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Posts Tagged ‘Internal Revenue Service’

I recently appeared on CNBC to talk about everyone’s favorite government agency, those warm and cuddly folks at the IRS.

Our tax system is a dysfunctional mess, but you’ll notice that I mostly blamed politicians. After all, they are the ones who have unceasingly made the internal revenue code more complex, starting on that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was approved.

But I don’t want to give the IRS a free pass.

I’ve cited IRS incompetence and misbehavior in the past, most notably when discussing political bias, targeted harassment, and other shenanigans.

And, as illustrated by these five examples, we can always cite new evidence.

Such as lack of accountability.

…a new report from the Cause of Action Institute reveals that the IRS has been evading numerous oversight mechanisms, and it refuses to comply with laws requiring it to measure the economic impact of its rules. Congress has passed several laws, including the Regulatory Flexibility Act and the Congressional Review Act, that require agencies to report on their rules’ economic impact to lawmakers and the public. …These good-government measures are meant to ensure unelected bureaucrats can be checked by the public. …the IRS has made up a series of exemptions that allow it to avoid basic scrutiny. The agency takes the position that its rules have no economic effect because any impact is attributable to the underlying law that authorized the rule.

Such as inefficiency.

Private debt collectors cost the Internal Revenue Service $20 million in the last fiscal year, but brought in only $6.7 million in back taxes, the agency’s taxpayer advocate reported Wednesday. That was less than 1 percent of the amount assigned for collection. What’s more, private contractors in some cases were paid 25 percent commissions on collections that the I.R.S. made without their help…the report stated, “the I.R.S. has implemented the program in a manner that causes excessive financial harm to taxpayers and constitutes an end run around taxpayer rights protections.”

Such as rewarding scandal.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued more than $1.7 million in awards in fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017 to employees who had been disciplined by the agency, a Treasury Department watchdog said. “Some of these employees had serious misconduct, such as unauthorized access to tax return information, substance abuse and sexual misconduct,” the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said in a report made public this week. …in fiscal 2016 and early fiscal 2017, the IRS had given awards to nearly 2,000 employees who were disciplined in the 12 months prior to receiving the bonus.

By the way, the IRS has a pattern of rewarding bad behavior.

Such as pursuing bad policy.

…for 35 years the Internal Revenue Service has exempted itself from the most basic regulatory oversight. …Tax regulations (like all regulations) have exploded in recent decades, and of course IRS bureaucrats impose their own policy judgments. The IRS has in recent years unilaterally decided when and how to enforce ObamaCare tax provisions, often dependent on political winds. In 2016 it proposed a rule to force more business owners to pay estate and gift taxes via a complicated new reading of the law. …Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury…department is inexplicably backing IRS lawlessness with a string of excuses.

Again, this is not the first time the IRS has interfered with congressional policy.

Such as stifling political speech.

The Internal Revenue Service infamously targeted dissenters during President Obama’s re-election campaign. Now the IRS is at it again. Earlier this year it issued a rule suppressing huge swaths of First Amendment protected speech. …The innocuously named Revenue Procedure 2018-5 contains a well-hidden provision enabling the Service to withhold tax-exempt status from organizations seeking to improve “business conditions . . . relating to an activity involving controlled substances…” The rule does not apply to all speech dealing with the listed substances, only that involving an “improvement” in “business conditions,” such as legalization or deregulation. …This is constitutionally pernicious viewpoint discrimination.

In other words, the bureaucrats didn’t learn from the Lois Lerner scandal.

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced people that I’m not going soft on IRS malfeasance, let’s look at the budgetary issue that was the focus of the CNBC interview.

Is the IRS budget too small? Should it be increased so that more agents can conduct more audits and extract more money?

Both the host and my fellow guest started from the assumption that the IRS budget has been gutted. But that relies on cherry-picked data, starting when the IRS budget was at a peak level in 2011 thanks in part to all the money sloshing around Washington following Obama’s failed stimulus legislation.

Here are the more relevant numbers, taken from lines 2564-2609 of this massive database in the OMB’s supplemental materials on the budget. As you can see, IRS spending – adjusted for inflation – has nearly doubled since the early 1980s.

In other words, we shouldn’t feel sorry for the IRS and give it more money.

To augment these numbers, I made two simple points in the above interview.

  • First, we should demand more efficiency from the bureaucracy.
  • Second, we should reform the tax code to eliminate complexity.

The latter point is especially important because we could dramatically improve compliance while also shrinking the IRS if we had a simple and fair system such as the flat tax.

Last but not least, here’s a clip from another recent interview. I explained that the recent shutdown will be used as an excuse for any problems that occur in the near future.

Standard operating procedure for any bureaucracy.

P.S. My archive of IRS humor features a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a Reason video, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a collection of IRS jokes, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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It’s a judgement call, of course, but I think the IRS’s suppression of the Tea Party was the worst of all the Obama-era scandals.

Some people say the green-energy scams like Solyndra should be at the top of the list, but steering taxpayer money to campaign donors was just routine corruption. And the fast-and-furious scandal at the BATF was reprehensible, but did not have systemic impact on society.

Lois Lerner and the other hacks at the IRS, however, did something profoundly worse. They actively used the coercive power of government to suppress political speech.

The bad news is that Lois Lerner didn’t get punished. She’s now enjoying a fat taxpayer-financed pension. And other IRS officials successfully stonewalled with no adverse consequences.

Heck, Republicans actually rewarded the IRS with a bigger budget. And the Trump Administration so far has been AWOL on curtailing IRS abuses.

But that may be about to change. One of the President’s appointees has expressed support for protecting donors to nonprofit organizations.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this topic.

….a Congressional hearing this week offered potentially good news to nonprofits whose donors are under political threat. …Montana Republican Steve Daines asked Acting IRS Commissioner David Kautter whether the agency is considering the necessity of IRS 990 Schedule B. These are the forms that nonprofits must supply to the IRS listing donors who contribute more than $5,000. Schedule Bs are supposed to remain confidential, but AGs in New York and California have sought to require nonprofits to file them at the state level. Many Democrats see the form as a gift-wrapped list of donors to target, and a way to chill donations to conservative nonprofits. …Mr. Kautter acknowledged that he was “actively involved” along with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at offering more donor protection. …Nonprofits would still be required to keep their donor details, and if the IRS or other authorities had valid reason to suspect fraud they could demand to see the records. But requiring nonprofits to provide names each year to partisan AGs or tax bureaucrats is an invitation to repeat the scandal of the Obama years when Lois Lerner and the IRS targeted conservative nonprofits.

Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity also weighed in on the issue, pointing out that government has a sorry track record of persecuting political dissent.

…robust protections for speech were listed first among the Bill of Rights and have long been a cornerstone of our republic. …Like the secret ballot, respecting donor privacy and thus anonymous speech and association is essential to prevent majoritarian abuse and intimidation that subverts democracy. This was a lesson learned in the civil rights era after the shameful attacks on the NAACP and its supporters. …Lois Lerner was found to have illegally shared confidential Form 990 taxpayer information with the Federal Election Commission.

The solution is to not let the government get the information in the first place, especially since it isn’t needed to enforce any tax laws.

Unfortunately, invasive donor reporting requirements instituted by the Internal Revenue Service threaten to chill this critical democratic tool. …Schedule B requires 501(c) organizations to include certain contributors’ names and addresses with their annual Form 990 reports. Yet the IRS has acknowledged that this information has no enforcement value. Instead, its collection creates opportunities for abuse and chills speech and civic participation. …there’s good reason to question the ability of the government to protect sensitive taxpayer information given the history of inadvertent disclosures and information leaks at the IRS. …For minority viewpoints, public exposure can lead to intimidation… Several years ago, the IRS was said to be considering dropping the unnecessary Schedule B reporting requirement, which it was never required by statute to collect in the first place. Unfortunately, the agency did not follow through under President Barack Obama… The Trump administration should do what the Obama administration would not and ensure the right of Americans to participate in the political process without fear that they will be made vulnerable to targeting based on their political views.

Well said.

Though I think both Brian and the WSJ should have gone even farther and called for the abolition of the charitable deduction in the tax code as part of a shift to a simple and fair flat tax.

Then there would be zero rationale for the government to know about our donations. And since there’s plenty of evidence that nonprofits would prosper without a special preference in the tax code, this would be a win-win reform.

P.S. Privacy is an under-appreciated benefit of fundamental tax reform. Not only would donors and nonprofits no longer have to share information with the IRS under a flat tax, we also wouldn’t need to tell the government anything about our homes since the mortgage interest deduction would vanish. And since the death tax and capital gains tax are abolished, the government would have no need to know about our assets. And since all capital income is taxed at the business level, we wouldn’t have to tell the government about any stocks, bonds, or bank accounts we own.

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For the past 30 years, I’ve been criticizing both the tax code and the IRS. Which raises an interesting chicken-or-egg question about who should be blamed for our nightmarish tax system.

Should we blame IRS bureaucrats, who have a dismal track record of abusing taxpayers? Or should we blame politicians, who have been making the tax code more onerous ever since that dark day in 1913 when the income tax was adopted?

In this exchange with Stuart Varney, I take an ecumenical approach and blame both.

As you can see, I am slightly conflicted on this debate.

There are plenty of reasons to condemn the IRS, and not just because of what I mentioned in the interview about its deplorable campaign to suppress political speech by Tea Party organizations.

Yet there is an equally strong case to be made that politicians are the real problem. They are the ones who created the tax system. They are the ones who make it more complex with each passing year.

And they are the ones who constantly give more power and money to the IRS in hopes of generating more cash that can be used to buy votes.

Indeed, the most important thing I said in the interview is that the IRS budget has dramatically increased over the past few decades. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

So while I’m surely not a fan of the IRS, I’m probably even more critical of politicians since they’re the ones responsible for the bad laws that empower bureaucrats.

But that doesn’t really matter because the solution is the same regardless of whether one blames politicians or the IRS. Throw the tax code in the garbage and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax (or, if there are ever sufficient votes to undo the 16th Amendment, replace the internal revenue code with a national consumption tax).*

Let’s close with some humor. First, here’s a painful reminder (h/t: Reddit‘s libertarian page) of the relationship between taxpayers and politicians, though it’s worth noting that they want to grab your income regardless of whether there’s a lot or a little. In other words, the taxpayer could be holding a minnow and nothing would change.

Maybe I should add this image to my archive of IRS humor, which already features a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a Reason video, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a collection of IRS jokes, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

*In my libertarian fantasy world, we would return to the limited government created by the Founding Fathers, thus eliminating the need for any broad-based tax.

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When I criticize America’s wretched tax code (now slightly less worse because of the recent tax bill), I generally focus my ire on the politicians who have spent more than 100 years creating an insanely complicated and convoluted system.

The Internal Revenue Service, by contrast, is simply the bureaucracy that is charged with enforcing the code.

But that doesn’t mean the IRS should escape criticism. The bureaucrats have some leeway and that discretion sometimes gets abused. The most glaring example in recent years was the agency’s despicable attempt to tilt the political playing field and influence elections by discriminating against Tea Party groups.

Yet not everyone thinks the IRS misbehaved. The Washington Post actually published an editorial that tries to portray the IRS as a victim. Seriously. I’m not joking.

Conservatives who long sought to restrain the Internal Revenue Service have managed to throw a wrench into an IRS division that is supposed to regulate tax-exempt nonprofits and charities, just at a time when these groups are becoming more partisan and complex. …The number of applications from new charities has exploded in recent years, and the law is a bit of a gray zone — vaguely written and hard to enforce. In recent years, overwhelmed by applications, the…division seems to have lost its will to scrutinize charities. According to Mr. O’Harrow, last year the division rejected just 37 of the 79,582 applications on which it made a final determination. He reported that charities have now begun to recognize they face little or no chance of examination or sanction. The division’s budget has declined from a peak of $102 million in 2011 to $82 million last year. The number of division employees has fallen from 889 to 642.

I have a modest bit of sympathy for the IRS. As the editorial notes, the tax code is “vaguely written and hard to enforce.”

But my solution is to remove IRS discretion. In the long run, that can happen with a simple and fair flat tax that does away with the deduction for charitable contributions and thus removes any need for monitoring and enforcement.

In the short run, the easy answer is that charitable status should be automatic and the 642 bureaucrats should concentrate on finding and punishing nonprofit groups that violate the law.

But here’s the part of the editorial that is delusional.

