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Posts Tagged ‘IRS’

The internal revenue service has allowed itself to become a tool of the White House. To be more specific, bureaucrats at the tax-collection agency sought to undermine a free and fair political process by stifling political speech. And now the IRS is lying about its activities and trying to cover its tracks.

This should be deeply horrifying to all Americans, regardless of political affiliation or philosophy.

Particularly since the partisan Democrat appointed by Obama to head the IRS refuses to even apologize for the agency’s rogue behavior.

There are several appropriate responses to the IRS scandal, including some genuine budget cuts. But you probably won’t be surprised to learn that some people think the IRS instead should be rewarded with even more money.

Here are some excerpts from a column in today’s Washington Post.

…this is an especially strange time to stick up for the agency, given the suspicious disappearance of a few thousand key e-mails that Congress wants to see. But right now, the IRS desperately needs a champion. …the IRS has been laboring…with fewer resources. Since 2010, when Congress first began hacking away at discretionary spending, the bureau’s funding has fallen 14 percent, in inflation-adjusted terms… These cuts have come even though the agency’s responsibilities and workload have increased, thanks to new laws such as the Affordable Care Act and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act… Now House Republicans want to hobble it even more. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to slash the bureau’s budget by another $340 million.

It’s true that both Obamacare and FATCA grant new powers and obligations to the IRS, but we can solve that problem by repealing those misguided laws.

But since that won’t happen while Obama is in the White House, let’s consider whether “fewer resources,” “hobble,” and “hacking away” are accurate ways of describing what’s been happening to the IRS’s budget.

The Office of Management and Budget has detailed tables showing spending by agency. And if you look at the administrative portions of IRS spending (culled from lines 2491-2533 of this massive database), it turns out that spending has increased dramatically over time.

Yes, it’s true that IRS spending has declined slightly since 2010, but the agency’s budget is still about twice as big as it was 30 years ago. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

In other words, it’s very misleading to focus merely on the post-2010 budgetary data (just as Krugman was being deceptive when he looked only at post-2007 data when writing about Estonia’s economic performance).

Looking at the historical data reveals that the IRS budget is much bigger than it’s been in the past.

There are a couple of additional points in the column that deserve some attention. The author argues that people who care about the budget deficit should be delighted to give more money to the IRS because it produces a “darn good return on investment.”

If you care about narrowing the budget deficit — as Republicans generally say they do — gutting your chief revenue- collection agency makes little sense. …The IRS generates way more money than it spends, after all. For every dollar appropriated to the IRS in the 2013 fiscal year, the agency collected $255, according to the national taxpayer advocate’s office. That’s a darn good return on investment.

Wow, what a scary mindset. Based on this thinking, why don’t we simply give the government carte blanche to seize our bank accounts? After all, they could probably collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for every dollar spent. That would be an even better “return on investment.”

As an aside, this is an example of why I get so agitated when supposed fiscal conservatives focus on deficits and debt. It creates an opening for people who want to push bad policy. But if you focus on the real problem of government spending, that problem disappears.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the column. There’s one other point that cries out for correction. The author claims that a bigger IRS budget will reduce tax evasion and that this will keep tax rates from going higher.

Some of that money comes from going after tax cheats, and…rampant tax evasion has a tendency to drive statutory tax rates higher so that the government can extract more money from those poor saps still obeying the law.

The only problem with this assertion is that it is grossly inconsistent with the facts.

We have very powerful evidence that politicians lowered tax rates during periods when there were substantial flows of money to so-called tax havens.

Why? Because they felt competitive pressure to implement less onerous tax rates in order to keep even more money from escaping.

And now we have strong evidence that tax rates are going up as opportunities to escape bad tax policy have decreased.

Why? Because the politicians now feel that taxpayers have fewer escape options.

To summarize this post, the IRS needs and deserves more money in the same way that Charles Manson needs and deserves a group hug.

Here’s one last bit of humor to augment the cartoons I’ve already included. It’s PG-13, so don’t read too closely if you get easily offended.

