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“Stranger than Fiction”: Taxing Virtual Worlds

Leandra Lederman

Virtual worlds are increasing in commercial importance. As the economic value of computer-generated spaces soars, questions of how to apply our tax law to transactions within them will inevitably arise. In this Article, Professor Leandra Lederman argues for federal income tax treatment that reflects the differences between “game worlds” and “unscripted worlds,” arguing that the former should receive more favorable tax treatment than the latter. Specifically, she argues that transactions in game worlds such as World of Warcraft should not be taxed unless the player engages in a real-market sale or exchange. By contrast, in intentionally commodified virtual worlds such as Second Life, federal income tax law and policy counsel that in-world sales of virtual items be taxed regardless of whether the participant ever cashes out.

Judicial Decisions as Legislation: Congressional Oversight of Supreme Court Tax Cases, 1954–2005

Nancy Staudt, René Lindstädt, Jason O’Connor

This Article offers a new understanding of the dynamic between the Supreme Court and Congress. It responds to an important literature that for several decades has misunderstood interbranch relations as continually fraught with antagonism and distrust. This unfriendly dynamic, many have argued, is evidenced by repeated congressional overrides of Supreme Court cases. While this claim is true in some circumstances, it ignores the friendly relations that exist between these two branches of government—relations that may be far more typical than scholars suspect.

This Article undertakes a comprehensive study of congressional responses to Supreme Court tax cases and makes a surprising finding: Overrides, although the main focus of the extant literature, account for just a small portion of the legislative activity responding to the Court. In fact, Congress is nearly as likely to support and affirm judicial decisionmaking through the codification of a case outcome as it is to reverse a decision through a legislative override. To investigate fully the nature of congressional oversight of Supreme Court decisionmaking, this Article undertakes both qualitative and quantitative analyses of different types of legislative review of Supreme Court decisions—examining codifications and citations, as well as overrides, in legislative debates, committees, and hearings. The result is a series of important and robust findings that challenge and build on the Court-Congress literature, identifying the legal, political, and economic factors that explain how and why legislators take notice of Supreme Court cases.

The study reveals a complex and nuanced interbranch dynamic and shows that the Justices themselves affect the legislative agenda to a greater extent than previously understood. This result challenges scholars who have questioned whether the Supreme Court should have jurisdiction over complex issues, such as those in the economic context, in which the Justices may lack sufficient training. This Article argues that scholars have little need to worry about Court decisionmaking in these areas: Not only do legislators routinely review the Court’s decisions, but they also frequently confirm the outcomes as valuable contributions to national policymaking via the codification process.

Layovers and Cargo Ships: The Prohibition of Internet Gambling and a Proposed System of Regulation

Ryan S. Landes

Since its emergence in the 1990s, Internet gambling has grown into a $12-billion-per-year industry. In October 2006 Congress passed the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act, which includes a provision that prohibits domestic financial institutions from moving funds to and from online casinos, all of which are located overseas. While the new law has certainly caused a major stir in the Internet gambling community, users and overseas companies are continuing to find new ways to circumvent it. In this Note, the author first gives an overview of the gambling industry and the problems it poses to gamblers and communities. The author then reviews the tactics Congress attempted to use over the last decade in fighting Internet gambling—criminalizing the operation of a gambling website, criminalizing individual gambling, and criminalizing funds transfers to and from casinos—and explains why each method fails to address, and often exacerbates, the very problems the legislation seeks to resolve. The author then proposes a new method of regulation and explores how that system could significantly reduce the problems of Internet gambling.

