Friday, January 30, 2015

Samaha and Strahilevitz on Information policy and legal design

Adam M. Samaha and Lior Strahilevitz recently posted a paper called Don't Ask, Must Tell — And Other Combinations, which on its face looks like it has nothing to do with tax but it is relevant to questions about compliance and enforcement, so I thought it worth reading. Here is the abstract:
The military’s defunct Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy has been studied and debated for decades. Surprisingly, the question of why a legal regime would combine these particular rules for information flow has received little attention. More surprisingly still, legal scholars have provided no systemic account of why law might prohibit or mandate asking and telling. While there is a large literature on disclosure and a fragmented literature on questioning, considering either part of the information dissemination puzzle in isolation has caused scholars to overlook key considerations. 
This Article tackles foundational questions of information policy and legal design, focusing on instances in which asking and telling are either mandated or prohibited by legal rules, legal incentives, or social norms. Although permissive norms for asking and telling seem pervasive in law, the Article shows that each corner solution exists in the American legal system. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” “Don’t Ask, Must Tell,” “Must Ask, Must Tell,” and “Must Ask, Don’t Tell” each fill a notable regulatory space. 
After cataloguing examples, the Article gives accounts of why law gravitates toward particular combinations of asking and telling rules in various domains, and offers some normative evaluation of these strategies. The Article emphasizes that asking and telling norms sometimes — but only sometimes — are driven by concerns about how people will use the information obtained. Understanding the connection to use norms, in turn, provides guidance for a rapidly advancing future in which big data analytics and expanding surveillance will make old practices of direct question-and-answer less significant, if not obsolete. In any event, the matrix of rule combinations highlighted here can reveal new pathways for reforming our practices of asking and telling in life and law.
The authors cover taxation under the category Must Ask, Must Tell (MAMT). A highlight:
The personal income tax regime is perhaps the most familiar MAMT regime to many Americans. ... Strikingly, because it collects tax information from third parties like employers, banks, and brokerages, IRS already has much of the most important information that a taxpayer will provide on the applicable 1040. This redundancy has sparked reformers to call for replacement of the current, high-transaction costs MAMT regime with one where the government automatically calculates each taxpayer’s liability (or refund) each year and sends her a bill (or check). Notwithstanding the substantial time savings for taxpayers that such plans may entail, these proposals for reform have not been implemented. What gives?
The authors propose that MAMT might be explained by a need to resolve agency problems, which I don't really buy, and then they suggest that making people make tax declarations themselves is a way to make sure they value their citizenship or participate in democracy or make socially good choices, all notions I have heard before but cannot possibly believe when I read that the vast majority of taxpayers pay a tax prep service to help them get through their tax filing every year. Remember, the tax prep service makes money by making it so the taxpayer doesn't have to understand the form, much less the law. The tax preparation industry would definitely find it a hardship if they could not rent-seek off the complexity of tax filing. Remember California's ready return? TurboTax didn't like it.

Rent-seeking by tax compliance professionals, and the ongoing battle to keep the IRS from being able to serve taxpayers properly, are inter-connected key aspects of tax compliance and enforcement. The more hideously complex the law, the more the tax return preparer can charge for the service (I note that paying premiums to overcome tax complexity and attendant risk of error is but one reason why the US practice of treating certain nonresidents as permanent tax residents cannot possibly be fair).

The authors of this paper seem to understand the interplay between complexity and rent-seeking but they dramatically under-emphasize this in the analysis, and that is a pity. This paper barely scratches the surface of the "must ask, must tell" nature of income tax declarations, and I would have liked to have seen more discussion, especially regarding the global scope of the US tax system. But that is a lot to ask of non-tax experts. The paper concludes with a normative discussion that I am still working through, and I'm not sure if there are lessons there for taxation, or not. In any event, a novel paper that raises some interesting points about mandating the furnishing of information.

1 comment:

  1. I touched upon this dual reporting (third party & taxpayer reporting) problem briefly in my thesis:

    " One may then wonder whether third-party information reporting or the third-party tax withholding would not make the self-assessment requirement redundant. After all, the government already has the information received from third parties to apply income taxes on a particular taxpayer or it has already collected the taxes on income of the taxpayer.

    In practice, each of these mechanisms complements the other. First, information reports that government receives from third parties are typically incomplete to determine a taxpayer’s ultimate tax liability; the report does not include information about the taxpayer’s personal expenses (e.g. medical, childcare, moving, educational expenses), which are often deductible for tax purposes. This information normally rests with the taxpayer. The final tax liability cannot be determined without combining information from both ends. The same is true with the tax-withholding regime as it is normally levied on gross income of a taxpayer at source. Thus, the amount of tax withheld is inaccurate until the end of fiscal period when the gross income is adjusted with the taxpayer’s deductible expenses.

    Second, most countries apply progressive income tax rates for individual taxpayers. Under the progressive income tax system, an increase in the taxable income base leads to a marginal increase in applicable tax rate. If a taxpayer earns income from more than one source, and from more than one place, each third party or tax-withholding agent has no knowledge about the taxpayer’s other income source. An applicable marginal tax rate and final tax liability can be determined only on the basis of the tax information declarations completed and submitted by all involved third parties and the taxpayer following the year-end. Any over or underpayment of tax is then rectified: the overpayment is refunded and the underpayment is collected".