by Linda Beale
A quote from Amartya Sen, and my New Year’s Tax Resolutions (for Congress and the Obama Administration)
The time between December 30 and January 4 seems to be filled with lists. Along with the ever-present list of “to dos” that haven’t been done and still are hanging around waiting for our attention, there are everyone’s “10 best” lists (e.g., the ten best movies–regretably, I don’t think I saw ten new movies in 2009, so can only say I thought Slumdog was a decent showing) or their opposite (e.g., the ten worst celebrities of the year, every one of them with Tiger Woods and Gov. Sanford firmly placed near the top). And of course there are those New Year’s resolutions that we are supposed to deliberate over and then deliver on when the New Year rolls around–mine is to join my hubby in his morning walk and to give up doughnuts completely.
Not being one to gather quotes all year just for this final celebration, here’s one quote that I believe is worth thinking about as we head into the new year. Amartya Sen writes, in “The Idea of Justice” (Belknap Press 2009), at 32:
Being smarter may help the understanding not only of one’s self-interest, but also how the lives of others can be strongly affected by one’s own actions. Proponents of so-called ‘Rational Choice Theory’ (first proposed in economics and then enthusiastically adopted by a number of political and legal thinkers) have tried hard to make us accept the peculiar understanding that rational choice consists only in clever promotion of self-interest (which is how, oddly enough, ‘rational choice’ is defined by the proponents of brand-named ‘rational choice theory’). Nevertheless, our heads have not all been colonized by that remarkably alienating belief. There is considerable resistance to the idea that it must be patently irrational–and stupid–to try to do anything for others except to the extent that doing good to others would enhance one’s own well-being.”
In light of Sen’s helpful clarity about the ridiculousness of ‘rational choice theory’, I also offer the following as the resolutions that I wish Congress and the Obama administration (and/or various administrative agencies thereof) would make (and follow through on) for this new year of 2010.
1) The Treasury should resolve that it will no longer provide special dispensation to the financial institution powers that be, such as its invalid notice indicating that it would not enforce the law on loss corporations for too-big-to-fail banks, thus allowing too-big-to-fail banks to become even bigger by buying loss banks, and then allowing them to use those losses in direct contravention of the law and avoid paying income tax for years (or perhaps decades). A similar “notice” went out recently–Notice 2010-12–stating that Treasury will continue to fail to enforce the rules under section 956 regarding what constitutes an obligation and hence relieving US shareholders of controlled foreign corporations ( many of them possibly the same too-big-to-fail banks) of further US taxpaying obligations. (This notice continued the nonenforcement decision Treasury had made in 2008, in Notice 2008-91. Too bad decisions do not make a good decision.)
2) The Supreme Court should resolve to deal with the problem of financial institutions claiming patent protection for all kinds of financial software and financial engineering “solutions” and for others claiming patent protection for tax planning strategies by releasing a decision in the Bilski case that clarifies the “abstract idea” exception. The Court should say that no patent can be granted for innovations that merely utilize the positive laws to assert that a transaction carried out in a particular way will have a particular legal result, or for other methods of conducting transactions or of organizing human activity that do not involve the technological arts, as understood under European patent law.
3) Congress should resolve to end the preferential treatment of those few Americans who own most of the financial assets of the country by ending the capital gains preference.
4) Congress should resolve to eliminate the preferential tax treatment of the earned income of hedge fund and equity fund managers (the so-called “carried interest”), and any other “partners” that manage partnerships and earn a share of the partnership’s gains as their compensation (such as real estate partnerships).
5) In order to restore some sort of balance between worker and employer, Congress should eliminate the business deduction for any compensation in excess of 20 times the average salary (about $1 million). The cap on compensation deduction to apply to compensation in any form (stock, assets, cash), whether or not “performance related”.
6) In order to treat the gifts of ordinary Americans to charities of their choice the same as the gifts of multi-millionaires to charities of their choice, Congress should repeal the special rule that permits a charitable contribution deduction for the value of stocks rather than the investment basis in the stocks. Will that limit contributions that are made? Perhaps, though it is clear that contributors do so for many reasons and not merely for the contribution deduction.
7) Congress should resolve to resolve the estate tax situation once and for all, before some do-nothing heir-to-be decides that 2010 is the right time for the wealthy person in his life to go. Congress should enact a modest exemption of $2 million but should make the estate tax rates progressive (beginning at2009s 45%, but moving up to at least 65% for the largest estates).
8) Congress should resolve to revisit the tax brackets. We have an economy in which the average income is around $50,000, but there are individuals who make more than $500 million a year. That spread is so large that it cannot be adequately addressed by brackets that focuse on the first $350,000 or so. Those who make $200 million a year have incredibly more freedom of choice, and the few dollars they pay in taxes are merely peanuts compared to the precious funds from an average family. We need to make the income tax more progressive by adding additional rate brackets–perhaps as many as 3 or 4 more. That would still be a far cry from the income tax system before Reagan took office, when we had top rates more than double today’s top rates. But it would address the dire fiscal need of the country in a way that is doable without creating undue suffering.
9) Congress and Treasury should resolve to clean up the partnership tax rules so that they do not offer such extraordinary flexibility to partners to arrange their affairs to avoid taxation–for example, by eliminating the electivity permitted to partners in many places in the rules (make the remedial method the only method allowed for taking into account book-tax disparities in contributed property) and by changing the way that partners take account of partnership debt (such as being able to get distributions of nonrecourse debt that monetize partnership property appreciation).
10) Congress should re-visit the rules on mergers and acquisitions, so that a tax-free merger becomes an unusual event. Part of the problem we are facing today is that multinational corporations have grown so big that they wield enormous power globally and can sometimes appear to be able to order laws to suit them. Witness the fact that we are well beyond the beginnings of the financial system crisis, and no single piece of legislation imposing new and better regulations on the banks have been enacted. The size of corporations ensures that they will become as focused on raising rents for their managers as they will on making profits for shareholders, and that they will care not one whit for the ordinary American who is their customer, or their low-wage employee, or the resident of a town that they leave derelict when they move to sunnier shores. We say that the rationale for tax-free reorganization provisions is to encourage efficient organization of corporations. But efficiency is not God, and in fact focus on efficiency may leave democracy and fairness far behind. We should give tax-free treatment only to shareholders who get no boot for any of their stock, and only in transactions where a high percentage of the consideration is stock (perhaps 80% or more).