P.S. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could junk the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax? That would eliminate almost every possible conflict with the IRS and also take away the agency’s discretionary power.

Not a bad fantasy to have, at least for a policy wonk.

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When I wrote recently that the IRS was corrupt, venal, and despicable, I didn’t realize that I was bending over backwards to be overly nice.

Every new revelation in the scandal shows that the agency is beyond salvage.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute is appropriately skeptical of the IRS.

Coincidentally, Lerner’s computer crashed 10 days after Congress expressed concern about possible targeting of conservative groups. Emails between January 2009 and April 2011 were lost. Her computer is not available for examination, because it has already been recycled by the IRS. In a further coincidence, or not, a backup tape of agency emails made by the IRS was erased after 6 months. …As Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins said, the story sounds more and more implausible.

Diana then explains why this matters, using Obamacare as an example of why we should worry about a corrupt and politicized IRS.

Why should we care about missing emails from 2009 to 2011? As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a 2013 hearing about Benghazi, “What difference at this point does it make?” It is not just that Americans’ basic trust in the IRS is being called into question. Over the past five years the IRS has been concentrating its power, giving the agency increased opportunities to pick on people and groups it dislikes. …Sarah Hall Ingram, who was commissioner of the IRS’s Tax-Exempt and Government Entities Division from 2009 to 2012 during the Lois Lerner scandal, now heads the IRS Affordable Care Act Office. …Do Americans trust the IRS to calculate these subsidies and refunds impartially? The IRS already made a power grab in May 2012 by extending premium subsidies to the 34 states with federal exchanges.

She also points out that the IRS is carrying water for the President’s attempt to stifle opposing views.

…the IRS proposed regulations that would allow the agency to regulate the free speech of President Obama’s political opponents, while leaving the political activities of his friends untouched. …The regulations were targeted at tax-exempt organizations that file under 501(c)(4) of the IRS code… Under the new rules these groups would not be allowed to engage in voter education that mentions a candidate within two months of a general election or one month of a primary. Left untouched by the proposed regulations were unions, which file under 501(c)(5) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute also is not persuaded by the IRS’s deceitful excuses.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the administration have consistently spouted lies and half-truths about the IRS scandal. The latest development in the controversy is that crucial emails have conveniently gone missing – is there any reason to believe that it is, as the administration claims, a mere accident? …This effort to keep conservative 501(c)(4) organizations from attempting to prevent president Obama’s reelection was, of course, hidden from the public. Ms. Lerner was careful to try and structure the IRS’ targeting in such a way that would not be appear to be a “per se political project,” in her own words, and denied in meetings with, and letters to, congressional oversight staff in 2012 that conservative groups were treated exceptionally or that the IRS’ ways of evaluating 501(c)(4)s had ever changed. The claims were false… In her response to a planted question from the audience at an American Bar Association tax conference, Ms. Lerner blamed the targeting of conservative groups on “our line people in Cincinnatti.” This has also turned out to be false. …non-Tea Party groups were never subjected to the same delays and investigations as Tea Party groups were. This once more suggest that obfuscation and dishonesty were central to the IRS’ approach to their targeting practices.

He even crunches some numbers to show that the claims from the IRS are utterly implausible.

It would be very helpful to see what communications took place between IRS officials and other Democrats. And this is where the missing emails come in. …They are gone, they now tell us, hard drives crashed and tapes were erased. Should we believe that? Of the 82 IRS employees tied to the targeting operation, 7 had their email disappear, or 8.5%. According to IRS commissioner John Koskinen, the industry standard is 3 to 5%. Under reasonable statistical assumptions, that makes the IRS scandal disappearance rate about as likely as the emails having been eaten by unicorn, with a probability far smaller than 1%. Given the IRS’ track record in this affair, that is way beyond anything that would justify giving the IRS and Lois Lerner the benefit of the doubt.

Amazingly, 12 percent of Americans believe the IRS. Here’s some polling data that Phil Kerpen shared on his twitter feed.