…the division and its then-leader, Lois Lerner, fell into the crosshairs of the conservative tea party movement for the slow pace of approvals of tea party groups, which they claimed was due to a conspiracy by the Obama administration to target them. Subsequent investigations found mismanagement — the IRS was taking shortcuts and using keywords to deal with the mountain of applications — but not deliberate targeting.

Wow. I wonder if the person who wrote this editorial is ignorant or mendacious. The IRS admitted that it targeted Tea Party groups! The bias was in the keywords.

And that wasn’t even the first time the Post tried to make excuses for the IRS.

Investor’s Business Daily opined on this issue over the summer.

This is one of the most serious abuses of power by a federal agency in decades. That no one really lost a job and no one has been prosecuted for abusing the powers of the federal government to harass groups for their political beliefs — the kind of thing routinely done in places such as Russia and Venezuela, not in the U.S. — is nothing less than shocking. For those who need a reminder and without getting too deep in the weeds, the scandal involves IRS bureaucrats denying tax-exempt status to groups apparently solely due to their conservative political beliefs. This is clearly highly illegal. … the Nonprofit Quarterly…notes that…”Various congressional committees attempted to ferret out what happened and who did it but were stymied by the IRS’ slow responses to records requests and, in some cases, destruction of computer media (that) might have contained important information.” In short, it looks like a classic case of a gross violation of federal law followed by a possibly criminal cover-up. …This is unconscionable behavior by a federal agency that is governed by that very same Constitution.

Amen.

This is why I agreed with George Will about the impeachment of the IRS Commissioner and also argued in favor of budgetary consequences for the agency.

Sadly, the Trump Administration has basically gone to bat for the IRS when it should be pushing for transparency and reform.

By the way, my complaints about the IRS go way beyond the fact that the bureaucrats persecuted the Tea Party.

Let’s look at a recent story about a dodgy contract the IRS recently issued.

The IRS will pay Equifax $7.25 million to verify taxpayer identities and help prevent fraud under a no-bid contract issued last week, even as lawmakers lash the embattled company about a massive security breach that exposed personal information of as many as 145.5 million Americans. A contract award for Equifax’s data services was posted to the Federal Business Opportunities database Sept. 30 — the final day of the fiscal year. …The notice describes the contract as a “sole source order,” meaning Equifax is the only company deemed capable of providing the service.

What mostly bothers me is not that the IRS gave a contract to a company that had just suffered a major data leak. Instead, I’m very suspicious about it being a no-bid contract issued on the last day of the fiscal year.

Sounds like the bureaucrats had some use-it-or-lose-it funds and they decided to screw taxpayers.

And here’s another story that’s worth sharing.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees have backed Democrats over Republicans by 2-1 in their political donations over the last 25 years. Donors listing the IRS as their employer have donated roughly $453,800 to Democratic candidates and causes and $221,400 to Republican candidates and causes since 1990. About one in four of the dollars for Democrats, or roughly $117,500, went to President Barack Obama. But IRS employees since 1990 have also donated $203,000 to the National Treasury Employees Union, which in turn has given about 95 percent of its $6 million in political contributions to Democrats over the last 25 years, OpenSecrets.org data shows. Disclosure of the huge bias among IRS employees for Democrats won’t help an agency under fire for years for illegally targeting conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

To be sure, bureaucrats can give political contributions and remain honest and fair in their dealings with the public.

Nonetheless, I suspect Lois Lerner wasn’t the only partisan hack who tried to interfere with the political process.

Let’s now end where we started. The Washington Post editorial implied that the IRS deserved a bigger budget and more staff so bureaucrats could investigate each application.

I’ve already explained why that’s not the right approach from a compliance perspective, but there’s also a moral argument against further expanding the IRS budget (something Republicans sadly don’t understand).

P.S. The IRS awarded itself “performance bonuses” after the scandal.

P.P.S. I also thought it was remarkable that IRS bureaucrats wanted to be exempt from Obamacare while asking for more money to enforce fines on ordinary people who didn’t sign up.

P.P.P.S. I’ve certainly done my part to explain why the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

P.P.P.P.S. I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here are examples of IRS humor from my archives, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a Reason video, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a collection of IRS jokes, a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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Whether I like what’s happening (getting rid of Operation Choke Point) or don’t like what’s happening (expanding civil asset forfeiture), it appears that the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is willing to make decisions.

With one very puzzling exception.

No steps have been taken to reverse the Obama-era policy of stonewalling to hide evidence of IRS scandals. Everything seems to be on auto-pilot.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the issue today and is justifiably frustrated.

The Obama Justice Department dismissed the IRS political targeting scandal as no big deal, and the Trump Administration hasn’t been any better. …These are basic questions of political accountability, even if the IRS has stonewalled since 2013. President Obama continued to spin that the targeting was the result of some “boneheaded” IRS line officers in Cincinnati who didn’t understand tax law. Yet Congressional investigations have uncovered clear evidence that the targeting was ordered and directed out of Washington. Former director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner was at the center of that Washington effort, but the IRS allowed her to retire with benefits. She invoked the Fifth Amendment before Congress. One of her principal deputies, Holly Paz, has submitted to a deposition in separate litigation, but the judge has sealed her testimony after she claimed she faced threats. The Acting Commissioner of the IRS at the time, Stephen Miller, stepped down in the wake of the scandal, but as far as anyone outside the IRS knows, no other IRS employee has been held to account. Even if the culprits were “rogue employees,” as the IRS claims, the public deserves to know what happened. …The Trump Administration also has a duty to provide some answers. The Justice Department and IRS have continued to resist the lawsuits as doggedly as they did in the Obama era. Attorney General Jeff Sessions can change that… Seven years is too long to wait for answers over abuses of the government’s taxing power.

This is spot on. It’s outrageous that the Obama Administration weaponized and politicized the IRS. But it’s also absurdly incompetent that the Trump Administration isn’t cleaning up the mess.

I understand why the bureaucrats at the Justice Department instinctively (and probably ideologically) want to protect their counterparts at the IRS. But, as the WSJ stated, there’s no reason why Attorney General Sessions isn’t using his authority to change policy.

The President’s failure to fire the ethically tainted IRS Commissioner is a troubling sign that the problem isn’t limited to the Justice Department.

One of Republicans’ least favorite Obama administration officials remains in his position: IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Some Republicans lawmakers have asked President Trump to ask for Koskinen’s resignation. The commissioner’s term expires in November, but he has said he would step aside sooner if asked by the president. …Koskinen to lead the IRS in 2013, not long after it was revealed that the agency had subjected Tea Party groups’ applications for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny and delays. …Many Republicans accuse Koskinen of impeding congressional investigations into the political-targeting scandal. They argue that he made false and misleading statements under oath and didn’t comply with a subpoena. During the last months of Obama’s presidency, some House Republicans pushed for a vote on Koskinen’s impeachment… Since Trump has taken office, there have been calls from GOP lawmakers for Koskinen to step down. Days after Trump’s inauguration, Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and more than 50 other lawmakers sent a letter urging Trump to fire Koskinen “in the most expedient manner practicable.” …It’s unclear why Trump hasn’t ousted Koskinen or if he plans to do so in the future.

Very disappointing. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but this almost leads me to wonder whether Koskinen has some damaging information on Trump.

Incidentally, the Justice Department may be dragging its feet and the White House may have cold feet, but the Treasury Department is overtly on the wrong side. And the problem starts at the top, resulting in praise for the Treasury Secretary from the pro-IRS forces at the New York Times.

President Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, knows that investing in the Internal Revenue Service yields significant returns… And he’s right: Every dollar spent on the agency returns $4 in revenue for the federal government, and as much as $10 when invested in enforcement activities. …At his confirmation hearings in January, Mr. Mnuchin bemoaned the cuts to the I.R.S. budget over the last seven years. The agency “is under-resourced to perform its duties,” he said, adding that further cuts “will indeed hamper our ability to collect revenue.” He also acknowledged that money spent on the I.R.S. is a good investment: “To the extent that we add resources, we can collect more money.” …his faith in the I.R.S. work force prompted one of his congressional interrogators to call it “refreshing” to hear someone “praise the employees at the Treasury Department.”

Yet should we give more money to a bureaucracy that has a big enough budget to finance this kind of reprehensible behavior?

The Internal Revenue Service has seized millions of dollars in cash from individuals and businesses that obtained the money legally, according to a new Treasury Department inspector general’s report. …individuals and businesses are required to report all bank deposits greater than $10,000 to federal authorities. Intentionally splitting up large sums of cash into sub-$10,000 amounts to avoid that reporting requirement is known as “structuring” and is illegal under the federal Bank Secrecy Act. But many business owners engaged in perfectly legal activities may be unaware of the law. Others are covered by insurance policies that don’t cover cash losses greater than $10,000. Still others simply want to avoid extra paperwork, and keep their deposits less than $10,000 on the advice of bank employees or colleagues. …The reporting requirements were enacted to detect serious criminal activity, such as drug dealing and terrorism.

I’m very skeptical that these intrusive anti-money laundering laws are successful by any metric, but I’m nauseated that the main effect is to give IRS bureaucrats carte blanche to steal money from law-abiding people.

The IRS pursued hundreds of cases from 2012 to 2015 on suspicion of structuring, but with no indications of connections to any criminal activity. Simply depositing cash in sums of less than $10,000 was all that it took to arouse agents’ suspicions, leading to the eventual seizure and forfeiture of millions of dollars in cash from people not otherwise suspected of criminal activity. The IG took a random sample of 278 IRS forfeiture actions in cases where structuring was the primary basis for seizure. The report found that in 91 percent of those cases, the individuals and business had obtained their money legally.

But here’s the part that’s most outrageous.

Innocent people weren’t the byproducts of a campaign to get bad guys. They were the targets.

…the report found that the pattern of seizures — targeting businesses that had obtained their money legally — was deliberate. “One of the reasons why legal source cases were pursued was that the Department of Justice had encouraged task forces to engage in ‘quick hits,’ where property was more quickly seized and more quickly resolved through negotiation, rather than pursuing cases with other criminal activity (such as drug trafficking and money laundering), which are more time-consuming,” according to the news release. In most cases, the report found, agents followed a protocol of “seize first, ask questions later.” Agents only questioned individuals and business owners after they had already seized their money.

In any event, the Trump Administration’s failure to deal with the problem seems to have emboldened the tax collection agency.

Despite promises to Congress, the Internal Revenue Service has yet to take advantage of a red-flag alert system designed to prevent it  from rehiring past employees with blots on their records, a watchdog found. …the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that more than 200 of 2,000-plus former employees “whom the IRS rehired between January 2015 and March 2016 had been previously terminated or separated from the tax agency while under investigation,” according to a report released on Thursday.

And keep in mind that IRS bureaucrats awarded themselves big bonuses in response to the scandal.

By the way, the problem isn’t limited to the executive branch.

Republicans in 2015 (after they had control of both the House and Senate!) decided that the best response to IRS scandals was to increase the agency’s budget. I’m not joking (and I’m also not happy). At the risk of being redundant, only the Stupid Party could be that stupid.

I sarcastically wrote four years ago that we should be thankful that Obama reminded the American people that the IRS isn’t trustworthy. Little did I realize that Republicans would fumble a golden opportunity to deal with the mess once they got power.

P.S. I’ve certainly done my part to explain why the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

P.P.S. I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here’s more examples of IRS humor from my archives, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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It’s that time of year. Those of us who wait until the last minute are rushing to get tax returns filed (or extensions submitted).

So it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that there is a better way.

Economists look at the tax system and focus on the warts that undermine growth.

Other people focus on the immorality of the tax code.

Most of these problems have existed for decades and are familiar to people who have the misfortune of working for tax reform.

But every so often, policy wonks like me get surprised because we find out that things are even worse than we thought.

For instance, here are some excerpts from a very disturbing article in The Hill about the IRS’s we-don’t-care attitude about fraudulent use of Social Security numbers.

…illegal immigrants…use other people’s social security numbers (SSNs) to get jobs and then file their taxes with their IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs). Although the tax returns contain false W-2 information, the IRS continues to process them, and the agency does not notify the people whose SSNs were used. …Koskinen said that in such cases “it’s in everybody’s interest to have them pay the taxes they owe.” …Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.)…told The Hill on Friday that he was “shocked” and “horrified” by Koskinen’s response. …House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)…said Friday that Koskinen’s comments about illegal immigrants’ tax returns are “just one more example of why Koskinen is doing such a poor job and should be impeached.”

