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Category: Tax

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More On Endowments

Late last week Crooked Timber had a lively discussion about university endowments, prompted by my recent post here and Larry Solum’s response to it. Those who are interested in the topic should take a look at the discussion, as it partially mirrors the debate that is taking place more generally. I’ve been following Crooked Timber with interest, and here’s several points that have struck me:

* I’ll start with the observation I found most interesting: that some elite institutions have a mission that is as much (or even more) about research than about education. I agree that I need to emphasize this distinction more than I have to date. My proposal that an endowment per full-time student of $300,000 or more trigger less favorable tax treatment could penalize institutions whose primary output is research rather than education. Recall, however, that the most frequently proposed trigger is an absolute endowment value of $1 billion or more. Elite research universities tend to have endowments of this magnitude, so my proposal is not tougher on these institutions than the oft-suggested alternative. In fact, my proposed trigger would exempt some research-oriented universities that would otherwise be subject to new tax rules, such as Cornell and Columbia. The institutions most “negatively” affected by the $300,000 trigger are liberal arts colleges with endowments less than $1 billion and small student populations.

More important, however, is that a research-oriented mission actually strengthens calls for increased endowment spending. The sort of research taking place at America’s premier universities is designed to eventually lead to much social good: the easing of the global food crunch, the elimination of certain diseases, and so on, as well as the creation of knowledge more generally. Few science departments, for instance, are likely to argue that a dollar is better spent in the stock market than in their labs. The ability of researchers and scholars to make productive use of endowment funds seems almost endless, as do the potential gains from their work. This strikes me as a strong argument for elite research universities spending more of their endowments than they currently do.

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Super-Sized University Endowments: Is Your Alma Mater Richer (or Poorer) Than You Think?

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The New York Times recently published an opinion piece by a Harvard alum who was refusing to make a donation to her alma mater, which in 2007 reported an endowment of more than $34 billion. Yesterday the Times reported on a group called Harvard Alumni for Social Action, whose goal is to convince Harvard to use its endowment in untraditional ways, such as for the support of colleges in Africa. As the Harvard alum opined, “Many colleges may genuinely still need alumni contributions to stay solvent, but Harvard isn’t one of them — nor are Yale, Princeton or several other super-rich universities.”

Endowments provide plenty of fodder for discussion and this month I plan to do at least a couple of posts about them. Today I want to start with the preliminary question of how to determine whether a university or college is “super-rich.” This is a critical inquiry, because everyone agrees that if Congress adopts measures designed to spur endowment spending, most of these measures should apply only to the wealthiest institutions. In my estimation, this means those institutions with an endowment per full-time student of $300,000 or more. In 2006, about 30 universities and colleges fit this description.

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Italians Know What Their Neighbors Make: Why Don’t You?

769388_money_scoop_2.jpgSure, it was a leak, possibly politically motivated. But for 24 hours, every Italian’s tax information was publicly available on the web.

The finance ministry described the move as a bid to improve transparency.

Deputy Economic Minister Vincenzo Visco said he could not understand what all the fuss was about.

“I can’t understand what the problem is,” he is quoted as telling Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper.

“This already exists all around the world, you just have to watch any American soap to see that. We had the system ready by January but we delayed publication to avoid arguments during the election campaign.”

I can’t imagine what Visco means by American soap opera’s treatment of tax law, but I myself would be perfectly happy in a world where folks’ tax filings were transparent. (In part, of course, the cost to me isn’t terribly low, as I’m sure that the public institution I work for will eventually be compelled to disclose salary data. Similarly, government officials, whose salaries are knowable, have small incentives to care about privacy). But even so, wouldn’t the privacy losses we’d all feel be balanced by the pro-social consequences of transparency? For example, I’d bet that you’d see a rise in competitive charitable giving, and more pressure on unequal pay for equal work.

The To-Be-Blogged Pile

As the semester draws to a close, I’ll be adding a couple features to my blogging here. First, there’s always a big pile of stuff each week I’d like to blog on, but don’t get around to. So I’ll just post links to the articles, ala Tyler Cowen. Second, I’ll be trying to do a series on art & politics this season. Having lamented the press repeatedly, I think I owe it to readers to comment on people who are thinking more creatively about the political scene. . . including Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Timothy Donnelly, MIA, and Paul Chan. Without further adieu:

1. Have a tough time memorizing things? Check out this software program by Piotr Wozniak (which I’m definitely consulting if I try to re-learn Spanish).