I’m particularly happy that younger people are more skeptical. They’re more tech-savvy and realize that the IRS’s excuses are a bunch of….well, a bunch of stuff that comes out of male cows.

And here are some good cartoons on the topic, starting with Eric Allie’s gem.

I like how he includes a representative of the 12 percent of deliberately gullible Americans.

And here’s another contribution from Allie.

And here’s Steve Kelley’s cartoon on the topic.

He’s right, needless to say. It would be better if the IRS was merely squandering money rather than seeking to subvert the democratic process.

Last but not least, here’s an evergreen cartoon about the IRS from Glenn McCoy.

Oh, and let’s not forget two other items.

The political hack who now heads the IRS is a partisan leftist.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen contributed more than $85,000 to Democratic candidates and committees…with a $5,000 donation to President Obama in 2012 and $19,000 to the Democratic National Committee from 1988 to 2008.

And the political hack who was forced out of the IRS actually wanted to target a US Senator.

…the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) targeting of conservative individuals includes a sitting United States Senator. According to emails reviewed by the Committee under its Section 6103 authority, …Lois Lerner sought to have Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) referred for IRS examination.

There are more horror stories to share, but this is enough for one day.

Suffice to say, you can understand why my fantasies involve tax reform rather than supermodels.

P.S. I can’t resist one more comment. Don’t forget that the corrupt and partisan IRS is in charge of Obamacare enforcement, but the bureaucrats want to be exempt from that government-run healthcare system. Just like politicians.

The moral of the story: Washington is even worse than you think. It’s a racket for insiders, but a burden for the rest of us.

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Some statements are so lame that they now serve only as punch lines.

Nobody, after all, would ever claim to a teacher that “the dog ate my homework.”

Moreover, surely few if any people ever actually assert to bill collectors that “the check is in the mail.”

And I have to imagine that no guy would be dumb enough to think a girl would fall for the line that “I’ll still love you in the morning.”

But we now have a new champion in the contest for the most laughable and pathetic assertion ever made.

But first some background. Congressional investigators have been trying to figure out the level of criminality and malfeasance in the IRS’s campaign to interfere with the 2012 election by targeting Tea Party groups. Much of the attention has focused on the activities of Lois Lerner, a left-wing ideologue at the center of the scandal.

And it is because of this investigation that we have a winner in the most-preposterous excuse contest. The political hacks at the IRS are now claiming, with straight faces, that they can’t turn over thousands of emails sent and received by Lois Lerner because of a “computer mishap.”

Here’s some of what’s been reported by the Washington Times.

The IRS has told Congress that it has lost some of former employee Lois G. Lerner’s emails from 2009 through 2011, including those she sent to other federal agencies… Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he was stunned… “The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’s response to congressional inquiries,” Mr. Camp said. “There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the Inspector General.” …the emails lost were “critical years” from the beginning of the targeting of conservative groups.

At this point, I suppose I should acknowledge that there’s an infinitesimally tiny chance that the IRS is being honest. Maybe, just maybe, the IRS’s immense computer infrastructure and multiple levels of redundant back up happened to fail. And, by an amazing coincidence, they can recover everything except the emails from Lois Lerner that were sent at precisely the time she was instrumental in the IRS’s harassment campaign.

Yeah, right, there’s a chance the IRS is being honest. Just like the Nixon White House could have accidentally erased 18-1/2 minutes of tape.

That being said, there’s a chance I’ll be playing center field next month for the New York Yankees. And an even bigger chance that the models from Victoria’s Secret will invite me for a weekend orgy (and just in case the Princess of the Levant is reading this, I naturally would say no).

Let me now detour into the world of public policy.

The IRS’s venal and corrupt behavior is only possible because the tax code is a Byzantine nightmare of about 75,000 pages. And that doesn’t even include all the tax court decisions and IRS letter rulings that also govern the internal revenue code.

It is this thicket of special-interest sleaze that enables hacks like Lois Lerner to wield unjustified power.

So if we want to actually reduce the chances of similar malfeasance in the future, then action is needed.

