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How Amazon’s Accounting Makes Rich People’s Income Invisible

By Steve Roth  (originally published at Evonomics)

How Amazon’s Accounting Makes Rich People’s Income Invisible

Image you’re Jeff Bezos, circa 1998. You’re building a company (Amazon) that stands to make you and your compatriots vastly rich.

But looking forward, you see a problem: if your company makes profits, it will have to pay taxes on them. (At least nominally, in theory, 35%!) Then you and your investors will have to pay taxes on them again when they’re distributed to you as dividends. (Though yes, at a far lower 20% rate than what high earners pay on earned income.) Add those two up over many years, and you’re talking tens, hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes.

You’re a very smart guy. How are you going to avoid that?

Simple: don’t show any profits (or, hence, distribute them as dividends). Consistently set prices so you constantly break even. This has at least three effects:

1. You undercut all your competitors’ prices, driving them out of business. Nobody who’s trying to make a profit can possibly compete.

2. You control more and more market share.

3. You build a bigger and bigger business.

Number 3 is how you monetize this, personally. The value of the company (its share price/market cap) rises steadily. Obviously, a business with $136 billion in revenues (2016) is going to be worth more than one with $10 or $50 billion in revenues — even if it never shows a “profit.” You take your profits in capital gains.

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IMF Fiscal Monitor: Progressive Taxation Need Not Deter Growth

IMF Fiscal Monitor: Progressive Taxation Need Not Deter Growth

The latest from the IMF is a must read for progressives even if it runs contrary to the nonsense coming out of the White House:

At the global level, inequality has declined substantially over the past three decades, but within national boundaries, the picture is mixed: some countries have experienced a reduction in inequality while others, particularly advanced economies, have seen a significant increase that has, among other things, contributed to growing public backlash against globalization. Excessive levels of inequality can erode social cohesion, lead to political polarization, and ultimately lower economic growth, but whether inequality is excessive depends on country-specific factors, including the growth context in which inequality arises, along with societal preferences. This Fiscal Monitor focuses on how fiscal policy can help governments address high levels of inequality while minimizing potential trade-offs between efficiency and equity. It documents recent trends in income inequality, including inequality both between and within countries, then examines the redistributive role of fiscal policies over recent decades and underscores the importance of appropriate design to minimize any efficiency costs. It then focuses on some key components of fiscal redistribution: progressivity of income taxation, universal basic income, and public spending policies for achieving more equitable education and health outcomes. The analysis relies on the existing theoretical and empirical literature, IMF work on inequality and fiscal policy, country experiences, and new analytical work, including various static microsimulation analyses based on household survey data. Simulations using a dynamic general equilibrium model calibrated to country-specific data and behavioral parameters illustrate the potential impact of alternative budget-neutral tax and transfer measures on income inequality and economic growth.

(Dan here…see also Yves Smith)

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Does Kevin Hassett Understand Transfer Pricing?

Does Kevin Hassett Understand Transfer Pricing?

Howard Gleckman does:

It is true that bringing US corporate rates in line with our trading partners may reduce incentives for improper transfer pricing. But there is a flaw in Hassett’s argument: While these practices are aimed at reducing tax lability, they do not represent real economic activity. And limiting income shifting won’t significantly increase domestic employment.

He was noting this presentation:

Kevin Hassett, chair of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued today that the corporate tax cuts in the Sept. 27 Republican Unified Framework would boost overall economic growth. How? In large part because its corporate tax rate reductions would encourage firms to shift jobs from overseas to the US. But the claim is unsupported by the evidence. In a speech at the Tax Policy Center today, Hassett said that the GOP plan would not only increase domestic employment but also raise worker wages by an average of $7,000. That is quite a promise, but after unpacking his argument, it seems improbable at best. His claim: Making statutory US corporate tax rates competitive with the rest of the developed world would encourage firms to stop inappropriate transfer pricing, corporate inversions, and other income-shifting practices. Half of the US trade deficit, he said, results from transfer pricing.

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The Times Handles the Trump Tax Cut Framework with Kid Gloves

The Times Handles the Trump Tax Cut Framework with Kid Gloves

There’s been a good bit written about the Trump tax cut framework released just over a week ago.  Most of it points out, as I have here and here, the absurdity of the claims by Trump and GOP spokespeople that this isn’t a tax cut aimed at benefiting the ultra wealthy.  After all, even with few details and no attempt to deal with the really tough issues that would face real tax reform considerations, it is awfully clear that almost everything in the package is designed to make the wealthy even wealthier.