As a quick aside, I’d be very curious to get some confirmation about Commissioner Koskinen’s assertion that illegals are net taxpayers. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn instead that they are a net drain because of “earned income tax credit,” which is a form of redistribution that gets laundered through the tax code.

But setting that aside, it’s completely outrageous that the IRS doesn’t let taxpayers know that their Social Security numbers have been stolen.

Congressman Jordan (and George Will) are right. There should be consequences for a government official who treats taxpayers with contempt.

Though Koskinen does deserve some credit for honesty about tax reform, as reported by the Washington Free Beacon.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told lawmakers on Wednesday that implementing a flat tax would be simpler than the current tax system and would save the agency a lot of money. …Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R., Mo.) asked Koskinen whether a flat tax policy would save the agency money. …”clearly if you had a two-page form or a one-page form where you got rid of all the deductions and everything else and people just paid…a flat tax…it would be simpler for taxpayers and it would be much simpler for us,” Koskinen said. …Luetkemeyer asked Koskinen for more specifics about how much of the IRS’ current budget of $11.2 billion could be saved if a flat tax were implemented. “…it would be a lot,” Koskinen said. “It’d clearly be a sea change, a difference in the way the place operates.”

To call the flat tax “a sea change” is an understatement. As explained in this video, research from the Tax Foundation shows that the compliance burden of the tax code would fall by more than 90 percent.

And the economy would grow much faster since a key principle of the flat tax is that revenue should be collected in the least-damaging manner.

Though if you’re worried that a flat tax is too timid and you would prefer no broad-based tax for Washington, Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute shared this wonderful image.

Which is why October 3, 1913 may be the worst day in American history.

Some people claim that it would be impossible to have a modern society without an income tax.

Well, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and Monaco are very modern, and all those jurisdictions enjoy great prosperity in large part because there is no income tax.

And we could enjoy the same freedom and prosperity in the United States. But only if we reduced the size of the public sector.

In other words, we could free ourselves of the income tax if we could somehow get rid of all the programs that were created once the income tax gave politicians a big new source of tax revenue.

The challenge is convincing politicians to give up their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.

Incidentally, this is why we should be stalwart in our opposition to the value-added tax. The experience with the income tax shows that politicians will expand the burden of government spending if they obtain any significant new source of revenue.

Let’s close with a somewhat amusing look at how tax compliance works in India. Here are some blurbs from a story in the Wall Street Journal.

For five years, real-estate developer Prahul Sawant ignored government orders to pay his taxes. Then the drummers showed up, beating their instruments and demanding he cough up the cash. Neighbors leaned out windows and gawked. Within hours, a red-faced Mr. Sawant had written a $945 check to settle his long-standing arrears. Shame is the name of the game as India’s local governments try new tools to collect taxes from reluctant citizens. …Thane’s municipal commissioner, Sanjeev Jaiswal, is resorting to public embarrassment of tax scofflaws. …Since the drummers started work early this year in this suburb of Indian commercial capital Mumbai, property-tax revenue has jumped 20%, said Mr. Jaiswal.

It’s also safer for the tax bureaucrats to rely on drummers.

Tax collectors in Vitawa-Kalwa are glad the drummers, and some security officers, are touring the neighborhood with them. “When the staff show up to collect tax alone, people get angry and beat them up,” said S.R. Patole, the assistant commissioner, who is responsible for revenue in the area.

And if drummers don’t work, the municipal commissioner has a back-up plan.

Mr. Jaiswal…plans to deploy groups of transgender women, known in India as hijras, to perform mocking dances to shame tax delinquents. Hijras are widely believed to be able to impose hexes.

I’ll have to add this story to my collection of “great moments in tax enforcement.”

For what it’s worth, I’m on the side of the taxpayers because of the Indian government’s legendary ability to waste money.

P.S. If you’re a late filer and need some humor to get through the day, here’s my collection of IRS-related jokes: A new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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I’m a big fan of Estonia.

According to both the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, it has considerable economic freedom.

It has a low-rate flat tax, meaning that investors, entrepreneurs, and small-business owners aren’t punished for contributing more to the nation’s economic output.

It responded to the 2008 crisis by cutting spending rather than engaging in a Keynesian spending binge (which also led to an exploding cigar for Paul Krugman).

Now I have another reason to like Estonia.

It’s a role model for how to reduce corruption by shrinking the size and scope of government.

First, some background.

Neil Abrams and Professor Steven Fish have a column in the Washington Post about the seemingly intractable problem of boosting the rule of law in developing and transition economies.

Western aid agencies and scholars agree that the rule of law is required before developing countries can reduce poverty and corruption. For decades, they have supported aid programs designed to help developing countries establish law-based states. …In a rule-of-law state, the rules apply even to the rulers, not just the ordinary folks. The rule of law is not the same as democracy. Scores of developing countries have demonstrated that establishing democracy is the easy part. The rule of law is harder to attain. From India and the Philippines to Argentina, democracy coexists with endemic corruption, and elites remain largely exempt from the rules.

They then explain that its well-nigh impossible to create the rule of law in a society that has a big government.

…our research suggests that they have the sequence backward. Before urging governments to adopt the rule of law, they must first advise reformers to take one key step: eliminating the government subsidies that sustain criminal elites and replacing the compromised bureaucrats who patronize them.

Now for the big takeaway from their column: Estonia is the role model for how this can happen.

Our research shows that a few good policies can pave the way for the rule of law. For instance, Estonia’s clean and capable state administration represents a model of post-communist success. But this was not always the case. In 1991, when communism collapsed, Estonia, like other post-Soviet countries, had almost no working institutions and a burgeoning class of economic predators, nor was Estonia economically privileged. In the early post-Soviet years, its income per capita was only 10 to 20 percent higher than that of Russia and Romania and 20 to 30 percent lower than that of Croatia, Slovakia and Hungary. But Estonian leaders acted boldly. …early Estonian governments ended practically all subsidies to state and private enterprises. …in developing countries, state subsidies almost always benefit corrupt elites more than ordinary people. This policy cut off the budding economic criminals who profit from state largesse rather than entrepreneurial aptitude — and made it possible for real entrepreneurs to thrive. Deprived of subsidies, old-guard enterprise directors and crony capitalists could not muster enough political influence to hold governments hostage.

Sadly, other nations are not copying Estonia, in part because the international bureaucracies and national agencies that dispense foreign aid don’t support policies to shrink government in recipient nations.

Unfortunately, Estonia is the exception and not the rule. That’s  not for lack of trying on the part of the West. The United States, the European Union, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the United Nations have spent billions of dollars for the express purpose of helping countries build a rule of law. …But they’re stumbling. The Western effort assumes that the rule of law will flourish only if developing countries receive enough education, guidance, training and money. In fact, a growing body of research throws such optimism into doubt.

In other words, foreign aid – at best – is useless. And it may be harmful by financing a bigger role for recipient governments.

The authors close by emphasizing the need (assuming genuine rule of law is the goal) to prune the bureaucracy and public sector.

Scholars often treat the rule of law as a prerequisite for market-oriented economic policies such as liberalizing prices and trade and eradicating wasteful subsidies. They’re getting it backward. Instead, first eliminate the subsidies and purge the compromised bureaucrats who stand in the rule of law’s way. This is hard to do. It will provoke tremendous resistance from those who profit from the status quo. But it’s far more realistic and effective than simply encouraging countries to adopt the rule of law.

So what are the implications of this analysis for the United States?

Given that America now ranks below Estonia for rule of law, and given that rule of law is gradually eroding in the United States, the obvious lesson is that the public sector in America needs to shrink.

The real challenge, though, is convincing politicians to give up power.

Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School explains in USA Today that a larger government is good for politicians because it creates opportunities for graft.

The explanation for why politicians don’t do all sorts of reasonable-sounding things usually boils down to “insufficient opportunities for graft.” And, conversely, the reason why politicians choose to do many of the things that they do is … you guessed it, sufficient opportunities for graft. That graft may come in the form of bags of cash, or shady real-estate deals, or “consulting” gigs for a brother-in-law or child, but it may also come in broader terms of political support.

Glenn notes that there’s an entire school of thought in economics that analyzes this unfortunate tendency of politicians to conspire with interest groups at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.

…there’s a whole field of economics based on this view, called “Public Choice Economics.” Nobel prize winning economist James Buchanan referred to public choice economics as “politics without romance.” Instead of being selfless civil servants motivated solely by the public good, public choice economics assumes that politicians are, like other human beings, heavily influenced by self-interest. …You pick a car because it’s the best car for you that you can afford. Politicians pick policies because they’re the best policies — for them — that they can achieve. …the entire system is designed — by politicians, naturally — to make it harder for voters to keep track of what politicians are doing. The people who have a bigger stake in things — the real estate developers or construction unions — have an incentive to keep track of things, and to influence them.

Having received my Ph.D. from George Mason University, home of the Center for the Study of Public Choice, I echo Glenn’s comments about the value of this theory.

So what’s the moral of the story?

As summarized by Professor Reynolds, bigger government means more corruption and smaller government means less corruption.

The more the government does and the more decisions that are relegated to bureaucrats, “guidance” and other forms of decisionmaking that are far from the public eye, the more freedom politicians have to pursue their own interest at the expense of the public — all while, of course, claiming to do just the opposite.

Now let’s look at some real-world examples from Washington.

By the way, I’m not writing to specifically condemn Obama and his team, even though I’m quite confident that the Chicago machine produces people who excel at unethical behavior.

Republicans also get their hands dirty by steering undeserved wealth to special interests, as explained here, here, and here.

That being said, most Washington corruption today seems associated with the Democrat Party for the simple reason that Democrats control the bureaucracy.

For instance, here are some of the key points from a New York Times report.

The State Department, under Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, created an arrangement for her longtime aide and confidante Huma Abedin to work for private clients as a consultant while serving as a top adviser in the department. Ms. Abedin did not disclose the arrangement — or how much income she earned — on her financial report. It requires officials to make public any significant sources of income.

To be blunt, this stinks to high heaven.

…the picture that emerges from interviews and records suggests a situation where the lines were blurred between Ms. Abedin’s work in the high echelons of one of the government’s most sensitive executive departments and her role as a Clinton family insider. While continuing her work at the State Department, in the latter half of 2012, she also worked for Teneo, a strategic consulting firm, which was founded by Doug Band, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Teneo has advised corporate clients like Coca-Cola and MF Global, the collapsed brokerage firm run by Jon S. Corzine, a former governor of New Jersey.

The Daily Caller also has been doing some first-rate work on the cronyism and corruption inside Washington.

One of their stories, for instance, exposed the left-wing connections of the supposedly “apolitical” bureaucrat at the heart of the IRS scandal.

IRS Exempt Organizations Division director Lois G. Lerner, who has been described as “apolitical” in mainstream press coverage of the IRS scandal, is married to tax attorney Michael R. Miles, a partner at the law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.

And why does that matter?

The 400-attorney firm hosted an organizing meeting at its Atlanta office for people interested in helping with voter registration for the Obama re-election campaign. …Lerner personally signed the tax-exemption approval for a shady charity run by Obama’s half-brother, after an inexplicably brief one-month application process.

Time to wrap this up.

I enjoy Mark Steyn for his biting humor, but he makes a very serious and relevant point is his latest column.

A civil “civil service” requires small government. Once government is ensnared in every aspect of life a bureaucracy grows increasingly capricious. The U.S. tax code ought to be an abomination to any free society, but the American people have become reconciled to it because of a complex web of so-called exemptions that massively empower the vast shadow state of the permanent bureaucracy. Under a simple tax system, your income is a legitimate tax issue. Under the IRS, everything is a legitimate tax issue: The books you read, the friends you recommend them to. There are no correct answers, only approved answers.

I made a similar point, arguing that you can’t have a competent government unless it’s a small government.

But as the public sector expands, effective management becomes much harder.

And, as discussed in an interview with John Stossel, you also get corruption, mixed with incompetence and thuggery.

Let’s close by re-issuing my video explaining how big government enables pervasive corruption. It’s never been more timely and appropriate.

P.S. There are some countries with big governments that are not plagued by corruption. The Nordic nations, for instance, rank at or near the top in many economic indications, including high-quality rule of law. Though it’s worth noting that these jurisdictions scored highly in these areas before the burden of government was expanded.

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The good thing about being nonpartisan is that I can freely criticize (or even praise) policy makers without giving any thought to whether they have an R or D after their name.

That doesn’t mean Republicans and Democrats are the same, at least with regards to rhetoric. The two big political parties in the United States ostensibly have some core beliefs. And because of that, it is sometimes very revealing to identify deviations.

