Federal tax reform debates suffer from the Rashomon effect

pexels-photo-1059114The film Rashomon won an Academy Honorary Award in 1952 and is considered now one of the greatest films ever made. The film uses a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident.

One can see the theoretical application of this plot device to the multi-varied perception of the liberal government’s changes to the taxation of Canadian controlled private corporations. Let’s just deal with the one plot device — the sprinkling of income.

The government takes the position that these tax advantages are in place to help Canadian businesses reinvest and grow, find new customers, buy new equipment and hire more people. Not surprisingly, people evidently use these corporate structures to reduce taxes by paying dividends to those family members at a lower tax bracket and not involved in the business. Mea culpa. The government perceives that these people are avoiding paying their fair share of taxes as opposed to investing in their business and maintaining their competitive advantage.

Of course, sprinkling income provides dividends to family members who may not have much to do with the corporation in the first place. The tax policy intended to spread income more among those involved with the corporation.

The government states that when the rules are used for personal benefit, they are not contributing to growing the economy. Rather, such practices undermine confidence in the economy by selectively giving away tax advantages and producing an unfair result.

The Canadian Bar Association takes umbrage to the government’s use of the term “loophole.” Loopholes are inherently legal, but they circumvent the policy intent of the legislation when corporations legally use tax advantages to make professionals more whole as compared to salaried employees. So let’s just call these advantages “loopwholes” instead.

We can use the Rashomon approach to examine taxes paid in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s CCPC comparison discussion paper. Susan, an employee, earns employment income of $220,000 and pays her fair share of taxes totalling $79,000. We compare this to our business owner Bob earning a professional income of $220,000 and, through the sprinkling of tax loopwhole-ness, pays only $44,000 in taxes. Susan pays about 36 per cent of her income in taxes while Bob only pays 20 per cent, a $35,000 difference. One could easily think that there is only a 16-per-cent difference, but through the magic of Rashomon, we can see that Susan pays about 44 per cent more in taxes (35/79). If the loopwhole is lost, Bob becomes even more upset as his tax bill would increase 80 per cent (35/44).

The CBA, to the consternation of some members and now some former members, takes a political position against the removal of the tax loopwhole. The main argument appears to be that the loopwhole allows the corporate professional to earn the same amount as an employed individual since a corporate professional does not have paid vacation or an employer pension. The pension argument has an iceberg quality to it since fewer companies are providing pensions in any event, down to around 37 per cent of employees.

In comparing total compensation, HR professionals use a rough guideline that benefits can total 20 per cent of income once you include vacation, health and pensions. If we get back to fun with ratios, we can see that Bob’s tax savings of $35,000 comes close to this 20-per-cent premium ($44,000 normally).

A major argument for allowing professional corporations a tax break is the risk premium. A business owner has no guaranteed income, job security, paid vacation, sick days or retirement program. In addition, the owner must personally guarantee debt obligations and pay the entire cost of the Canada Pension Plan. Therefore, an owner should be entitled to a risk premium. As an example, the risk premium for stocks is arguably about five per cent, but this does not appear high enough for Bob considering the risk.

So, in a straight comparison, Bob should pay less tax in order to have close to the same total compensation as Susan, a salaried employee. Unfortunately, we drifted away from the actual question, dreamed about a logical fallacy and refuted an argument that was never made. The question is not how the tax system should make Susan and Bob have the same total compensation but rather how to limit the tax exemption for what it was intended, mainly using dividends to compensate those involved in the business and to help businesses reinvest and grow.

If we use sprinkling dividends as a loopwhole in order to make Bob’s total compensation the same as salaried employee Susan, we have passed the risk premium over to be paid by Susan by way of tax revenue foregone by exempting Bob. The risk premium should belong to Bob to be mitigated by higher revenue paid by Bob’s clientele or by reduced expenses, not lower taxes at the expense of Susan.

If a tax break is truly yours, then let it go. If it returns, then it belongs to you. If it doesn’t, then it never was.

 

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From a previous Canadian Lawyer Article.

The Open Office and the Hawthorne Effect

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Private and public organizations appear to be drifting towards the open office concept. They intend to decrease costs and increase interaction amongst staff.

