Archive for the ‘taxes’ Category

Book Extract: The Pale King

image credit: Martin Heigan (cc) via flickr

Pale King (credit: Martin Heigan (cc) via flickr)

I am in no way qualified to review works of acknowledged fiction, as I read very few.  But I have been intrigued by David Foster Wallace since a Radio National commentator observed that Wallace had, in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, anticipated the effect of the Internet. When later I learned that his final, unfinished work, which had been assembled by his longtime editor, was about the administration of the U S Federal income tax, I couldn’t resist taking a look at it.   I thought it might give some insight into how the IRS staff manage to actually patch together the mess of U S tax law and regulations to maintain something which provides the rulers with pretty good control as well as huge revenue, without causing any effective revolt by taxpayers.

No success there, I’m afraid, which is all the more disappointing because, in Chapter 9 Wallace breaks into whatever narrative structure the book has to say that, hey, here I am, a real person, and this book portrays real people and events modified only slightly.  Then he points out that on the copyright page is the statement that “The characters and events in this book are fictitious.  Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author,” which assertion necessarily applies to his statement that the book is not fiction.

Beyond that, the work is set in the 1980s, when the tax rules were simpler, with documentation and computerization far less than today. Which meant that a lot of people spent their days manually comparing  sets of figures, on return after return, hour after hour, day after day.  I suspect that in today’s IRS much of this work has been computerized, with the human staff devoting their time to other things perhaps too horrible to contemplate.

CTA railcar image by Menace of Privilege

CTA railcar image by Menace of Privilege

Too, a lot of the book is just contrary to fact.  The description of the Chicago public transportation system, to take one aspect of interest, is simply wrong.  CTA do not operate any high-speed commuter trains, nor did they ever have a station named “Washington Square.”  And it would be virtually impossible today for a passenger, with his arm stuck in the door of a crowded train, to be dragged along the platform to his death, because every railcar has long had a red handle, at every door, which any passenger could pull to open the door and stop the train (here’s why).

That said, there are some helpful insights about how the regime makes use of dullness:

[T]he whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull.  Massively, spectacularly dull.  It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature.  Consider, from the [Internal Revenue] Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex.  The IRS was one of the first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy.  For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting (from page 83 in chapter 9)

And the key to success in a bureaucracy:

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom.  To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.  To be, in a word, unborable…

It is the key to modern life.  If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (pp 437-438 in chapter 44)

America’s Biggest Bank and America’s Biggest Crook and Cook County’s Treasurer

logo3No, they aren’t all one and the same.

I personally haven’t had any problem with JP Morgan Chase.  I had a CD with a predecessor bank and, when it matured, I retrieved it without difficulty. My real estate tax is paid thru them, and as far as I could tell my payments have been processed as intended.  Once upon a time I may have had a credit card with them.  But I long assumed JP Morgan Chase is a corrupt organization, because I seem to recall having read various things here and there, and, well, how could an honest bank become so large?

I hadn’t even thought about Morgan Chase’s role in the Madoff affair, but of course it was nontrivial, as documented by  Helen Davis Chaitman and Lance Gothoffer on their JP Madoff website (and, one presumes, in their book). They have compiled the information, most of which was floating around the Internet, that “In the past four years alone, JPMorgan Chase has paid out $28,902,150,000 in fines and settlements for fraudulent and illegal practices.”  And that, of course, is only the cases where they were caught and unable to avoid prosecution.

“Boycott JP Morgan Chase,” Chaitman and Gothoffer urge.  Great idea, and I have done so as best I can.  But I need to pay real estate tax, and as long as I live in Cook County it seems I must pay it to JP Morgan Chase.  So I wrote Maria Pappas, the County Treasurer, saying

I see from the check with which I paid my most recent real estate tax bill that you are still using JP Morgan Chase to process the County’s receipts. It’s pretty clear that JP Morgan Chase is a criminal enterprise, having paid over $28.9 billion in fines and settlements for fraudulent and illegal practices during the past four years. Why is the County unable to use any less dishonest bank to process payments? Thanks in advance for your response.

And just a couple of [business] days later, I received a response from “Customer Service Department:”

Thank you for contacting the Office of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

Cook County aims to provide efficient payment processing to the greatest number of taxpayers at the least cost to those taxpayers. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that additional considerations are relevant in the County’s choice of vendors, and we take your concern under advisement.

We hope this information is helpful and thank you for the opportunity to be of assistance.

So, they didn’t exactly say “we are going to boycott JP Morgan Chase because they’re crooks,” but it at least it appears that somebody read and understood my message.

My other recent check processed by JP Morgan Chase was used to pay Illinois State income tax. I suppose I should write somebody (Governor? Treasurer? Comptroller?) with a similar message, but I just assume that anyone responsible for administering a tax on earned income is already beyond hope. Maybe someone else will do it.