Democrats supposedly believe the rich should pay higher taxes and that low-tax jurisdictions should be persecuted, yet many Democrat bigwigs utilize tax havens.

Republicans supposedly believe in smaller government, yet many of them decide to get rich by lobbying to expand the size and scope of Washington.

Democrats supposedly believe there’s a big gender pay gap, but Obama’s top economic adviser said such numbers are fake and Hillary gave higher pay to men in her office.

Let’s now add to the list.

The IRS has stonewalled and treated Congress with contempt. The bureaucrats have disregarded the law to advance Obama’s hard-left agenda. They have used their power to help Obama’s reelection campaign. And IRS employees even donate lots of money to Democrats.

Given all this, you would think Republicans would be doing everything possible to punish this rogue bureaucracy. Even if only because of self interest rather than principles.

Yet GOPers decided, as part of their capitulation on spending caps (again!), to boost the IRS’s budget. I’m not joking. The Hill has a report with the sordid details.

The spending bill…provides an increase in funding to the Internal Revenue Service, a rare win for an agency that has been on the outs with congressional Republicans. The $1.1 trillion omnibus provides an additional $290 million for the IRS, an increase of 3 percent over the last fiscal year.

What’s especially discouraging is that Congress was on track to reduce the IRS’s bloated budget.

…the outcome for the IRS in the omnibus could have been far worse. A bill advanced by the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year that would have slashed IRS funding by $838 million, while a bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would have reduced funding by $470 million. Instead, the spending package gives the IRS a nearly $300 million bump.

This is yet another piece of evidence that budget deals crafted behind closed doors inevitably produce bad numbers and bad policy.

And it’s certainly another sign that Republicans truly are the Stupid Party.

Just in case you think I’m being unfair to either GOPers or the IRS, let’s look at some recent developments. Here are the best parts of an editorial on unseemly IRS behavior from the Washington Examiner.

President Obama’s IRS repeatedly los[es] hard drives loaded with data related to scandals at the agency. To lose one might be regarded as suspicious happenstance; to lose two looks like conspiracy. The most famous case is that of Lois Lerner, whose division became notorious for targeting conservative groups applying for nonprofit status. Her computer hard drive malfunctioned before that scandal broke, around the same time Congress was looking for information on a separate IRS targeting scheme aimed at conservative donors. …The newest case of IRS hard drive trouble happened last April, but came to light only this month. …the IRS has notified the Justice Department that it erased a hard drive after being ordered not to do so by a federal judge. In this case, the missing communications are those of a former IRS official named Samuel Maruca in the Large Business and International division. He is believed to have been among the senior IRS employees who made the unusual and possibly illegal decision in May 2014 to hire the outside law firm Quinn Emanuel to help conduct an audit of Microsoft Corporation.

And here’s some shocking (or maybe not so shocking) information from the Daily Caller. The IRS’s new ethics chief (wow, there’s an oxymoron) has a track record of illegally destroying records.

The new head of the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) ethics office once oversaw the illegal shredding of documents sought by the federal tax agency’s inspector general (IG), and allegedly retaliated on the colleague he believed snitched on him about it.

Yup, he sounds like the kind of guy who deserves a bigger budget.

Let’s close with some very good advice from the Washington Examiner.

In the nearly three years since the targeting scandal was revealed, it has become clear that it was just a symptom of a much deeper problem at the IRS — a culture that lacks accountability, rewards failure, and persecutes the innocent. …it needs a thorough housecleaning, not…bonuses.

Too bad Republicans decided the entire IRS deserved a big bonus.

P.S. From my archives, here are some examples of the bureaucrats who will benefit from a bigger IRS budget.

P.P.P.S. And since we’re recycling some oldies but goodies, here’s my collection of IRS humor, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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When someone says “IRS,” my Pavlovian response is “flat tax.”

That’s because I’m a policy wonk and I’d like to replace our punitive internal revenue code with something simple and fair that doesn’t do nearly as much damage to our economy.

And it’s a fringe benefit that real tax reform would substantially de-fang the IRS.

But I’m also a big believer in the rule of law and a big opponent of capricious government power, so I’m also interested in curtailing the power of the IRS even if we don’t get a chance to fix the tax code.

I’ve previously commented on the unseemly and corrupt behavior of the IRS, and there’s no question the bureaucracy’s actions have been despicable.

But is it so bad that the Commissioner of the IRS deserves to be impeached? Let’s look at pro and con arguments.

Here’s some of what Bloomberg’s Al Hunt wrote about the controversy. He’s obviously a defender of the current Commissioner.

The specifics of any supposed impeachable offenses are vague. Koskinen, 76, is a respected, successful business and government executive who, at the behest of the White House, took on the job of cleaning up the beleaguered tax agency in December 2013, after offenses had been committed. …The accusations stem from 2013, when the IRS’s tax-exempt division was found to have disproportionately targeted conservative groups for scrutiny. Although Koskinen was brought in after the damage had been done, …Some, rather recklessly, accuse him of lying. …The specific charges seem specious: There may have been miscommunication, but there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Koskinen. …The pre-Koskinen abuses by the IRS’s tax-exempt division have been the subject of three inquiries… All were critical of IRS mismanagement, but none found any evidence of illegal activities or political direction from on high.

George Will is not so sanguine about Koskinen’s role. Here are excerpts from his column in the Washington Post.

Federal officials can be impeached for dereliction of duty (as in Koskinen’s failure to disclose the disappearance of e-mails germane to a congressional investigation); for failure to comply (as in Koskinen’s noncompliance with a preservation order pertaining to an investigation); and for breach of trust (as in Koskinen’s refusal to testify accurately and keep promises made to Congress). …After Koskinen complained about the high cost in time and money involved in the search, employees at a West Virginia data center told a Treasury Department official that no one asked for backup tapes of Lerner’s e-mails. Subpoenaed documents, including 422 tapes potentially containing 24,000 Lerner e-mails, were destroyed. For four months, Koskinen kept from Congress information about Lerner’s elusive e-mails. He testified under oath that he had “confirmed” that none of the tapes could be recovered. …Koskinen’s obfuscating testimonies have impeded investigation of unsavory practices, including the IRS’s sharing, potentially in violation of tax privacy laws, up to 1.25 million pages of confidential tax documents. …Koskinen consistently mischaracterized the Government Accountability Office report on IRS practices pertaining to IRS audits of tax-exempt status to groups.

These charges don’t seem (as Hunt asserted) to be “specious.”

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that there aren’t good (or at least adequate) responses to these accusations.

And perhaps Koskinen didn’t technically commit perjury. Maybe he simply engaged in some Clintonian parsing and misdirection.

So I’ll be the first to admit that it’s unclear whether Koskinen deserves to be impeached.

But I’ll also be the first to argue that the IRS is a rogue bureaucracy that needs to slapped down. That’s why it deserves budget cuts rather than the increases favored by the White House.

And Lois Lerner almost certainly should be in jail. Beyond that, I’m open to ideas on how to discourage the tax collectors from engaging in rampant misbehavior.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a list.

These horror stories provide plenty of evidence that the internal revenue service should have its wings clipped.

P.S. Since we’re criticizing the IRS, I can’t resist sharing some oldies but goodies.

P.P.P.S. And since I’m digging through my archives, here’s my collection of IRS humor, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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I’m delighted that so many presidential candidates are talking about partial tax reform and I’ve specifically analyzed the plans put forth by Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump.

These proposals all make the tax code less punitive, and that would be good news for job creation, growth, and American competitiveness.

But that doesn’t mean any of them are perfect. They all fall short of the pure flat tax, which is the gold standard for full tax reform. Another problem is that these proposals won’t be plausible or sustainable unless unaccompanied by some prudent plans to restrain the growth of federal spending.

Today, though, I want to focus on another shortcoming. The various plans need to be augmented by long-overdue restrictions on the IRS, which has become and abusive and rogue bureaucracy.

Consider a few examples.

These horror stories provide plenty of evidence that the internal revenue service should have its wings clipped.

But let’s add another straw to the camel’s back. The tax collection agency in the midst of an audit fight with Microsoft and the IRS is making a mockery of its own rules and flagrantly abusing the company’s legal rights.

This is bad news for one of America’s most successful firms, but it also is creating a very dangerous precedent that could victimize many other companies – large and small – in the future.

Writing for The Hill, Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity highlights some of the IRS’s most offensive actions.

First, the IRS is flouting its own rules as part of its persecution of Microsoft.

Government officials, counter to federal law, are trying to bully the company into extending an audit process that should have ended over 6 years ago. …Federal law provides a three-year time period for the completion of an audit, yet IRS officials have been digging through the company’s files for over nine years.

Second, the IRS won’t even tell the company how much money it wants!

Seattle-based Microsoft had to force a hearing on this matter because the IRS refused to submit a final tax bill to Microsoft for a dispute over taxes owed from 2004 to 2006. The IRS has been dragging out this audit process for close to a decade, and continues to pressure the company to sign waivers extending the audit infinitum.

Third, the IRS has been whining about supposedly inadequate budgets, but the bureaucrats are paying a private law firm millions of dollars to participate in this never-ending audit.

In 2014, the government in an unprecedented move hired Quinn Emanuel, a L.A.-based litigation firm to help audit the company. The IRS has billions in budget, teams of lawyers and accountants, yet they decided spend $2.2 million dollars outsourcing their legal team to lawyers that charge in excess of $1000 an hour.  It should come as no shock to anyone following the IRS scandal that Quinn Emanuel is chock full of lawyers who are also large contributors to the party in power.

Fourth, the IRS’s rogue behavior may become standard practice if the bureaucrats don’t face any repercussions for stepping over the line.

This fight actually has little to do with Microsoft. It has everything to do with the prospect of the IRS abusing power, wasting taxpayer money and setting dangerous precedents for enforcement against small businesses. …The actions of the IRS that put this matter into court threatens to set a dangerous precedent on the power of the federal government with regard to tax issues. Congress needs to protect citizens against IRS overreach, and now a potential new procedure that will allow private tax information to be shared with outside law firms.

Wow, what a damning indictment against a vindictive bureaucracy.

And while Microsoft is a big company with plenty of money to defend itself, this is still outrageous. Particularly since the IRS will employ these thuggish tactics against less powerful taxpayers if it isn’t slapped down for by either Congress or the courts.

By the way, I should say something about the underlying dispute. The IRS is not happy about the prices that Microsoft charged when doing intra-firm sales between the parent company and foreign subsidiaries.

Yet if the bureaucrats really think Microsoft abused the “transfer pricing” rules, then the IRS should come up with its own estimate and – if necessary – they can go to court to see who’s right.

For what it’s worth, I suspect the IRS isn’t presenting Microsoft with a bill precisely because the bureaucrats ultimately wouldn’t prevail in a legal fight. The agency probably hopes a never-ending audit eventually will force the company to voluntarily over-pay just to end the torture.

Since I’m a policy wonk, I can’t resist noting that the only reason this kind of dispute even exists is because the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the entire world. So companies naturally seek to maximize the income they earn in other nations (sort of like entrepreneurs and investors decide it’s better to do business in low-tax states such as Texas rather than fiscal hellholes such as Illinois).

And there’s nothing wrong – legally or ethically – with taxpayers choosing not to overpay the federal government.

The IRS can, of course, ask politicians to change the law if their goal is to grab more money. But as explained by Brian McNicoll in a column for the Washington Times, it shouldn’t try to confiscate more loot with endless harassment and dubious tactics.

If Microsoft’s business strategies are a problem for the IRS, it is up to Congress to change the tax law. But as long as those strategies are legal, no one should question Microsoft for doing what it can to limit its tax obligation. …there is reason Congress gives the IRS three years — not eight and certainly not carte blanche to go on indefinitely. …If the IRS has something on Microsoft, by all means bring it forward. But if it doesn’t, it needs to close the books on this near-decade of harassment and send Microsoft a bill for its taxes.

Returning to our main point, this is why tax reform should be accompanied by reforms to rein in the IRS’s improper behavior.

P.S. They haven’t put forth many details, but some candidates have indicated support for the kind of radical tax reform that would de-fang the IRS. Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and John Kasich have all stated that they like the flat tax. And Mike Huckabee embraces a national sales tax to replace the current tax code.

And if there’s wholesale replacement of the internal revenue code, then a lot of the problems with the IRS automatically disappear.

P.P.S. Since we’re criticizing the IRS, I can’t resist sharing some oldies but goodies.