Sunset Provisions in the Tax Code: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptions for the Future

Manoj Viswanathan

In this Note, the author argues that sunset provisions associated with tax legislation are, in their current form, the product of political maneuvering designed to bypass budgetary constraints and are exploited as a means of enacting what is, in reality, permanent legislation. The use of sunsets in this manner has lead to considerable uncertainty regarding the future of their associated tax provisions. This uncertainty, in turn, has created opportunities for legislators to extract rents from lobbyists, generated inefficiencies for both taxpayers and the government, and increased overall tax code complexity. These problems can be minimized, however, if sunsets are used in a more principled manner. This Note argues that sunset clauses in tax legislation can be made more efficient by limiting both the occasions in which sunsets are employed as well as the procedures used to implement them. First, sunsets should only be used in conjunction with certain kinds of tax incentives: The incentives should be simple, of limited duration, and provide diffuse rather than concentrated benefits. Second, sunsets should only be implemented through a limited set of congressional budgetary procedures: They should only be included as part of the reconciliation process for enacting fiscal legislation if the underlying bill increases rather than decreases revenue, and if Congress enacts and adheres to a revenue-neutral, pay-as-you-go set of budgetary rules. These changes, both substantive and procedural, will increase overall efficiency in the use of sunset provisions in tax legislation.

Taxing Citizens in a Global Economy

Michael S. Kirsch

This Article addresses a fundamental issue underlying the U.S. tax system in the international context: the use of citizenship as a jurisdictional basis for imposing income tax. As a general matter, the United States is the only economically developed country that taxes its citizens abroad on their foreign income.

Despite this broad assertion of taxing jurisdiction, Congress allows citizens abroad to exclude from taxation a limited amount of income earned from working outside the United States. Influential lobbying groups, including businesses that employ significant numbers of U.S. citizens abroad, argue that this exclusion is necessary in order to keep American business competitive overseas. Recently, these groups have argued that modern developments, including lowered barriers to trade and the increased mobility of workers, strengthen this argument, and that the United States must allow an unlimited foreign earned income exclusion, or perhaps abandon citizenship-based taxation altogether, in order to remain competitive.

This Article analyzes how modern developments in the global economy affect the case for citizenship-based taxation. The Article concludes that recent globalization trends strengthen, rather than weaken, the case for taxing U.S. citizens living abroad. Moreover, it concludes that these modern developments weaken the case for giving preferential treatment to income earned by citizens working abroad.

What is a Progressive Tax Change?: Unmasking Hidden Values in Distributional Debates

David Kamin

There is widespread confusion both in policy circles and in the academic literature about how to measure the progressivity of a tax change. The confusion is particularly vexing because policymakers and analysts often rely on progressivity as a guidepost in constructing and analyzing policy, but do little to justify the particular progressivity measures that they employ. Progressivity measures—which can differ considerably from one another—tend to be picked haphazardly or chosen based on arguments that have rhetorical flair but lack normative substance. Thus, policy is being constructed and evaluated based on distributional measures that may not be meaningful and, in fact, may be misleading. This Note proposes a framework for analyzing measures of progressivity. In particular, if the measures are to gauge accurately changes in tax fairness, progressivity measures must be rooted in whatever theory of distributive justice motivates our concern for distribution. This Note applies this approach and draws connections between particular measures of progressivity and individual theories of distributive justice.

The Earned Income Tax Credit as an Incentive to Report: Engaging the Informal Economy Through Tax Policy

John J. Infranca

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides financial assistance to low-income workers through a refundable tax credit. The EITC, which has received strong bipartisan support since its introduction in 1975, now represents the nation’s largest anti-poverty program for non-elderly individuals. In this Note, I contend that the EITC’s historical development failed to account for (and prior scholarly analysis of its impact on labor supply decisions have ignored) the important role of informal employment in the lives of the working poor. This Note presents the first analysis of the financial impact of government transfer and tax programs on the decision to report informal income—income that, were it reported, would be otherwise legal. As the Note’s analysis reveals, while drastic changes in both tax and transfer programs may be necessary to provide financial incentives for many households with children to report informal income, more targeted changes to the EITC could pro- vide strong incentives for childless informal workers to report. The Note argues that the benefits to both individuals and society, financial and otherwise, of tax reporting by low-income individuals engaged in informal work merits reconsideration of the EITC’s overall structure and administration. Administrative and policy innovations described in the Note are also necessary to maximize reporting compliance.

