We all do it once in a while. In the haste of trying to make a point in class, or in a hurried comment to the press, we overstate the effect of the failure of a tax law rule to take into account the time value of money. “The effect of deferral of income,” we may boldly assert, “is the exemption of the earnings on the amount deferred.” A recent short essay by Dan Halperin and Al Warren entitled Understanding Income Tax Deferral should help us all stay a bit more accurate when we make these claims. As Halperin and Warren point out, although in some limited circumstances the benefit of deferral can be the exemption of the earnings on the amount deferred, often the effect of an apparent deferral is more limited and more nuanced. In some cases, timing flaws produce only reduced taxation, not full exemption, while in other cases rules that seem to involve timing flaws merely shift income to other taxpayers or to other taxing jurisdictions. Halperin and Warren remind us that it can be very important to be able to distinguish between these results. This paper will displace Halperin’s 1986 classic in my must-read recommendations for beginning teachers of tax.
There is little that is actually new in the essay. However, it is a much-needed and succinct guide to the principles involved when considering the effect of timing in the rules defining the income tax base. Thirty years ago, when interest rates were high, correcting the timing mistakes embedded in the income tax law was a high policy priority. For example, the original issue discount rules were tightened and applied to many more transactions (in sections 1271, 1274 and 7872) and the possibility of accruing costs before payment were substantially curtailed (through various changes in the taxation of retirement savings and in sections 461(h)). In this era, the principles Halperin and Warren newly examine here became a mainstay of tax policy analysis. No one participating in policy discussions could afford not to understand them. Continue reading "Keeping Us Honest about the Timing Flaws in the Income Tax"