Colorblind Tax Enforcement

Jeremy Bearer-Friend

The United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has repeatedly taken the position
that because the IRS does not ask taxpayers to identify their race or ethnicity on
submitted tax returns, IRS enforcement actions are not affected by taxpayers’ race
or ethnicity. This claim, which I call “colorblind tax enforcement,” has been made
by multiple IRS Commissioners serving in multiple administrations (both
Democratic and Republican). This claim has been made to members of Congress
and to members of the press.

In this Article, I refute the IRS position that racial bias cannot occur under current
IRS practices. I do so by identifying the conditions under which race and ethnicity
could determine tax enforcement outcomes under three separate models of racial
bias: racial animus, implicit bias, and transmitted bias. I then demonstrate how such
conditions can be present across seven distinct tax enforcement settings regardless
of whether the IRS asks about race or ethnicity. The IRS enforcement settings ana-
lyzed include summonses, civil penalty assessments, collection due process hear-
ings, innocent spouse relief, and Department of Justice (DOJ) referrals.

By establishing that every major enforcement function of the IRS remains vulner-
able to racial bias, this Article also challenges the IRS decision to omit race and
ethnicity from the collection and analysis of tax data. The absence of publicly avail-
able data on IRS enforcement activities by race should not be interpreted as evi-
dence that no racial disparities exist. I conclude by describing alternative
approaches to preventing racial bias in tax enforcement other than the current IRS
policy of purported colorblindness.

High-Risk, High-Reward: A Case for Tax Deferral

Scott Greenberg

The federal tax code contains a number of provisions that reduce taxes on personal and business investment income. Many of these provisions fall into two categories: yield exemption provisions, which reduce taxes on investment returns, and tax deferral provisions, which reduce taxes on investment principal. While these two families of tax provisions are sometimes said to be equivalent, there are important differences between them. This Note focuses on one under-appreciated difference between yield exemption and tax deferral: the amount of risk to which the federal government is exposed. Under a tax deferral approach, the federal government’s expected revenue is higher but more uncertain, as revenue collections depend on the performance of taxpayers’ investments. This Note argues that policies that raise revenue by exposing the federal government to greater risk could be more efficient than other avenues of raising federal revenue. The federal government is able to take on market risk at a relatively low social cost, because of its high liquidity and ability to diversify risk across generations. While there are many possible ways for the government to raise revenue by taking on more risk, this Note argues that the tax code is a promising vehicle for doing so. All in all, this analysis adds a reason why tax deferral provisions are preferable to yield exemption provisions.

Progressive Tax Procedure

Joshua D. Blank, Ari Glogower

Abusive tax avoidance and tax evasion by high-income taxpayers pose unique threats to the tax system. These strategies undermine the tax system’s progressive features and distort its distributional burdens. Responses to this challenge generally fall within two categories: calls to increase IRS enforcement and “activity-based rules” targeting the specific strategies that enable tax avoidance and evasion by these taxpayers. Both of these responses, however, offer incomplete solutions to the problems of high-end noncompliance.

This Article presents the case for “progressive tax procedure”—means-based adjustments to the tax procedure rules for high-income taxpayers. In contrast to the activity-based rules in current law, progressive tax procedure would tailor rules to the economic circumstances of the actors rather than their activities. For example, under this approach, a high-income taxpayer would face higher tax penalty rates or longer periods where the IRS could assess tax deficiencies. Progressive tax procedure could also allow an exception for low-value tax underpayments, to avoid excessive IRS scrutiny or unduly burdensome rules for less serious offenses.

Progressive tax procedure could address the unique challenges posed by high-end tax noncompliance and equalize the effect of the tax procedure rules for taxpayers in varying economic circumstances. It could also complement the alternative approaches of increasing tax enforcement and activity-based rules while avoiding the limitations of relying exclusively on these responses.

After developing the normative case for progressive tax procedure, the Article illustrates how it could be applied in three specific areas: accuracy-related tax penalties, the reasonable cause defense, and the statute of limitations. These applications illuminate the basic design choices in implementing progressive tax procedure, including the types of rules that should be adjusted and the methods for designing these adjustments.

