After decades of fitful contemplation, tax reform finally arrived in late 2017. Consistent with the “broaden the base … lower the rate … make it simpler” mantra that has been the leading tax platform for several years, reform ushered in reductions to both business and individual tax rates. The projected loss of fiscal revenue from these lower rates will be financed by a broadened tax base and $1.5 trillion in new debt over the next decade.
As a member of the tax industry for the last three decades, I cheered hard for tax reform. The legislative journey was not without peril, and it is noteworthy that the “broaden the base … lower the rate” portion of the mantra survived. However, the intention to “make it simpler” became a casualty of the political process.
Thus, two of the three elements of the tax reform mantra were accomplished with the new rules. Is that enough? Well, it was the rocker Meat Loaf who sang in 1977 that “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” So, it begs the question, just how important is tax simplification, that third element of the mantra, to the overall effectiveness of tax reform?
To assess the importance of simplification, it is necessary to explore the details of the actual reform provisions. Do not avert your eyes. Instead, embrace this next section as an opportunity to learn about the new rules for insertion into office conversations, family gatherings and bar banter.
For example, you have probably heard about the doubling of the standard deduction and are wondering whether you will continue to itemize your deductions next year. Perhaps you are contemplating selling your home, and are worried that your property value may have taken a hit with the lowering of mortgage interest and property tax deductions. After all, fewer tax deductions mean a higher after-tax cost for the buyer. A well-informed buyer may ask you to offset part of their additional cost by lowering the price of your home. Maybe you are making your annual pledge to your favorite charities and just now realizing that your after-tax cost of donating just went up because your charitable contributions and other itemized deductions may not be sufficient to get you past that doubled standard deduction. Confused yet?
Let us press on to big business taxes. Many of us own Apple products, and as a result, they have become the most valuable company in the world. A good chunk of that value resides overseas in the form of cash, which will now be taxed as part of the transition to something called a territorial system. Apple and many other multinational corporations will happily pay this one-time new transition tax (over a statutorily prescribed eight years) at a special discounted tax rate in order to enable the modernization of the U.S. international tax system. However, the transition to this new system is complex, causing significant earnings volatility, and ends with a new acronym-filled international tax system (e.g., GILTI, BEAT, etc.) that is not simpler.
If we move on to the small business arena, we find there is a new special 20 percent deduction from which owners of pass-through entities can benefit. However, the rules around qualification and the calculation itself are complex and will likely be open to some level of interpretation. It is definitely time to visit your tax accountant to adjust to the new normal.
Despite the complexity of the new rules, there are clearly some base-broadening provisions that resonate from almost any tax policy perspective. Reducing the number of individual taxpayers who will have to track itemized deductions is good for productivity — and quality of life! Reducing the Silicon Valley advantage from the daily provision of tax-free fully deductible gourmet meals to employees is only fair. They already have the vast majority of talented software engineers — perhaps this tax policy change will give other parts of the country a fighting chance to import some of that wonderful talent!
Passing tax reform was historic. Most likely a once-in-the-professional-lifetime event for most CPAs. Returning to the Meat Loaf song — we wanted tax reform, we needed tax reform, but I do not know if we are ever going to love this tax reform. You see, simplification was not just the third part of the mantra. It was the part of the mantra that could have unleashed the untapped productivity of the tax industry. In tax systems, complexity breeds both opportunity and noncompliance. Simpler is better. Imagine all of that tax industry brainpower redirected to help solve critical social issues, such as health care and college student debt!
I looked forward to tax reform for more than a decade, but now find myself thinking two out of three ain’t good enough.
Tim Radermacher teaches tax accounting in the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas. Before joining St. Thomas, he spent 25 years in the Twin Cities business community, including roles in tax, treasury and finance.