair-Stanek on “IP as a New Front in the Tax Avoidance Battle”

My colleague and guest blogger Andrew Blair-Stanek is working on a fascinating new piece entitled “IP as a New Front in the Tax Avoidance Battle.” As the piece exposes, multinationals’ IP-based tax avoidance is a serious problem that IP law, scholars, and practitioners have largely ignored. The abstract and corresponding cool diagram can be found here. I will blog more about it after the piece goes up on SSRN.

Tax Havens on the Electronic Silk Road

UKTaxHavensElephantInRoomAnupam Chander could not have picked a better topic in modern political economy than the digitization of flows of commerce. The Electronic Silk Road is packed with fascinating narratives about the legal conflicts that digitization generates.

As more value becomes digitally mobile, we may be on the cusp of unprecedented regulatory arbitrage (predicated on dubiously relevant doctrines, free trade commitments, and contracts.) To his great credit, Chander offers a fair assessment of digital commerce, balancing enthusiasm for its inclusive effects with caution about the need to curb the worst abuses of multinational corporations. My question is: will there be funding available to governments who take such a regulatory agenda seriously? For example, if Amazon’s Mechanical Turk decomposes digital labor among workers on different continents, how are we to fund the (sure to be sizeable) regulatory apparatus needed to assure that basic labor, safety, and other legal obligations are honored?

Consider, for instance, the aggressive tax planning of Apple. The company uses transfer pricing and Irish subsidiaries to manipulate its tax obligations. Apple’s IP (ranging from the Apple trademark, to the copyright-protected software, to patents on the phone’s innards, to design patents that give Apple an exclusive right to use the particular “look and feel” of its phones) may, in turn, be “owned” by an Apple subsidiary in, say, Bermuda, or the Cayman Islands. When people try to criticize Apple’s suppliers’ sharp labor practices, their work is often banned from the company’s app store. Apple ensures its own iGovernance mechanisms are unitary, swift in judgment, and a near-absolute authority on many aspects of the smartphone experience of tens of millions of netizens, while taking advantage of weak and fragmented jurisdictions for tax planning purposes.
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Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent

RPMThis book, recently published by Oxford, ought to draw some comment this Fall. From its description:

Isaac Martin shows how protesters on behalf of the rich appropriated the tactics used by the Left-from the Populists and Progressives of the early twentieth century to the feminists and anti-war activists of the 1950s and 1960s. He explores why the wealthy sometimes cut secret back-room deals and at other times protest in the public square. He also explains why people who are not rich have so often rallied to their cause.

For anyone wanting to understand the anti-tax activists of today, including notable defenders of wealth inequality like the Koch brothers, the historical account in Rich People’s Movements is an essential guide.

As Ezra Klein notes, for many, “opposition to taxes has nothing to do with policy. It has nothing to do with the economy. It’s religion. It’s dogma. It’s identity.” Martin’s scholarly work may help explain this development.

Two Views of Charities

The Tampa Bay Tribune has put out a list of “America’s Worst Charities,” based on payments to solicitors. Dan Pallotta offers some reservations regarding that approach:

[T]he overhead question has a number of flaws. A few of the easy ones to talk about and describe are, first, it operates on a mistaken theory of waste. So, a [soup kitchen] tells you $.90 of your donation goes to the cause and you think: Well, that’s great, now I know that they don’t waste any money. But you don’t know that at all. How do you know they are not wasting the $.90 that’s being spent on the cause? That’s where all the money goes; that’s where the largest opportunity for waste is. Related to that, it tells you nothing about the quality of services. So, that soup kitchen can tell you $.90 of every donation goes to the cause and you’ll never learn that the soup is rancid. . . .

Next, the percentage of your donation that goes to the cause depends entirely on how the charity defines the cause. So, the more broadly they define the cause, the higher the percentage they can tell you is going to the cause. It actually operates on a false theory of transparency as well, because unless you know the underlying accounting and definitions of the cause, there is no transparency in that simple articulation of an overhead percentage. Worse, this demand the charities keep overhead below prevents them from spending money on the overhead things they have to spend on in order to grow. And that’s how we institutionalize the miniaturization of these organizations.

Pallotta offers many provocative thoughts on how success is measured in the nonprofit sector.

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Agencies in the Cathedral?