But I’m not just talking about prison for the crooks who tried to misuse the power of government.

We also need to rip up the internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

As you can see in this video, I’m mostly a fan of tax reform because it will help the American economy. But I’m also delighted the flat tax will reduce the discretionary power of politicians and bureaucrats.

In the long run, of course, it would be even better if we shrank the federal government so much that we didn’t need any broad-based tax of any kind.

 

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I realize this may be a thought crime by DC standards, but it sure would be nice to eliminate the high tax rates that undermine economic growth and reduce American competitiveness.

At the risk of sharing too much information, I fantasize about a world without the internal revenue code. In addition to getting rid of high tax rates, I also want to abolish the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Tax Code PagesJust as important, I want to wipe out the distorting loopholes that tilt the playing field in favor of politically connected interest groups. And I daydream about how much easier tax day would be if ordinary people didn’t have to figure out how to comply with an ever-changing tax code.

But perhaps you’re a normal person and you don’t dwell on these topics. Your fantasies probably have nothing to do with fiscal policy and instead involve that hottie in your neighborhood.

That’s fine. I’m actually envious of well-adjusted people who don’t fixate on the cesspool of Washington.

But – at the very least – I want you to agree that America needs fundamental tax reform. And to help persuade you,  here are some fresh stories to remind you that the tax code and the IRS are a blight on society.

For instance, how do you feel about the IRS engaging in partisan politics, as reported by the Washington Times.

Even as the IRS faces growing heat over Lois G. Lerner and the tea party targeting scandal, a government watchdog said Wednesday it’s pursuing cases against three other tax agency employees and offices suspected of illegal political activity in support of President Obama and fellow Democrats. …the Office of Special Counsel…said it was “commonplace” in a Dallas IRS office for employees to have pro-Obama screensavers on their computers, and to have campaign-style buttons and stickers at their office. In another case, a worker at the tax agency’s customer help line urged taxpayers “to re-elect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name,” the Office of Special Counsel said in a statement. …Another IRS employee in Kentucky has agreed to serve a 14-day suspension for blasting Republicans in a conversation with a taxpayer.

For more information about this nauseating scandal, read the wise words of Tim Carney and Doug Bandow.

Or what about the time, expense, and anxiety that the tax code causes for small businesses? Heck, even the Washington Post has noticed this is a big issue.

More than half of small employers say the administrative burdens and paperwork associated with tax season pose the greatest harm to their businesses, according to a new survey by the National Small Business Association. Forty-seven percent say the actual tax bill hits their companies the hardest. On average, small-business owners spend more than 40 hours — the equivalent of a full workweek — filing their federal taxes every year. One in four spends at least three full weeks on the annual chore. There is also the expense of doing that work. Only 12 percent of employers filed their taxes on their own this year, down from 15 percent last year — and hiring help can be pricey. Half spent more than $5,000 on accountants and administrative costs last year. One in four spent more than $10,000.

I was tempted to say compliance costs add insult to injury, except that understates the problem. Watch this video if you want to understand why the tax code needs to be junked.

And let’s not forget that high tax rates are pointlessly destructive and bad for America. Dozens of companies have redomiciled in other jurisdictions to get out from under America’s punitive corporate tax system. And more are looking at that option. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Financial Times.

Walgreens has come under pressure from an influential group of its shareholders, who want the US pharmacy chain to consider relocating to Europe, in what would be one of the largest tax inversions ever attempted. …The move, known as an inversion, would dramatically reduce Walgreens’ taxable income in the US, which has among the highest corporate tax rates in the world. …In a note last month, analysts at UBS said Walgreens’ tax rate was expected to be 37.5 per cent compared with 20 per cent for Boots, and that an inversion could increase earnings per share by 75 per cent. They added, however, that “Walgreens’ management seems more hesitant to pull the trigger near-term due to perceived political risks.”

By the way, “perceived political risks” is a polite way of saying that the team at Walgreens is worried that the company might be targeted by the crowd in Washington. In other words, it will be attacked if it does the right thing for workers, consumers, and shareholders.