We can see the slow evolution from the closed office, to the head high cubicle walls to now the chest high walls. All in the name of integration. We may get back to the day of no walls and simply desks arranged in neat rows and columns. Whenever they show this type of arrangement it always seems somewhat Kafka like; the bleak dystopian future that we are always trying to avoid but seems to be coming for us anyway.

A new study from CTF, Service Research Centre in Karlstad University, Sweden suggests that the more co-workers share a workspace the less satisfied they are and the more difficult it is to have a good dialogue with other staff.

This may have depended on where the studied employees started of course. Anyone with a private office suddenly cast into the open workplace community would be dissatisfied it would appear. Anyone coming right out of school, with no previous experience working in a private office, could well be ecstatic just getting their own private desk instead of one of the communal desks.

Perhaps a staff engagement and satisfaction management technique would be to recall the Hawthorne experiments conducted in the late 20s and early 30s. Here Western Electric in its factories outside of Chicago in the suburb of Hawthorne conducted various experiments regarding productivity. Hawthorne placed the individual in a social context and suggested that performance is influenced not only by a person’s innate abilities but also by their surrounding environment and colleagues.

The experiment attempted to show how the surrounding environment increased productivity. In one factory they improved the overall lighting and kept another factory as a control group. Productivity increased in the first group. As time went by, they added additional improvements to working hours and health breaks. Productivity increased again. Productivity continued to increase even when they returned the lighting to where it was originally.

The experimenters concluded that it was not so much the change in conditions that mattered, but rather the fact that someone cared about the workplace environment and gave them an opportunity to discuss the changes beforehand.

Staff engagement and an opportunity to have an impact on the workplace remains key in job satisfaction.

 

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#openoffice

 

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Bitcoin Bubble Bubble

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Toil and Trouble Tantrum

No one alive, outside of the Canadian Senate, lived through The Tulip Mania bubble of the 1600s. These bulbs were newly introduced into Europe and commanded exorbitant prices. As more people bought into the scheme, the higher the price. A rare type of tulip went for 1000 guilders in the 1620s and for 10000 guilders just before the bubble burst in 1627. This was enough to purchase one of the grandest homes along the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam and 10 times as much as the annual salary of a skilled craftsman.

A typical bubble runs counter to normal economics. Whenever the price of an object goes up, traditional theory suggests that the demand should go down. But with a bubble, the price only continues to go up with demand. The asset price deviates from the intrinsic value. The main criteria feeding this price increase is the feeling that the price will only continue to go up. Even back in the 1600s, FOMO, the fear of missing out, reigned supreme.

Closer to the last few decades, you don’t have to look farther than the dotcom era or the financial crisis to see examples of what was referred  to as irrational exuberance. This term was coined by Edward Greenspan in a 1996 speech and later used by Robert Shiller as a title for his book. The 2005 edition warned of the housing bubble burst.

This brings us to the latest potential bubble. Bitcoin. Unlike houses which can produce rents, stocks that can produce dividends and bonds that can calf off coupons, this cryptocurrency does not have any intrinsic value since it does not claim to the assets of any company or government and does not generate income.. And unlike bitcoin, you could actually handle a tulip bulb and grow a flower. If you didn’t mind expending all the value of your investment in the hopes of growing more bulbs after several years.

Bitcoin’s value appears to be in situations where people think, or hope, it will increase in value. And as we all recall, from Rudy Giuliani, hope is not a strategy. For our purposes, hope is not a sound financial strategy.

More people share the notion that Bitcoin is a fraudulent bubble. And others, who likely have a major stake in the game, say that that a million dollar bitcoin is not out of the question. There are only a limited number of bitcoins that can be mined, so its rarity will drive value. Apparently New York taxi cabs used to be worth a million, but with the advent of Uber, the value has dropped down to something over $300,000. So there are other cryptocurrencies that can come on stream as there is no real impassable economic moat preventing other currencies coming on stream at some point.

Bubbles have been likened to a type of virus. People get infected and the virus can then spread at an exponential rate, until everyone develops an immunity. That immunity is when there is no one else to sell to and the price drops. Sometimes radically.