P.P.P.S. And since I’m digging through my archives, here’s my collection of IRS humor, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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Remember Sleepless in Seattle, the 1993 romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?

Well, there should be a remake of that film entitled Clueless in Washington. But it wouldn’t be romantic and it wouldn’t be a comedy.

Though there would be a laughable aspect to this film, because it would be about an editorial writer at the Washington Post trying to convince people to feel sorry for the IRS. Here’s some of what Stephen Stromberg wrote on Wednesday.

Congress has done some dumb things. One of the dumbest is the GOP’s penny-wise-pound-foolish campaign to defund the Internal Revenue Service. …its mindless tantrum against the IRS has produced for taxpayers: a tax season that was “by far the worst in memory,” according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an agency watchdog.

Before I share any more of the article, I should point out that the “Taxpayer Advocate Service” isn’t a watchdog. It should be renamed the “Government Advocate Service” since its main goal is to increase the IRS’s budget.

But I’m digressing. Let’s continue with Mr. Stromberg’s love letter to tax collectors.

The underlying problem is that Congress has asked the IRS to do a lot more, such as administering a critical piece of Obamacare, but the GOP Congress won’t give the agency the funding it needs to do its work. …But good luck convincing Republicans to fix the IRS’s entirely predictable and avoidable problems. Not when that would mean restraining the impulse to act on anti-tax orthodoxy, blind populist anger and scandal-mongering about the IRS mistreating conservatives. In fact, Republicans want to double down on their nonsense budgeting, proposing deep cuts to the IRS last month.

Oops, time for another correction.

Stromberg is cherry picking data to imply that the IRS budget has been savaged.

If you look at the long-run data, however, you’ll see that the IRS now has almost twice as much money to run its operations as it did a few decades ago.

And that’s based on inflation-adjusted dollars, so we have a very fair apples-to-apples comparison.

Stromberg also wants us to sympathize with the bureaucrats because the tax code has been made more complex.

The underlying irrationality is the same: The IRS doesn’t write the tax code or health-care law, but the agency must apply these policies and engage with people affected by them, so it is an easy scapegoat.

Part of this passage is correct, and I’ve specifically pointed out that the tax code is mind-numbingly complex and that politicians deserve an overwhelming share of the blame for this sorry state of affairs.

That being said, the IRS goes beyond the law to make the system worse, as we saw when it imposed a regulation that put foreign tax law above American tax law. And when it arbitrarily rewrote the Obamacare legislation to enable additional subsidies.

In other words, it deserves to be scapegoated.

But there’s a bigger issue, one that Stromberg never even addresses. Why should we give more money to a bureaucracy that manages to find plenty of resources to do bad things?

Never forget, after all, that this is the bureaucracy that – in an odious display of bias – interfered with the electoral process by targeting the President’s opponents.

And then awarded bonuses to itself for this corrupt behavior!

Even more outrageous, the Washington Examiner reports today that the IRS still hasn’t cleaned up its act.

A series of new revelations Wednesday and Thursday put the Internal Revenue Service back under fire for its alleged efforts to curtail…conservative nonprofits. …the Government Accountability Office uncovered evidence that holes in the tax agency’s procedure for selecting nonprofit groups to be audited could allow bias to seep into the process. …lawmakers exposed the lack of safeguards that could prevent IRS officials from going after groups with which they disagreed. Meanwhile, the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch released documents Wednesday that suggested the IRS targeted the donors of certain tax-exempt organizations.

Does this sound like a bureaucracy that deserves more of our money?

If you’re still not sure how to answer, consider the fact that the IRS also somehow has enough money in its budget to engage in the disgusting “asset forfeiture” racket.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this scandal.

…a pair of new horror stories show why Americans dread any interaction with the vindictive tax man. Khalid Quran owns a small business in Greenville, North Carolina. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1997, opened a convenience store near a local airport, and worked long hours to give his four children more opportunity. After nearly two decades, Mr. Quran had saved $150,000 for retirement. Then in 2014 the IRS seized his bank account because he had made withdrawals that raised red flags under “structuring” laws that require banks to report transactions of more than $10,000. Mr. Quran had made transactions below that limit.

So even though Mr. Quran did nothing illegal and even though it’s legal to make deposits of less than $10,000, the IRS stole his money.

Just like money was stolen from the Dehko family.

Here’s the other example from the WSJ.

Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers…had $62,936.04 seized from his bank account because of the pattern of his deposits, though the money was all legally earned. …Mr. Sowers told his story to a local newspaper…a lawyer for Mr. Sowers asked…“why he is being treated differently.” Mr. Cassella replied that the other forfeiture target “did not give an interview to the press.” So much for equal treatment under the law.

Yes, you read correctly. If you have the temerity to expose the IRS’s reprehensible actions, the government will try to punish you more severely.

Even though the only wrongdoing that ever happened was the IRS’s confiscation of money in the first place!

So let’s celebrate the fact that the IRS is being subjected to some modest but long-overdue belt-tightening.

Notwithstanding Mr. Stromberg’s column, the IRS is not a praiseworthy organization. And many of the bureaucrats at the agency deserve our disdain.

The bottom line is that IRS budget cuts show that Republicans sometimes do the right thing.

And maybe if there are continued cuts and the current tax system actually does become unenforceable at some point, maybe politicians could be convinced to replace the corrupt internal revenue code with a simple and fair flat tax.

P.S. Clueless in Washington won’t be the only remake out of DC if President Obama decides to go Hollywood after 2016. Indeed, I suspect his acting career would be more successful than mine.

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I’m not a fan of the IRS or it’s Commissioner, a partisan Democrat named John Koskinen. The agency has become politicized, interfering with America’s political process. Needless to say, I’m not shedding tears that the bureaucracy is no longer getting big budget increases.

By contrast, I oftentimes applaud Senator Ted Cruz. His shutdown fight against Obamacare was a net plus. He was one of the few 2016 candidates who took a strong stand against cronyism in Iowa. And he manages to retain a sense of humor in the fight against big government.

So it’s with considerable chagrin that I feel compelled to admit that IRS boss made a good point, at least from a technical perspective, when he criticized Senator Cruz on the topic of the flat tax.

Here’s the background. A story in Bloomberg quotes Senator Cruz about his goal for tax reform.

“Instead of a tax code that crushes innovation, that imposes burdens on families struggling to make ends meet, imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a post card. Imagine abolishing the IRS,” Cruz said.

Now here’s an excerpt from a Politico report about Mr. Koskinen’s response.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen poked holes in Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s plan to abolish the IRS and create a simple flat tax so taxpayers could file their taxes on a postcard. Koskinen pointed out that even if taxpayers were to file their taxes on “a small card,” someone would have to collect the money and make sure the numbers filled out are actually correct. “You can call [tax collectors] something else than the IRS if that makes you feel better, but basically someone has to follow through on all of that,” Koskinen told reporters today after a speech at the National Press Club.

Koskinen is right. So long as the federal government intends to extract more than $3 trillion from taxpayers, there will be a tax-collection agency. That’s true even if you have a flat tax or a national sales tax.

Sure, you can rename the IRS, or even require states to collect the revenue instead, but none of that changes the fact that some coercive body will exist to take our money.

That being said, Cruz’s overall point surely is correct. The IRS in a flat tax world would be largely de-fanged. Indeed, the Tax Foundation estimated several years ago that compliance costs would drop by more than 94 percent if we replaced the internal revenue code with a flat tax. And, as pointed out in this video, the tax code today is even more complex, so the savings now presumably would be even larger.

So Koskinen may be technically correct, but only because he is focusing the conversation on the narrow issue of whether government will still have a tax-enforcement body.

But Cruz is correct on the big-picture issue of whether the IRS as it exists today will no longer exist.

Since we’re on the topic of tax reform, Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart, both with the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, have a column in today’s Wall Street Journal that is somewhat critical of the Rubio-Lee tax reform plan.

The authors start by pointing out that the defining characteristic of supply-side economics is lower marginal tax rates on productive behavior (work, saving, investment, risk-taking, entrepreneurship).

Signaling opportunity throughout the tax code has long been the basis of the philosophy known as supply-side economics, or “Reaganomics.” Reaganomics treats even individual wage earners as entrepreneurs. The marginal rate to which a worker is subject under the progressive tax schedule is crucial. A higher rate on the next dollar a worker earns discourages him from working more. The highest tax bracket is especially important as top earners produce the most and innovate the most. …That top marginal rate also functions as a symbol of how society rewards enterprise.

Their unhappiness with Rubio-Lee is due to the fact that their proposal does not contain big rate reductions for labor income to match the very good rate reductions for business and investment income.

…on the personal side their proposal drops the top marginal rate on individual income by a puny 4.6 percentage points, to 35% from 39.6%. …What’s more, Rubio-Lee lowers tax thresholds drastically. Singles with taxable income as low as $75,000 find themselves entering the 35% top bracket; for couples the top rate applies after $150,000. Currently, individuals don’t hit the 35% bracket until $411,501, and the same holds for couples.

So why aren’t there big reductions in tax rates for households to match the very good reforms for businesses? The answer, at least in part, is that “Rubio-Lee also raises the child credit” and this consumes a lot of money, in effect crowding out lower marginal tax rates.

As a result, you get big economic benefits from the reforms to business taxation, but the child credits don’t have any impact on incentives to create wealth, expand jobs, or boost income.

The nonpartisan Tax Foundation recently estimated that Rubio-Lee would increase economic growth so that by 2025 the economy would be 15% larger than otherwise, almost entirely due to business tax cuts. The effect of the child credit on growth is reckoned at zero. 

But imagine if Rubio-Lee took their good tax reform plan and made it better by replacing the child credit with lower rates? And then made it even better by getting rid of additional tax preferences such as the healthcare exclusion?

Shlaes and Denhart quote me in their column as pointing out that if Rubio and Lee made their plan into something akin to the flat tax, the tax rate could be under 20 percent.

Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute notes that if Rubio-Lee dropped all the preferences it contains, old and new, the plan could drop its top income-tax rate to 20% or lower.

I confess that I don’t have up-to-date estimates to confirm my assertion, but the Clinton Treasury Department back in 1996 estimated that the flat tax rate in a revenue-neutral world would be 20.8 percent.

But since the Rubio-Lee plan is a very large tax cut, amounting to more than $4 trillion over 10 years, combining that amount of tax relief with the flat tax surely would allow the rate to be well below 20 percent.

By the way, none of this should be interpreted to suggest that Rubio-Lee is bad tax policy. It’s a huge improvement over the current system. As I wrote last month, it’s a very good tax reform plan. It is especially good about fixing some of the worst features of the current tax code, such as worldwide taxation, depreciation, and double taxation.

But that doesn’t mean it is as good as the flat tax, which does everything good in Rubio-Lee, but also has a low rate for households and fewer tax preferences.

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With tax day fast approaching, it’s time to write about our good friends at the Internal Revenue Service.

One of the new traditions at the IRS is an annual release of tax scams. It’s know as the “dirty dozen” list, and while it may exist mostly as a publicity stunt, it does contain some useful advice.

And that’s true of this year’s version. But I worry that the IRS is looking at a few trees and missing the forest.

The Washington Examiner was kind enough to let me write a cover story on the “dirty dozen” list. Here’s my effort to add some context to the discussion.

…our friends at the Internal Revenue Service have a relatively new tradition of providing an annual list of 12 “tax scams” that taxpayers should avoid. It’s an odd collection, comprised of both recommendations that taxpayers protect themselves from fraud, as well as admonitions that taxpayers should be fully obedient to all IRS demands. Unsurprisingly, the list contains no warnings about the needless complexity and punitive nature of the tax code. Nor does the IRS say anything about how taxpayers lose the presumption of innocence if there’s any sort of conflict with the tax agency. Perhaps most important, there’s no acknowledgement from the IRS that many of the dirty dozen scams only exist because of bad tax policy.

In the article, I list each scam and make a few observations.

But I think my most useful comments came at the end of my piece.

…maybe the tax system wouldn’t engender so much hostility and disrespect if it was simple, transparent, fair, and conducive to growth. And that may be the big-picture lesson to learn as we conclude our analysis. When the income tax was first imposed back in 1913, the top tax rate was only 7 percent, the tax form was only two pages, and the tax code was easily understandable. But now that 100 years have gone by, the tax system has become a mess, like a ship encrusted with so many barnacles that it can no longer function. …the bottom line is that the biggest scam is the entire internal revenue code. The winners are the lobbyists, politicians, bureaucrats and insiders. The losers are America’s workers, investors, and consumers.

