Thursday, August 31, 2017

Talk on my literature book and its E.M. Forster chapter

This Tuesday, hard on the heels of my international tax talk at USF Law School the previous day, I gave a talk at U.C. Hastings College of Law on my literature book in general, and its chapter on E.M. Forster's Howards End in particular.

Slides for the talk are available here.

Talk on inversions and corporate residence

This past Monday, I gave a talk at USF Law School entitled "Inversions and the Legal Fiction of Corporate Residence." Details about the event are available here.

My slides for the talk are available here.

Is it "populist" to cut taxes for Wall Street?

To call corporate tax cuts "populist" really achieves a new level in rhetorical depravity.

It's true that lowering the tax rate on inbound investment (including that which might otherwise be outbound without facing the domestic rate) should increase U.S. investment, all else equal, presumably with positive implications for wages and/or jobs.  Although, that said, two important points to keep in mind are:

(1) the labor market is complicated, and it's not a simple question how employment levels end up being set.

(2) the link between productivity and wages also is complicated.  It used to be more or less assumed that, if labor productivity increased, including due to added capital investment, wages were bound to go up, too.  But data from the last twenty years have cast doubt on this, as "capital" rather than "labor" - although the standard use of these terms may be questioned - has seemed to capture nearly all of the productivity growth.  One really has to look closely at how markets operate, how wages are set, who has market power and in what dimensions, and so forth, in order to answer that.

So, even in the best case, calling tax cuts for Wall Street a shot in the arm for American workers is simplistic and questionable, even though it's surely true, all else equal, that we would like U.S. investment to increase and that lower effective tax rates on business investment should tend to accomplish this.

But then we have further aspects to think about.  For example, the transition gain from cutting corporate taxes (or, more precisely, from a change in information regarding the likely future tax rate on corporate investment) goes to existing shareholders.  Note also that the lower tax rate applies to the fruits of old investment, which are no longer subject to choice based on new incentives.  (On the other hand, it is true that Auerbach-Kotlikoff models find a loss to old investment when new investment increases due to a cut in its effective tax rate.)

Also, unfunded tax cuts that the government has to finance through borrowing may lead to crowd-out of new investment.  So even the basic simple model in which investment increases so workers gain will not clearly hold.  And if you fund the rate cuts - however unlikely that might be in terms of the tax changes that the Republicans are seeking - then someone or something has to pay for it.  So middle class taxpayers (and poor people who get reduced services) will have to pay - since it's not going to be the high-income ones, with this crew - and/or there have to be offsetting tax increases on investment (although there is the same issue here of new vs. old investment) that might blunt the incentive effects right from the start.

Final answer: These are complicated issues, so if you want to respect all nuance there is no clear answer to exactly who wins and loses from cutting taxes from Wall Street.  And it also of course depends on the package's full details.  But if I were forced to give an unnuanced short answer, I would say that the initial optics are probably the best short summary: cutting taxes for Wall Street benefits Wall Street.  If that's populist, then it's clear the term has been substantially redefined.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Off to the West Coast, then back again, then Berlin/Vienna, then back again

I'll be giving a talk at USF Law School on Monday (8/28) regarding inversions and corporate residence, and will probably post slides here afterwards.

Then on Tuesday 8/29 I'll give a talk to the Hastings Law School faculty regarding my literature book and its chapter on E.M. Forster's Howards End. While that's not a public event and I won't be posting slides during the talk, I wrote slides to use as my own lecture notes and may post them afterwards.

Then back to NYC on Wednesday 8/30. I'll be blissfully detached from the start of the new semester, as I'm on sabbatical this fall. On September 18 I'll start 3 weeks at NYU Berlin, mainly just doing my own work while there. I'll fly to Amsterdam for a day to do a tax panel there for CEOs and such, and also to Ljubljana for the weekend at one point for purely touristic reasons, and then I'll spend a week teaching or really more discussing international tax policy with Vienna University's excellent DIBT graduate students. Then back home for a while.

I may actually complete my literature book this fall - the trick that makes this possible is my dividing it into two separate books so it wouldn't be unduly long. The first book ends with the late Gilded Age, and with all the horrors of the twentieth century that eased high-end inequality (World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and then more benignly the continuation) still looming around the corner but as yet out of sight. Before starting Book 2, which carries us through to the present, I will probably write an international tax policy article. Rather than just rehashing past things I've said in the past, I do have a couple of relatively novel ideas that I might tackle in this.  One concerns thinking about the welter of inconsistent policies that arguably underlie the current U.S. system - when they must be used, e.g., to define (whether legislatively, administratively, or judicially) "abuses" that are counter to its "policy" - and the other, all the recent hoodoo about shifting entirely from origin basis to destination basis.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Harry Grubert tributes

The National Tax Association has posted a compendium here.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Say it and get out?