AgenciesAreas of law dominated by government agencies haven’t taken advantage of the rich literature on property rules and liability rules, which are “workhorse concepts that permeate every corner of the economic analysis of law.” In their 1972 article Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, Calabresi and Melamed observed that there are fundamentally two types of remedies: (1) property rules, such as injunctions or disgorgement, which aim to deter, and (2) liability rules, like compensatory damages, which aim to compensate. This framework has paid rich dividends in areas like torts, property, IP, contracts, and conlaw — but seems to have bypassed areas of law dominated by agencies.

Government agencies’ remedies can be classified as either property rules or liability rules. For example, if a business has a permit from the EPA but violates the permit’s conditions, the remedy could be either taking away the permit (a property rule), or requiring proportional compensation (a liability rule). Similarly, if a broker has a license from the SEC and violates securities law, the remedy could be either yanking the license (a property rule), or requiring compensation for the harmed parties (a liability rule).

I apply the property rule and liability rule framework to my favorite agency — the IRS — in a forthcoming Virginia Law Review article. When a taxpayer violates a tax-law requirement, the remedy can be either yanking the taxpayer’s favorable tax status (a property rule), or requiring compensatory additional tax (a liability rule). Counterintuitively, anecdotal evidence shows that property-rule remedies may be less effective at deterring violations, because the threat of political and media blowback may make the IRS unwilling to impose a draconian property-rule remedy. As a result, when Congress protects a requirement with the property-rule remedy of yanking a favorable tax status, politically-powerful or sympathetic taxpayers are rarely deterred from violating the requirement. The IRS doesn’t dare impose it. Surely similar problems plague enforcement by other agencies.

Anyone working in any agency-dominated area of law could consider how the property-rule/liability-rule framework fits into their area.

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Gently Nudging with Liability Rules?

No Smoking symbolWhy have sexual harassment and anti-smoking laws been so successful in changing entrenched social norms in the U.S. over the past few decades? In a 2000 U. Chicago Law Review article, Dan Kahan observed that combatting these ills took the approach of “gentle nudges,” imposing moderate remedies that were within the range of what decisionmakers (e.g. judges and juries) thought was reasonably proportional to the violation. Because these moderate remedies were enforced, norms shifted, and lawmakers could ratchet up the remedies. By contrast, Kahan observed that “hard shoves” imposing remedies substantially exceeding social norms fail to be enforced or to change norms. For example, France tackled sexual harassment by making it a criminal offense, which French society saw as vastly disproportionate. As a result, French sexual-harassment law went unenforced against conduct that would have easily incurred liability under U.S. law, and French norms barely shifted.

There is an underexplored connection between Kahan’s “gentle nudge” vs. “hard shove” dichotomy, and Calabresi & Melamed’s “property rule” vs. “liability rule” dichotomy. Calabresi & Melamed observed that remedies are either (1) liability rules, such as compensatory damages, or (2) property rules, such as injunctions or prison, which aim to deter. Liability rules generally overlap with “gentle nudges” in that they aim for proportional compensation. Property rules largely overlap with “hard shoves.”

The debate over the relative merits of property rules and liability rules has raged in academia and the courts. Bringing Kahan’s observations into the mix weighs in favor of liability rules, which are more likely to be enforced – and to shift norms.

I explore the relationship between these two dichotomies in sections II.C.3 and IV.C of a forthcoming article looking at IRS enforcement (or lack thereof). But their interrelationship is promising for anyone interested in either the property-rule/liability-rule debate or in altering social norms.

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Taxonomy of Innovation Incentives

SIP folks don’t talk enough with tax-law folks, and vice versa. This has some unfortunate results. IP has become a leading tax-avoidance vehicle, without drawing sufficient notice from IP scholars and practitioners. And R&D tax incentives are rarely evaluated alongside patents, prizes, and research grants as effective ways to foster innovation.

An insightful article forthcoming in the Texas Law Review, by Daniel Hemel and Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, takes a big step in bridging this gap. They observe that all innovation incentives can be broken down along three dimensions: (1) who decides (government vs. the market), (2) when paid (ex ante vs. ex post), and (3) who pays (government vs. users). For example, patents are market-driven, with money delivered ex post, from users of the patented technology. By contrast, R&D tax incentives are market-driven, with money delivered ex ante, from the government.

These three dimensions lead to a 2 x 2 x 2 matrix, suggesting a total of eight types of innovation incentives. But only five are currently used: patents, prizes, research grants, R&D tax incentives, and patent boxes (which provide favorable tax rates on patent income). As a result, Hemel and Ouellette’s taxonomy suggests three new mechanisms to encourage innovation. Their taxonomy also teases out some exciting new insights on the relative merits of existing innovation incentives, including some previously overlooked benefits of R&D tax incentives.