Monday, September 30, 2013

NYU Law Magazine feature on the NYU Tax Program

The latest edition of the NYU Law Magazine has a feature about our tax program, in which a number of members of our tax faculty, including me, are featured and quoted.  Hurrah (from a selfish standpoint) for the shout-outs to my forthcoming book on U.S. international taxation, as well as to Getting It, my "satirical 2010 novel with a young, morally challenged litigator as a protagonist."  The feature also includes a photo of me that was taken during the very brief period when I had a beard.  (I now shudder a bit at seeing this, but the fault is my own as I didn't shave it off for the photo shoot.)

Probable government shutdown, with possible debt default to come

Some people I know are glad (all things considered) about the apparently pending government shutdown - not that they actually want it, but simply because, if something bad is bound to happen, a debt default would be even worse.  If it's one or the other - shutdown or default - they are certainly right about this.  But that's not to say that we won't end up with both.

If it does come down to a debt default, I am glad to see that the Neil Buchanan-Michael Dorf argument, to the effect that issuing debt above the ceiling would be less illegal than any of the other options President Obama would have (such as declining to spend appropriated funds) is catching on, such as in today's New York Times op-ed by Henry Aaron.  Legally speaking, the Buchanan-Dorf analysis strikes me as plausible enough.  (Given the lack of clear criteria for defining "correct" legal answers in advance, there often really is no answer until something emerges through the actual legal process, unpredictably even if in the end authoritatively.)  And their approach not only is much less goofy than issuing a platinum coin, but strikes me as more circumspect than a Fourteenth Amendment-based approach.  Moreover, while the Obama Administration certainly should not suggest in advance that it would breach the debt ceiling, doing so on the back end might make sense, perhaps as chaos increasingly loomed and after having demonstrated that a selective payment approach was unfeasible.

But the "least illegal course" approach raises an empirical question that cannot be tested in advance, to the effect of how the markets would actually react to debt issuance that contravened the ceiling.  House Republicans would no doubt be doing their best to create financial market havoc, by shouting that the debt was legally invalid.  And while the debt no doubt would eventually be honored (whether via judicial decision or Congressional action), things could get ugly in the meantime, and leave the U.S. with a permanently stained fiscal reputation.

Even if the this fall's contrived crises play out relatively well, however, we are still on a "Breaking Bad" path as a country. (Yes, I spent the entire late summer through last night enraptured by the show, although, pending re-viewing, I found the final episode perhaps a bit too neat.)  Especially in a non-parliamentary system with multiple veto-like choke points, it's hard to survive having a sizable and powerful group - maybe 20 percent of registered voters, but a primary-day voting majority in one of the parties - that would rather blow up everything than not get its own way.  This is potentially at least as dangerous as domestic terrorism, and perhaps more so.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Injury update

For those who happen to be interested, herewith the continuing saga of my right knee ACL tear.  After suffering the injury just under 5 months ago, I was initially convinced that surgery would be necessary unless I was ready to give up on a lot of physical activity, including in particular tennis.  However, travel plans put surgery out of reach for the next two months, and then I decided not to ruin my summer by spending the rest of it in bed with painkillers and then on crutches.  What with my fall teaching schedule, this meant that I couldn't have the surgery before early December.  So, like Matt Harvey of the Mets, I decided to give rehab a shot.

I've taken the rehab pretty seriously, and the knee has just kept on getting stronger.  ACLs don't fix themselves, any more than rubber bands do.  But, while the ACL is the chief stabilizing instrument in the knee, serving to prevent dislocation and cartilage tearing from the stress of sudden lateral movements, there is a degree of redundancy built into the knee's design.  So in principle you don't need it if everything else is strong enough.

In the early days, even rushing to cross the street and going upstairs were dangerous activities, to be done with great care if at all.  Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, massive swelling in the knee strongly discouraged even just walking for any significant distance.  But by late July I had progressed to the point that my physical therapist suggested that I try hitting tennis balls (with a big and bulky knee brace for protection).  The first time I tried this, in late August, I could generate racquet speed but scarcely move at all for balls or even hit a serve.