An Empirical Study of Statutory Interpretation in Tax Law

Jonathan H. Choi

A substantial academic literature considers how agencies should interpret statutes. But few studies have considered how agencies actually do interpret statutes, and none has empirically compared the methodologies of agencies and courts in practice. This Article conducts such a comparison, using a newly created dataset of all Internal Revenue Service (IRS) publications ever released, along with an existing dataset of court decisions. It applies natural language processing, machine learning, and regression analysis to map methodological trends and to test whether particular authorities have developed unique cultures of statutory interpretation. 

It finds that, over time, the IRS has increasingly made rules on normative policy grounds (like fairness and efficiency) rather than merely producing rules based on the “best reading” of the relevant statute (under any interpretive theory, like purposivism or textualism). Moreover, when the IRS does focus on the statute, it has grown much more purposivist over time. In contrast, the Tax Court has not grown more normative and has followed the same trend toward textualism as most other courts. But although the Tax Court has become more broadly textualist, it prioritizes different interpretive tools than other courts, like Chevron deference and holistic-textual canons of interpretation. This suggests that each authority adopts its own flavor of textualism or purposivism. 

These findings complicate the literature on tax exceptionalism and the judicial nature of the Tax Court. They also inform ongoing debates about judicial deference and the future of doctrines like Chevron and Skidmore deference. Most broadly, they provide an empirical counterpoint to the existing theoretical literature on statutory interpretation by agencies. 

Incentivizing the Care of Adult Family Members Through a Two-Part Tax Credit

Alexandra M. Ferrara

In the United States, nearly thirty-four million individuals provide informal care for their adult family members each year. Adult care recipients experience positive emotional and health-related outcomes when cared for by relatives, but this responsibility also places significant stress on caregivers. The government should subsidize and encourage family adult care, not only because of these social impacts, but also because this care can reduce healthcare costs. Family caregivers help their relatives avoid expensive institutional care and are also cost-efficient providers of care due to their relationships with the care recipients. The tax code is an effective and politically palatable vehicle through which the government can provide this subsidy, despite some structural limitations. However, existing and recently proposed tax incentives do not adequately target the benefits associated with family caregiving. Therefore, this Note proposes a new two-part advanced refundable tax credit that will help the government reduce costs and enhance social benefits.

Taxing Pain and Suffering

Adam Kern

Every year, billions of dollars are awarded as compensation for pain and suffering. A hard question—one that has vexed courts, legislators, and academics alike—is how we should tax them (if, indeed, we should tax them at all). In this Note, I articulate a new answer. If we take seriously the value of equality between injured people and uninjured people, we ought to tax compensatory damages for pain and suffering.

In Part I, I criticize an influential approach to the taxation of compensatory damages for pain and suffering. This approach appeals to various intuitive normative principles to justify exempting pain and suffering damages from tax. I argue that these principles are estranged from their normative foundations. Such principles are intuitive because they seem to embody an ideal of equality between injured people and uninjured people. But, as I show in Part I, equality does not always justify exempting pain and suffering damages from tax. Sometimes, a well-designed tax on pain and suffering damages serves equality better than an exemption does.

In Parts II and III, I determine which tax regime best respects the ideal of equality between the injured and the uninjured, giving that value neither too little nor too much weight. Following the optimal tax literature, I divide the work into two parts. First, I determine which tax policies would be best under the assumption that no one modifies their behavior in anticipation of tax consequences. To do this, I formulate an appropriate social welfare function, I estimate the relevant parameters, and I simulate optimal tax rates. I then consider whether the resulting taxes should be modified in light of behavioral responses that we should expect in the real world.

I conclude that we should tax some, and likely many, compensatory damages for pain and suffering—and we should do so at rates that increase with damages. Perhaps counterintuitively, this tax scheme is the best way of balancing the competing demands of creating well-being and distributing it equally.

Combining Income and Wealth into a Single Instrument: A Review of Taxing Inequality

Jason S. Oh

Ari Glogower’s Taxing Inequality is an ambitious, thought-provoking piece. He makes three major arguments: (1) that the economic power theory justifies taxing wealth in addition to income, (2) that separate taxes on wealth and income are inferior to a combined tax that incorporates both into a single instrument, and (3) that the best way to accomplish this goal is to include in income an amount equal to an annuity-equivalent portion of the taxpayer’s wealth. Although it departs from the structure of the article, I will address (2) before considering (1) and (3) together.

