Category Archives: Government gone wild

I’m from the government and I’m here to deceive you

image credit: A Mina via flickr (cc)

image credit: A Mina via flickr (cc)

They call it “Factors Influencing Voluntary Compliance by Small Businesses[pdf],” and the report comes from IRS (actually “an independent organization within IRS,” whatever that means), and  so you know that it’s referring to compliance with Federal income tax laws and regulations.

The focus on small business makes sense, since folks on payrolls or pensions generally can’t hide much of their income, and large corporations can obtain legislative action or legal advice providing their own loopholes.  Two surveys were done, one of small businesspeople nationwide for whom, statistically, an audit would be expected to result in additional tax payments, and the other of small businesspeople in communities from which a high proportion of such returns was filed. (NOTE: When wooing their votes we call them “entrepreneurs” or “job creators,” but that would not be dainty when we are considering them “tax cheats.”) These “low compliance” folks were supplemented by a survey of those expected to be “high compliance.”

I see two surprising results in this report.  First, on most attitude measures there’s little difference between the “low compliance” and “high compliance” respondents.  For example, only 15% of the “low” group thought that federal tax laws were fair, and the same proportion of the “high” group agreed.   Differences that did appear were fairly small. “Wealthy taxpayers minimize their taxes in ways the average taxpayer cannot” was agreed with by 74% of the “low compliance”‘ group, and 69% of the “high compliance” people.

An even bigger surprise, to the IRS analysts as well as this blogger, is that “low compliance” seems to be associated with greater participation in their local communities, including churches, schools, volunteer organizations, and even were more likely to vote than “high compliance” people. I hesitate to speculate on what this means, but it is probably a positive for those of us who believe (along with most respondents) that federal government is not an appropriate way to deal with many of the areas it has become involved in.

The report acknowledges that the survey suffers from an indirect method: “Low compliance” merely indicates a statistical likelihood of same, not an actual lack of compliance by the respondent.   Because a random selection of taxpayers are audited simply to calibrate the compliance-prediction model, it would have been possible to target these particular taxpayers for the survey.  Of course they couldn’t be surveyed after their audits because they might be especially unhappy with IRS at that point.  But they could have been surveyed just before being notified on the audit.  IRS decided not to do that because they “deemed it overly deceptive.”  However, the actual survey (done over the phone by a contracted private company), did not reveal that this was an IRS project until the conclusion, after the data had been gathered.  That apparently was deemed just deceptive enough.

Not part of the published report is a list of “clusters of potential tax cheats” posted by AP but presumably originating with IRS. Apparently tabulated by zip code, here’s the Illinois portion of the list:

Bellwood, Calumet City, Dolton,  Grand Crossing, Hazel Crest, Matteson, Maywood, Ogden Park, Phoenix, Riverdale, Roseland, South Chicago Heights, South Holland, University Park.  I assume that folks in Oakbrook and Barrington Hills had already purchased their own loopholes.

New ideas on taxation, and why most of us usually don’t know about them

Photo of Dilbert model by Jon Stefansson via Flickr (cc)

Six weeks without a post, OMG! Not because I had nothing to say, but perhaps too much to organize into something readable. Or maybe I’ve just found it too difficult to locate suitable images to go with the posts.  Well, forget that, it’s time to get back to blogging.

And it was nearly six weeks ago that Miles Kimball blogged about some great ideas expressed by Dilbert creator Scott Adams for improving taxation of the “rich.” Adams’ piece was published in WSJ, I can’t figure out which date, I don’t know how long the public link will last and I can’t actually figure out the title of the article.  Adams’ point, if I understand it correctly, is those who pay the greatest amount of taxes would more willing to do so, if given suitable nonmonetary incentives.  He suggests maybe the top 100 taxpayers should be invited to a celebratory dinner at the White House, where they’ll be praised for their contributions to America.  (I wonder whether richest-men Warren Buffett and Bill Gates would qualify for this event.  More likely a bunch of wealthy heirs and heiresses who got poor tax advice).  Another idea is that top taxpayers should get certificates allowing them to violate certain regulations, such as parking in handicapped spaces or using carpool lanes alone. (Of course, the very wealthy wouldn’t worry much about the fines such actions would impose if unauthorized). Or, suggests Adams, maybe the top taxpayers should each get two votes (which would make no difference in election results compared to the influence the wealthy can already buy).

More important, I think, is Adams’ point that, if you can’t think of a good idea, it’s best to think of some bad ideas and offer them for criticism. It’s a technique I have used with fair success (my role being to offer the bad idea).

But the main lesson we can draw from Adams essay is that,if your idea regards public policy, then no matter how good (or bad but creative) it is, nobody powerful will pay attention to it until it’s expressed by somebody who is already influential. Thank you, Scott Adams.