Just a quick review of the way the proposed tax cuts exclusively or primarily benefit the ultra wealthy:

  • elimination of the estate tax, which taxes fewer than 2% of the estates, those that have in excess of $11 million (the couples’ exempt amount) and haven’t used the various trusts and family partnerships to let even more estate value escape tax through valuation gimmicks
    • Not waiting on the tax cut proposal, Trump’s Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin announced in “Second Report to the President on Identifying and Reducing Tax Regulatory Burdens” (Oct. 2, 2017) a current step to let wealthy people continue to use valuation gimmicks to avoid a fair estate tax, through withdrawal of the Obama Administration’s proposed regulation under section 2704 that would disregard the purported restrictions on certain family-controlled entities in setting estate valuations–a regulation clearly merited because of the ridiculous scams of putting assets in family partnerships in order to claim that they are worth 1/3 of their actual value, even though the partnership can be dissolved afterwards with the full value magically returning.  (I’ll deal with the regulatory changes in my next post.)
  • elimination of the AMT, which imposes tax when the taxpayer would otherwise benefit from a surfeit of regular income tax subsidies (loopholes, tax expenditures, deductions, credits).  For a thorough analysis of the AMT, see A Taxing Matter series of 6 posts, beginning here.
  • reduction of the statutory corporate tax rate for the largest corporations from 35% to 20%, which benefits primarily the highly compensated managers (who receive substantial amounts of stock options as part of their compensation) and big shareholders (who tend to be mainly the ultra wealthy who own most of the financial assets) and does little or nothing to help small businesses, that already pay tax rates of 25% or less
  • creation of a single 25% rate for recipients of all business pass-through income (i.e., from partnerships), which benefits almost exclusively the ultra rich, since small business income is already taxed at 25% or less, while wealthy partners in real estate firms would be taxed at the highest individual rate under current law on their pass-through income, and
  • creation of full, upfront expensing, resulting in a non-economic windfall to businesses that will, again, mainly just increase profits passed on to their wealthy owners. (Although this is purportedly a five-year provision, everybody knows that is just a gimmick to pretend that its impact on the deficit is less than would be admitted if it were permanent.  Everybody also knows that the intent is to make it permanent.)

But there are always journalists who try a little too hard to give obviously bad tax ideas a surface claim to reasonableness.  Apparently, even James Stewart, who writes “common sense” entries for the business section of the New York Times, suffers this vulnerability.  See, for example, his “Tax Cuts are Easy, but a Tax Overhaul?  Three Proposals to Make the Math Work,” New York Times (Oct. 6, 2017), at B1 (digitally titled “Tax Reform that doesn’t bust the budget? I’ve got a Few Ideas, Oct 5, 2017).

I like the print title better, since the Trump Plan has clearly already ditched any real idea of “tax reform” for a wholesale attempt at trillions of dollars of tax cuts mostly benefiting the rich.   There are other things that aren’t so good about the article.

1) Stewart calls the Trump giveaway to the rich “the most ambitious attempt at tax reform in over 40 years.”  That’s simply not correct, because it isn’t an attempt at tax reform and it isn’t really ambitious.

  • Ambitious? How can Stewart call a grab-bag of all the old GOP cuts-for-the-rich gimmicks “ambitious.”  Unless he thinks that conning typical Americans who don’t understand much about taxes into thinking that this is a populist tax reform intended to help the middle and lower income classes and not drop more riches on the already rich makes it ‘ambitious’…..
  • Tax reform?  This isn’t tax reform; it’s just a series of tax cuts.  The framework leaves any thinking about tax reform for somebody else to do–which means it really isn’t intended to happen at all.  Later in the article Stewart quotes Holtz-Eakin (right-wing tax cut advocate) and Kevin Brady (same) about the “ambitious” framework.  They’re gung ho.  Brady says it’s ambitious because they are trying to do what the 1986 reform  effort did in several years in only a few months.  Nope–they are not trying to do what the 1986 reform did.  The 1986 reform was a fully bipartisan effort in both the House and Senate, with  Packwood in the Senate and Rostenkowski  in the House leading lengthy hearings and in-depth study of issues, along with a responsible and active Treasury and CBO providing in-depth analysis of impacts.  Trump and the GOP now intend to pass a tax cut for the rich with only GOP support (unless Trump can bully some election-vulnerable Democrats into going along with the travesty).  And they don’t intend the kind of exhaustive study and consideration that would provide real information on who would benefit and who would be hurt.  We’ve already heard that some GOP want to pay an outside (GOP-friendly) consultant to do the “dynamic scoring” and not the CBO, because they want to be sure that it predicts plenty of growth (a number that is easily manipulable, which is why ‘single score dynamic scoring’ is utterly absurd).