In other words, if we actually want a humane and sensible system, we should throw the current tax code in the garbage and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

And that’s exactly the message I shared in this interview with C-Span.

Here are a few of the points from the discussion that are worth emphasizing.

The current tax code benefits Washington insiders, not the American people.

But I’m not optimistic about fixing the tax code, in part because the crowd in DC would lose some power.

We’ll never get good tax reform unless there’s genuine entitlement reform to restrain the growing burden of government spending.

The flat tax and national sales tax are basically different sides of the same coin.

If you want class-warfare tax rates on the rich, keep in mind that high rates don’t necessarily translate into more revenue.

The no-tax-hike pledge is a vital and necessary component of a strategy to restrain government.

Itemized deductions benefit the rich, not the poor.

If you care about poor people, focus on growth rather than inequality.

We should mimic Hong Kong and Singapore, not France and Greece.

P.S. I wrote last week that the Senate GOP put together a budget that is surprisingly good, both in content and presentation. A reader since reminded me that the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee was a sponsor of the “Penny Plan,” which would lower non-interest outlays by 1 percent per year.

Since Mitchell’s Golden Rule simply requires that spending grow by less than the private sector, Senator Enzi’s Penny Plan obviously passes with flying colors.

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Like many taxpayers, I personally get upset with the Internal Revenue Service when I file my taxes.

But I probably get angrier than the average taxpayer. That’s because I have first-hand knowledge of the waste and fraud in the federal budget, so it galls me that so much of my income is being diverted to the open sewer of Washington.

But I also want to be fair. It’s politicians who have created our monstrous tax code. And it’s politicians who have created the bloated spending programs that undermine our prosperity.

So they deserve most of the blame.

That being said, we shouldn’t let the IRS off the hook.

Never forget, after all, that this is the bureaucracy that – in a disgusting display of bias – interfered with the electoral process by targeting the President’s opponents.

And then awarded bonuses to itself for this corrupt behavior!

So when Neil Cavuto asked me whether the IRS deserved a bigger budget, you can see I was not exactly sympathetic.

There are two points from the interview that deserve a bit of elaboration.

First, I pointed out that the IRS budget is far bigger than it was 30 years ago, even after adjusting for inflation.

So the notion that the tax collectors are suffering from “savage” budget cuts is utter nonsense.

Not surprisingly, the IRS and its defenders like to compare today’s budget with the amount that was spent right after the faux stimulus, when every bureaucracy was gorging on other people’s money.

But as I explained in the interview, that’s very misleading.

Second, we have the bigger issue of how to deal with an ever-more sclerotic tax code and and never-ending demands for more money out of Washington.

Assuming one thinks turning America into Greece is an acceptable or desirable outcome, the IRS will need more money.

But this is precisely why I said at the end of the interview that we should say no. Simply stated, giving the IRS a bigger budget almost certainly means a continuation of bad policy.

But maybe, just maybe, if the IRS budget is held in check, the politicians will conclude that we need tax reform and spending restraint. Remember, when all other options are exhausted, politicians sometimes do the right thing.

By the way, I’m not the only person who is upset. George Will also is irked with the Internal Revenue Service and wrote a powerful indictment of the corrupt bureaucracy for the Washington Post.

He starts by observing that the slimy and biased Lois Lerner will probably get away with her crimes thanks to Obama Administration stonewalling and obstruction of justice.

 Lois G. Lerner…, as head of the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, directed the suppression of conservative advocacy groups by delaying and denying them the exempt status that was swiftly given to comparable liberal groups. …through dilatory and incomplete responses to subpoenas, and unresponsive answers to congressional questions…Lerner’s name now has an indelible Nixonian stain, but there probably will be no prosecution. If the administration’s stonewalling continues as the statute of limitations clock ticks, Roskam says, “She will get away with it.” …Many thousands of Lerner’s e-mails that supposedly were irretrievably lost have been found, but not released. The Justice Department’s investigation, which was entrusted to a political appointee who was a generous contributor to Barack Obama’s campaign, is a stone in the stone wall.

It’s discouraging that Ms. Lerner won’t be held accountable for criminal actions, but Will points out that at least Congress has the ability to engage in real oversight to hopefully deter further misbehavior.

One place to begin is with the evidence — anecdotal but, in the context of proven IRS corruption, convincing — of other possibly punitive IRS behavior toward Republican contributors and other conservative activists. This justifies examining the IRS’s audit selection process.  …Next, there should be hearings into the illegal disclosure of taxpayer information about conservative individuals and groups to the media and to liberal officials and groups.

And just in case anyone is tempted to feel sorry for the IRS, don’t forget that the bureaucracy continues to disregard the law.

Or, in some cases, to arbitrarily change the law.

…the IRS’s lawlessness has extended to its role in implementing the Affordable Care Act. The act says that federal subsidies shall be distributed by the IRS to persons who buy insurance through exchanges “established by the State.” …The court probably will rule that the IRS acted contrary to law. If so, the IRS certainly will not have acted contrary to its pattern of corruption in the service of the current administration.

Yup, he nailed it. A corrupt agency serving the interests of a corrupt White House.

P.S. Since we’re talking about taxation today, here’s a video from the oldie-but-goodie collection.

I can’t vouch for the veracity, but I gather this fellow was very upset by high property taxes.

As you might guess, my sympathies are with the Marquis de Maussabre.

Just as I applaud French entrepreneurs, American companies, Italian boat owners, Spanish movie patrons (and porn aficionados), California citizens, Greek shop owners, Facebook millionaires, Norwegian butter buyers, New York taxpayers, Bulgarian smokers, foreign cab drivers, New Jersey residents, Australian film stars, and everyone else who does their part to limit the amount of tax revenue flowing to governments.

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I can’t help but wonder whether the song made famous by The Grinch Who Stole Christmas should be the theme song for the Internal Revenue Service. After all, that bureaucracy is “as cuddly as a cactus” and “as charming as an eel.”

And it appears that having “the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile” is not a good strategy for big budget increases.

Indeed, it appears that working as an adjunct of the Obama reelection campaign has backfired on the IRS. One of the good results of the “cromnibus” negotiations is that GOPers actually took revenge on the IRS for political interference. The bureaucracy is actually going to get less money next year. In other words, a real budget cut, not one of those fake Washington cuts that occur when spending doesn’t increase as fast as desired.

Not surprisingly, the big Democratic donor who now serves as IRS Commissioner isn’t very happy about this development.

The Hill reports that the John Koskinen is claiming that his agency’s budget has been cut too much…and he’s saying that the bureaucrats will make taxpayers suffer as a result.

After absorbing a $346 million budget cut, IRS officials are warning taxpayers not to expect their phone calls to get answered or their refunds to be delivered quickly. Employees shouldn’t count on overtime pay, or for empty staff slots to be filled. And lawmakers seeking to reduce the deficit should assume the agency will collect far less revenue than it could have.  “We’re well beyond cutting out any fat,” John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, told reporters after his agency saw its budget slashed for the fifth consecutive year. “And we’re now into cutting, as people say, muscle headed toward bone.”

And here are some passages from a story published by Fox News.

The Internal Revenue Service is crying poor in the face of budget cuts and weighing the possibility of its own short-term shutdown — even warning that tax refunds could be delayed next year. …”Everybody’s return will get processed,” Koskinen told reporters. “But people have gotten very used to being able to file their return and quickly getting a refund. This year we may not have the resources, the people to provide refunds as quickly as we have in the past.” …Congress cut the IRS budget by $346 million for the budget year that ends in September 2015. The $10.9 billion budget is $1.2 billion less than the agency received in 2010. The agency has come under heavy fire from congressional Republicans for its now-halted practice of applying extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

So what’s the real story? Is the IRS budget not inadequate? Do the bureaucrats need more spending to process refund checks?

Well, my first response is to scold people who get refunds. That means, after all, that they overpaid their taxes during the year and – for all intents and purposes – gave the government and interest-free loan.

But that’s a separate issue. Let’s focus on the IRS budget. And as you can see from this chart, the IRS budget has declined since 2010. But you can also see that the IRS budget has approximately doubled over the past thirty years. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

So feel free to cry tears for the IRS, but just make sure they’re crocodile tears.

Just like the ones we all cried when the IRS complained about the possibility of being covered by Obamacare, even as the bureaucrats doubtlessly were looking forward to the new power the IRS got as a result of the law (and as humorously illustrated by cartoons from Gary Varvel, Glenn McCoy, and Henry Payne).

Now let’s bend over backwards and look at the issue from the IRS’s perspective. The bureaucrats will argue with some validity that tax laws are far more complex today than they were thirty years ago.

That’s unquestionably true, as shown by data on the number of pages in the tax code, number of provisions in the tax law, and even by the number of pages in the instruction booklet for the IRS 1040 form.

Heck, I mentioned just a few days ago that there were more than 4,600 changes in the tax code between 2001 and 2012 alone. And think of awful tax laws like FATCA that cost more to enforce than they produce in revenue.

All this nonsense is mostly the result of bad laws imposed by politicians, not a result of IRS actions.

But I still can’t find it in my heart to feel sympathy for the IRS.

After all, the IRS somehow managed to find the staff and resources to launch a politically motivated attack against tea party groups. And the so-called Taxpayer Advocate takes the side of the IRS rather than taxpayers. Worst of all, the bureaucracy even found enough money to hand out bonuses after being caught trying to interfere with elections!

So let’s celebrate the fact that the IRS is being subjected to some modest but long-overdue belt-tightening.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer group of people.

The bottom line is that IRS budget cuts show that Republicans sometimes do the right thing.

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I generally don’t feel a special degree of animosity for the internal revenue service. After all, it’s the politicians who have created the 74,000-plus page monstrosity of a tax code. Blaming the IRS for enforcing that system is like blaming the police for the drug war.

This isn’t to say the IRS is blameless. Just as cops sometimes take misguided laws and enforce them is bad ways, the IRS periodically will go beyond its legal mandate because of an enforcement-über-alles mentality.

But what gets me most upset is when the IRS allows itself – either with glee or reluctance – to become politicized.

For instance, the Washington Times reveals that the IRS may have violated taxpayer privacy by giving confidential taxpayer data to the political operatives in the White House.

The Internal Revenue Service may have given thousands of confidential filings from private taxpayers to the White House to review, a lawsuit against the Treasury Department just revealed. …“[T]he Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration informed Cause of Action that there exist nearly 2,500 potentially confidential documents relating to investigations of improper disclosures of confidential taxpayer information by the IRS to the White House,” Cause of Action told The Daily Caller.

One possible example deals with the Obama Administration’s attack on the Koch brothers. As the Washington Examiner reported, Obama’s top economist at the time was the subject of an investigation.

The investigation by the Treasury Department Inspector-General for Tax Administration was sparked by Goolsbee’s remarks during an Aug. 27, 2010, White House news briefing in which he appeared to possess confidential tax information on Koch Industries, the private conglomerate controlled by the Koch brothers, Charles and David. …It is illegal for government officials to make public confidential tax information. Goolsbee was chief White House economist at the time. …senators requested the IG probe to determine if confidential tax records of individuals viewed by Obama as enemies were being passed around among senior staffers in the White House. …neither the report itself nor a summary of its findings have ever been made public.

Never made public? Gee, that’s mighty convenient.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that this isn’t the first White House to get in trouble for using the IRS as a political weapon.

…Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Commission’s criminal code, which Congress enacted following revelations of President Nixon’s abuse of private tax information during the Watergate scandal. The second article of impeachment against Nixon in the House Judiciary Committee was based on those abuses.

So the ghost of Richard Nixon may approve of Obama, as suggested by this cartoon.

But this isn’t the only IRS scandal we need to monitor. Remember Lois Lerner, who became infamous for targeting the President’s opponents and then apparently losing her emails?

Well, we have an update. The Wall Street Journal opines on the latest development in the IRS targeting scandal.

…the IRS never “lost” emails after all. …Treasury Department Inspector General Russell George recently informed Congress that his forensic investigation has turned up as many as 30,000 emails from the account of former IRS Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner—emails the IRS has insisted were destroyed. The emails cover the crucial period from January 2009 through June 2011 when the IRS was ramping up its targeting… We can only imagine Mr. Koskinen’s shock in September when the Treasury IG said it had found 760 tapes that might hold Lerner emails. Or his further surprise when it took only a few weeks to identify and extract the specific Lerner documents—out of 250 million backup emails. And we can only imagine Mr. Koskinen’s apology for his agency’s email failure—since he hasn’t given one.