But that’s blaming the victim. All you really need to know is that America’s corporate tax system is so harsh that companies don’t just escape to Ireland, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and Bermuda. They even find better fiscal policy in Canada and the United Kingdom!

Last but not least, do you trust the IRS with your confidential financial data? If you answer yes, seek help right away from a mental health professional and check out these stories.

According to the Washington Times:

A new cost-saving computer technology being implemented by the IRS has left the agency vulnerable to hacking, putting taxpayers’ info at risk, an investigative report has found. …although the IRS has developed cybersecurity guidelines, many of the servers aren’t following them, said a report by the agency’s internal watchdog, the Inspector General for Tax Administration. In fact, the servers failed 43 percent of the tests investigators put them through, though they aren’t releasing what those tests and settings are due to security concerns.

According to a Bloomberg report:

A U.S. Internal Revenue Service employee took home a computer thumb drive containing unencrypted data on 20,000 fellow workers, the agency said in a statement today. …The IRS said it’s working with its inspector general to investigate the incident. The IRS statement didn’t say why the incident was discovered now, didn’t include the name of the employee who used the thumb drive and didn’t say whether the employee still works at the IRS.

And National Review has reported:

The Internal Revenue Service stole and improperly accessed 60 million medical records after raiding a California company, according to a legal complaint filed in March with the California superior court for San Diego. …“No search warrant authorized the seizure of these records; no subpoena authorized the seizure of these records; none of the 10,000,000 Americans were under any kind of known criminal or civil investigation and their medical records had no relevance whatsoever to the IRS search.”

So what’s the bottom line? I suppose there are different interpretations, but my view is that the system is irretrievably broken. It needs to be shredded and replaced.

What are the options?

My real fantasy is to have a very small federal government. Then we wouldn’t need a broad-based tax of any kind.

But I also have incremental fantasies. Until we can shrink the federal government to its proper size, let’s at least figure out ways of collecting revenue that are much less destructive and much less unfair.

The flat tax is one possible answer.

I’m also a fan of the national sales tax, though only if we first amend the Constitution to ensure that politicians don’t pull a bait-and-switch and burden us with both an income tax and sales tax!

To be more specific, I’m a fan of the Fair Tax, but only if we make sure that politicians never again have the ability to impose an income tax.

P.S. Since we’re on the subject of taxes, folks in Northern New Jersey, Southern New York, and New York City may be interested in a tax symposium this Thursday at Ramapo College in Mahway, New Jersey. Along with several other speakers, I’ll be pontificating on the following question: “The Income Tax:
Necessary Evil, Or the Root of All Evil?”

The college is convenient to I-287 near the New York/New Jersey border. Say hello if you attend.

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Looking at labor markets, my biggest concern is the drop in labor force participation.

The data from the Labor Department on the employment-population ratio, for instance, suggest a permanent reduction in the share of the population that is working.

And since economic output and living standards ultimately depend on the quality and quantity of labor and capital that is being productively utilized, it obviously is not good news that millions of people are no longer employed.

But if I had to identify a second-biggest concern, it would be the “Europeanization” of long-run unemployment in the United States. Specifically, we have a growing problem of too many people being unemployed for long periods.

I pontificate about this issue in a column for CNN.

…there are almost 4 million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months. That’s a big number. What’s disconcerting is that the current long-term unemployment is more serious than in previous economic downturns. Data from previous business cycles show people suffering from long-run joblessness at worst accounted for about 20% to 25% of the unemployed. In recent months, that percentage has jumped to nearly 40% — an all-time record! Indeed, America is beginning to look like Europe. It used to be that long-term unemployment in the U.S. was only a fraction of Europe’s, but the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that the United States has caught up to many of Europe’s welfare states. That’s not a race we want to be part of, much less win.

Here are some charts that illustrate the severity of the problem.

Let’s start with a look at what’s happened over time in the United States.