Two and Twenty: Taxing Partnership Profits in Private Equity Funds

Victor Fleischer

Private equity fund managers take a share of the profits of the partnership as the equity portion of their compensation. The tax rules for compensating general partners create a planning opportunity for managers who receive the industry standard “two and twenty” (a two percent management fee and twenty percent profits interest). By taking a portion of their pay in the form of partnership profits, fund managers defer income derived from their labor efforts and convert it from ordinary income into long-term capital gain. This quirk in the tax law allows some of the richest workers in the country to pay tax on their labor income at a low rate. Changes in the investment world—the growth of private equity funds, the adoption of portable alpha strategies by institutional investors, and aggressive tax planning—suggest that reconsideration of the partnership profits puzzle is overdue.

While there is ample room for disagreement about the scope and mechanics of the reform alternatives, this Article establishes that the status quo is an untenable position as a matter of tax policy. Among the various alternatives, perhaps the best starting point is a baseline rule that would treat carried interest distributions as ordinary income. Alternatively, Congress could adopt a more complex “Cost-of-Capital Method” that would convert a portion of carried interest into ordinary income on an annual basis, or Congress could allow fund managers to elect into either the ordinary income or “Cost-of-Capital Method.” While this Article suggests that treating distributions as ordinary income may be the best, most flexible approach, any of these alternatives would be superior to the status quo. These alternatives would tax carried interest distributions to fund managers in a manner that more closely matches how our tax system treats other forms of compensation, thereby improving economic efficiency and discouraging wasteful regulatory gamesmanship. These changes would also reconcile private equity compensation with our progressive tax system and widely held principles of distributive justice.

Tax Expenditures and Global Labor Mobility

Ruth Mason

Governments often deliver social welfare benefits through “tax expenditures,” which are provisions of the tax code (such as home mortgage deductions) designed to serve social policy objectives. This Article considers the criteria for granting tax expenditures to individuals who work outside the state where they reside. International tax norms currently assign the primary entitlement to tax labor income to the state where the taxpayer works, but they assign the obligation to confer personal tax expenditures exclusively to the state where the taxpayer resides. This Article argues that the disjunction between the entitlement to tax and the obligation to provide tax benefits affects cross-border labor mobility and has important distributive implica- tions for taxpayers and states. In constructing these arguments, this Article introduces the concepts of “labor export neutrality” and “labor residence neutrality” as tools for analyzing government policies that affect global labor mobility. A policy is labor export neutral if it does not distort taxpayers’ decisions about where to work. A policy is labor residence neutral if it does not distort taxpayers’ decisions about where to reside.

A Theory of Taxing Sovereign Wealth

Victor Fleischer

Sovereign wealth funds enjoy an exemption from tax under § 892 of the tax code. This anachronistic provision offers an unconditional tax exemption when a foreign sovereign earns income from noncommercial activities in the United States. The Treasury regulations accompanying § 892 define noncommercial activity broadly, encompassing both traditional portfolio investing and more aggressive, strategic equity investments. The tax exemption, which was first enacted in 1917, reflects an expansive view of the international law doctrine of sovereign immunity that the United States (and other countries) discarded fifty years ago in other contexts. Because § 892 was not written with sovereign wealth funds in mind, the policy rationale for this generous tax treatment has not been closely examined in the aca- demic literature.

This Article provides a framework for analyzing the taxation of sovereign wealth. I start from a baseline norm of “sovereign tax neutrality,” which departs from the current regime under § 892 by treating the investment income of foreign sovereigns no better and no worse than foreign private investors’ income and by favoring no one nation over another. Whether we should depart from this norm depends on several factors, including what external costs and benefits are created by sovereign wealth investment, whether tax or other regulatory instruments are superior methods of attracting investment or addressing harms, and which domestic political institutions are best suited to implement foreign policy. I then consider whether we should impose an excise tax that would discourage sovereign wealth fund investments in U.S. companies. This tax might be designed to complement nontax economic and foreign policy goals by discouraging investments by funds that fail to comply with best practices for transparency and accountability.

The case for repealing the existing tax subsidy is strong. We should tax sovereign wealth funds as if they were private foreign corporations; there is no compelling reason to subsidize sovereign wealth. At the same time, my analysis suggests that policymakers should be cautious about going any further: An excise tax may not be the optimal regulatory instrument for managing the special risks posed by sovereign wealth funds.