So we have seen the value of bitcoin rise up 2000 per cent in the past 12 months to $25,000 CDN and drop down to close to $8000 and recover to almost $12,000. Apparently bitcoin ticks all of the boxes for a bubble including a fivefold surge in trading volumes over the last five years, lack of financial regulation and the launch of related financial instruments such as futures.

You can see the five stage of the bubble when you look at any bitcoin chart; displacement, boom, euphoria (the greater fool theory), profit taking and a bit of panic. History does show the occasional bull trap. This is where prices start to slightly increase and people buying the dip, or those experiencing FOMO begin to pile back in. With declining volumes as the price increases, it seems a lot of people are now operating under the ‘fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well I’m just an idiot’ principle. Or something like that.

If you have made your money on the way up, good on you. Personally, I don’t think this will end well for those coming in late.
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Daily Prompt: Tantrum

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<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/bubble/”>Bubble</a&gt;

The Cookie Conundrum

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Where would we be without social media? Physically, we would still be in the same coffee shop and talking to each other instead of passing or posting messages to one another. I wrote a short column on one of my favorite topics. Those little pieces of code known as cookies. There was some legal stuff in there that I edited out.

Do you know what your webmaster is busy baking?

Karma. I may have been a scoundrel in a previous lifetime. As penance, I voluntarily reviewed ten webpage privacy statements from five prestigious law firms, four somewhat intrusive social media organizations, and one highly regarded national magazine for lawyers in Canada. Did I say well written? That too.

Cookie policies range from the buried deep within the privacy cookie jar to the flashing K-mart end of aisle cookie sale. Cookies refer to the little malleted crumbs of text file code that websites place on users’ browsers that land on the organization’s webpage. These cookies do not contain any coding themselves, so they cannot transfer any viruses or other types of malware. But like real cookie packaging, you must read to the bottom of the ingredient list to determine what your system ingests.

Cookies come in two major flavors. Session cookies store information about user page activities so that users can easily pick up where they left off. Think of them as celery cookies. Light and non-fattening.

Compare these to persistent cookies which store user preferences. These websites allow the user to customize how information presents itself through site layouts or themes. These more fatty chocolate laden type of cookies adhere to the fatty midsection of your browser.

Cookies cannot be executed nor are they self-executing, but like real cookies, they can be insidious.  Or at least the information on them can be used maliciously. Similar to your personal profile, your browser history can show where you have been and what you have been consuming.

The cookie continuum provides a range of uses for various organizations.  The responsible and ethical approach entails clear descriptions of how cookies are deployed on their site. The privacy policy for the various law firms are conservative and straightforward. For legally trained individuals at least.

Canadian cookies delight the user. Most websites track usage, but some of the Canadian sites merely indicate that they ‘may’ attach cookies. This lite approach appears more like a digestive biscuit cookie. Good for gumming and easy to absorb.

US firms use Twinkie like cookies which look innocent and light, but the fat and sugar consumed have ‘persistent’ lasting effects.  The cookie policy for one large law firm broadcasts the use of cookies similar to the exclusion clause you learned about in law school. Red ink with arrows.  Here users see a banner ad at the base of the webpage warning about cookie usage. The banner clearly states that by using the website, the individual consents to the use of cookies.

These persistent cookies act like the classic Pac-Man game and capture information such as your operating system, browser software, IP address, and the full uniform resource locator. They do then load on the full calorie cookie which allows a number of features such as accessing secure areas of the website, analyzing information and tracking how you share content from the law firm website via social media or email, using sharing buttons provided by AdThis for example. Cookies always extract a cost.

Although the cookie usage seems somewhat invasive, you may be asking what does the Canada Anti-spam Law say about this. For certain types of programs, such as cookies, you are considered to have express consent without requesting it, so you can distribute (attach) cookies to users.

The Facebook Cookie policy portrays a sense of permanence likened to real cookies laced with trans-fat to extend shelf-life. Here, cookies provide for authentication, security, and advertising. The cookies allow Facebook to deliver ads to people who have previously visited a business’s website, purchased its products or used its apps. Fortunately the cookies allow Facebook to limit the number of times you see a particular ad. You can innately appreciate the benefits of seeing ads you would be interested in, but at some tipping point, the ads can come across as stalking. Do you want people looking over your shoulder to know what products or services you were researching the night before?