Taxing Inequality

Ari Glogower

Economic inequality in the United States is now approaching historic levels last seen in the years leading up to the Great Depression. Scholars have long argued that the federal income tax alone cannot curtail rising inequality and that we should look beyond the income tax to a wealth tax. Taxing wealth also faces two central and resilient objections in the literature: A wealth tax penalizes savings and overlaps with a tax on capital income.

This Article moves beyond this stalemate to redefine the role of wealth in a progressive tax system. The Article first introduces a generalized framework for justifying a wealth tax centered in the relative economic power theory which explains how inequality of economic outcomes generates social and political harm. This theory formalizes the problem of inequality and has specific implications for how economic inequality should be measured and constrained.

The Article then describes design problems in coordinating taxes on labor income, capital income, and wealth as factors in inequality, and the limitations of each of these factors as a base for taxation. From this Article’s outcomes-based perspective, a capital income tax favors wealth holders relative to labor-income earners. A wealth tax, in contrast, disfavors wealth holders relative to labor-income earners and cannot account for taxpayers’ varying needs to save their wealth for different numbers of future periods. Finally, proposals in the literature for separate taxes on both income and wealth do not account for the relationship between the two as factors in economic well-being.

Finally, the Article introduces a redefined wealth tax as part of a new combined tax on both income and wealth. This approach first recharacterizes wealth and capital income as an annuity value (the “wealth annuity”), reflecting both capital income earned during the period and a portion of the taxpayer’s wealth principal. The wealth annuity is then added to the taxpayer’s labor income for the period to yield the combined base. This new tax base resolves the coordination problems with taxing labor income, capital income, and wealth as factors in economic inequality; accounts for the needs of savers; and tailors the tax base to the specific ways that inequality causes social and political harm.

Regulation and Distribution

Richard L. Revesz

This Article tackles a question that has vexed the administrative state for the last half century: how to seriously take account of the distributional consequences of regulation. The academic literature has largely accepted the view that distributional concerns should be moved out of the regulatory domain and into Congress’s tax policy portfolio. In doing so, it has overlooked the fact that tax policy is ill suited to provide compensation for significant environmental, health, and safety harms. And the congressional gridlock that has bedeviled us for several decades makes this enterprise even more of a nonstarter.

The focus on negative distributional consequences has become particularly salient recently, playing a significant role in the 2016 presidential election and threatening important, socially beneficial regulatory measures. For example, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, environmental justice groups and coal miner interests have forcefully opposed the regulation of greenhouse gases through flexible regulatory tools in California and at the federal level, respectively.

The time has come to make distributional consequences a core concern of the regulatory state; otherwise, future socially beneficial regulations could well encounter significant roadblocks. The success of this enterprise requires significant institutional changes in the way in which distributional issues are handled within the executive branch. Every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama has made cost-benefit analysis a key feature of the regulatory state as a result of the role played by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and the Trump administration has kept that structure in place. In contrast, executive orders addressing distributional concerns have languished because of the lack of a similar enforcement structure within the executive branch. This Article provides the blueprint for the establishment of a standing, broadly constituted interagency body charged with addressing serious negative consequences of regulatory measures on particular groups. Poor or minority communities already disproportionally burdened by environmental harms and communities that lose a significant portion of their employment base are paradigmatic candidates for such action.

Implementing Disaster Relief Through Tax Expenditures: An Assessment of the Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Measures

Meredith M. Stead

Over the past several decades, Congress has turned increasingly to tax expenditures rather than to direct outlay programs to implement social welfare programs. Such a trend creates economic distortions and has proven disadvantageous to taxpayers in lower socioeconomic classes. The newest twist is in the area of disaster relief. Unprecedented before 2001, tax relief targeted to a disaster in a specific geographic region has now been established on two occasions-in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This Note argues that, in a disaster, both the vulnerability of lower-income taxpayers and the weaknesses of the Internal Revenue Code as an instrument for social programs are amplified. This problem was particularly acute after Hurricane Katrina. Congress should therefore reconsider the current trend toward using tax expenditures rather than direct relief in such situations, or alternately structure other relief to correct for its shortcomings.