2. Patrick S. O’Donnell both comments incisively on the food crisis and rounds up posts from around the blawgosphere. O’Donnell and Paul Horwitz have an interesting discussion on sustainability here. My own take would begin by comparing an article on the new living standards of very poor persons, and one on a “Club Med for Dogs.”

3. China’s new weapon: Low executive pay. Over to you, Todd Henderson.

4. Yale U. Press leads the way in opening access to books on internet topics. [Full disclosure: they do advertise here.]

Have a great weekend.

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Fantasy Authors, Tax Policy & Veil Piercing

Pat Rothfuss, author of the best-selling fantasy novel “The Name of the Wind, and an interviewee in my “Law and Hard Fantasy” series, has a post up on his blog ruminating about tax policy and incorporation.

Up until this year, I’ve always gotten money back because I’ve lived well below the poverty line. This year, I got to give them money. It was, as they say, more fun than getting kicked in the throat. Mostly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against taxes. Everyone loves to bitch about them, but taxes pay for schools, and roads, and snowplows, and sewage treatment plants. My friends have a son who is autistic, and the government helps them by bringing in well-trained people.

These things are important. If that’s all my taxes went toward, I would pay them gladly. I would sing a song while writing out the check.

However, we all know that’s not the case.

So, under the advice of several wise people, I’ve decided to start a corporation. This is supposed to prevent the government from taking quite as big a bite out of my ass for next year’s taxes.

It doesn’t seem right, honestly. The corporation is just me: I own it. And this corporation (let’s call it Me-corp) will be employing me. That, apparently, is different from being actually self-employed. Sorry? What? How does that work?

I guess what it comes down to is that the government is really, really dumb. Dumb enough so that if I put on sock on one of my hands and use it as a puppet, it will be convinced that the puppet is actually paying the taxes, not me.

But I’m not above exploiting a loophole in the system. So all that remains is to figure out what to call this corporation. I having trouble picking a name. Names are important things, you know. They tell you a great deal about a… a corporation.

I’m not an expert in tax law, so I’ll leave discussion of the income-sheltering aspects of this structure to the experts, but I know something about corporate veil piercing. And I’ll just say that calling a corporation a “puppet” would seem to make it less likely that a court would consider it a bona fide entity for the purpose of shielding a shareholder’s personal assets in any suit against Me.corp.

Who Wants to Think They’re Millionaires?

Lots of Americans, apparently:

A Time Magazine poll in 2000 found that 19 percent of those surveyed believed themselves to be among the richest 1 percent of Americans. Another 20 percent said they expected to one day be among the richest 1 percent.

But as Citizens for Tax Justice estimates, “This year, the best-off one percent will have an estimated average income of $1.5 million each. Just to get into this elite group requires an income greater than $466,000.” And the middle class of, say, ABC debate moderator Charlie Gibson is also pretty expansive–it includes people with adjusted gross income over $250,000, though CTJ notes that only about 2% of taxpayers fit that category.

As the “millionaire’s amendment” in our tattered campaign finance laws comes under attack, misperceptions about wealth feed into Supreme Court arguments as well:

Consider Tuesday’s oral arguments over the so-called Millionaires’ Amendment, the federal law that lifts some political fundraising limits for candidates facing wealthy self-funded opponents, defined as those who pour at least $350,000 of their own cash into their campaign.

Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that practically anybody had that cash available for political activism, if he or she really wanted to tap some family assets. “Are we talking wealthy people here? What’s the average price of a home in the United States? I think it’s a good deal above $350,000, isn’t it?” he said.

Actually, it’s nowhere near that. According to provisional figures from the National Association of Realtors, the average single family home price last month was $246,000. And falling.

As I noted two years ago, even the assumption that everyone has $200 to spare for a political campaign is pretty objectionable. And it is downright nonsensical to deny that donating $200 “hurts” a poor family far more than one with disposable income to spare (just think of the parable of the widow’s mite). The legitimacy of our current “dollar primary” politics probably rests in large part on the erroneous perception of 38% of the population that they are (or someday will be) in the top 1% of earners.

UPDATE: Given my title, I should note that about 3% of the US population are millionaires (i.e., have assets over and above principal residence that are worth over a million dollars). Nevertheless, given that the median net worth of the top 10% in the U.S. was $833,600 in 2001, and that of the bottom ten percent was below $7,900, Americans live in very different economic worlds.