Tracking the payrollers*

While assisting the Public Revenue Education Council at the National Council of State Legislators convention, I couldn’t help photographing some of the federal employees in “action.” Census was there, BEA was there, but I wouldn’t want to embarrass those guys because they sometimes do some useful things.  We also had

Licensed Professional and Drug Patentholder Protection Administration

Office of Travel Prevention

Department of Making Jobs and Workers Difficult to Find

Forgetting for a moment the impediment to commerce and free association, how much money are we spending on these guys?  Thanks to Gannett’s  Asbury Park Press (h/t Bob Matter), taxpayers can access a database of reasonably current salary information for most Federal employees.   For state and local employees in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri, the Better Government Association has made similar information accessible.

Government employee pensions are also an issue, and Taxpayers United of America is building a database of this information.

Now, I’m not opposed to high salaries and liberal pensions. In fact, I think everyone should get them.  The problem is not that government compensation is too high, but that private compensation is too low. Some clear graphs here (based on data collected by government employees) illustrate the problem. Nongovernmental American workers’ productivity continues to increase, but for forty years little or none of this has been reflected in wages.  The best remedy involves displacing the rentiers.

*Payroller is a Chicago term for folks whose main function is to collect a government paycheck.  It appears that in some places, the word has a different meaning.

Just because they ask, doesn’t mean we have to give it to them

Governments here in Illinois (and probably everywhere else) like to “request” things, but that doesn’t mean we mundanes always need to grant these requests.  Two examples from recent experience:

detail from work of Chris Karr via flickr (cc)

detail from a photo by Chris Karr via flickr (cc)

Saving money: Illinois Secretary of State Certificate of Good Standing.  Our high-tech sophisticated Secretary of State makes it easy, relatively, to get the “certificate of good standing” that organizations may require, for example, to set up some kinds of financial accounts.  No problem, just go to Jesse White’s web site, do a search (which really works, in my experience), fill out the simple form and authorize a credit card charge of $16 ($5 transaction fee, $1 payment processor fee, and $10 expedited fee).  But suppose you aren’t in a great hurry and don’t need (or want to pay for) expediting.  Or suppose you lack a credit card but have a checking account (or can buy a money order). What to do?

Nowhere could I find the answer on Jesse’s web site.  Fortunately, cheapness wonk Adam Kerman of the Transit Riders’ Authority knew what to do:

Write a letter to request the Certificate of Good Standing. Make sure to include the corporate file number and your contact phone number. $5 fee Secretary of State Business Services 501 S. Second St., Rm. 330 Springfield, IL 62756

And that’s just what I did.  A week or so later, the certificate arrived.

Current RTA Executive Director

Saving Dignity: Regional Transportation Authority old person discount fare card. A good and privacy-minded friend of mine, having recently attained the age of 65, wanted to take advantage of the “reduced fares” available to old people (among others) on RTA-funded transit systems. First thing she found out was that it takes 3-4 weeks to get the required farecard, so she should have applied 21 days prior to her birthday.  Too late for that, but she readily found the necessary form, which turns out to serve two functions: (a) apply for reduced fares based on age or other criteria; (b) apply for free fares based on likelihood of voting Democratic documented low income.  Being successful enough not to qualify for (b), she still had to complete a form with a blank for “Social Security Number.”  What do to?

She wrote “NOT REQUIRED” in the SSN blank, and 23 days later received a reduced fare card in the mail.  Moral of this story: You can surrender somewhat less privacy than the authorities ask for, without giving up rights or privileges, at least in this case.

Keeping your employees’ taxes

image credit:Jinx via Flickr (cc)

I have written before about the “economic development” tool which allows employers to keep the taxes paid by their employees.  Now I find that Good Jobs First has compiled a report showing that over 2700 companies in 16 states have got this kind of deal. The report includes a spreadsheet detailing the 3750 cases. Turns out that Illinois is far from the worst offender, gifting just $35 million of employees’ tax money, compared to $89 million in Indiana.

Thanks to David Cay Johnston via Reuters. Johnston says that these direct subsidies are considered necessary because states are already exempting such corporations from most real estate, income, and other taxes.  Altho he doesn’t mention it, states are also typically paying for worker training and infrastructure improvements.


Securitizing the banksters, with cameras and contracts

Image credit: J D Abolins via Flickr (cc)Just in case there was any doubt, Pam Martens in Counterpunch gives us a report on the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, where feeds from sophisticated spy cameras are integrated to essentially track anyone and everyone on the streets who might interest our supervisors. What’s news here, tho I suppose I already suspected it, is that partners in this operation are not just the NYPD, but also “the same firms under investigation in 50 states for mortgage and foreclosure fraud and widely credited with causing the Nation’s economic collapse.”  Presumably they have added some of the proceeds of their crimes to the $150 million public money that’s been used for this project.
It’s difficult to believe that Chicago doesn’t have something similar.
Meanwhile, and I suppose it’s more relevant to us here, the CTA will be paying up to $58,000/month, plus commission, to Goldman Sachs and other “financial advisors.” The Authority assures us such amounts “are comparatively very small compared to the billions of dollars in much-needed funding CTA would secure” if such commissions are paid. “Funding” more likely means “loans” or “new ways of packaging existing streams of money” rather than any actual additional resources or capture of land value which transit could create.