 

 

Two dumb tax policies give Aussie millionaire a bite of your lunch

Image Credit: Marshall Astor (cc) via flickr

From Crains we have a report that McPier — the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority which controls McCormick Place and Navy Pier — has paid $5.5 million for about half an acre which sold last year for just “over $1 million.” It seems to be an awfully nice profit for Drapec USA, the California-based Australian real estate operator who earlier was expected to develop the property themselves.

I don’t know that this deal was in any way particularly corrupt or dishonest.  Maybe the parcel actually quintupled in value over 14 months.  Or maybe Drapec really has better “analytical and negotiating skills in finance and real estate” than McPier (or the seller last year, BMO Harris).  But there are two things I do know:

(1) The multi-million dollar profit will be paid by everyone who patronizes restaurants in or near the central part of Chicago, where McPier imposes a 1% tax on all meals. To keep the math easy, figure the average fast-food meal costs $5.50, yielding 5½¢ for McPier.  At that rate, it’ll take a hundred million meals to buy this real estate. Of course, McPier has other tax revenues, too. And actually, not quite all meals are subject to the tax, since some nonprofit organizations, as well as governmental agencies including McPier, are exempt.

(2) The asserted purpose of McPier is to “strengthen the local economy.”   Why should the economy need to be “strengthened?” What are the obstacles preventing people from finding productive employment? Certainly one of these obstacles is taxes, not only the amount of taxes paid but also the difficulty and expence of conforming to all the applicable tax rules and regulations. Another, perhaps more important obstacle, is the vacant and underused land throughout the City.  Land can be forced into productive use by collecting its full economic value through a land value tax.  Since nothing can be produced without labor, productive use means wages will be earned. That is the way to strengthen the local economy.  Of course, under a full land value tax, the selling price of that half-acre parcel near McCormick Place would be nominal, and Drapec would not have bought it unless they planned to begin development promptly.

Retiring regional leader on how to fund infrastructure

from Wikimedia

from Wikimedia

From Marni Pyke’s interview in the Herald:

One way to pay involves value capture — establishing special taxing areas that assume that development like a new road benefits landowners by growth in sales, rents or property values, he said.

“I’m a developer,” Ranney said. “I think developers need to pay more for the value that is generated (by the project). Value capture makes sense. That is something that the real estate community isn’t too keen on — but let’s get real. If you use public dollars to generate private wealth, you can darn well pay for it.”

And an observation regarding transit progress in the region:

Noting he takes the same train from Libertyville that his father took, Ranney added that “nowhere else in the world do they have complacency about exactly the same level of service.”

Land sales price vs. what is paid for land

image credit: Onishenko

image credit: Onishenko

In order to fund community needs from a tax on land value, assessors need to estimate what that land value is.  Conceptually the task need not be difficult (Ted Gwartney outlines some options here, but a more complete and still-valid examination is in this book.) Basically, you look at sales prices for actual land transactions, and make adjustments for parcels which haven’t sold recently or where land comprises only a small part of the value.  But what happens if the buyer pays something additional, “off the books,”  for the land?

According to Peter Katz, that seems to be what often happens. This presentation at APA last March starts off slow (and self-promotional), but moves along thru some interesting territory. Regarding the price of vacant land, he asserts that, in many desirable areas, developers have to first buy (or option) the land, then negotiate with local authorities to get permission to build. Getting that permission might require agreeing to donate money (or land) for public use, or perhaps less savory expenditures, and to the developer this is part of the cost of land. If an area of any size is subject to such constraints, all the land sales are below market prices by the amount of such costs, and all sites, whether sold or not, receive assessed land values that are lower than what developers actually pay to get a buildable site.  This results in less public revenue, implying a need for other taxes, as well as a tendency to develop at lower densities than might be appropriate, when developers choose to settle for existing zoning rather than what they might be able to negotiate. Katz suggests that a formal study of this effect should be done, and nominates Lincoln Institute to make it happen.

Katz’s remedy seems to be a combination of form-based zoning codes, plus a sophisticated (and presumably accurate) fiscal impact analysis that might show denser development to actually be more “profitable” to governments.  But, responding to a question about 65 minutes into (and near the end of) his talk, he acknowledges that funding government from a land value tax would be a good way to obtain the desired development pattern, and that Henry George was a great guy.  His observation that Georgists tend to be wacky has been made before, and I can’t say it’s wrong.

Quid Pro Brew

image credit: Bernt Rostad (cc) via flickr

image credit: Bernt Rostad (cc) via flickr

I was wondering a few weeks ago why Revolution Brewing supported the lobbyist-friendly “Transit Future” funding effort.  How foolish I was, is not brewing a regulated industry desirous of government favors? WBEZ reminds us of the “Small Brew Act,” which would cut the federal taxes on the first 60,000 barrels produced. Senator Kirk, who has never done anything constructive that I can recall, toured the Lobbyist Revolution Brewery and spoke kindly of the act.