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The Tax-Cut Framework Won’t Create Jobs and Digs the Inequality Ditch even Deeper

The Tax-Cut Framework Won’t Create Jobs and Digs the Inequality Ditch even Deeper

Marcus Ryu, a self-described Silicon Valley entrepreneur who created, with others, a company now worth $5 billion on the New York Stock Exchange, argues in today’s Op-Ed section of the New York Times that “Tax Cuts Won’t Create Jobs“, NY Times (Oct. 9, 2017), at A23 (the title in the digital edition is different from the print title:  Why Corporate Tax Cuts Won’t Create Jobs).  He is right.

The tax cuts proposed in the framework set out by the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress claims to be pursuing economic growth that will benefit ordinary people (Trump’s purported base).  These claims are based in part on claims that  U.S. taxpayers (individual, corporate and individual who owns businesses through partnerships) are much more heavily taxed than taxpayers in other advanced countries.  Trump often points to the statutory tax rate for corporations (35%), which is higher than the statutory rate in most other advanced countries. But Trump usually ignores the fact that the vast majority of corporations (including very profitable U.S. multinationals) pay no or much lower taxes, in part because of the many loopholes and deductions that reduce the income that is taxed.  When one considers the nation’s GDP and the percentage of GDP paid in taxes, it is quite clear that the U.S. is actually one of the lowest taxed of developed countries, which often have income taxes, corproate income taxes and value-added taxes (which the U.S. does not have), as well as specialty taxes such as financial transaction taxes (which the U.S. does not have).  See, e.g., Business Insider, Is the U.S. the highest taxed country? (Sept. 6, 2017).

“[T]he most comprehensive measure by which to judge Trump’s claim, combining corporate and individual taxes paid, is tax burden as a percentage of gross domestic product. It compares how much money in a country is put toward taxes with the economic output of the country.  By this measure, the US has the fourth-lowest tax burden of any OECD country, with only South Korea, Chile, and Mexico ranking lower.” [emphasis added]

Trump has claimed that the proposed cuts in the Trump tax-cut “reform” framework don’t benefit the wealthy and don’t benefit him but are for the middle class and those with less wealth and income.  The only way that claim would work would be if tax cuts that are clearly targeted at the rich (elimination of the estate tax, elimination of the AMT, drastic cut in the rate at which wealthy partners pay taxes on partnership income shares, drastic cut in the corporate tax rate  when most of the benefit of tax cuts to corporations is used to pay dividends or do share buybacks for the wealthy managers and shareholders) had such a dramatic impact on overall economic growth and on sharing of the benefit of the tax cuts with ordinary workers that it made up for the fact that almost all of the benefit goes directly to the very wealthy and almost all of the negative impact (via additional borrowing and deficits) will result in fewer benefits from the poor.  That positive balance is so unlikely from these tax-cuts-for-the-rich that they appear to be just another of the many Trump lies intended to mislead the American people.  See, e.g., Business Insider, Trump tax reform plan just got its first brutal review showing how it would benefit the rich and almost no one else (Sept.  2017) (noting that “Americans among the top 1% of earners would see the bulk of the plan’s benefits, while lower- and middle-class Americans — even most upper-class people — would see few benefits,” citing the Tax Policy Center’s study of the framework).

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Part of Patriotism is Paying Taxes

Part of Patriotism is Paying Taxes

As Americans, we pay taxes to allow our government to support important activities that we as individuals or individual businesses either can’t do at all or can’t do as successfully.  Both individuals and businesses benefit from government, so that paying taxes is a wonderful exercise in patriotism.

For individuals, the idea of paying taxes as patriotism may be obvious to many of us, because we think that taxes are an obligation of citizens to support and pay for the many things that the government does that we cannot do ourselves, from running a military defense system to supporting basic research into diseases, helping people and cities and states hit by natural disasters (like Texas and Florida and Puerto Rico), supporting education and research that leads to innovation and economic growth, helping to fund changeovers from dying industries like coal to new and growing industries like solar and wind, preserving areas of public lands for the public rather than allowing them to be decimated by private industry and fossil fuel extraction, preventing huge multinational companies from gouging consumers or polluting our water, land, and air, and the many other things that the government does for the benefit of all Americans.

But the far right in this country has been preaching the opposite for years.