Cookies help businesses understand the kinds of people who like their Facebook page or use their apps so that they can provide more relevant content and develop features that are likely to be interesting to their customers. Ultimately, cookies help store preferences to provide customized content and experiences.

This ‘pull’ type of marketing experience benefits a potential client interested in receiving certain advertisements for relevant products. Perhaps seeing a sale on litigation services would finally convince that reluctant client to file that civil lawsuit?

Law firms have room to move up the cookie continuum to provide a more individualized website experience. Admittedly, clients may prefer not to open up their browser in a coffee shop and receive updates on the developing law of criminal fraud, but those showing interests in mergers and acquisitions may prefer to see a website customized on that basis. Cookies with sprinkles could be the next big thing.

Mallet

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Bit by Bitcoin Mining

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You load sixteen tera-tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the electrical store

As you already know, Bitcoin is all the rage. If I wrote this in 2017, then it would be true. In 2018, not so much. Bitcoin was valued at over $19,000 on some exchanges. The specter of government regulation has knocked this down somewhat.

Notwithstanding the price volatility, the benefits of mining Bitcoin remains attractive for those that know where to look. And by look, I mean looking for cheap electricity.

Back in the heyday, you could use a simple laptop to attempt to mine Bitcoin. Now for any chance of success, you have to run a server farm. Perhaps we can change the metaphor from mining, which suggests gold, to farming, which suggests easily washable boots.

Countless computers across the globe attempt to mine Bitcoin by solving an algorithm. This proves and validates the correctness of a new transaction. Every 10 mins or so, some lucky miner solves the algorithm and receives a reward of 12.5 Bitcoins. All the other computers verify this and then stop what they are doing and start at the beginning again.

If the entire process sounds wasteful, then you would be correct. The Bitcoin mining process now takes up more electricity than the majority of countries. Current estimated consumption is 61 TWh. Mining requires the equivalent of the yearly electrical requirement of Switzerland, and just a bit more than Columbia. This power could sustain over 5 million households. Just a short while ago, some pundits were claiming that mining Bitcoin would the major user of power by 2020. And like anything, projecting exponential growth from the past into the future never really pans out.

Mining produces revenues of $6.3 billion and costs of $3 billion, providing a substantial margin of 48% plus other costs.  Needless to say the carbon footprint of this type of mining is quite extensive since a number of countries rely on coal. China plans to limit the amount of electricity to miners which are estimated to be using up to 4 gigawatts of electricity, or about three nuclear reactors worth of energy. Plattsburg in the United States placed an 18 month moratorium on crypto mining owing to the extensive electrical use.

There is a lot of debate as to the actual electrical usage, but no one really knows what is happening in the black box. Suffice to say that a lot of energy is being wasted on chasing an algorithm that someone else will likely solve.

There are only a limited number of Bitcoins and more people are chasing them with increasing levels of computing power. The electrical requirements today are quite substantial since everyone has to obtain this ‘proof of work’ standard to qualify their Bitcoins. Think along the lines of will the sun rise tomorrow probability?  A lower standard such a ‘proof of stake’ may qualify but the security standard would be lacking. Think along the lines of will I rise tomorrow probability? Usually pretty good, but I might be wrong someday.

A single Bitcoin transaction takes the energy equivalent of thousands of credit card transactions. So actually the cost of a bitcoin transaction is more akin to ‘priceless’.

The security of Bitcoins do come into question since there has been substantial hacking in some countries. Bitcoin can be like the canary in the crypto-currency mining process. But instead of the canary dying, we are talking about the crypto canary disappearing completely. And instantly.

The disappearance of all remaining Bitcoin to be mined would be the signal that someone successfully created a quantum computer. The first use of such a computer would likely not be to solve the mysteries of the universe, but rather to solve the algorithm to grab the balance of the Bitcoins to be mined.

This may take ten years, or perhaps less. As Yogi Berra opines, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

 

 

 

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In Blockchain we trust

bitcoin-blockchain-business-730569.jpgThe first thing we do, let’s disintermediate all the lawyers.

Imagine a world filled with absolute virtue where someone says they would do something and then actually did it. This level of trust reaches the pinnacle. If you wanted to buy a car, you would pay the listed price since that included the cost of manufacturing and a level of profit that everyone agreed would be appropriate for manufacturers. The bank would simply give you the money since you did say you would pay it all back in four years with interest.