Long-Run Unemployment as Share of Unemployed

As you can see, the problem of long-run unemployment rises and falls with the business cycle. But during previous recessions, the share of the unemployed who were out of work for more than six months rarely climbed above 20 percent. And then the problem quickly got better once the economy began to recover.

That’s no longer the case. Long-term unemployment peaked at more than 40 percent of overall joblessness between 2010 and 2012. And even though we’ve supposedly been in a recovery since the summer of 2009, that number has fallen to only about 37 percent.

Now let’s compare the data from the United States to the numbers from other developed nations. As you can see, the United States used to have a huge advantage over other industrialized countries, but that gap has almost completely disappeared.

Long-Run Unemployment - US v OECD

We don’t know, to be sure, whether this represents a permanent change. But my concern is that we’re more and more likely to see bad European-type numbers now that we’re enduring European-type economic policies of bigger government and more intervention.

There is an alternative, which I explained in my CNN column, that could improve American labor markets.

…what’s the solution? There’s no silver bullet, but economic growth is the single most important key. …Unfortunately, …we’re still suffering through a sluggish economic cycle. Recent improvements in the overall employment rate are in large part the result of people dropping out of the labor force, and the problem of long-run unemployment has barely budged. To boost employment, we need the kind of strong growth America enjoyed during the Reagan and Clinton years, when millions of new jobs were created and the unemployment rate fell dramatically. To get there, we need a return to the types of free-market policies we got under Reagan and Clinton: a lower burden of government spending and less intervention from Washington.

Seems simple, right? We got good growth and job numbers during the Reagan and Clinton years, so we should replicate those policies.

But that hasn’t been the case. And the problem didn’t start with Obama, though he’s certainly made it worse.

…we’ve been moving in the exact opposite direction. Under both Presidents Bush and Obama, the size and scope of government has expanded, and the United States — which had the world’s third-most free-market economy when Bill Clinton left office — has now dropped to 17th in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings. We also need to make sure the unemployed don’t get lured into long-term dependency. One glaring example of misguided big-government policy is the argument to endlessly extend unemployment benefits. …Moreover, Obama’s proposed hike in the minimum wage…is the equivalent of sawing off the bottom rungs on the economic ladder. Simply stated, businesses create jobs when they think a new employee will help the bottom line. Artificially raising the cost of workers — particularly those with marginal skills — is a recipe for creating more unemployment.

I hate repeating myself, but it bears saying over and over again that the key to prosperity is small government and free markets.

But to the extent we become more like France and less like Hong Kong, we are doomed to get anemic economic performance and fall in the competitiveness rankings.

P.S. On another topic, it pains me to report that one of the worst examples of DC sleaze is about the become law.

The so-called farm bill has cleared Congress after corrupt Democrats seeking more food stamp spending Farm Bill Spendingjoined forces with corrupt Republicans seeking more agri-business welfare.

The invaluable Tim Carney describes the lobbyist feeding frenzy that produced this monstrosity.

A trillion-dollar, pork-filled farm bill stuffed with corporate welfare passed the House last week and cleared the Senate on Tuesday… The bill perpetuates the federal sugar program. Arguably Washington’s least defensible corporate welfare boondoggle, the sugar program keeps out foreign sugar, hiking prices for consumers, killing jobs for candy makers and enriching a few politically connected sugar producers. The farm bill replaces a flawed program of direct payments to farmers with a potentially more wasteful program of subsidized crop insurance, which takes money from taxpayers and gives it to banks and farming businesses. …The bill had its supporters, of course: the agribusiness lobby, the farm-finance lobby, the White House and the Congressional leadership of both parties. …The Ag lobby got what they wanted. The GOP leadership passed its bill. Democrats got their trillion-dollar price tag.

But here’s the part that really gets me pissed.

Lawmakers also stripped out of the final farm bill a provision that would have required congressmen to disclose the farm subsidies they receive from taxpayers.

This Chip Bok cartoon is a good summary of what happened.

Farm Bill Cartoon Bok

Just in case you need a reminder about why the Department of Agriculture should be abolished.