  • There’s a good bit of hypocrisy there, because when Sec. of Health Price (now fired) or current Sec. of Treasury Mnunchin or current EPA Director Scott Pruit wants a comfortable private ride (like Pruitt’s many trips back to Oklahoma to talk to industry magnates one-on-one without any public information, and then de-regulate on their behalf), they love that they can make a slim excuse and take a military jet at the cost of hundreds of thousands of U.S. taxpayer dollars.   Or, like Pruitt, have a “sound-proof room” built for himself (first EPA administrator who thinks he needs it) so he can talk to his industry buddies about how to un-protect the environment without any Americans ever finding out about it.
  • Far right media personalities have made a killing by arguing for tax cuts (that mostly benefit the rich like them) and government shrinkage (of programs that they think they won’t use).
    • Grover Norquist wants taxes to be low because he wants to “shrink the government and drown it in a bathtub.”  That idea has proliferated on the right to many of the programs that are directed to help the most vulnerable amongst us, such as Medicaid, and to programs that exist to help ensure the Americans of all ages and backgrounds enjoy the right to access to health care and decent standard of living in retirement, through Medicare and Social Security. Not surprisingly, Norquist has stated that including a VAT in the U.S. system would be “like shards of glass on a pizza” (see this link) –even though almost every developed country has a VAT as well as an income tax (which is one of the reasons that the comparisons of corporate tax rates is so misleading–it is comparing apples (only an income tax) to oranges (an income tax AND a VAT and usually other taxes as well, such as financial transaction taxes).
    • Rush Limbaugh supports Trump’s tax-cuts-for-the rich ideas.  See “What I was Told About the Trump Tax Plan–and What I Think About It“, The Rush Limbaugh Show (Sept. 28, 2017).  He spouts one falsehood after another about them:  that they are not trickle-down (of course they are), that they aren’t harmful for the poor (of course they are); that they will allow 99% of Americans to file their tax forms on a postcard just because the framework reduces the number of tax rates (absurd:  reducing the number of tax rates  has just about nothing to do with reducing the complexity of the Code for the vast majority of American taxpayers, who already file a simple form because they have mainly wage income that is withheld at the source).  And  no matter how much Rush Limbaugh claims that reducing the corporate tax rate, creating a low tax rate for partnership pass-through income, getting rid of the estate tax and getting rid of the AMT aren’t benefits for the rich (because, he says, Trump has insisted that the changes aren’t supposed to benefit him), the fact is that they are benefits for the rich and the Trump clan clearly will especially benefit, probably to the tune of hundreds of thousands annually and billions upon Trump’s death.  Limbaugh is quite simply just plain wrong.  Because, you see, although rates matter (and we should have a top tax rate much HIGHER than our current top tax rates), the changes that the GOP Six are proposing in the framework are specifically intended to, and do, provide enormous tax cuts to the ultra wealthy.  That’s because the marginal statutory rate is just one piece–the real question is what gets taxed, i.e., how is the “taxable income” amount calculated and what special loopholes are built in to benefit the rich (like the 25% partnership pass-through rate).

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Right Wing Propaganda Tank IPI Likes the Trump Tax-Cuts-for-the-Rich “framework”

Right Wing Propaganda Tank IPI Likes the Trump Tax-Cuts-for-the-Rich “framework”

There’s no surprise here.  The Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) is a right-wing “think” (i.e., propaganda) tank that has consistently argued for tax policies that favor multinational corporations and the wealthy.  So IPI has a posting on Sept 29 that is supportive of the so-called “tax reform framework” put out by the Trump administration.

As an earlier post noted here, the Trump framework is a wish list for the wealthy, providing one tax cut for the ultra rich after another:

  • elimination of the estate tax (that only affects the heirs of estates worth more than $11 million);
  • territoriality (that advantages multinational corporations that actually operate from the U.S. but claim headquarters in low-tax jurisdictions);
  • a flat 25% rate on “pass-through income” that gives almost a 15% rate cut to wealthy owners of partnerships in the real estate, joint venture, oil and gas and other businesses (and affects very few true small business owners whose effective tax rate is already no more than 25%, if that much);
  • elimination of the top rates on the progressive individual rate structure (reducing the top rate from 39.6% to 35% (or less));
  • reducing the statutory rate for corporations to a low 20%, when corporations already pay much much less in taxes than they have generally paid under the income tax system while making record profits and paying their key managerial personnel the kind of salaries and percs that have exacerbated the increasing income inequality gap in the U.S.;
  • elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), a provision that was enacted to ensure that wealthy taxpayers are not able to use so many loopholes and special provisions that they escape taxation altogether on their income (the elimination of the AMT being a pro-wealthy tax cut that ordinary folk in the lower two-thirds of the income distribution will benefit not one whit from); and
  • permitting immediate expensing for five years of equipment and similar expenditures by businesses (another provision that will allow mega corporations to make even more profits that can be shared–through bonuses, higher salaries, and share buybacks with the wealthy managers and shareholders of the enterprise and a provision that runs explicitly counter to the actual economics of the business, in which new equipment stays at close to original value in the early years with wear and tear actually economically backloaded onto the last years of the useful life).