But we are more of a trust but verify type of society. You have to search for comparable vehicles, generally haggle for the best price and sign pages of legal documents. Banks have you sign reams of paperwork and generally place a security interest on the car. The Bank also has to confirm the car is free of any liens. You then generally pay on time for the next four years. If you miss a couple of payments, then the bank may have to launch some proceedings for collection.

Blockchain promises to revolutionize the economy since a lot of this process outlined above simply disappears. Advocates claim that Blockchain immensely raises the level of trust in the system. Alternatively, one could argue that it removes the need for trust.

Undoubtedly you have heard of Bitcoin somehow in conjunction with Blockchain. Let’s ignore the bitcoin frenzy for now and focus on what drives it.

Blockchain comprises a continuously growing list of records called blocks. These blocks are linked together using cryptography that are resistant to data modification. So instead of a single ledger of transactions held by one organization, it is an open distributed ledger that can record transactions between parties in a verifiable way. One earlier block cannot be altered without the consensus of later blocks. There is no definite definition of Blockchain, but adherents are quite passionate about their own favorite.

Blockchains can be public or private. MasterCard’s Blockchain can’t be viewed and may not have any purpose outside of marketing since all of its transactions run through the existing infrastructure. This harkens back to the time when companies advertised they were Y2K compliant. Nice to have, eventually meaningless.

You clamber down the rabbit hole a bit more and you come across things such as smart contracts. The name again is a bit of a misnomer since the contracts are more of simple if this happens then that happens. Similar to if you have this much to drink, then you are going to feel that crappy in the morning type of logic.

Smart contracts are simply computer protocols intended to enforce the performance of a contract. They can be fully or partially self-executing. Once various conditions are fulfilled, assets are transferred and funds are released. This transaction is visible to all users but all parties remain anonymous.

We can look to Ethereum as having one of the better systems for establishing these smart contracts. Ethereum has its own cryptocurrency called Ether. In our car example the history of the car and the dealer’s transactions are on the Blockchain which is public and allow it to be checked by everyone. You contact your bank which has instant access to your credit history. The bank can transfer funds immediately and the dealer can arrange for the vehicle transfer by the time you get back from your test drive.

So long as you continue to authorize payments to the bank, all is well. If you decide to stop payments, then the car’s systems could be disabled the next time you try to start it. Welcome to the internet of things.

The Blockchain concept does have the potential to extend to all types of commercial transactions. House purchases could be reduced down to days from the existing weeks it presently takes. This would require a public ledger of real estate titles, planning permissions and certificates of title. Sweden’s land-ownership authority will be conducting its first Blockchain property transaction shortly. Presently, a three to six month transaction could potentially take hours instead. All that extra efficiency will have to come out of some intermediary’s pocket.

But you can see how the removal of intermediaries will eventually impact large swathes of job categories.  Any sort of job category that involves creating trust in a transaction may no longer be required. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners strongly claim that Blockchain is no mere hype train. This is a strong endorsement which would likely have the effect of reducing the need for Certified Fraud Examiners.

One paper suggested that insurance payouts could applied to Blockchain. They suggested that an automated system could indicate if an insured fell within an area that was recently flooded. Insurance payments would then be automatically issued. I found this a bit of a stretch. For example, there would have to be complete pre-existing documentation of assets to show that my wife’s mid-century modern furniture was actually solid teak and not veneer. A point of full disclosure, I only found out this past year that mid-century modern was actually a thing.

Ultimately, Blockchain can be seen as a foundational change. There are immense barriers to adoption for businesses, government and individuals. The incorporation of Blockchain may take years.

From my own perspective, a major function of lawyers includes the trust but verify aspect. As real estate transactions become more blockchainish, then the role of the lawyer would be substantially reduced. This may finally drive away the concept of hourly billing into a strict transactional fee type of relationship with clients.

Harvard Business Review goes so far as to say intermediaries such as lawyers, brokers and bankers may no longer be necessary. Not so much a ‘the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’ as ‘let’s disintermediate all the lawyers.’ This may not have the same emotive content, but the result would be same, lawyer wise.

 

 

Photos by David McBee