Despite my most recent blog post on music, not everything I listen to was released before some of my readers were even born. Indeed, my playing roster - which these days is more a function of Spotify than my CD collection - includes material from each decade since the 1950s, admittedly with a particular focus on the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s. (Less from the 1980s and 2010s.)

And while I don't listen to music at home as much as I used to (or at work at all - whereas I wrote my college senior thesis to the sound of Marquee Moon and Elvis Costello), my needing to cope with the extreme boredom of health club elliptical machine sessions means that I am always on the lookout for things that I would like to listen to. These include, not just new things, but also old favorites that I haven't played for a while.  So there's a cycle of rediscovery that I try to keep going, although new fare is needed or else it will tend to run down.

Anyway, the last couple of days I've been listening to Lily Allen's two fine albums from the 2000s, which I hadn't played for quite a few years. She released them and then announced that she was quitting the music biz - although she's been back since with lesser impact culturally, artistically, and commercially.

Her retirement surprised me at the time, but in retrospect I understand it. Her methodology as a songwriter on those two albums seems to have involved her adopting a very clear topic and point of view for each song.  In effect, they were short stories, essays, or character studies, and you could almost imagine her having had a topic sentence in mind for each before she started writing it. It doesn't feel as if she started each song with a riff, like Keef or something - although the melodies and hooks are often quite strong.

Sometimes the pitch sentence seems to have been thematic - e.g., addiction, consumerism, George W. Bush, or young single women living unsatisfying lives - but often it involved drawing a picture of a particular person. These included her father, grandmother, brother, and apparently a rogue's gallery of mainly disappointing boyfriends. (Important message: be very careful if you date a songwriter.) It's plausible that she simply ran out of good material, in addition to entering a life stage where slagging those around her (often an artistically promising approach) would grow increasingly costly.

"If you can't keep it up at the same level, quit" can be good advice aesthetically, but it's not always an optimizing strategy in career terms. It brings to mind an issue that we academics can face. If you spend enough years writing about a bunch of things, you can reach the point where you no longer have a lot to say that's as important or as interesting (to yourself as well as others) as what you said before. Of course, you can always keep on saying the same thing again and again (especially if you feel that a point you've discussed remains underappreciated), but this faces diminishing returns.

A lot of us in the biz have dealt with this issue in different ways. A key one for me, although also for some others whom I know, is to try decidedly new things. I've been happy with that approach on my current literature project (more on this shortly, perhaps), but it certainly can be an audience risk.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Correcting Krugman's latest column

In re. today’s Krugman column comparing Trump to Caligula:

“Never mind tax reform [enacting regressive tax cuts]. Congress has to act within the next few weeks to enact a budget, or the government will shut down; to raise the debt ceiling, or the U.S. will go into default; to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or millions of children will lose coverage.”

As noted yesterday, I don't think the Republicans' tax plans merit being called "tax reform" - especially by those who oppose them. It's analytically misleading. And while the mislabeling is within normal rhetorical bounds for the tax plans' supporters, opponents should feel strongly motivated to reject the labeling.

So here's hoping that Krugman, among others, will stop using the term "tax reform" to describe the Republicans' tax plans.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"We Can Work It Out"

I've been ruminating lately about the above-named Beatles song, perhaps in part because we're at a time and in a place where things do not seem working out for our country or the world, on many levels, but also due to its own extraordinary merits, beauty, and pathos - despite its surface optimism - as a song.

There's a longstanding genre of popular songs in which the character played by the singer conspicuously doesn't get it, adding irony and pathos to his or her romantic plight. To name two examples from songs covered by the Beatles, in "Please, Mr. Postman" we know perfectly well that it isn't the postman's fault no letters are arriving from the loved one. The singer is deflecting his (or in the Marvelettes' original version her) anxiety away from the real source of the problem.

Likewise, in "Slow Down," the woman who's "moving way too fast," and who needs to "gimme a little loving ... if you want our love to last," plainly doesn't want it to last. She's got a "boyfriend down the street," after all. So the singer is petitioning her in vain, and misdiagnosing the problem because it's less painful than admitting straight up that she has dumped him.