P.P.S. Since we’re sharing bad news, I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that the new head of the IRS has decided to reward employees by giving them more of our money. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Washington Times.

Citing the need to boost employee morale, the Internal Revenue Service’s new commissioner said Monday that he will pay out millions of dollars in bonuses to agency employees, reversing a decision his predecessor made to save money… The move didn’t sit well with congressional critics who have been stupefied by the agency’s targeting of tea party groups… “It’s hard to think of a group of people less deserving of bonuses than IRS employees. Frankly, this is outrageous,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Hey, but nothing to worry about.

After all, the President has appointed one of his big donors to investigate whether anybody at the IRS did anything wrong.

And we already know the results of that investigation. As this Jerry Holbert cartoon notes, the President has told us there isn’t a smidgen of corruption.

IRS Musical Cartoon

Gee, I know I’m satisfied with that assurance. After all, the President would never lie to us, would he?

I guess this is what they mean by trickle-down government.

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It’s time to extinguish any lingering Christmas cheer. Today’s topic is over-bearing and tyrannical tax administration.

To be more specific, we’re going to look at the extent to which taxpayers are mistreated during the process of collecting revenue.

Yes, the amount that governments steal from you also is important, but that’s a topic we’ve already discussed on many occasions.

Moreover, we’re not going to focus on the IRS. Yes, the internal revenue service is infamous for its brutal and intrusive tactics. And I’m embarrassed to note that the United States scored very poorly in a Tax Oppression Index prepared by Switzerland’s Institut Constant.

But I want to focus today on places other than Washington. And the good news (at least relatively speaking) is that some countries scored even lower than the United States. The very worst nation was Italy, and you probably won’t be surprised that Germany (the country that figured out a way to use parking meters to tax prostitutes) and France were among the jurisdictions that also ranked below America.

This story from Brittany provides a rather appropriate glimpse at what it’s like to be a taxpayer in France.

For customers at the Mamm-Kounifl concert-café in Locmiquélic, carrying drinks trays and used glasses back to the bar was a polite tradition. But for social security agency URSAFF, it was also an infringement of labour laws because customers were acting like waiters, French local newspaper Le Télégramme reported.

But what’s really amazing is the way in which France’s revenue-hungry bureaucrats “caught” the alleged scofflaws.

“Around half-past midnight, a customer returned a drinks tray. She passed by the bar to go to the toilets. That was when it all kicked off.   My husband was pinned against the glass by a man. A woman leapt on me, showing her ID card and that’s when I realised it was a URSSAF check. They told me I had been caught using undeclared labour,” owner Markya Le Floch told Le Télégramme. …The authorities initially fined the pub owners €7,900 and briefly placed them in police custody. …URSSAF are still pursuing a social case and are now seeking €9,000 due to non-payment of the original fine.

Wow. This may be even more Orwellian than the FDA raid against the Amish farm that was selling unpasteurized milk to consenting adults. Or more absurd than the DEA busting a grandmother for buying cold medicine.

Imagine if the IRS adopted this French policy. If you take your significant other on a fancy date to McDonald’s and then carry your trash to the garbage receptacles, you’ll be guilty of providing “undeclared labor” and the tax police can then decide to impose taxes and fines because there could have been a taxable employee fulfilling that role.

I’m not joking. That seems to be the premise of the case in France.

Let’s now look at how taxpayers are treated by the various states here in America. Using data from the Council on State Taxation, the Tax Foundation has put together a map with grades for each state based on “good government” principles of tax administration.

Tax Administration Map of States

I’m surprised that Maine and Ohio rank so highly, particularly since neither state gets very good grades based on either Tax Freedom Day, aggregate tax burden, or the State Business Tax Climate.

But I’m not surprised that California ranks at the bottom. The state routinely gets bad grades on various measures of fiscal policy. No wonder so much income is moving out of the state. As for Louisiana, I can understand why Governor Jindal is so anxious to get rid of the state income tax.

Though the absence of a state income tax doesn’t guarantee good tax administration. Nevada, for instance, gets a poor grade in the COST survey.