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Those wacky tax guys…

Who says that tax lawyers don’t have a sense of humor? I recently pulled the following disclaimer off the bottom of an email sent by an in-house attorney at a capital management firm:

Disclaimers: This information was added automatically by Mozilla. It is not intended to be a signature. I am not your lawyer. You are not my client. If you think that there is useful tax advice in this e-mail, you are delusional. If the IRS wants to impose a penalty on you, waving this e-mail at them will make them laugh at you, and it won’t get you off the hook. If someone shows you this e-mail, and says it proves that some bright idea of his will save you a boatload of taxes, he is lying — run the other way as fast as you can.

Those wacky tax guys…

Free Lunch Discussed at Reason

The concept of a “left libertarian” has been something of an oxymoron of late, best left to obscure philosophical proposals and Kossite appeals to Cato. But David Cay Johnston’s recent conversation at Reason Magazine makes the case in some interesting ways:

[Johnston's new book] Free Lunch is full of sharp, heavily reported takedowns on eminent domain, expensive special favors for sports teams, legislative deals that put taxpayers on the hook for a private train company’s crimes and errors, giveaways from small towns to attract big-box stores, and how heavily government-managed markets in areas such as power and health care can enrich some at everyone’s expense.

I’ve found Reason the most principled libertarian outfit around, so I’m not surprised that they’ve interviewed Johnston. I just started his book, and I’ll be posting a review here later this month. It’s been fascinating so far.

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I’m Sorry… Sincerely, The IRS

Today, the New York Times reports, the National Taxpayer Advocate delivered her annual report to Congress. First established in 1998, the Taxpayer Advocate Service describes itself as “an independent organization within the IRS that assists taxpayers who are experiencing economic harm, who are seeking help in resolving tax problems that have not been resolved through normal channels, or who believe that an IRS system or procedure is not working as it should.” Judging by the generous use of exclamation points on its home page, moreover, the Service would appear to be quite excited about this mission.

Among other things, I was struck by certain aspects of the IRS’ present-day operations that the annual report critiques. I hadn’t realized, for example, that the IRS makes widespread – if ineffectual – use of private debt collectors, or that it charges (sometimes substantial) fees to respond to taxpayer inquiries.

Two reform proposals in the annual report, however, particularly caught my eye:

First, there is the Advocate’s proposal to adopt a new taxpayer bill of rights – an odd-seeming concept, to begin with. (Isn’t the Administrative Procedure Act the “bill of rights” of the modern administrative state?) This bill of rights, moreover, would include a list of taxpayer “responsibilites,” including requirements that they (in the Times‘ words) “conduct themselves honestly and [] cooperate with auditors and tax collectors.” But what exactly is the “honest conduct” the Advocate has in mind? Avoiding fraudulent statements to the IRS? Surely, we’ve already got that covered. What’s other honest conduct might be expected? Some general promise of good and clean living?

Even more eye-catching were the report’s proposed “Apology Payments,” to be doled out by the Advocate’s office – in amounts ranging from $100 to $1,000, and up to a collective cap of $1 million – to taxpayers who suffer “excessive expense or undue burden” because of IRS error or delay. Leaving aside the procedural complexities of such a scheme, are there analogous arrangements to be found in other areas of law? (The Times reports that the U.K. and Australia already have such a scheme in their tax code.) Do we do it anywhere else?

The Heroism of Susan Pace Hamill

It is now sadly all too common to see public intellectuals pointedly ignoring–or even cheering on–growing inequality. Bloodless statistical accounts tend to miss the consequences that flow for poor families when taxes on the wealthiest are cut and social programs are gutted accordingly.

Professor Susan Pace Hamill has done an extraordinary job in turning public attention to this problem. According to the NYT’s David Cay Johnston, “her latest effort is a book, As Certain as Death (Carolina Academic Press, 2007), that seeks to document how the 50 states, in contravention of her view of biblical injunctions, do more to burden the poor and relieve the rich than vice versa.” Some statistics are really striking:

The poorest fifth of Alabama families, with incomes under $13,000, pay state and local taxes that take almost 11 cents out of each dollar. The richest 1 percent, who make $229,000 or more, pay less than 4 cents out of each dollar they earn, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, an advocacy group whose numbers are generally considered trustworthy even by many of its opponents.

As a cursory Google search shows, Professor Pace Hamill has honed her message with extraordinary clarity and skill in a variety of forums–law review articles, books, interviews, and even sermons. Prof. Pace Hamill’s engaged scholarship and contributions as a public intellectual provide a great model for those who seek to develop religiously inspired legal theory.

Hat Tip: TaxProfBlog; Mirror of Justice.