End of the Statistical Abstract

Statistical abstract spines on a shelf

image credit: DIY Librarian via Flickr (cc)

Back in the old days, pre-Internet, the Statistical Abstract of the United States was usually the first place I’d look for any US data that the feds were likely to collect or review.  I could cite it with confidence that most readers would also have access to it, and it included source citations if more detail was needed. In the Internet age, it continued as a convenient resource, posted annually on the Census Bureau’s web site.

I had missed the news (was it even reported in the dominant media?) that the 2012 Abstract will be the last.   If the federal budget must be cut, then I suppose this is one way to do it, but it seems that our rulers could have found a better way.

Apparently a guide to sources will remain, at least for the time being.

Gold vs. “real money”

Gold Mine

image credit: Kake Pugh via flickr (cc)

The basic function of money is as a medium of exchange.  Inevitably, a secondary function arises as a measure of value. Money can be paper, precious metals, shells, whatever people in a particular time and place use as a medium of exchange.  There’s no reason that it would need to have “intrinsic” value. If  people use U S currency to buy and sell, then it is “real money.”

So is gold “real money?” I don’t think so. Just about nobody uses it as a medium of exchange. Historically, gold coins have sometimes been used but for ordinary people silver, copper, or base metal fiat-type money would be much more common.

Certainly fiat money can depreciate, usually does, and for us in the U S that has been and will almost certainly continue to be the trend.  And gold might be a good investment, in the sense that it will be exhangeable in the future for more real wealth than it is now, or at least more in comparison to other kinds of investments available to ordinary people. Of course, gold can depreciate too, if large new deposits are discovered or folks decide they really don’t want gold after all.  Which isn’t to say that either of these things will happen any time soon.

Anyone who wishes to resurrect the “gold standard” might want to read the late Peter Bernstein’s “Power of Gold,” or some other history books. Somehow we end up electing people who don’t put a high priority on keeping the dollar strong (or at least, not too much weaker).  If that’s a problem, then maybe we should be electing other people, or finding ways to reduce the power of those who purchase elections. Making the U S dollar convertible into a fixed amount of gold is not going to bring prosperity, or even prevent further disruption. There are plenty of examples of economic collapse under a gold standard.

It might, however, benefit those who own gold, or gold mining stocks.

Somebody please disagree with me, or I will assume all of the above to be true.

Drug prohibition coordinates politicians and “gangs”


image credit: Rosalyn Davis via Flickr (cc)

David Bernstein and Noah Isackson have a pretty good article in Chicago Magazine, Gangs and Politicians in Chicago: An Unholy Alliance. Focusing mainly on Alderman but also including State and Federal legislators, they assert that “gangs” provide the money, votes, and workers that enable officials to attain and retain their office.  In exchange, the governments these legislators control provide funds and favors.

Isackson and Bernstein stop short of suggesting how to repair this problem, but reading thru the article it’s clear that the main way these “gangs” prosper is thru unauthorized distribution of drugs.  And one of the main favors aldermen provide is assistance in avoiding “law enforcement” efforts to arrest them. End the drug prohibition, most of the “gangs'” income will end, and candidates will no longer get “gang” money.  They’ll have to rely on crooked lawyers, lobbyists, etc.

Some of the drug money, of course, has gone into real estate, with “gang” members able to get favors such as rezoning and inspection waivers. A land value tax, by constraining real estate speculation, would be of assistance here.


Another successful politician endorses land value tax

Nick Boles

image from Financial Times

Nick Boles

MP for Grantham and Stamford. New-intake MP and a key moderniser. Former Policy Exchange director and one of the Notting Hill set. Deemed close to the leadership. Tipped for bigger things

I assume this means he’s successful, British political terminology being rather unfamiliar to me. What’s really important is that

Nick Boles, The MP for Grantham and Stamford says a Land Value Tax should be introduced and use the proceeds to cut National Insurance – permanently.

He doesn’t want to do it exactly how I would want to do it, because he seems to want to exclude owner-occupied residential land and farmland, without limitation.  But the important thing is, he’s a successful politician, he gets elected, and he appears to want to move toward a sound economy. I’m just some guy with a blog.

I also don’t know how all this relates to the British custom of building homes on rented land far more commonly than Americans do. But it seems to be his top priority.

Source: FT via GN