Of course, there is no just reason to impose any tax on production of beer or anything else people want, provided that land rent is collected by and for the benefit of the community. In the same situation, I might do the same thing Revolution has done, especially if I knew more about political strategy and good beer than about smart fiscal policy and public finance.  But it’s a shame they’re doing it.

 

America Fast Forward to Transit Future Obligations

Sunday on CTA Route 49

Sunday on CTA Route 49

Over here in Illinois a coalition of powerful and dangerous people and organizations seems to be supporting a “transit future” initiative to harvest a “robust revenue stream,” inferentially a further increase in the sales tax. I say “seems to be” because I haven’t verified that everyone listed (including southern California’s moveLA) is in fact a supporter rather than a typo. And “inferentially” because the examples cited on the site involve sales tax increases.

GETTING TO HYDE PARK…

There is some fancy mapping at vision.transitfuture.org (more…)

What the Tribune missed

iTax Dodge protest

image from Michael Casey via flickr (cc)

Last year the remnant of the Chicago Tribune requested ideas for elements of a new “Plan of Chicago.” They even posted a few of the responses on their site. I suppose some were included in the hardcopy newspaper too.  But those don’t seem to have included my submission, so I probably ought to post it here.

My proposal, of course, relates to how public revenue is raised.  The protesters pictured on the right probably wouldn’t realize that it relates to their concerns, and would almost certainly cause Apple to make a greater contribution to local coffers than they do now. But it wouldn’t increase any corporate tax rate nor prevent Apple from playing accounting games.  It doesn’t need to.

Here’s the proposal as submitted on October 24 2013: (more…)

Using gifts to promote thought about taxes

As Tolstoy pointed out in slightly different words, anyone who understands the fundamentals of public finance cannot fail to agree that the smartest way to fund our governments is to collect economic rent. So the challenge for Georgists is simply to get the 99% of the population who really don’t think about these things to do so.

Which brings to mind some cards printed many many years ago by Advocates for Self Government.

front

front

back

back. The phone numbers and addresses may no longer have any connection to the organization, because the card is probably over 30 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

The idea is, of course, that if you like (or respect or admire) the person who served you, you don’t tip, but give a gift. A gift to an individual is taxable to the giver, not the recipient, but as long as you don’t give any one person more than $14,000 you won’t pay gift tax. (I get my information from Wikipedia, which is no more likely to be incorrect than other sources I know of.) I find tipping disconcerting,  but I do admire and respect the ability of many  baristas, waiters, cabdrivers, barbers, etc who have skills I could never hope to develop.  I like some of them too, and have had a few of them as students learning the fundamentals of political economy.

So this is an approach Georgists might try, to encourage more folks to think about important issues, while making their lives just a teeny bit easier.  No, I have no idea what happens if you put a card and a small amount of money in a tip jar. Maybe new regulations will be issued requiring separate gift jars, and auditors dispatched to assure compliance..

NY Times reports another benefit of the citizens dividend

photo credit: coal dubya via flickr (cc)

photo credit: coal dubya via flickr (cc)

If the earth belongs to the people, then whatever is paid for the use thereof belongs to them in some equitable fashion also.  Therefore, beyond what’s needed for legitimate government purposes, there would seem to be enough for a considerable “citizen’s dividend” for everyone.  Plenty of discussion on this subject can be found here.

My guess is that it would likely be enough to replace most of the aid programs which provide funds — rarely enough but maybe better than nothing — to low income people.  One advantage is that it could be administered at relatively modest expense.  A related advantage is that it can probably be made to work, with everyone getting what they’re entitled to. This latter aspect is what came to mind when I read this NY Times article, in which a Georgetown law professor summarizes “a litany of automation and contracting meltdowns” whereby the poor were unable to obtain benefits to which they were entitled under various aid programs and which may have been essential to their support.

His point seems to be that, while healthcare.gov suffered major problems initially, it was soon repaired because its failure affected many non-poor people. (I have no idea how well-repaired it might be, but will assume he is correct about this.)  He does not mention the citizens dividend, perhaps is unaware of it, or maybe ignores it because it would likely reduce the demand for lawyers. But he makes the case. A regular check for everyone, as a just entitlement, would be a far simpler system than most of the means-tested (and otherwise-restricted) aid programs which cost taxpayers so much money.

And while we’re on the subject of means-tested programs, consider this:

[I]f a single mother has two children in childcare and she’s making $36,000, she’ll pay about $310 a month for childcare. Then, if she gets a raise to $37,000, she’ll need to pay $1,200 a month for childcare because of the loss of a subsidy.

Of course, it needn’t be a raise, it might just be a decision to work a bit of overtime. I have written about this before and I will probably have to write about it again. Means-tested aid is a disgrace.

 

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