As a result of these provisions, the wealthy who own the vast majority of financial assets (including stock in corporations and partnership interests in real estate and other partnerships) will enjoy hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax cuts.  In fact, the major portion of the tax cuts will go to the very wealthy who need them least.

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Trump’s Inadequate Response to Hurricane Maria and the Posse Comitatus Act

by ProGrowthLiberal  (originally published at Econospeak)

Trump’s Inadequate Response to Hurricane Maria and the Posse Comitatus Act

Credit to Matthew Yglesias for his discussion of the incompetence of Donald Trump as well as the excuses for it from his defenders including:

Officials have also cited the Posse Comitatus Act as a complicating factor that helps explain why Trump was so much slower to dispatch assistance to Puerto Rico than the Obama administration was to send help to Haiti after it was devastated by an earthquake in 2010.

Except this 1878 Congressional Act does not bar the President from calling in the military as Michael Spak and Donald Spak note:

Before 1878, it was common for the United States Army to enforce civilian laws. In frontier territories, the army was often the only source of law enforcement, supplemented by occasional U.S. Marshals. Over time, marshals and county sheriffs regularly called upon the army to assist in enforcing the laws… By the time of the 1876 presidential election, Southern states were reconstituted. Many Southerners opposed both Grant, the outgoing Republican president, and Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican presidential candidate. Federal troops actively assisted U.S. Marshals in patrolling and monitoring polling places in the South, claiming to be enforcing the federal election laws and preventing former Confederate officers from voting (as was the law at that time). Following bitter election contests in four Southern states, Hayes won the presidency by one electoral vote. Many felt that the federal troops, which supported Hayes and the Reconstructionist Republican candidates for Congress, intimidated Southerners who would have voted for Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate. The resulting Democratic Congress was at odds with the Republican President Hayes. In response to what was seen as undue influence over the 1876 election, Congress outlawed the practice of posse comitatus by enacting the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA) (as 20 Stat. 152) as a rider to the Army Appropriation Act for 1880. The act stated: “Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.” Congressional debates indicate that the PCA was intended to stop army troops from answering the call of a marshal to perform direct law enforcement duties and aid in execution of the law. Further legislative history indicates that the more immediate objective was to put an end to the use of federal troops to police elections in ex-Confederate states where civil power had been reestablished.

In other words, this PCA is an outdated piece of legislation. But there’s more:

Others suggest the act is obsolete and should be repealed because numerous legislative exemptions have eroded the underlying policy and left the PCA a hollow shell. Others insist that although there are many exceptions, the act is essential to bar misuse of the military by civilian authorities and to prevent a military dictatorship from assuming control of the nation through use of the armed forces. Still others argue that the act means only that federal military forces may not be commandeered by civilian authorities for use in active and direct law enforcement as a posse comitatus. If local authorities need military personnel for specialized operations enforcing state laws, it is argued, they may call on the state governor for the assistance of the state National Guard.

There are many exceptions and no one would think giving aid in a time of need endangers either military dictatorship or the misuse of the military by civilian authorities. This pathetic excuse from Team Trump is just another example of how he turns everything into a culture war.

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Jon Chait and Alex Pareene

Lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts:

Jon Chait and Alex Pareene

I have a Jon Chait problem. I generally agree with him on most issues. I find him very provocative. I am very sure that no one cares about my opinion about Chait’s latest post. That includes me. I don’t want to waste time thinking about the exactly how far I agree with him. But here I am.

I also have a vaguely favorable view of Alex Pareene, but don’t read him much. I was very entertained by his mild mannered amused Phillipic on Chait “You Are Jonathan Chait’s Enemy”.

There is one marginally interesting sub-topic. It appears that Pareene and Chait can’t both be right, but I am confident they are.

Pareene wrote “I say “you” because his conception of the left almost certainly includes you. … He means basically anyone to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996. ” Chait wrote ” (I allegedly oppose “basically anyone to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996,” which is odd, because I was to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996, and still am.)”

I see no contradiction. I think Chait was to the left of Clinton in 1996 and also that he considers anyone who goes out of her way to note that she is to the left of Clinton’s positions as of 1996 to be a dangerous lefty. So the “basically” is a vague hint at “who is to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996 and says so even when not accused of being as far right as Bill Clinton in 1996”.

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Trump’s Refusal to Release His Own Tax Returns and California’s Legislature

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