Each time got better, though, and by this week I was ready for actual tennis matches, albeit just for an hour and with a firm resolve not to do anything foolish (such as running hard for a drop shot - but that still feels unthinkable anyway). I've now played twice, and I'd say that I'm at "80 percent" except that I'm not sure what that actually means.  (Even if we can define the denominator, what exactly are we measuring in the numerator?)  It's clear that I have to adjust my style a bit - for example, shorten the points, work on some of my trick shots such as topspin lobs, and make really sure to hit the ball deep.  But it seems as if I can actually do it, at least pending the next injury (which might be something entirely different).

I had been planning to go this November to see one of the three surgeons I consulted early on, the one whom I had decided was the best fit.  The idea was to discuss whether or not the case for surgery was strong enough.  But at this point I think it would take a fresh injury or aggravation to bring me there.

Washington doldrums

Not much substantive posting here lately, I realize.  But as I stay busy teaching my fall class (which I try to rethink to a degree each time), while also working on various small-bore writing projects (e.g., short piece on the "economics of tax law" for an Oxford U. Press volume, and various talks and conference appearances to prepare for), there really hasn't been much going on in Washington that I find both interesting and within my bailiwick.

It has become truly boring to treat fundamental tax reform as if it remained an actual live topic.  As for the government shutdown and debt ceiling fights, while they're important, what new is there really to say about them?  Extortion and recklessness aren't pretty, but we already knew that.  And it is rather startling how hysterical some people get about the Affordable Care Act.  Whatever your bottom line about it, a sane person who is well-informed simply cannot view it so dramatically as many do on the right.  I mean, Medicare is a vastly bigger and far more "big government"-style program that would raise much larger philosophical, as well as constitutional, issues, if we really were determined to re-fight the 1930s through the 1960s.  This is just a Heritage-designed patch on problems with the private insurance system that are hard to ignore once one agrees that hospitals must offer emergency treatment.  (Getting rid of mandatory ER treatment was indeed the solution that Justice Scalia suggested in oral argument.)  But symbolic politics trumps all else.

The Supreme Court's DOMA decision was certainly both welcome and significant, and the IRS appears to be doing a good initial job of fleshing out what it means.  I might have posted on it had I been teaching it in my Tax I class right away, but as it happens we won't be getting to marriage and household issues for some weeks yet.  Plus others, such as Pat Cain, are more up on the implementation details that really matter.  And anyway I haven't generally envisioned this as a comprehensive current events blog.  For that I check Tax Prof like everyone else, although (like many others) I could certainly do without "The IRS Scandal, Day 3732."

Anyway, enough random observations for now.  I'll try to get back to more regular substantive posting.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Solving a binomial equation

1) Nice nephew + nice uncle = nice family.

2) Letting Walt keep $10 million + keeping Jesse alive = nice.

The answers to Equation 1, of course, are Todd and Uncle Jack.

Just kidding about that (obviously), but I am certainly on the edge of my seat as Breaking Bad winds up, or winds down.  The only thing is, it's not ideal as pre-bedtime viewing when you need to teach a class the next day.  I want to watch the last episode (Ozymandias) again, but can't see facing up to it until this weekend, when I can view it earlier in the day.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Washington D.C. talk on corporate and international tax reform

Yesterday I Acela'd from New York to Washington D.C. and back again, so that I could spend most of my working day at a conference, held on Capital Hill in the Rayburn House Office Building, entitled The Federal Income Tax at 100: How Did We Get Here and Where Should We Go Next? A Forum of Tax Policy Experts and Tax Policy Makers.

My mission at the conference was to give a 15-minute talk on corporate and international tax reform.  In the intro for our panel (which discussed reform options within the existing federal income tax generally), the moderator expressed the hope that we would point the way forward, assuming that more dramatic reform options (discussed by the preceding panel) were unavailable.  But my talk focused instead on why it is so hard to specify the best way forward on corporate and international tax reform, even in the absence of political obstacles.   A PDF version of the slides that I used as detailed lecture notes / outline, though I ended up not projecting them, is available here.

As the saying goes, it's always better to leave the audience wanting more than wishing you would finish already.  In that spirit, the last text box on the last slide is pretty much a shout-out for my forthcoming Oxford .U. Press book, Fixing U.S. International Taxation.