Friday, October 2, 2020
Adam Chodorow (Arizona State), How I’ll Teach Trump’s Tax Returns:
I’m always excited to find stories in the news that touch on the tax law and policy I study and teach. Usually in my classes, we might spend about 10 minutes on such an item before moving on to the day’s lesson. The New York Times’ recent revelations about President Donald Trump’s taxes supply enough material for an entire semester. While most people will view the fact that Trump paid almost nothing in income taxes over the past 15 years as a political matter—does this hurt or help him? Is he actually bad at business?—those of us who teach tax law see a treasure trove of policy questions highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of our current tax system. If I were to build a class around Trump’s taxes, here’s how I’d do it.
One top-line issue is whether Trump was entitled to claim a loss (and if so what kind of loss) when he abandoned his interest in his failing casino business—which ultimately formed the basis for a $72 million refund request to the Internal Revenue Service that is still pending. Taxpayers should be allowed to deduct economic losses they suffer if they have basis in the amounts lost. Generally speaking, this means that they have already paid tax on the money lost. This is why you can’t deduct a loss when a stock you own goes from $100 to $150 and then back down to $100. You never paid tax on the $50 of gain when the price rose, so you can’t deduct the $50 loss when it falls back again. Basis is a core tax concept, and one that students often struggle to grasp. ...
While much hay has been made of Trump’s returns and the fact that he has paid almost nothing in taxes over a long period, there is so much we don’t know that it is difficult to reach conclusions on whether he merely pushed the limits or in fact stepped over the line. Nonetheless, his efforts to harness the tax system for his own ends in so many creative ways shine a bright spotlight on the tax code, casting a number of different provisions and policy decisions in stark relief. And, yes, this will be on the exam