"We Can Work It Out" is a subtler, less overt version of this self-deceiving narrator motif. The song (mainly written by McCartney) opens mid-argument - we don't hear what the argument is actually about - with the singer insisting that his girlfriend see it "my way," not hers. "Do I have to keep on talking till I can't go on?"

This is not generally a good way of bridging disagreements:  You don't say to the other person: "your way" is wrong, stop exasperating me. And for that matter, the singer openly admits that "my way" offers no guarantees. They will either "get it straight or say good night," and "only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong."

So you get the infectious optimism of the singer's insistence that "we can work it out" - conveyed also by the vocal performance, yet undercut by the realization that they probably won't work it out, that he is approaching it the wrong way - without adequate sympathy, flexibility, or understanding - and that he pretty much realizes where they're likely headed, even as this remains the best he can do to try to head it off.

One of the song's widely noted merits is the back-and-forth between McCartney's verses, which I've been quoting so far, and Lennon's terse middle-eight ("Life is very short and there's no time / For fussing and fighting my friend"). That section provides a great change of pace and musical contrast, but it's not really pessimism undercutting optimism, so much as weariness and impatience undercutting the pretense of optimism. And the slowdown at its end into 3/4 time as they head back to the verse ("So I will ask you once again ...") adds to the sense of impatience, impending failure, and just being stuck.

"We can work it out / We can work it out," the song ends - the singer radiating enthusiasm that is clearly just a thin shell masking anxiety - followed by a striking minor-key chord run on the harmonium that's held for a few seconds.

Be it good or bad, let's stop calling it "tax reform"

The media pervasively uses the term "tax reform" to describe the income tax changes that the Republicans are seeking.  And it pervasively compares these changes to 1986 tax reform. This should stop.

My reason for saying this is not just rhetorical - it's about using terms meaningfully to convey information. But I'll admit that the rhetorical aspect matters here. "Tax reform" sounds like it's a good thing. I happen to think that any tax changes that the Republican Congress passes and Trump signs will be horrendously bad - increasing the fiscal gap, hugely benefiting the top 0.1% at the expense of everyone else, and very possibly un-leveling the playing field (e.g., in favor of "business owners" at the expense of "employees"). But there's more than just rhetoric going on here - there's an implicit descriptive claim that appears to be false.

Historically, one thing that "tax reform" has meant is indeed "changes that I, the proponent, think are good." So by definition anyone who wants to change the tax laws is proposing "tax reform," and anyone who opposes those changes doesn't think that they constitute "tax reform."

But historically it has long had a more specific meaning than that, as I discussed in my 5/25/11 Tax Notes article, "1986-Style Tax Reform: A Good Idea Whose Time Has Passed." And the Republican plans aren't sufficiently well-related to this idea in order to be called "tax reform," other than in the "we think it's good, even if you think it's bad" sense.

From at least the 1950s through the early 1980s, "tax reform" tended to mean repealing income tax preferences, and broadening the tax base, so that the tax would become more progressive, with the high statutory rates at top income levels coming closer to be true effective rates.

Thus, for example, the Reagan changes in 1981 - mainly, greatly reducing income tax rates and speeding up cost recovery for business assets - weren't called "tax reform." Obviously, the proponents thought that these were good changes, but they didn't use a label that they knew meant something else.

Then the meaning of "tax reform" changed. A key moment was the introduction of Bradley-Gephardt by two Democrats, followed by Kemp-Kasten by two Republicans. The Reagan Administration Treasury I and Treasury II plans, followed by House and Senate bills that gave rise to the enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, cemented the new meaning.

Now "tax reform" meant broadening the base and lowering the rates, with the aim of being both revenue-neutral and distribution-neutral. So it was no longer about increasing progressivity, but it also wasn't about reducing it.

Whether or not this is a good model, it is what the term "tax reform" has generally meant for more than 30 years. (In the above-cited article, I argue that it's no longer a good model for how we should change the tax laws.) The line of argument for it, which is pretty compelling if one agrees that the "preferences" it would eliminate are bad, relies (perhaps naively) on horizontal equity between taxpayers along with inter-asset neutrality. The underlying political economy theory holds that stuff Congress put in that diverges from taxing all income the same is likely to reflect interest group politics, administrative problems, or something else other than good policymaking.

More recent Republican-led "tax reform" efforts have often aimed at something quite different: reducing not only tax rates but progressivity and net revenue. Not always - Dave Camp's international tax reform plan when he was House Ways and Means chair tried to do something akin to "tax reform" as typically defined. And Mitt Romney in 2012 at least gestured towards revenue and distributional neutrality, although he was rightly criticized because that was not realistically achievable under his parameters (which he had deliberately left vague).