What can we learn from this episode?

Either the IRS didn’t bother to investigate these tapes or, more alarming, it did and chose not to produce the results. The IG is turning over the emails to the IRS, which is supposed to redact sensitive tax information before sending them to Congress. Mr. Koskinen needs to end the IRS stonewalling and turn the records over with dispatch without covering up incriminating evidence.

Indeed. One can’t help but wonder whether the delay in finding the emails and now the delay in turning them over to investigators is simply to allow time for smoking guns to be hidden.

With all this rampant corruption and abuse, you would think the IRS is the lowest-ranked government bureaucracy.

But don’t forget there’s lots of competition for that honor. The Washington Post reports on polling data from Gallup regarding which agencies are perceived to be “good” or “excellent.” Both the Federal Reserve and the Veterans Administration rank below the IRS.

I guess I’m not surprised that the Veterans Administration is rated so poorly. After all, that bureaucracy created secret waiting lists and denied care to veterans (and then the bureaucrats awarded themselves bonuses!).

Though the Fed’s low rating surprises me, simply because I assumed many people wouldn’t be sufficiently familiar to give a grade, whether positive or negative.

And I’m baffled that the Postal Service has a high ranking. Have people never waited in line at a post office?!?

But let’s stick with the topic of the IRS. If we look at a comparison of 2013 and 2014 ranking, you can see that the IRS actually enjoyed a bump as the targeting scandal receded from the headlines.

By the way, I’m glad to see the EPA gets a relatively low score.

Let’s close with a good cartoon about the IRS, though it’s not terribly funny when you realize that many people in Washington actually have this perspective.

By the way, if you enjoy anti-IRS cartoons, click here, here, and here for more examples.

P.S. Just in case anybody thinks I was giving the IRS a free pass because of my comments that politicians deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the scandals, allow me to bolster my libertarian bona fides.

I’ve certainly done my part to explain why the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

P.P.S. I don’t want to end on a sour note, so here’s more examples of IRS humor from my archives, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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You won’t know whether to laugh or cry after perusing these stories that will be added to our “great moments in government” collection.

For instance, did you realize that American taxpayers were saddled with the responsibility to micro-manage agriculture in Afghanistan? You’re probably surprised the answer is yes.

But I bet you’re not surprised that the money was flushed down a toilet. Here are some excerpts from a report on how $34 million was wasted.

American agricultural experts who consider soybeans a superfood…have invested tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to try to change the way Afghans eat. The effort, aimed at making soy a dietary staple, has largely been a flop, marked by mismanagement, poor government oversight and financial waste, according to interviews and government audit documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. Warnings by agronomists that the effort was unwise were ignored. The country’s climate turns out to be inappropriate for soy cultivation and its farming culture is ill-prepared for large-scale soybean production. Soybeans are now no more a viable commercial crop in Afghanistan than they were in 2010, when the $34 million program got started… The ambitious effort also appears to have been undone by a simple fact, which might have been foreseen but was evidently ignored: Afghans don’t like the taste of the soy processed foods.

Sadly, this $34 million boondoggle is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s been said that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. Well, it’s also the graveyard of tax dollars.

…the project’s problems model the larger shortcomings of the estimated $120 billion U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, including what many experts depict as ignorance of Afghan traditions, mismanagement and poor spending controls. No one has calculated precisely how much the United States wasted or misspent in Afghanistan, but a…special auditor appointed by President Obama the following year said he discovered nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan-related waste in just his first year on the job.

I’m guessing that most of the $120 billion was squandered using traditional definitions of waste.

But using a libertarian definition of waste (i.e., money that the federal government should not spend), we can easily calculate that the entire $120 billion was squandered.

Let’s now discuss another example of American taxpayer money being wasted in other nations. I’ve written previously about the squalid corruption at the Export-Import Bank, but Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus is the go-to expert on this issue, and she has a new article at National Review about “a project in Brazil that, if it goes bust and the Brazilians can’t pay the American contractor, your tax dollars will end up paying for.”

And what is this project?

…an Export-Import Bank–backed deal to build the largest aquarium in South America…the taxpayer exposure is $150,000 per job “supported.” Some people in Brazil are rightly upset about this. The Ex-Im loan may have lower interest rates and better terms than a regular loan, but this is probably money the indebted and poor Brazilian government can’t afford. …a real problem with the Ex-Im Bank: On one hand, it gives cheap money to large companies who would have access to capital markets even in its absence. But on the other hand, it encourages middle-income or poor countries to take on debt that they probably can’t afford, whether the products purchased are “made in America” or not.

Gee, aren’t we happy that some bureaucrats and politicians have decided to put us on the hook for a Brazilian aquarium.

But let’s try to make the best of a bad situation. Here’s a depiction of what you’re subsidizing. Enjoy.

Subsidized by American taxpayers

I hope you got your money’s worth from the image.

Perhaps I’m being American-centric by focusing on examples of bad policies from the crowd in Washington.

So let’s look at an example of government foolishness from Germany. It doesn’t involve tax money being wasted (at least not directly), but I can’t resist sharing this story because it’s such a perfect illustration of government in action.

Check out these excerpts from a British news report on over-zealous enforcement by German cops.

A one-armed man in Germany has received a full apology and refund from the police after an overzealous officer fined him for cycling using only one arm. Bogdan Ionescu, a theatre box office worker from Cologne, gets around the usually cycle-friendly city using a modified bicycle that allows him to operate both brakes – one with his foot. But on 25 March he was pulled over by a police officer who, he says, told him he was breaking the law. Under German road safety rules, bicycles are required to have to have two handlebar brakes. After a long argument at the roadside, the officer insisted that Mr Ionescu’s bike was not roadworthy and issued him with a €25 (£20) fine.

At least this story had a happy ending, at least if you overlook the time and aggravation for Mr. Ionescu.

Our last (but certainly not least) example of foolish government comes from Nebraska, though the culprit is the federal government.

But maybe “disconcerting” would be a better word than “foolish.”

It seems that our friends on the left no longer think that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” In a very troubling display of thuggery, the Justice Department dispatched a bureaucrat to “investigate” a satirical parade float.

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

The U.S. Department of Justice has sent a member of its Community Relations Service team to investigate a Nebraska parade float that criticized President Obama. A Fourth of July parade float featured at the annual Independence Day parade in Norfolk sparked criticism when it depicted a zombie-like figure resembling Mr. Obama standing outside an outhouse, which was labeled the “Obama Presidential Library.” The Nebraska Democratic Party called the float one of the “worst shows of racism and disrespect for the office of the presidency that Nebraska has ever seen.” The Omaha World-Herald reported Friday that the Department of Justice sent a CRS member who handles discrimination disputes to a Thursday meeting about the issue. …The float’s creator, Dale Remmich, has said the mannequin depicted himself, not President Obama. He said he is upset with the president’s handling of the Veterans Affairs Department, the World-Herald reported. “Looking at the float, that message absolutely did not come through,” said NAACP chapter president Betty C. Andrews.

If you look at the picture (and other pictures that can be seen with an online search), I see plenty of disrespect for the current president, but why is that something that requires an investigation?

There was plenty of disrespect for the previous president. And there as also disrespect for the president before that. And before that. And before…well, you get the idea.

Disrespect for politicians is called political speech, and it’s (supposedly) protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

That’s even true if the float’s creator had unseemly motives such as racism. He would deserve scorn if that was the case, and parade organizers would (or at least should) have the right to exclude him on that basis.

But you don’t lose your general right to free speech just because you have unpopular and/or reprehensible opinions. And the federal government shouldn’t be doing anything that can be construed as suppressing or intimidating Americans who want to “disrespect” the political class.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of politicized bureaucracy, we have an update to a recent column about sleazy behavior at the IRS.

According to the Daily Caller, there’s more and more evidence of a big fire behind all the smoke at the IRS.

Ex-IRS official Lois Lerner’s computer hard drive was “scratched” and the data on it was still recoverable. But the IRS did not try to recover the data from Lerner’s hard drive, despite recommendations from in-house IRS IT experts to outsource the recovery project. The hard drive was then “shredded,” according to a court filing the IRS made to House Ways and Means Committee investigators.

Gee, how convenient.

I used to dislike the IRS because of the tax code. Now I have an additional reason to view the bureaucrats with disdain.

P.P.S. One last comment on the controversy surrounding the parade float. Racism is an evil example of collectivist thinking. But it is also reprehensible for folks on the left to make accusations of racism simply because they disagree with someone.

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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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It’s not as sophisticated as Professor Bryan Caplan’s Purity Quiz and it doesn’t have the simple elegance of the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, but at least you don’t need to answer any questions to see where you stand in this Venn Diagram that my intern shared with me.

We don’t know who created it, but it’s a clever shortcut to help people to identify their philosophical alignment based on what they think are the proper roles of government.

I’ll do a bit of nit-picking later in this column, but my immediate observation is that I belong in the “Minarchism” camp but that I’m willing to settle for “Classical Liberalism.”

Philosophical Circles

Now it’s time to quibble.

1. There’s no scope for federalism in this Venn diagram, and that may affect the answers of some people. I am completely against the notion that Washington should have any role in our education system, for instance, but I wouldn’t lose much sleep if state and local governments operated school choice systems. Does this mean I’m in the “modern conservatism” camp?

2. I’m also not clear why the person who created the Diagram decided that buses and subways are part of “classical liberalism.” I don’t consider transportation to be a core function of the state. Though this may be another issue where federalism plays a role. I’m not going to get overly agitated if the taxpayers of New York City want to tax themselves (and only themselves) to operate mass transit. Just don’t ask me to pay for it.

3. For reasons I’ve explained before, there’s a difference between socialism (government ownership of the means of production) and redistributionism (government taxing some to give things to others). So at the risk of being pedantic, I would reclassify the big red circle as “total statism.”

But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. This Venn Diagram/Circle Test is very well done.

P.S. The worst political quiz I ever took was the one that pegged me as a “moderate” with “few strong opinions.”

P.P.S. Reason’s political candidate quiz, by contrast, produced a much more logical conclusion.

P.P.P.S. I’ve written a few times about the politicized corruption at the IRS. Building on recent revelations, Kevin Williamson has a superb column at National Review on this topic.

The first excerpt notes that the IRS engaged in an ideological witch hunt.

…the evidence, now conclusive and irrefutable, that the Internal Revenue Service, under the direction of senior leaders affiliated with the Democratic party, was used as a political weapon from at least 2010 through the 2012 election. …the IRS targeted these conservative groups categorically, regardless of whether there was any evidence that they were not in compliance with the relevant regulations. Simply having the words “tea party,” “patriot,” or “9/12”…in the name was enough. Also targeted were groups dedicated to issues such as taxes, spending, debt, and, perhaps most worrisome, those that were simply “critical of the how the country is being run.” Organizations also were targeted based on the identity of their donors. Their applications were delayed, their managements harassed, and the IRS demanded that they answer wildly inappropriate questions, such as the content of their prayers.

Our second excerpt explains that the witch hunt was directed by partisans in Washington.

…the direction came from Washington and was, in the words of the agency’s own e-mails, “coordinated with” a senior manager there, Rob Choi, director of rulings and agreements. This began at the behest of Democratic officeholders, including Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who requested that the IRS disclose to him information about tea-party groups that it would have been illegal for the IRS to disclose.

In our final excerpt, Kevin explains why this is – or at least should be – very troubling for anyone who thinks America should have the rule of law.

The IRS is not just a revenue agency — it is a law-enforcement agency, a police agency with far greater powers of investigation and coercion that any normal police force. Its actions in this matter are not only inappropriate — they are illegal. Using government resources for political ends is a serious crime, as is conspiring to mislead investigators about those crimes. …The most important question that must be answered in this matter does not involve the misbehavior of IRS officials and Democratic officeholders, though those are important. Nor is it the question of free speech, vital and fundamental as that is. The question here is nothing less than the legitimacy of the United States government. When law-enforcement agencies and federal regulators with extraordinary coercive powers are subordinated to political interests rather than their official obligations — to the Party rather than to the law — then the law itself becomes meaningless, and the delicate constitutional order we have enjoyed for more than two centuries is reduced to a brutal might-makes-right proposition. …The IRS investigation is no mere partisan scandal, but a moral challenge for the men and women who compose the government of this country.

Amen.

Unconstrained government enables corruption and oppression.

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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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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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The IRS is worthy of scorn. It is a bloated bureaucracy that routinely violates the rights of taxpayers.