P.S. If you like cartoons mocking California’s tax-and-spend politicians, click here, here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. I’ve only shared one French-related cartoon, but you can seem my attempts at humorous captions here, here, and here.

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One of my missions in life is fundamental tax reform. I would like to replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

Though what I really want is a tax system that minimizes the damage of extracting money from the productive sector of the economy, so I’ll take any system with a low rate, no double taxation, and no distortionary loopholes.

The national sales tax, for instance, also would be a good option if we can first repeal the 16th Amendment so there’s no risk that politicians would pull a bait and switch and saddle us with both an income tax and a sales tax (and in my ultimate fantasy world, we would shrink the federal government to the size envisioned by the Founding Fathers, in which case we probably wouldn’t need any broad-based tax at all).

While I normally make the economic case for tax reform, there are many reasons to fix our broken tax code.

Many Americans, for instance, are rightfully upset that the tax code is a 76.000-page monstrosity that enables the politically well connected to benefit from special provisions.

So we don’t know if the rich are paying an appropriate amount. Some of them are paying too much because of high rates and double taxation, while some of them are paying too little because they have clever lawyers, lobbyists, and accountants.

In an ideal world, if someone like Bill Gates earns 10,000 times as much as I do, then he should pay 10,000 times as much in tax. That’s a core principle of the flat tax.

But this post isn’t about why we need tax reform to promote economic growth or fairness. Instead, I want to focus on tax reform as a way of reducing welfare fraud. The Treasury Department just released a report acknowledging that the IRS made more than $100 billion of improper “earned income credit” payments over the past decade and that about one-fourth of all such payments are in error.

This Fox News article is a good summary. Here are the key details.

The Internal Revenue Service paid out more than $110 billion in tax credits over the past decade to people who didn’t qualify for them, according to a Treasury report released Tuesday. …IRS inspector general J. Russell George said more than one-fifth of all credits paid under the program went to people who didn’t qualify. …George said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it is still distributing more than $11 billion in improper EITC payments each year and that is disturbing.” …The agency said it prevents “nearly $4 billion in improper claims each year and is committed to continuing to work to reduce improper claims.” The EITC is one of the nation’s largest anti-poverty programs. In 2011, more than 27 million families received nearly $62 billion in credits.

Now some background. The “earned income credit” or “earned income tax credit” is actually an income redistribution scheme operated by the IRS. It’s basically a wage subsidy. If someone earns money (the “earned income” part), the law says the IRS should augment that money with a payment from the government (the “credit” or “tax credit” part).

The key thing to understand, though, is that the EITC is “refundable,” which is the government’s term for payments to people who don’t earn enough to owe any income tax. That’s why it’s primarily an income redistribution program. Only it’s operated by the IRS rather than the Department of Health and Human Service or some other welfare agency.

And when government is giving away other people’s money, there are those who will try to abuse the program. That’s true for corporate welfare, and it’s true for traditional welfare like food stamps. And, as we see from the Treasury report, it’s true for the EITC.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the EITC has a redeeming feature. Some lawmakers realized traditional welfare programs were very destructive because they paid people not to work. The EITC supposedly offsets that perverse incentive because you get the money only because you earn some income.

But now let’s share some additional bad news. The government takes away the EITC once your income reaches a certain level, and this is equivalent to a big increase in the marginal tax rate on earning additional income.

And when you combine the EITC with all the other redistribution programs operated by government, you create a huge dependency trap. Indeed, the chart shows that many of these programs can be larger than the EITC (which is called “negative income tax”).

So let’s adopt a flat tax and get rid of all the bad features of the tax system, including the EITC. Welfare and income redistribution are not proper roles of the federal government.

We’re far more likely to get good results – both for poor people and taxpayers – if we let state and local governments experiment and learn from each other on what actually helps people climb out of poverty.

P.S. I can’t overlook an opportunity to point out that today’s complicated and convoluted tax code is the reason why we have a powerful and intrusive Internal Revenue Service. And never forget that the IRS has a long record of abusive actions.

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