Now, however, Republicans in both the Administration and Capital Hill are pretty clearly - although there is occasional lying about it - aiming to reduce business taxation, reduce progressivity, and reduce revenues. Reducing tax rates is now the main feature, rather than one of two paired features. There may be some offsetting items that at least arguably constitute base-broadening, but they will be greatly outweighed by the rest of it.

This also, notoriously, will no longer be a bipartisan process. The idea of being revenue-neutral and distribution-neutral was crucial to the once-bipartisan character of "tax reform." In effect, the Democrats and Republicans said to each other: "Since we disagree about distribution and revenue levels, let's take all that off the table and find things about which we can agree." One reason that the likes of McConnell are so vehement about excluding Democrats from the process is that it would push them towards retaining those features, which they now oppose.

BTW, just as an aside, in the academic community the chief focus of discussion and interest has long since moved past 1986-style exercises. When we talk about tax reform, we are usually focused (whether pro or con) on (a) partially or wholly switching from income taxation to consumption taxation, and/or (b) finding more neutral ways to tax business income, be it domestically or internationally. This often proceeds under the view that revenue and/or distributional neutrality should be a key feature of the switch, so as to keep the main focus on the structural issues.

Okay, back to the bottom line. The term "tax reform" has come to have a clear historical meaning, beyond simply "we think this is good," based on attributes that emerging Republican proposals in Washington are certain to lack. So let's drop any pretense that the term is properly descriptive, other than in the sense that the proponents of course are arguing that their proposals are good.

And let's drop the analogy to 1986, which involved a very different set of changes, adopted in a very different era through a very different process. It's not illuminating here.

Friday, August 11, 2017

In memory of Harry Grubert

I am sad to pass on the news that Harry Grubert, longtime Senior Research Economist in the Office of Tax Analysis at the U.S. Department of  the Treasury, and also a friend I greatly admired, has died quietly from a long-term illness.

Harry had more knowledge about U.S. international taxation than any other living individual. I'm not referring to legal knowledge, of course, as he was an economist - albeit, an exceptionally well-informed one about the law. But his long years of research and study regarding U.S. multinational firms, based on tax data that he understood better than anyone else, made him an extraordinary resource, almost like a public utility in light of his kind generosity and willingness to share what he knew.

He was also a leading scholar who developed a number of interesting and important international tax reform ideas (often in coauthored work with Rosanne Altshuler), and one whose research yielded innumerable consequential empirical findings - for example, regarding the costs associated with U.S. multinationals keeping their funds tied up abroad.

I would generally see him a couple of times a year at research conferences, most recently in Oxford this past May. And he was a presenter at the NYU Tax Policy Colloquium, I believe three times. We wouldn't have kept asking him back if he hadn't combined excellent and important papers with being a great presenter and fount of knowledge as well as wisdom.

As a matter of style, Harry was a fox, not a hedgehog - he knew many things (and I do mean many), rather than being inclined to focus on one big thing. If you'd ask him, say, about Rule or Proposal X's effects, he'd say: Here are the 17 margins at which it has an impact. He could even snap at the hedgehogs a bit, when the mood took him (suitably to the metaphor, I suppose). But his kindness and generosity always prevailed, with all who engaged with him.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Possibly near the end

Buddy, age 14 and a member of our household since he was 10 months old, is not looking good - this photo perhaps fails to capture the full dinginess and fatigue that you can see on him in person - and evidently is not feeling good. He just sits like this in one place all day, sometimes a sheltered place. He has multiple progressing medical conditions, including a tumor, a heart murmur, and most recently diabetes. We're not certain yet, but it appears today that he may have decided to stop eating.

Until recently he'd been sick only once in the entire time that we have had him. Energetic (one of the great escape artists of his generation), easygoing (albeit manically energetic as a kitten), and unfailingly benign in temperament, he has been a great companion for a very long time. He likes (liked?) to lick people he knows on the nose. It hurts to see him like this.

The vet will see him tomorrow, and perhaps we'll know more then.

UPDATE (8/6/17) - He's eating small quantities of things that are very fragrant and appealing (e.g., bonito flakes). The vet thinks the cancer may have spread to his lymph nodes; gives him a week or two. We're trying to keep him as happy and comfortable as possible in the interim.

UPDATE (8/14/17) - Buddy died tonight, hopefully without much pain. Tapped out about what to say, but a great cat who had I think a good life.