But even I didn’t think it was possible for a collection of bureaucrats to display the blithering incompetence necessary to send $46 million of handouts to nearly 24,000 fake returns filed from a single address.

Yes, a single address. I’m not joking. Read these details from MSN…but only if you don’t have high blood pressure.

If you make an oversight while paying your taxes to the IRS, you better believe you’ll be audited, harshly fined, and held completely accountable. Meanwhile, in 2011, the IRS accidentally sent more than $46 million in refunds to 23,994 “unauthorized” alien workers. And they sent it all to one Atlanta address. This is coming to light thanks to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) audit report.

Even I’m amazed, and I have extremely low expectations.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the “refunds” mentioned in the story almost surely aren’t refunds. Instead, they’re “earned income credit” payments, which are a form of income redistribution laundered through the tax code.

I explained back in 2010 how this scam works, and it’s worth noting this is a huge problem – more than $10 billion of fraud each and every year.

The nitwits at the IRS even sends housing tax credit checks to prisoners!

And these are the geniuses in charge of enforcing Obamacare. Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

For Heaven’s sake, let’s rip up the entire tax system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Or, better yet, let’s shrink the federal government down to the size envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Then we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

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The title of this post is sort of like the age-old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg.

Should we blame politicians for our corrupt, loophole-ridden, abusive tax system?

Or should we focus our ire on the IRS, which seems to go above and beyond the call of duty to oppress innocent people?

I’ve generally directed my hostility to the politicians, but the latest IRS scandal is leading me to reassess my views.

This Lisa Benson cartoon captures the mentality of the tax collection bureaucracy.

Benson IRS Cartoon

The problem isn’t that the IRS wasted money at boondoggle conferences. Every government agency and department pisses away money in a frivolous fashion.

We should be far more worried about the IRS’s callous disregard of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I’ve said many times that fundamental tax reform is the answer, but that’s only part of the story.

So long as we have a big and bloated government, the politicians are going to want some sort of oppressive bureaucracy to extract several trillion dollars of our money every year.

So if we really want to clip the wings of the IRS, we better figure out how to restore limited, constitutional government.

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Did President Obama and his team of Chicago cronies deliberately target the Tea Party in hopes of thwarting free speech and political participation?

Was this part of a campaign to win the 2012 election by suppressing Republican votes?

Perhaps, but I’ve warned that it’s never a good idea to assume top-down conspiracies when corruption, incompetence, politics, ideology, greed, and self-interest are better explanations for what happens in Washington.

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney has a much more sober and realistic explanation of what happened at the IRS.

If you take a group of Democrats who are also unionized government employees, and put them in charge of policing political speech, it doesn’t matter how professional and well-intentioned they are. The result will be much like the debacle in the Cincinnati office of the IRS. …there’s no reason to even posit evil intent by the IRS officials who formulated, approved or executed the inappropriate guidelines for picking groups to scrutinize most closely. …The public servants figuring out which groups qualified for 501(c)4 “social welfare” non-profit status were mostly Democrats surrounded by mostly Democrats. …In the 2012 election, every donation traceable to this office went to President Obama or liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown. This is an environment where even those trying to be fair could develop a disproportionate distrust of the Tea Party. One IRS worker — a member of NTEU and contributor to its PAC, which gives 96 percent of its money to Democratic candidates — explained it this way: “The reason NTEU mostly supports Democratic candidates for office is because Democratic candidates are mostly more supportive of civil servants/government employees.”

Tim concludes with a wise observation.

As long as we have a civil service workforce that leans Left, and as long as we have an income tax system that requires the IRS to police political speech, conservative groups can always expect special IRS scrutiny.

And my colleague Doug Bandow, in an article for the American Spectator, adds his sage analysis.

The real issue is the expansive, expensive bureaucratic state and its inherent threat to any system of limited government, rule of law, and individual liberty. …the broader the government’s authority, the greater its need for revenue, the wider its enforcement power, the more expansive the bureaucracy’s discretion, the increasingly important the battle for political control, and the more bitter the partisan fight, the more likely government officials will abuse their positions, violate rules, laws, and Constitution, and sacrifice people’s liberties. The blame falls squarely on Congress, not the IRS.

I actually think he is letting the IRS off the hook too easily.

But Doug’s overall point obviously is true.

…the denizens of Capitol Hill also have created a tax code marked by outrageous complexity, special interest electioneering, and systematic social engineering. Legislators have intentionally created avenues for tax avoidance to win votes, and then complained about widespread tax avoidance to win votes.

So what’s the answer?

The most obvious response to the scandal — beyond punishing anyone who violated the law — is tax reform. Implement a flat tax and you’d still have an IRS, but the income tax would be less complex, there would be fewer “preferences” for the agency to police, and rates would be lower, leaving taxpayers with less incentive for aggressive tax avoidance. …Failing to address the broader underlying factors also would merely set the stage for a repeat performance in some form a few years hence. …More fundamentally, government, and especially the national government, should do less. Efficient social engineering may be slightly better than inefficient social engineering, but no social engineering would be far better.

Amen. Let’s rip out the internal revenue code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

But here’s the challenge. We know the solution, but it will be almost impossible to implement good policy unless we figure out some way to restrain the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

At the risk of over-simplifying, we will never get tax reform unless we figure out how to implement entitlement reform.

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Notwithstanding the title of this post, this is not a story about a taxpayer fighting against the IRS. If you want that kind of story (and if you have a strong stomach), you can read about how an IRS thug named Robert Norlander tried to ruin the life of a guy named Charlie Engle.

Or, on a lighter note, you can read about Evan Mathis and his “encounter” with the IRS. But that’s not today’s topic either.

Instead, we’re introducing a new political cartoonist named Jim McKee, who came to my attention when a reader recommended his work in the comment section of a post featuring about 10 other cartoons about the IRS scandal.

As you can see from these cartoons, I’m very happy to be introduced to Jim McKee, particularly since he’s generating some great material about the IRS scandal. Let’s start with a cartoon he produced that calls attention to the fact that an IRS hack pleaded the fifth even though taxpayers don’t have similar rights when confronted by tax collectors.

McKee Cartoon 1

And here’s another good one, which reminds me of the Glenn Foden cartoon in this post.

McKee Cartoon 2

By the way, the IRS actually is concerned about its image. This is the bureaucracy, after all, that decided to squander $15 million of our money on a PR campaign.

Anyhow, McKee has given us some very amusing cartoons. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we have a terrible tax code, which is enforced by some terrible people.

The politicians deserve most of the blame, but you can see from these examples that the IRS bureaucracy deserves scorn.

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Last week, while writing about the latest IRS scandal, I noted that the IRS has a long record of abusive actions.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn that it also has politically biased employees.

But some Americans probably are shocked. So I want to be the first to publicly thank President Obama for – at the very least – presiding over a culture that gave IRS bureaucrats the green light to engage in this kind of misbehavior.

Why am I thanking Obama? For the simple reason that this scandal means that more Americans now understand that the IRS is a venal agency. And that presumably means that more Americans now realize we should junk the internal revenue code and implement a simple and fair flat tax.

Since I’m in an expansive and sharing mood, I think we also owe some appreciation to some of the good people who are helping to publicize the IRS’s despicable behavior.

Let’s start with George Will, who is predictably – and bitingly – critical.

…the nature of Barack Obama’s administration is being clarified as revelations about IRS targeting of conservative groups merge with myriad Benghazi mendacities. …we are told that a few wayward souls in Cincinnati, with nary a trace of political purpose, targeted for harassment political groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their titles.  …Jay Carney, whose unenviable job is not to explain but to explain away what his employers say, calls the IRS’s behavior “inappropriate.” No, using the salad fork for the entree is inappropriate. Using the Internal Revenue Service for political purposes is a criminal offense.

I also like that Will took the opportunity to criticize the worst (or at least close-to-worst) President in American history.

Time was, progressives like the president 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson, had the virtue of candor: He explicitly rejected the Founders’ fears of government. Modern enlightenment, he said, made it safe to concentrate power in Washington, and especially in disinterested executive-branch agencies run by autonomous, high-minded experts. Today, however, progressivism’s insinuation is that Americans must be minutely regulated because they are so dimwitted they will swallow nonsense. Such as: There was no political motive in the IRS targeting political conservatives.

How painfully true. Sheep are not famous for their intelligence. And as the American people learn to be passively dependent on government, presumably we will acquire more sheep-like characteristics.

But the firestorm of protest leads me to think we’re not at that stage. At least not yet.

The lawless and abusive IRS even got Michael Gerson agitated.

…most Americans, myself included, become libertarians when a policeman is rude and swaggering during a traffic stop. Give me that badge number. It is precisely because police powers are essential to the public good that abusing them is so offensive. The same holds for overzealous or corrupt airport-security agents. And it is doubly true with IRS personnel who misuse their broad and intimidating powers. It is enough to bring out the Samuel Adams in anyone.

And here’s what my colleague Gene Healy wrote about the IRS’s history of political shenanigans.

Past presidents have found the IRS an extremely useful piece of federal machinery for that purpose. A lot of what we know about that sordid history comes from the Senate Select Committee on intelligence abuses, chaired by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, in the mid-’70s. As Chris Hayes wrote in the Nation in 2006, “Church and many Democrats…soon found that presidents of both parties were culpable: “Secret documents obtained by the committee even revealed that the sainted FDR had ordered IRS audits of his political enemies.” In “The Lawless State,” his account of the Church Committee revelations, Morton Halperin noted that “the first organized political ‘strike force’ was formed within the IRS in 1961, and was directed against right-wing political groups.” In this case, I doubt there was ever a JFK or Nixon-style direct command from on high to harass the Tea Party. It’s more likely to be a case of “proactive” bureaucrats inspired by presidential railing against the Tea Party and Citizens United: “Will no one rid me of these meddlesome right-wing freaks?”

Let’s close with a couple of good cartoons.

The first one reminds me of the joke that “Service” is part of the IRS’s name, but only in the way that a bull services a cow.

IRS Tea Party Cartoon 1

The humor is a bit darker in this cartoon, but the message is the same.

IRS Tea Party Cartoon 2

P.S. Since I’m in such a good mood,  I’ll share some of my other IRS humor, including a new Obama 1040 form, a death tax cartoon, a list of tax day tips from David Letterman, a cartoon of how GPS would work if operated by the IRS, an IRS-designed pencil sharpener, two Obamacare/IRS cartoons (here and here), a sale on 1040-form toilet paper (a real product), a song about the tax agency, the IRS’s version of the quadratic formula, and (my favorite) a joke about a Rabbi and an IRS agent.

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I just saw a headline that made me think that libertarian fantasies somehow had turned into reality.

As you can see, 24 IRS employees were just arrested for stealing. But what about the other 105,976 bureaucrats at the Internal Revenue Service who seize our money under the implied threat of violence?

Shouldn’t they be arrested for stealing from us as well?

IRS Employees arrested

But then my bubble burst. The story has nothing to do with the injustice of the internal revenue code and the shakedown of American taxpayers.

It turns out that these IRS bureaucrats were busted for getting unauthorized government handouts.

…authorities say Internal Revenue Service employees in Tennessee were stealing unemployment and other benefits while fully employed. On Thursday, 13 of those employees were indicted on federal charges that they lied to get unemployment, food stamps, welfare and housing vouchers. An additional 11 have been indicted on state charges of theft greater than $1,000.

In other words, these “public servants” were guilty of a form of triple dipping.

  1. They took money from taxpayers as part of their excessive compensation packages.
  2. Their day job was to then enforce a coercive and reprehensible tax system that took money from taxpayers
  3. And they then bilked taxpayers yet again by mooching from various handout programs.

I’m actually surprised that they got arrested. Based on Keynesian economics, they should get medals for “stimulating” the economy.

P.S. All humor aside, non-anarchist libertarians face an interesting mental challenge. Many of them view the tax system as a form of theft. And there’s no question that it is enforced – ultimately – at the point of a gun. But with the exception of anarcho-capitalists, libertarians support the kind of limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers. So how do you justify the taxes needed to finance that limited public sector? Most people would justify tax systems if they’re the result of a democratic process, but libertarians believe in rights rather than untrammeled majoritarianism. So how can they rationalize taxation? I freely confess that I don’t have the right answer. As I’ve noted before, I’m a practical libertarian, not the theoretical type. My job is to somehow figure out how we can shrink the federal government back to 3 percent of economic output. After that, the theoretical libertarians can figure out the thorny issues.

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